- Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer by Thom Hatch
“The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” This could be George Armstrong Custer’s epitaph as well as Caesar’s. As Thom Hatch notes, Custer’s death at the Little Bighorn, where five cavalry companies were annihilated, has characterized him ever since. And with the passage of time, the image of him has only gotten worse in the popular imagination: early on, the cavalry leader was seen by some as a tragic figure, whose Civil War victories were still remembered. Now he is commonly portrayed as simply a bungler.
Taking his title from Custer’s enthusiastic pronouncement about war, Thom Hatch examines his subject’s Civil War “adventures.” The noun is appropriate, for even in the midst of fierce fighting, the rapidly promoted young cavalryman could snatch moments of fun or continue his personal campaign to win one of two women back home in Monroe, Michigan. He approached everything with boundless energy and zest—and, in spite of a lackluster academic record at West Point, with military skill that caught the attention of a series of superiors. Hatch chronicles this career in a readable narrative, selecting telling anecdotes and salient details that help differentiate one fight from another. His description of Brandy Station, for example, employs sensory data effectively to give a vivid sense of the conditions the soldiers faced: “The early morning was ablaze with discharges of gunfire—the plumes of smoke and pungent odor of sulfur stinging eyes, irritating nostrils, causing voices to be harsh and barely audible above the din” (108).
For a general reader this book will amply demonstrate why soldiers, commanders, the press, and the public regarded Custer so highly during the Civil War. Following him from the beginning of his military career to the end of the war, Glorious War incorporates numerous contemporary testimonials to Custer’s leadership skills and utter fearlessness. Most of the quotations from letters and military memoirs can be found elsewhere: in particular, the book parallels Jeffry Wert’s biography, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer (1996), quite closely much of the time.
Whether or not a book like Glorious War is actually needed is debatable. There is no new information here, simply a repackaging of material, most of which has already been made familiar by Wert and, before him, Gregory Urwin in Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer (1990). For the reader who wishes to pursue [End Page 616] some of Custer’s Civil War battles in more detail, there are any number of specialized studies, such as Tom Carhart’s Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg—and Why It Failed (2005).
Attentive readers may notice some minor mistakes that should have been caught. The town of Waynesboro is repeatedly misspelled. General George Stoneman was not the commander of the cavalry; he was the head of the Cavalry Bureau. Stylistically, referring to Jeb Stuart as “the legendary cavalry commander” twice in the space of three lines is awkward, the kind of matter that in the past an editor would have been sure to flag. These are annoying lapses but hardly fatal in a time when such oversight has all but disappeared.
There are a number of more serious errors. Amazingly, Hatch has Lincoln winning his first presidential term against three Democratic candidates: “Dickinson, Lane, and Hunter” (18). Lincoln actually defeated Douglass, Bell, and Breckenridge, only the first of whom ran as a Democrat. Details of Custer’s years at West Point are also incorrect. He did not have to master “electrics,” as Hatch indicates: such a subject did not exist there at the time. Nor does Hatch provide evidence that Custer ranked in the bottom ten of applicants admitted to his class: the footnote for that assertion (chap. 1, n. 9) has nothing to do with this information. The note cites passages in two books: one is another...