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A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—The Last Great Battle of the American West

A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn — The Last Great Battle of the American West
by James Donovan

List Price: $26.99 
Hardcover: 529 pages
ISBN: 0316155780
Publisher: Savas Beatie
Publish Date: August, 2006

A review by Steven Christopher Ippolito

On 13 January 1879, a United States Army Court of Inquiry convened under a three-judge panel in Room 14, the Palmer House, in Chicago, Illinois. Purpose: To determine the truth of Major Marcus Reno's behavior under fire on 25 June 1876, at the Little Big Horn River. Hundreds of troopers of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry lost their lives, that day, together with officers, non-commissioned officers, horses, and the regiment's famously-flamboyant commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Reno, himself, had requested this hearing after much adverse publicity tarnished his military reputation. But more than the reputation of one man in battle was at stake in the Palmer House that afternoon. Snake-like and hidden within the messy affair of Marcus Reno was the necessity to assign blame for the cavalry's defeat; the loss of honor that accrued to a nation of forty million Americans following Little Big Horn was intimately bound up in the Reno Affair and cried out for a rough justice. Someone had to be held accountable for the Army's defeat at the hands of unlettered hostile beings; someone, ultimately, had to pay for the crime of Custer's loss.

So says James Donovan in his new four part history: A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Big Horn—The Last Great Battle of the American West. Donovan has written a most interesting work, heavily-annotated with twenty one chapters. At times, it reads like a novel, though Donovan is a first-rate researcher, who has utilized primary sources for the most part. The reader will find Author's Notes, Prologue, maps, photographs, and nineteenth century engravings. Acknowledgements and some rather long detailed endnotes—that the current reviewer found quite interesting---add a powerful sub-text to the overall narrative. The work is completed by a Bibliography and an Index.

Donovan's work is daring: his motive in writing the work appears to be an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the Boy General. Unlike the impulsively-driven cavalry officer and killer of Indian culture that most understand Custer to have been, Donovan's Custer is restrained and mindful of military law and protocol. At the Battle of the Washita, for example, December 1868, the author states that Custer restricted his men from shooting at anything other than male warriors. When the Seventh attacked Black Kettle's Cheyenne village, ironically, a village friendly to the United States, Custer, we are told, again, personally halted some of his men from shooting at Cheyenne women. The Boy General sounds absolutely marvelous in Donovan's telling. But as a reconstructed hero, Custer's rehabilitation is both imperfect and incomplete. At the Washita, Custer made no attempt to determine if Black Kettle was friend or foe (he was an ally of the United States), and, tragically, in the fighting both Black Kettle and his wife were killed.

Custer also failed to reconnoiter the area completely and was unaware of several more villages nearby with over a thousand warriors that could have jeopardized his command and his operation. As it happened, a detached unit of Custer's overall force, that had been ordered to examine the area surrounding the Washita, came under attack by hundreds of the enemy and was wiped out completely. Major Joel Elliott, who had led the scouting party, was killed along with every man in his command, in an action that would seem to adumbrate the outcome of the Little Big Horn operation involving the Seventh Cavalry eight years later.

For his actions, relative to Elliott, or lack of them, Custer would not escape opprobrium for the loss of Elliott and his scouts. Indeed, he would be severely-criticized in the New York Times for failing to conduct a thorough search for Elliot before leaving the area. Elliott and his men's bodies were found two weeks later bristling with arrows and horribly-mutilated, a not uncommon fate for those unlucky to fall into the hands of the Lakota and other plains dwellers in battle.

Custer, today, is criticized for failing to search for Elliott, and his operation in Black Kettle's village is frequently cited as typical of Custer's reckless battle style by his detractors. Donovan, however, is of a different mind on these matters. He states, for example, that that the Washita was "harsh war but no massacre," lending weight to his intention of rehabilitating the Custer image. All that, nevertheless, is incidental to the matters before the Reno's Court of Inquiry which concluded, in February 1879, that the Major was innocent of any misconduct. The Army's top brass endorsed its findings, and "the report was in essence a complete exoneration of Reno's conduct." (p. 378)

To explain why Reno was found innocent, when so many had determined he was guilty, Donovan opts for something resembling a conspiracy theory. While this may or may not be true, the current reviewer is not comfortable with this approach. Donovan's interpretation is that the Army did not welcome the Reno inquiry, and that a guilty verdict would have stained the honor of the regiment, if it were proved that Reno was a coward under fire. Moreover, a more comprehensive examination of the deficiencies of other officers might follow, which, under Article 121 of the Articles of War, could have led to a more serious court martial for more than one officer, and that could not be allowed to happen Thus:.

The court's verdict seemed to satisfy the nation's outcry for an answer…But human nature decreed that blame be placed somewhere, and [the] public…accepted Custer's guilt with satisfaction. (p. 380)

The verdict, however, did not resolve the matter to the satisfaction of historians, insuring that the legend of Custer would continue to fascinate and compel discussion, many generations hence. Donovan's work brings us as close to the person of Custer and the principals of the Little Big Horn campaign as one might wish. He furnishes the reader with interesting biographical details of Custer as a young cadet at West Point and in the Civil War, where the Boy General earned his reputation as one of America's premier war-fighters. George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on 5 December 1839. With complete certitude, one can say that Custer was a soldier to his soul, one of those individuals who, in all probability, were never meant to inhabit a world of civilians, but without whom a rational society would be unable to sustain a civilian world at all!

A West Point graduate (Class of 1861), he would later say with some self-deprecating humor: "'My career as a cadet had but little to commend it…unless as an example to be carefully avoided.'" (pp. 42-43) There was no false modesty in this assertion either. The famous cavalryman graduated at the bottom of his class, and his worst grades, ironically-enough, were in cavalry tactics. Yet, if Custer was a second-rate West Pointer, he was a first-rate horse soldier. In the War Between the States, the young officer would command troops as such places as Culpeper, Brandy Station, Yellow Tavern, Haw's Shop, Cold Harbor, Trevilian Station, and elsewhere. Though he lost more men than most commanders, his Civil War record, in Donovan's view, was rather good. An example of his leadership skill occurred on Day Three of Gettysburg, and in the midst of Pickett's Charge, no less.

In order to support Pickett, the redoubtable J.E.B. Stuart led his cavalry against the Union's right flank. The presence of Stuart, himself, would have been enough to immobilize many Union cavalrymen, at that time, but on this day, he was met on the field by George Armstrong Custer at the head of Michigan Volunteers. Astonishingly, Custer drove Stuart off the field, but with surprising speed, Stuart attacked the Union flank again with eight regiments in wide formation. With only one regiment of Michigan volunteer cavalry available to meet this second assault, Custer counterattacked. In describing the Stuart-Custer clash, Donovan paints marvelous pictures with words, as if he were a film director transforming military history into visual experience in all sensory modalities:

The resulting collision was like a train wreck, riders and their mounts crashing into and over each other, sabers clashing and pistols blasting at short range…Stuart withdrew no doubt wondering who the fearless opponent in blue velveteen was. It was the first time the Federal horsemen had stopped Stuart's cavalry and held the field." (p. 48)

Undeniably, if Stuart had flanked the Union line, at Gettysburg, it may have been George Meade and the Army of the Potomac that went limping back to safer quarters, and not the Army of Northern Virginia. Thus, this critical battle, one of the few failures, not only for Stuart, but Robert E. Lee, too, may have been due, in a significant way, to an officer whose worst grades were in cavalry tactics in West Point, no less, a cavalryman who managed to stop one of the greatest American cavalrymen, not once but twice in the same day.

At the end of the war, Custer remained in a much-reduced, downsized American Army, where the only possible action was along the Western frontier. In time, Custer would be posted to Fort Abraham, from whence he would attack the village on the Little Big Horn River, a battle that for Donovan, utilizing dramatic license, may have been the result of a heavenly decree, a Divine Injunction, as it were. In 1864, Charles Bryant wrote the History of the Great Massacre by the Sioux Indians. His words will, no doubt, grate on the ears and sensibilities of modern, politically-correct readers of the present day, but they offer a moral, racial, and religious justification for not just the Little Big Horn, but the concept of Manifest Destiny, itself: "'The Indian races were in the wrongful possession of a continent required by the superior right of the white man.'" (p. 10)

This may have been the remote cause of the Little Big Horn. The proximate cause, however, occurred in 1873, a mixture of economics and science. The Panic of 1873, an economic depression of catastrophic dimensions, now virtually forgotten, had devastated millions of Americans. One third of the adult American population was out of work.

Farms had foreclosed, banks failed, and the American heartland was plagued by a number of grasshopper plagues that devastated the crops. In that same year, Custer was ordered to lead the Seventh into land that was off limits to whites: the Black Hills, a land as sacred to the Lakota as Mecca is to Muslims. A number of scientists accompanied the regiment, and the survey operation yielded much valuable scientific information. Considerable mineral wealth in the area was detected in the area, and, in due course, reports of gold began to filter back east. Spurred by economic woes, restless Americans began to journey west to make a strike. At length, 10,000 miners flooded into the area, illegally, and the Army lacked the capacity to remove them. The Indians protested, and the Grant Administration attempted to negotiate with them in order to purchase the Hills. When these dealings broke down, events transpired that Donovan interprets in the conspiracy-like way that he does elsewhere in the book.

In November 1875, during a meeting with Generals Sheridan and Crook, "Grant was persuaded—or decided, no one knows for sure—to follow a new course[.]'" The Administration would allow the miners and immigrants to pour into the area, and the Army was ordered not to stop them. As Donovan makes clear, this was a perilous strategy, calculated to initiate violence, and in the aftermath, the government would attempt to deflect blame in the direction of the Lakota. Subsequently, Grant's Administration would claim justification for its actions by stating, erroneously, that the Lakota had violated the Treaty of 1868, which seems to be not true. Predictably, violence erupted, and the federal government ordered all Indians to abandon the Black Hills and return to their reservations and agencies by 31 January 1876.

The order to return the Indians to United States oversight was given by President Grant, but by 1 February, many Indians had not returned, and the Interior Department referred to the matter to the United States Army. The subsequent plan to capture the Lakota and Cheyenne, and their allies, called for a three-pronged attack on the enemy. In overall command was General Alfred H. Terry, whose plan sought to envelop the Lakota and their allies from three directions.

The three components of the attacking force consisted of troops under General George Crook who rode north from Fort. Fetterman, Wyoming, on 1 March 1876. His column was the biggest of the three, and consisted of almost 1300 men. Colonel John Gibbon was ordered east along the Yellowstone River, in command of about five hundred men. Custer led the Seventh Cavalry west from Ft. Abraham Lincoln, but almost immediately, two serious setbacks occurred.

Crook encountered the enemy, under Tashunka Witko, better known as Crazy Horse, a fighter of nearly-mythic proportions amongst his own people. There, along the Rosebud River, on 17 June 1876, a protracted battle ensued that effectively precluded Crook from supporting either Gibbon or Custer in the subsequent unfolding of the operation. Additionally, after the Rosebud, which seemed to raise Indian morale, many more hostiles gathered in the East, unbeknownst to Terry. But if problems existed in the Terry plan, there were greater problems within the Army, itself, that hampered the possibility of success.

Post-1865, at the end of the Civil War, the United States Army was radically-downsized to about 25,000 troops. Training was haphazardly-administered, morale was poor, and the rate of desertion, especially on frontier posts, was high.

Troopers earned thirteen dollars a month, and frontier Army life was hardly the life of adventure that so many recruits had envisioned the life of the horse soldier to be. Moreover, there was bad food, horrendous sanitation, and a perpetual boredom that usually culminated in alcohol abuse. At the time of the Little Big Horn, the Seventh Cavalry had not seen action for three years. Moreover, only thirty percent of the regiment (172 men) had any experience fighting Indians.

Little attention was given to horsemanship. There was virtually no squad drill, and the marksmanship of most troopers was not systematically-pursued to insure excellence within the battle-space. Troopers received fifteen rounds a month resulting in little proficiency with either pistol or carbine, a dismal fact that hardly benefited the regiment on 25 June. City boys, moreover, were not used to horses, and with little weapons' training while mounted, the horses could become uncontrollable when riders fired their weapons. In short, the quality of new recruits in Custer's Regiment was frequently poor.

The Panic of 1873 had led many less-than-desirable candidates to join the service. These, Donovan says, were the dregs of the Union and Confederate Armies, and many were immigrants from Europe. The Seventh had a good share of criminals and city rowdies, and the regiment was frequently depleted by desertion. Recruiters were even known to waive mental and physical requirements for entry into the Army. In fact, the age of the recruit was not always an issue either. Twenty-one years of age was the minimum age for cavalry recruits, but the reality was that if a man could mount a horse and fire a weapon, he could join the cavalry at virtually any age.

In drill, little emphasis given to close quarter combat at this time, nor was there any established doctrine of Indian fighting in the United States Cavalry. In terms of personnel, half the regiment was foreign born, mainly from Germany and Ireland, ethnic, racial, and religious tensions were ever-present, which tended to lessen cohesion at the critical moments. Equally, there were instances of strained relations between Custer and his staff, many of whom were highly-experienced Civil War veterans, unlike the regiment's younger troopers. All of these factors undoubtedly affected the outcome of the battle on 25 June 1876. Donovan tells how on the day of battle, Custer had split his command into three war-fighting sections.

Lieutenant Colonel Custer personally commanded five companies in the subsequent clash. Marcus Reno led three companies through the timber across the river, and Captain Frederick Benteen was in command of another two companies. Inexplicably, Benteen had been personally-ordered by Custer, even after the large Indian village had been discovered, to move away from the River, in order to engage in a reconnaissance. Why Custer would order him to find Indians, when they had already been located is an interesting question that historians will likely continue to debate. Consequently, Benteen, who never found any other body of hostiles, did not get his troopers into action until a note carried by a courier brought him back.

Thus, at the time Custer commenced his attack upon the village, General Terry's plan had pretty much evaporated into a textbook case of Clausewitzian friction. And without the linkage with Crook and Gibbon, the result was a much reduced fighting force that undoubtedly played a role in the destruction of Custer and his command, at the hands of a numerically-superior force.

Shortly after he commenced his attack through the timber, Reno was pushed back into something that resembled more of a rout than a retreat in good order. Major Reno's three companies would find a refuge of sorts upon a hill where water was in short supply; Benteen would not join the beleaguered force until a considerable time had elapsed, and due to Reno's conduct upon the hill that struck some observers as unprofessional, perhaps even cowardly, Benteen was obliged to assume de facto command of the badly-mauled force. Reno's behavior, as observed by his own surviving officers and men, also set in motion the circumstances that resulted in a Chicago Court of Inquiry three years later.

Relative to Custer's experience during the battle, Donovan recreates the events as they likely transpired under his command that day with the skill of a fine forensic crime scene analyst. The probable movement of some of Custer's best officers, Captain Myles Keogh, Lieutenant James (Jimmi) Calhoun, (Custer's brother-in-law), and Lieutenant John Crittenden are well-described. There is a moving passage about Captain Myles Keogh and his horse, Comanche, the only survivor of the battle on the Custer side of the engagement, as the wounded horse attempts to carry Keogh to a safer position atop the last stand hill. At length, a bullet slams into Captain Keogh's left knee, and on into Comanche's body, causing both to fall. All this is by way of Donovan's interpretation, of course, but it fits the facts as they were discovered by the U.S. Army after the battle.

What is clear about Keogh, a native of Ireland and, in all likelihood, a truly great soldier, was that he was once in the employ of the Vatican, under Pius IX. This latter fact probably accounts for the reason that he was one was one of the few troopers who was not mutilated post-mortem.

During his service to Pius IX, Keogh was awarded a gold Agnus Dei, Christ as the Lamb of God, that was given to him, personally, by the Pope for gallantry between the Vatican's forces and an Italian city-state. The Indians, it is assumed, understood Keogh's medal to be a powerful from of talismanic medicine, and fearful of spiritual retribution, they left Keogh's body unmolested.

Comanche, Keogh's clay-back gelding, fared a little better: he was found wandering on the battlefield several days later, in obvious pain, having been wounded seven times. Three of these bullet wounds were severe injuries, but the magnificent horse, nevertheless, survived the clash, and would live out his days, greatly loved by the United States Army. After the battle, Comanche would be cared for by a Private Korn, and he would live a good number of years, thereafter. But unlike the battered war-horse, it very nearly happened that the entire United States Seventh Cavalry was destroyed in a single day.

For the reader, therefore, Donovan attempts to answer the question: Why did Custer lose this battle? Nineteenth century observers agonized over this question, for the racism of the day did not allow that a great American hero like Custer and the regiment he commanded, could be outfought by the likes of mere Indians from the Great Plains. The truth of the matter, however, is relatively simple: On 25 June 1876, the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, with too few troops in comparison to the huge, well-motivated force of superb light cavalry irregulars, led by some of the greatest, most experienced warriors in Native American military history: Crazy Horse, Two Moon, Gall, and Sitting Bull, was simply overwhelmed! The American battle plan had collapsed; the regiment had been divided which likely impacted upon its effectiveness, and in the end, they were simply outfought!

The Seventh was a cavalry unit, and the circumstances of the battle, the terrain, and the numbers of the enemy they faced, forced them to dismount and fight in the manner of infantry. Without adequately-trained recruits, lacking cover, with a highly-confused situation that fostered the breakdown of command and control, discipline, and good order, not to mention, panic, it should come as no surprise that the regiment would be doubly-enveloped and destroyed. The many thousands of the regiment's adversaries gathered along the Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) that day, were fighting for a way of life that within twenty years would be consigned to the memory of history. .

Their morale was high; their motivation was strong. They were the largest gathering of Plains Indians ever recorded in American history, and they were fighting in and for a country that they knew well and loved greatly Powerful factors such as these have delivered success to any number of fighting forces throughout military history. In the end, therefore, victory was granted to the Native Americans. Historians were given unanswered questions and ambiguity about the meaning of a battle by a river that most Americans had likely never heard of before 25 June .1876.

Donovan's work demonstrates that after a century, historians and readers of military history cannot yet make up their minds about the interpretation of the Little Big Horn, and the person of Custer, the Son of the Morning Star, as some plains dwellers knew him. Donovan's views are clear, however: as soon as the Boy General's body was found, there emerged a conspiracy against him by any number of people. General Terry, for example, told a reporter that had he survived, Custer would have been court-martialed. President Grant, too, offered an assessment of Custer that was almost completely critical.

Thus, for author, Donovan:

"The complexities of the campaign were subsumed under a simple message: blame the dead Custer, whose reputation for sudden charges conveniently dovetailed with the official story." (p. 323)

Yet, whatever the truth of the matter, Donovan tells it well. He makes his positions clear, and he defends them admirably. He is, it would seem, something of a rare literary bird in modern academic circles--a Custer man! And at the end of the narrative, the reader may well be on his way to becoming one, too. A Terrible Glory is an example of superb military history, and a powerful model of scholarly research.

Donovan writes history as if it were fiction; he vividly-recreates the last great battle of the Indian Wars in the manner of Stephen Ambrose and Evan S. Connell. In the process, he casts a distinctive light of interpretation upon the gallant horse soldier who occupies the centerpiece of the drama. He does not, it would seem, interpret Custer to the satisfaction of all, even were it possible to do so. But he will, in the end, furnish the student of Little Big Horn with a great read, and a unique point of departure into one of the most mysterious of all battles in American military history. Accordingly, the current reviewer recommends A Terrible Glory to all.

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