COLUMN: McMurtry takes on Custer

  • Posted: Saturday, November 10, 2012 10:16 a.m.
    UPDATED: Saturday, November 10, 2012 12:14 p.m.

“Custer” by Larry McMurtry, c.2012, Simon & Schuster, $35, 179 pages

You'll always wonder about the truth.

But since you're not a high-ranking government official, not privy to political goings-on or world affairs, and you don't have a time machine, you'll always wonder what really happened in battle, old or new.

What was on Harry Truman's mind, for instance, at the end of World War II? How did General Hooker truly feel as he rode into Chancellorsville? Sometimes, it helps to know that you'll never know.

As you'll see in the new book “Custer” by Larry McMurtry, the truth often dies with leaders of war.

In 1876, about 40 million people lived in the United States.

America was a growing nation and nobody was more dismayed about it than its natives.

Indians, or Native Americans, then were “periodically paraded through Washington or New York” in order to impress upon them the “futility of… resistance.”

But resistance there was. In the 1860s and 1870s, Indians organized uprisings, killed white immigrants “in messy ways,” and fought against takeover of their land.

There was a “Peace Policy” that was widely jeered, and 350 treaties were broken.

Into this mix, the Army sent Custer.

George Armstrong Custer, who was a favorite of Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan, had graduated from West Point 34th out of 34 and directly entered the Civil War. Ulysses Grant reportedly didn't like Custer much but Custer's cavalry skills made him a hero during the war.

War was “sport” for Custer. It gave him ambition, a career and undeniable arrogance. McMurtry says Custer also lacked empathy, although he loved his family and animals. As for his men, he was less sentimental: deserters – and there were many – were hunted down and shot. His troops, it's been said, hated him.

On June 25, 1876, Custer, ignoring counsel and command, ordered his men to the mouth of the Little Bighorn River. It was midday and troops were “very tired” from miles of marching, but he divided them into three groups and attacked.

McMurtry says Custer expected to fight a few hundred Natives.

There were 10,000 Indians there.

Several times throughout his book, author Larry McMurtry says that he never intended it to be a definitive volume on the life of Custer.

This isn't, therefore, a deep look into the history of G.A. Custer, Little Bighorn or Native American relations.

But I loved it anyhow.

Part of the appeal of “Custer” is McMurtry himself. Fans of this author will appreciate his almost waggish treatment of Custer and the stories that surround him and his career, and they'll like the concise, distinct McMurtry-style overview of it all.

What I liked most, though, are the illustrations. McMurtry pulled together artwork by Western artists, maps, and authentic photographs from the Civil War through the late 1880s. The latter, especially, are striking, strangely affecting and are reason alone to own this book.

Yep, it's a keeper. I believe, in fact, that if you're into Custerology or if you're a history buff, there's one word to remember when asked what you want this gift-giving season: “Custer.”

Because it's truly impressive.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been a professional book reviewer for more than a decade. She lives in Wisconsin.

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