A look at the early career of one of the most controversial figures in American military history.
George Armstrong Custer’s place in American history was secured on June 25, 1876, when he and more than 260 of his men perished at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In his latest book, award-winning Civil War historian Longacre (The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861, 2014, etc.) aims to highlight Custer’s Civil War career while “correct[ing] the myths, misconceptions, and misinterpretations that have distorted readers’ impressions of the soldier and the man.” The son of an Ohio blacksmith and farmer, Custer earned admission to West Point, where his indifference toward his studies and predilection for pranks led to graduation at the bottom of his class in 1861. Yet the Civil War provided opportunity for the young soldier. Commissioned as a second lieutenant of cavalry, he saw action in First Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, and Antietam. In 1863, under Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, the 23-year-old Custer won promotion to brigadier general of volunteers. Following his bold and brave fighting in the Gettysburg campaign, he returned home to propose to Elizabeth Clift Bacon, which is where this book ends. Longacre effectively deconstructs several of the myths surrounding Custer, particularly the mysterious circumstances of his admission to West Point. The author also relates a few savory tidbits, including the acrophobic Custer’s periodic balloon ascents during the Peninsula Campaign and the fact that George’s brother Thomas was a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. Yet there are several mistakes and errors, including misnaming P.G.T. Beauregard. Furthermore, Longacre’s thorough detailing of military maneuvers and battles slows the narrative.
A book that should appeal to military history enthusiasts, but those seeking a more standard biography should look elsewhere.