CAGB BOOK REVIEW

Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer.

By Gregory J.W. Urwin with Foreword by Lawrence A. Frost. Published by The Blue & Grey Press, New Jersey, 1983. 308 pp. Foreword, Chapters, Notes, Bibliography and Index. Contains Black and White photographs, Drawings and Maps. ISBN 0-7858-0748-9. Hardback [Original price $35]. 

On a trip in 2002 to Gettysburg on a U.S. Army Staff Ride, in the company of fellow CAGB members Rob Dalessandro, Sandy Barnard and Brian Pohanka, I was encouraged to buy a number of U.S. Civil War books at one of the many bookstores in the town. Custer Victorious was one of them, and actually being on sale was an added bonus. The book was first published in 1983, and it has subsequently been reprinted.  It was written at a time (1960 to present) when Custer was treated quite harshly by certain sections of the media and often used as a 'symbol and scapegoat' for the way the United States had mistreated its native people. One only needs to see the film Little Big Man to get a feel for the way Custer had become to be seen by the American public – a psychopath who deliberately sacrificed his command for his own glory! It is always worth reminding ourselves that George Armstrong Custer was not responsible for Government policy, he was a professional soldier who carried out the missions that his superior commanders gave him. There were undoubtedly atrocities committed by both sides but as far as I am aware the regular U.S. Army was not responsible for any of these in the period from 1865-1890 although some would argue that the Washita and Wounded Knee are such.

What Urwin has done, by writing when he did, was to go some way to redressing the balance in showing Custer in a different light and to remind people of his service to the Union cause between 1861-1865, firstly as a young Lieutenant, who had graduated last in his class at West Point, then his appointment on the staff of a corps commander as a Captain, followed by his meteoric rise to Brevet Brigadier General, in command of the Michigan Brigade, which had recently turned him down for a Colonelcy in one of its own regiments, and finally to Brevet Major General in command of the 3rd Cavalry Division.  The book is a mixture of comments made by those who served with him and under his command, by those who fought against him, through official reports and his own views. There is no doubt that Custer was a showman but every commander needs an element of luck to succeed, and he had his fair share the number of horses shot from underneath him bears testimony to that fact.

Unfortunately there are too many who regard his actions in battle as reckless and remind us that his Brigade and Division suffered more casualties than any other; but here they miss the point, his men were motivated not only by a cause they believed in but also by the sight of their commander leading from the front. He inspired them and, not surprisingly, where he led they followed. Custer once said of himself: 

“I am not impetuous or impulsive. I resent that. Everything that I have ever done has been the result of the study that I have made of imaginary military situations that might arise. When I became engaged in campaign or battle and a great emergency arose, everything that I have ever read or studied focused in my mind as if the situation were under a magnifying glass and my decision was the instantaneous result. My mind worked instantaneously, but always as the result of everything I had ever studied being brought to bear on the situation.”

An interesting comment indeed, which if applied to that fateful day on June 25th, 1876, makes one wonder if he applied the same reasoning when he first realised the size of the Indian village. If so, why didn’t he remain at Weir Point and wait for Benteen?  And, how aware was he of Reno’s predicament? Answers to which we will never know.

There is no doubt that Custer’s Civil War record speaks for itself and Urwin does justice to that record in his book. Yes, it is a pro-Custer book and I know there are many who would argue that there were better and more capable Union generals who had equally impressive war records, but there were very few within the Cavalry. This book is highly recommended for those seeking an insight into Custer’s early career.

Kevin Galvin

Custer Association of Great Britain

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