California Literary Review

A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn by James Donovan

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September 25th, 2008 at 11:06 am

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A Terrible Glory by James Donovan
A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn – the Last Great Battle of the American West
by James Donovan
Little, Brown and Company, 544 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Revisiting The Little Bighorn

The Little Bighorn River flows for 90 miles through some of the most beautiful terrain in the American West. Rolling hills reach down to its banks, covered with sage brush and tall buffalo grass under the majesty of Montana’s “Big Sky.”

The Little Bighorn also flows along one of North America’s principal fault lines. It is, however, an historical divide rather than geological. Here, in 1876, the continent’s native inhabitants launched a final counter-attack against the relentless march of Manifest Destiny. Here, myth and history clash to this day.

James Donovan’s new account of this famous frontier battle, “A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn,” has much to recommend it. But one salient virtue stands out. Donovan’s narrative transcends the fault line between the two warring camps. “A Terrible Glory” is not another version of the “Custer’s Last Stand” legend nor is it an unquestioning reappraisal based on Native American oral history. Donovan has recreated this epic clash with a cogent grasp of the issues leading up to the battle, astute analysis of tactics, weapons and topography, and empathetic insight into the lives of the Lakota Sioux, Cheyennes and the troopers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry.

And then there is George Armstrong Custer.

It is somewhat jarring to reflect on Donovan’s character study of Custer. Many of the accolades accorded him, part of a devoted campaign of his widow, Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer, to restore his reputation, do not bear scrutiny. More significantly, the defamation he has suffered in the process of being toppled from the pedestal of Victorian hero worship, is likewise undeserved. Custer, though daring as a soldier, was not a “glory hunter.” Nor was he a genocidal Indian killer.

Custer was a product of his times. He was in most respects a typical Civil War era American. He personified the cult of courage and pluck, which was the prevailing ethos. Custer had ambition and a gift for self-advertisement, making him many friends and numerous enemies. A poor scholar at West Point, the mature Custer had become a devoted reader, an excellent writer and an amateur natural scientist. He was in fact much the kind of man that the young Theodore Roosevelt was in the process of becoming.

Custer’s destiny led him to the Little Bighorn because the U.S. Army was marching to war against the Plains Indian tribes. These “hostiles,” allied clans of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyennes, acknowledged the leadership of Sitting Bull, who refused to submit to a virtual imprisonment by the U.S. government. The Sioux holy man nursed an implacable resolve to resist the white invaders, stiffened by anger at the brutal treatment of the Sioux tribes in Minnesota in 1862.

The fighting forces of Sitting Bull’s growing coalition were swelled by warriors slipping away from the U.S. Indian agencies. By June 1876, approximately 1,500 to 2,000 warriors roamed the prairie lands of Wyoming and southern Montana, along with nearly 10,000 women and children. It was the largest array of “hostiles” on the Great Plains ever. The U.S. Army’s plan of hitting them with converging columns, of which Custer’s 7th Cavalry was one, was designed to defeat the Indians before they could disperse into more elusive small bands.

Modern day sympathy toward the Plains Indians has led to the belief that the Sioux and Cheyennes were fighting to defend their lands in 1876. After reading Donovan’s introductory chapters, which record the U.S. Government’s cynical disregard for its treaties with the Indians, it is hard not to favor their claims of ownership. Actually, it is more complicated than that.

The Sioux and Cheyennes had migrated from the Great Lakes area onto the Plains during the late 1700’s with the spread of the horse culture. The original Plains Indians, like the Arikaras, had been pushed out of the best hunting lands. The Little Bighorn region was actually the hunting grounds of the Crows, formidable fighters but outnumbered by the Sioux. A large band of Arikaras under Custer’s favorite scout, Bloody Knife, rode with the 7th, along with Crows in the vanguard under the redoubtable half-breed trail blazer Mitch Boyer, another sworn enemy of the Sioux. The Little Bighorn was a battle between Native Americans, as well as between white men and red men.

The Little Bighorn witnessed a bitter clash among the whites, as well. More particularly, it pitted Custer and a clique of loyal officers, against his two principal subordinates: Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen. It was, to quote the old Irish saying, “a family quarrel, but anybody could join in.” And they did.

Custer’s faction included his courageous, hard-drinking, Captain Tom Custer, who had won two Congressional Medals of Honor during the Civil War. Another Custer stalwart was the Irish soldier of fortune, Captain Myles Keogh, a gallant, melancholy officer haunted by presentiments of doom as the 7th Cavalry prepared to leave its base at Fort Lincoln in Dakota Territory.

Jealous of their commander’s popularity, Benteen and his supporters obsessed about Custer’s supposed abandonment of a detachment in an earlier campaign against the Cheyennes in 1868, later found massacred. Custer also had enemies in very high places, including President Grant, who nearly deprived Custer of command of the 7th Cavalry when Custer’s testimony about unethical conduct among Indian agents and merchants selling supplies to the agencies tainted members of his administration.

When Custer took the field against Sitting Bull in early June 1876, the 7th was in very bad shape. The regiment was under strength, poorly trained in marksmanship for lack of ammunition and so short of horses that nearly 150 of its men were unable to take part in the battle. But Custer was not the cause for these defects and deficiencies. His unit’s condition was symptomatic of the state of the U.S. Army as a whole, an indictment of the corruption and collapsing standards of government efficiency that characterized Gilded Age America.

Custer and the 7th Cavalry served under the command of General Alfred Terry, a competent, if uninspired leader. Custer’s regiment was the main striking force of the U.S. Army operating to the north of Sitting Bull’s tribal coalition. The 7th lacked a third of its force, with only 600 men mounted and ready for battle. A smaller force under Colonel John Gibbon, with 200 cavalry troopers, 200 infantry and a battery of ineffective Gatling guns, marched from bases in Montana to rendezvous with Custer.

Terry’s plan called for Custer and the 7th, to swing south and then west to hunt Sitting Bull’s force, reckoned at 1,500 men of fighting age, in the Little Bighorn valley. Custer was to drive them north where Gibbon’s troops would block their escape. A third column, under George Crook, superior in numbers to Custer and Gibbon combined, would cover the region to the south of Custer’s area of operations. Unknown to Terry, Gibbon and Custer, Crook’s command had already been mauled by Crazy Horse and 700 Sioux and Cheyennes in a daylong battle on the Rosebud River on June 17th. Crook’s troops, having exhausted their ammunition, were now on the defensive and of no help to Custer and Gibbon.

At this point in the story, the legend of Custer, the arrogant “glory hunter” who disobeyed orders and scoffed at the reports of his scouts, usually takes center stage. Not so in Donovan’s account.

Donovan quotes Terry’s comment to Frederick Gerard, the veteran interpreter attached to the 7th, “Custer is happy now, off with a roving command of 15 days. I told him if he found the Indians … if he thought he could whip them to do so.”

The U.S. Army was determined to fight. Speaking of Terry’s fatal command conference with Custer and Gibbon, Donovan states, “The option of approaching the Indians to discuss their surrender and return to the agencies apparently never came up.” Here, rather than in Custer’s lust for glory, is the key to the whole Little Bighorn tragedy.

If anything, Custer was moody and apprehensive for much of the march to the Little Bighorn, troubled perhaps by his wife’s dread of the outcome of a clash with the Sioux or influenced by Keogh’s growing fatalism. But once the opportunity to strike Sitting Bull’s massive encampment presented itself, Custer’s instincts as a cavalry commander took over. He divided his forces, relying on the mobility and striking power of his troopers to offset their numerical inferiority.

Had Sitting Bull and his war chiefs reacted in the customary skirmishing style of Plains Indian warfare, the outcome would have been very different. But the Sioux and Cheyennes, fighting with their backs to the wall against the encroaching tide of white civilization, opted for a pitched battle and almost from the outset, Custer’s tactical plan went terribly wrong.

In Donovan’s enthralling reconstruction of the battle, Custer, Reno and Benteen are shown to have made significant—and for Custer, fatal—command errors. Reno, fortified with liquid courage from a small keg of whiskey, panicked during the initial attack on Sitting Bull’s camp. He ordered a retreat without commanding buglers to sound recall and never sent a messenger to Custer informing him of the repulse.

As for Benteen, who hated Custer, he willfully disregarded his commander’s famous last message, “Benteen, Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs.” Either it was rank insubordination or a total lack of the élan expected of a forceful cavalry leader.

Custer foolishly compounded the risk inherent in splitting his command. As he advanced on the Sioux and Cheyenne camp, he detailed Keogh with three companies to fight a delaying action against the Indians galloping back to defend the village after the defeat of Reno. With his remaining two companies, Custer tried to deliver a coup de grâce to Sitting Bull.

The result is too well known to require further comment here except to say that Custer’s battle plan presented the Indians with a golden opportunity to smash his scattered detachments. Ironically, Custer’s defeat and death saved the U.S. Army from suffering further cuts in its defense appropriation by Congress. It received sufficient funds to recruit more men and purchase arms and ammunition to defeat the Sioux and Cheyennes in 1877, ending their freedom forever.

The U.S. Army showed its appreciation with a lavish West Point funeral for Custer, followed by an inquiry that exonerated Reno. Custer, the dead hero, was delegated to take the fall, saving the Army from further embarrassment. The case was closed, except that the Army’s suppression of the truth insured that the Little Bighorn would remain an unresolved battle. Custer’s defeat ranks with Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor as the most exhaustively studied battles in U.S. military history.

There will never be a final word on that bloody Sunday afternoon on the Little Bighorn. James Donovan’s “A Terrible Glory,” however, will endure as one of the most solidly researched and moving accounts of Custer’s death ride and the Plains Indians’ last victory that we are likely to have for a long time to come.

  • gigi_biswas

    A worthy review of a book that appears to sort out the myths that surround fact and fiction in little bighorn.it appears that literature often articulates the truth that history with its essential inability to aspire to trans-historical transparency cannot.your review(and it seems the book too) works as a kind of address to “history” not as a unitary,transparent,linear discourse (from either the point of view of either the native americans or the settling whites)but a complex and interconnected web of historical,political,cultural and textual ramifications ,and the encounter of the margins and the centre that has shaped the destiny of all those who were party to it.
    THANKS.

  • harden_susan

    Gigi, your family misses you. Here is a quote for you: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” ~Rumi

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