Author casts George Armstrong Custer in a different light

Posted Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer

by Thom Hatch

St. Martin’s Press, $28.99

Audiobook available from Tantor Media, $29.99; narrated by actor James C. Lewis.

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Author Thom Hatch breaks all the rules in regard to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, whom history paints as a reckless combat commander whose arrogance led to tragic battlefield misjudgments, defeat and death at Little Bighorn.

In Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer (St. Martin’s Press, $28.99), Hatch challenges the established historical narrative and provides a thoughtful reassessment of Custer’s military career by examining his early career as the “boy general,” the cavalry commander who became a national hero by playing significant roles in a Union victory at Gettysburg and in the turning point of the American Civil War during encounters with Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley.

What the reader discovers is a bold and courageous commander and shrewd tactician who led his cavalrymen of the Michigan brigade from the front, not, as most of history interprets, simply for the sake of glory, but as a patriot who sought to be inspiration for them.

“Come on, you Wolverines!” was his battle cry, always followed with him riding first into the fray.

Instead of a brazen fellow of youth, Custer is portrayed as an obedient and selfless soldier who ultimately quits a bad drinking habit, not to further his career, but because he believed that he had embarrassed his family, particularly his sister, after a drunken romp through her hometown in Michigan.

It’s easy to see how his leadership style would translate to an office environment today.

Unlike many under MacArthur’s command, Custer’s men adored him.

In fact, when Custer was promoted to major general and given the Third Division to command, many in the Michigan Brigade — which, Hatch contends, “had been molded into the most celebrated cavalrymen of the Army of the Potomac” — threatened to quit if they couldn’t come with him.

“With Custer as leader we are all heroes and hankering for a fight,” said one man in the Third Division. “… We felt sure of victory.”

Winning is an attitude, it is said, and Custer had it.

Americans have always loved their war heroes, and Custer became one during the War Between the States, a status further heightened when he accepted the Confederate white flag of surrender at Appomattox.

Under fire, he was said to have demonstrated resolve and calm.

Despite dire circumstances in the Battle of Trevilian Station, “Custer was everywhere present giving instructions to his subordinate commanders,” wrote Maj. James Kidd.

That Custer could earn the trust of commanders such as Gen. George McClellan and Gen. Alfred Pleasonton and advance to the rank of general and his destiny at Little Bighorn is more than a minor miracle.

His ambition as a teen was the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, an appointment he earned through the endorsement of Republican Rep. John Bingham of Ohio.

Yet, Custer — Armstrong, as he went by — was almost kicked out of West Point on several occasions because of demerits. He was, after all, a “spirited boy who was prone to such displays of enthusiasm.”

He graduated last in his class.

By all appearances, Custer outgrew his youthful escapades. He never seemed the arrogant jerk with the messiah complex, although that is how history treats him.

In truth, Hatch’s picture of Custer is of a most likable sort who would no doubt enjoy a viewing of Airplane!

Custer was a fun-loving cutup.

Consider this encounter at Bull Run, Custer’s first after graduation at West Point.

A 2nd Lt. Leicester Walker called out from his position: “Custer, what weapon are you going to use in the charge?”

The West Pointer, of course, was expected to know these things, so Custer promptly answered, “The saber.” Walker, Hatch wrote, “instantly imitated Custer and drew his own saber.”

Custer then had second thoughts, thinking the six-shot revolver would be best. So, without saying a word, Custer put the saber back in its sheath and drew a pistol. Walker noticed and did the same.

“In truth, Custer had no idea which weapon to use and became amused by his own indecision and his comrade’s imitating actions. It was as if the former class clown had planned this saber charade for fun, which assuredly was not the case.”

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