Book review of “Custer” by Larry McMurtry
“Custer,” by Larry McMurtry, promises to bring the complexity of George Armstrong Custer to life by illuminating his difficult marriage and his glory-seeking in an assessment of Custer’s fame and the power of his personality while redefining the common understanding of the American West. This title is published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1-4516-2622-3 and 1-4516-2620-7 in the hardcover.
The author begins by explaining that his work will cut through much of the irrelevant guesswork that is common in most of the writing on Custer. For example, he seriously questions the necessity of discussing why one corpse was found with 150 arrows in it. It’s irrelevant, he argues. However, in chapter 30, the author expressly raises that very question. After considering CPT Tom Custer’s death, the author is puzzled as to why 105 arrows were found in a body and that this fact should really fascinate “students of mutilation”.
The narrative then launches into a lengthy comparison of Fremont, a man who was once employed as a topographer. This rather long section seems to be more of a set up for character assassination than it does with serious historical engagement. The reader is informed that Custer abandoned his men, like Fremont. Custer was court-martialed, like Fremont. Custer wanted to be president, like Fremont. Fremont is not relevant to the purpose of the book.
Many of the illustrations are carelessly mislabeled and most of the photographs have no contextual significance. One picture bears the text “Custer with his horse, Comanche” yet it is not a picture of Custer (it’s Gustav Korn) and it’s not Custer’s horse (it belonged to CPT Keogh). The picture itself was taken long after Custer’s death. Another picture is described as being Custer and the scout Curly in 1876. It isn’t. It is a picture of the scouts Goose and Bloody Knife with Custer in 1874. Lastly, a photo of “Custer and Little Wolf” is actually a photo of C. Lyon Berg taken in 1908. Incidentally Charles L. Von Berg was a known “Custer battle impostor” who claimed that he was the inspiration for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Western tales. Why are those pictures placed in those chapters? What is the relevance? There needs to be some fact checking before Simon & Schuster unleashes this inaccurate study on the public.
Other examples of areas that need work are where the author claims General Custer wrote the famous last message, carried by John Martin, to Benteen. He even provides a picture of it with the actual signature, not by Custer, but by the real person who wrote the note, and the historical record bears this out, of Lt. Cooke who was Custer’s adjutant. Another is that this book claims Private Thomas Coleman was the first Soldier to arrive on the battlefield after the defeat. But this is far from true. LT Roe was the first US Soldier to see the carnage from a distance. LT Bradley, from Terry’s command, was the first physically on the battlefield, even performing the first body count before reporting the fate of the 7th Cavalry back to General Terry. Details matter. It is careless to go to print without diligent research. This book is not a reflection of serious study.
Overall, I did not find any of this title’s claims to be borne out in the text. I did not find scholarly participation with the subject. Much of what I read was conjecture or inspired by rumor. The errors struck me as minor at first–surely no historian can get every detail right¬–but error compounded error so much that I was overwhelmed by the careless mistakes.
I do not believe this is a good introduction to the subject of Custer and the Little Bighorn battle. It does nothing to contribute to the works already available. It does not meet a single of its intended purposes. It holds no content that is new or revealing about the topic.
Almost as if the author knew the work was faulty are the final statements appearing after the bibliography where the author accuses most Custer historians of being “peculiar” and “cranky.” Perhaps it is good to listen to cranky, peculiar scholars from time to time in order to avoid academic embarrassment.