Book review

'The Real Custer': Was the general a hero, villain or unlucky fool?

'From Boy General to Tragic Hero': James S. Robbins re-examines the life of the notorious officer

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If ever a man personified the adage “Yesterday’s hero is today’s villain,” it’s George Armstrong Custer. Few people have been as polarizing in discussions of American military history as Custer is, even now, almost 140 years after his death.

By James S. Robbins
Regnery History ($29.99).

While it is tough to satisfy both sides in the argument surrounding his career and battles, James S. Robbins goes the fullest measure in attempting just that in “The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero.”

Mr. Robbins takes us through Custer’s life, beginning with his simple farming background, continuing to his schooling at a fairly prestigious academy in Michigan and at West Point, and ends with his service during and after the Civil War.

Not known for his scholarship, he became better known for the demerits and pranks he pulled before graduating as the “goat” (last) of his class at West Point.  His class graduated at the beginning of the Civil War, which put him in a fortuitous position to make his boast of becoming a famous soldier come true.

During the Civil War, he showed himself to be daring and a bit of an egotist. He also proved to be an intelligent leader, skilled as a tactician and opportunistic in battle. One thing he never displayed, however, was foolishness.

His star quickly rose with each battlefield accomplishment until he was promoted to the rank of brevet major general. While this was not unusual at the time, it made him at the age of 23 the youngest general in the Army.

After the end of the Civil War, Custer was stationed in the West, where he had some problems adjusting to his role in the peacetime army.  This led to some negative press. His reputation became tarnished because of his methods disciplining soldiers who had expected to go home at war’s end, and instead, were assigned to further duty during the early days of Reconstruction. He also generated negative press by entering into politics, which at the time embarrassed his superiors, including President Ulysses S. Grant.

One thing at which he did excel was in his ability to remake himself when needed, usually by proving himself once again on the battlefield.  These successes, while not ridding him of his detractors, helped to minimize the negative attention. It is also fair to point out that some of his detractors were motivated by Army politics, and were afraid that Custer’s deeds would overshadow them or expose the inefficiency in his fellow officers.

Throughout the narrative, Mr. Robbins deals mainly with factual evidence gleaned from the written records of those who served with Custer. It is through the correspondence, journal entries and military records of his contemporaries that we are able to see Custer in a new light.  

The main objective of the book, according to the author, is to dispel the fiction and myth surrounding Custer, while countering it with fact, thereby allowing readers to form their own opinions.

During the “Last Stand,” Mr. Robbins explains that Custer was in command of the cavalry, which was moving to meet the infantry coming from the opposite direction.

Custer divided his troops into three groups and ordered them to attack from multiple fronts simultaneously.  His maneuvers and choice of ground to fight on were in line with military tactics of the time.  Unfortunately, the strategy did not work for multiple reasons and once again left a picture of him that was less than complimentary.

Mr. Robbins discusses in detail each of the movements of the three groups, the words of several survivors on both sides of the battle, and an after-action review. The battle at Little Big Horn is one of the most analyzed in history.  The author leaves it to the reader to decide whether Custer is a hero or a villain.

Robert Ursin ( is a freelance writer living in the South Hills.

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