The Great Plains Guide To Custer: 85 Forts, Fights, and Other Sites, by Jeff Barnes
Though I am a serious student of the American Civil War, along with the Indian Wars that preceded and followed (and continued during) that conflict, the appeal of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer has long escaped me. The mere existence of this book (along with dozens more included as source material) that demonstrate a market for Custer studies is a bit mystifying to me personally, although being the commander of the worst defeat in American military history against the Plains tribes of North America will give a career a certain amount of notoriety as well as a certain air of mystique and romance to those who are susceptible to it, I imagine. The fact that so many myths and legends have cropped up that seek to connect people and places and events to a modestly-ranked military officer is highly remarkable.
This particular book is organized in a generally chronological fashion, providing a mixture of biographical history for those readers who are not familiar with every twist and turn in Custer’s postwar career (such as myself) as well as a drily humorous examination of how to reach the various sites that Custer fought and stayed at during the decade after the Civil War. Included are helpful maps along with useful travel information (including prices, hours of admission, and cultural and historical tidbids of information) about a wide variety of museums, fortresses, and other historical sites. Also included are occasional wry and ironic comments about the experiences of the author in visiting these sites, including one particular place where he accidentally intruded onto a prison work party by going to a particular place on the wrong day. These bits of dry and witty humor help to make the book more enjoyable to read.
One of the more intriguing and worthwhile aspects of the book is the many private conflicts that are shown between Custer and others. George Custer lived a short but rather combative life, and it is fortunate for him that he found a way to profit from his combativity in a way that is rare. He was a man unsuited for peace, who got bored too easily, and who found it far too easy to quarrel with his fellow officers as well as with his enemies. He was court-martialed for a variety of offenses, including leaving his post to see his wife (his love and care for his wife’s well being was probably the most virtuous aspect of his character as it was revealed here), and he was both domineering to those officers and enlisted men below him and insubordinate to those authorities above him. His ability to curry favor with the wealthy and powerful led him to receive a great deal of favor, but his corrupt dealings with army suppliers and mining and railroad interests also showed an unscrupulous side to his character as well as gross nepotism in favoring his family with plum spots in the Seventh Cavalry. One of the more tragic ironies of Custer’s death is that the lack of preparation for his soldiers appears to have been due at least in part to his own political problems in his partisan attacks on Grant’s administration in 1876, which led him to have little time to prepare his soldiers for what became his last stand.
Those who read this book, if they have an interest in postwar history, will find a variety of intriguing places to see and a great deal of worthwhile historical tidbits that are included in this work. Those readers who are inclined to be somewhat critical of the post-Civil War military-industrial complex will find a great deal of intrigue in the connection between fortresses and dams along the Missouri, on the problem of finding sites for forts that would not flood, on problems of diseases and logistics, on the relationship between the military as guardian of the Plains tribes as well as protector of the economic interests of the companies and citizens of the United States, and of the arguments over the desirability of western property between those who were connected to railroad interests and those who were not. One wonders if Col. William Hazen’s “Our Barren Lands” is still in print, for example, to read a cynical account of the times from one of Custer’s rivals and contemporaries. For those who have even a slight interest in Custer or in the actions of the U.S. Army during the time after the American Civil War, this book provides a humorous and informative guide on how to visit those sites where a great deal of obscure history occurred, doing yeoman’s work in bringing it as part of a narrative that is of interest even to those who are not sympathetic with Custer to any great degree.