A remarkably detailed and reconstructed account of the era and events surrounding the Seventh Cavalry’s infamous loss under General George Armstrong Custer that largely succeeds in ameliorating the General’s equally infamous culpability by exploring the gray areas and forgotten facts of this archetypical American disaster.
Sklenar spent six years researching the subject of his debut, and his efforts result in a singular, if dense, verisimilitude. He begins by sketching Custer’s curious origins, in which his rapid post–Civil War rise as a “boy general” sharply contrasts with the era’s downsized, spiritually degraded military. In seeming retreat from Reconstruction, Custer’s army pursued an increasingly draining series of wars of attrition against various tribes (primarily Sioux and Apache) in the Western territories. Sklenar demonstrates that Custer’s gloryhungry nature (also depicted as alternatively plucky and foolhardy) meshed badly with a largely weary and resentful officer corps: herein lay the circumstances for the disaster of the Little Bighorn. Sklenar plausibly argues that, while Custer applied strategy according to thencurrent military doctrine, when faced with a drastically underestimated enemy force of warriors anxious to protect tribal noncombatants, his fate was sealed by an unlucky combination of logistical mishaps and the negligence of officers. Specifically, he explores how Major Reno and Captain Benteen, leading Custer’s supporting cavalry wings, were motivated respectively by drunken cowardice and longsimmering bitterness in their failure to act after repeated alerts which insured the loss of Custer and his command. They later provided testimony which damned Custer and obfuscated their roles for decades. Sklenar conducts this reappraisal with an admirable depth of factual research, but this, coupled with an often dry prose style, ensures a leisurely pace to his narrative that may prove tedious to casual enquirers into Western lore.
However, committed lay readers and serious students of the event and the surrounding Victorianexpansionist milieu will probably find this an engaging, convincing, and fully informative account, one which will stand out in the crowded field of Custerrelated books.