Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History
From the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, a brilliant biography of Gen. George Armstrong Custer that radically changes our view of the man and his turbulent times.
In this magisterial biography, T. J. Stiles paints a portrait of Custer both deeply personal and sweeping in scope, proving how much of Custer’s legacy has been ignored. He demolishes Custer’s historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person—capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years).
The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many areas overlooked in previous biographies, Custer helped to create modern America, but he could never adapt to it. He freed countless slaves yet rejected new civil rights laws. He proved his heroism but missed the dark reality of war for so many others. A talented combat leader, he struggled as a manager in the West.
He tried to make a fortune on Wall Street yet never connected with the new corporate economy. Native Americans fascinated him, but he could not see them as fully human. A popular writer, he remained apart from Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and other rising intellectuals. During Custer’s lifetime, Americans saw their world remade. His admirers saw him as the embodiment of the nation’s gallant youth, of all that they were losing; his detractors despised him for resisting a more complex and promising future. Intimate, dramatic, and provocative, this biography captures the larger story of the changing nation in Custer’s tumultuous marriage to his highly educated wife, Libbie; their complicated relationship with Eliza Brown, the forceful black woman who ran their household; as well as his battles and expeditions. It casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
From the Hardcover edition.
watched Eliza, who “uneasily and nervously tried to go,” she wrote. “A position so unusual, and to her so totally out of place, made her appetite waver.…Eliza hung her embarrassed head, and her mistress [Libbie] idly twirled her useless fork—while the proprietor made $1.50 clear gain on two women that were too frightened to swallow a mouthful.”13 Writing years later, she interpreted Brown’s reaction through her own experience. It was the breach of decorum, she thought, that made the situation so
regulating black “vagrancy.” But many of them also established schools and medical care, reviewed labor contracts, and generally tried to protect the freed people from abuse and exploitation.22 It’s striking that Custer worked so hard to cultivate Radical Republicans, yet so disregarded their principles—even after living with an intelligent, independent black woman for nearly two years. — “A MAN WHO LIES to himself is often the first to take offense,” Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov.
thinking of the Times that has past and gone.”27 Libbie’s decade between the Little Bighorn and her correspondence with Eliza had been hard. The loss of a spouse can be shattering, but Libbie’s pain had been compounded again and again. There was the violence of Armstrong’s death; the newspaper stories and comments by army officers that blamed her husband for the disaster (even President Grant faulted him); the annihilation of two of Custer’s brothers and his nephew and namesake; and the death of
heard the famous rebel yell, “something between the shriek of a woman and the scream of a panther.” Kilpatrick had led the division into a trap. J. E. B. Stuart had lured the Union cavalry forward, ordering Lee to encircle and destroy the Union division by cutting off its retreat over Broad Run. Custer waged a hard, chaotic fight, one brigade against a division, to bring his men back across the stream. “Contrabands and camp followers were careering by in a state of panic,” wrote the chaplain,
“Only bear in mind we are just entering upon life’s journey with all its cares, and, I hope, in a short time its responsibilities.” It was an allusion to elusive parenthood. In the meantime, Libbie had plenty of responsibilities.39 The Republican ascendancy left Armstrong feeling vulnerable and anxious. But Libbie could now be his “friend at court.” She could charm congressmen and senators with her beauty, style, and educated wit. Leckie writes, “They had formed a partnership, committed to