Saturday, February 27, 2016

Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America - Book Review

    Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.  For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values.  Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer, this book ranks among the worst.

     To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the book is both good and original. Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.  The good parts involve the author’s heavy use of secondary sources such as the writings of Robert Utley, and James Donovan when actually talking about Custer’s career.  The original parts, including the author’s peculiar decision to virtually ignore the Battle of the Little Big Horn while spending page after page on Custer’s finances, are very bad indeed.

     The author meanders tediously through 19th century American politics, finance, and racial affairs, writing in a self- indulgent, turgid academic style.  Stiles can simply not forgive Custer, his wife Elizabeth, or the people of 19th century America, for being, well…19th century Americans, living in the 19th century and having 19th century attitudes toward race, feminism, sexuality, and nationalism.  These people should obviously have had the foresight to have been born in the enlightened 21st century.

     If you like your history with heavy, self-righteous lashings of 21st century political correctness, you will love this book.  If not, you may wish to spare yourself this pompous lecturing.

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