Book Review: The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer
The True Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn
by Thom Hatch
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
Quite a few of the thousands of books about George Armstrong Custer that have appeared in the last 160 years have asked the same question Thom Hatch asks at the beginning of his new book, The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer: “What really happened on June 25, 1876?” It was on that date, of course, that Custer rode his men of the 7th Cavalry to a sprawling encampment of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux near the Little Bighorn River in the Montana Territory, and, ignoring the warnings of his scouts about the enormous numbers of armed warriors before them, decided to attack the encampment – leading to his own death and the deaths of well over 200 of his men in a 20-minute massacre that became known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The encounter has been a byword ever since for Custer’s racist overconfidence and lifelong braggadocio.
Since what “really happened” on that date has been well-known for a long time, we must – indeed, we’re encouraged – to read some rib-nudging innuendo into Hatch’s opening question, as he signals in his book’s sub-title, “The True Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.” It’s time to cast aside the usual readings of the events of that day, Hatch maintains, and “allow the evidence to lead us to a proper and plausible verdict.” And he doesn’t leave us in much doubt as to what that verdict will be, since he’s barely begun before he asks the heavy-handed not-quite-rhetorical question, “What if the battle plan that Custer had designed was actually brilliant and could have – should have – brought about success?”
“Brace yourself for the unthinkable,” he warns.
Whenever somebody supposedly engaged in history resorts to carny-barker lines like “brace yourself for the unthinkable,” you need to brace yourself, alright, but not for the unthinkable.
In this case, you shouldn’t brace yourself right away, lest you sprain something. It turns out Hatch intends to build up, gradually, to his shocking verdict. First, we’re treated to a very engaging potted narrative of young “Armstrong”’s life and times, as the spoiled darling of his family, as a teacher chaffing at destiny, and most especially (the subject of Hatch’s previous book, Glorious War, here presented at shortened but no less breathless length) as a daring and much-loved Civil War cavalry commander:
In his time, George Armstrong Custer was not a symbol of defeat but a national hero on a grand scale due to his amazing achievements in the Civil War. He captured the first enemy flag taken by the Union army and accepted the Confederate white flag of surrender at Appomattox. In between those notable events exists a series of intrepid acts of almost unbelievable proportion as he personally led electrifying cavalry charges that earned the flamboyant general the admiration of his men and captured the fancy of newspaper reporters and the public.
And even when the narrative has reached the point where Custer and his men are winding their way across the plains, Hatch still finds time for ample scene-setting:
The country through which they passed was mainly prairie with a thin cover of pale green and rusty grass above sandy soil beneath. The air was fresh and carried breezy fragrances of native grasses – sandbur, wheatgrass, bluestem, and prairie sand reed, to name a few. Various species of songbirds – lark buntings, meadowlarks, and goldfinches being the most prevalent – darted and dived in flight around the formation, calling out shrill warnings and gobbling up insects disturbed by the horses’ hooves. Every now and then a family of quail scooted away with heads lowered or a small rodent or lizard would scurry from one hole to another. Above, red-tailed hawks glided majestically about in wide, swooping circles in search of prey. A herd of pronghorn antelope could occasionally be observed in the distance, the buck standing guard.
This is unusual behavior for an author who’s got the unthinkable in his back pocket. There are no passages in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity about the dreamy mist arising from the River Spree that morning.
The explanation, unfortunately, is simple: like most books that promise shattering new assessments, there’s nothing in The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer that wasn’t tried first in the 1880s. Hatch contends that Custer’s general battle-plan was sound, and that if only his subordinates – particularly Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, the usual suspects (along with Captain Myles Keogh, who made the smart decision, career-wise, to get himself killed at Little Bighorn) – had done as he’d expected them to do, the whole day would have been just one more successful example of the U.S. Cavalry bayoneting Plains Indian women and children. It’s hardly revelatory, and it certainly isn’t unthinkable: Custer’s media-savvy wife Libbie was making the exact same claims in, you guessed it, the 1880s.
Hardly anybody had the heartlessness necessary to tell the professionally-grieving widow that her husband hadn’t been betrayed by his men (although thirty years later, President Taft would privately confess he thought she was “full of soap”), that he’d led his column to its death through sheer delusional incompetence (his main worry on the day in question was that the 2500 armed, angry warriors he was approaching would run away before he could nab them), and that Benteen and Reno and the other survivors had merely been doing everything they could to salvage a nearly hopeless situation.
Thom Hatch writes a lively line popular history, and The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer makes for some fast-paced and entertaining reading. But the central verdict of the book isn’t “unthinkable” – it’s just drab old untenable.