Before he became the most famous man in America, George Armstrong Custer was…only moderately famous.
By the end of the Civil War, very few cavalry commanders’ reputations stood higher than Custer’s. From First Bull Run, where he was cited for bravery, to Appomattox, where he observed Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Custer enjoyed a glittering war, distinguishing himself in battle and earning the love of his troops and the adulation of the public. Hatch (The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2013, etc.) offers a bit about Custer’s boyhood and more about his West Point years, where the prank-loving youth famously piled up demerits and endeared himself to fellow cadets, but the author mostly focuses on the battlefield exploits and Custer’s wartime, tortuous courtship of Libbie Bacon. He won the woman (she remained devoted to polishing his reputation until her death in 1933) and did as much as any Union officer to win the war. In his gold-looped, velveteen jacket and red tie, with his long hair flowing from under his soft hat, Custer’s flamboyance was exceeded only by his bravery, demonstrated at places like Williamsburg, Gettysburg and Culpeper. He had mounts shot out from under him, received wounds and appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. His horsemanship, stamina, intuitive grasp of cavalry tactics, talent for sensing the enemy’s weakness and propensity to lead from the front impressed his superiors and accounted for his astonishing rise through the ranks. By 23, he was the youngest general in the Union army; by war’s end, a genuine national hero. Still ahead lay Little Bighorn and his curious transmutation in history from hero to martyr to object lesson to object of ridicule.
An admiring, fast-paced, thoroughly readable account of Custer at war.