In his new book, Pulitzer-winning author and historian T.J. Stiles looks deeply into the complex life of one of the country’s most controversial figures.
What happens when one of the most accomplished biographers of our time decides to examine the life of one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century? The answer is acclaimed author T.J. Stiles’ latest work, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. While the book doesn’t focus on the most well-known part of Custer’s life — June 25, 1876, at the Little Bighorn, the day his famous luck ran out — its publication late last year came just shy of the 140th anniversary in 2016 of the notorious battle commonly known as Custer’s Last Stand.
The death at age 36 of the flamboyant golden-haired West Point “goat” grad and famed Civil War “Boy General” stunned the country. And it has captivated us ever since. But it was the larger story of the real man rather than the myth that captivated Stiles.
On a recent book tour to Kansas City, Missouri, Stiles talked with C&I about the complicated life of George Armstrong Custer. Was he a tragic hero who died spreading civilization, or an arrogant Indian killer who met his deserved end at the hands of skilled Native warriors? For Stiles, the answer lies not in the traditional caricature of Custer but in his complexity — both of his personality and of his role in his young and turbulent country. The answer unavoidably leads to another question: Should Custer come off the heavy hook of American history?
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve written some marvelous books on Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt — the latter won you both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. What led you to turn your attention to George Armstrong Custer?
T.J. Stiles: For one thing, the volume and scope of the sources on Custer allowed me to write a far more intimate biography than of the fugitive Jesse James and the business-minded Cornelius Vanderbilt; it’s a story of love, sex, ambition, and complicated emotions, about personal relations across racial and regional boundaries. His story also carries the reader across the incredible landscape of America at the time, from the Shenandoah Valley to Wall Street to the Yellowstone. He took part in aspects of this era that I haven’t addressed before: the conquest of American Indians, the conventional Civil War, literary culture, and the new national media, among others. His life was full to bursting — a delight for me as both a writer and historian.
C&I: Do you think Custer has gotten a fair evaluation over the years? Sometimes a hero, sometimes a goat — where do you think the truth lies?
Stiles: Custer polarized Americans long before his death and has ever since. What baffles us, in our desire for a clear picture, is that he combined great strengths and grave failings. It’s why he has, and had, both fans and bitter detractors — why he repeatedly self-destructed, then rescued himself. The touchstone for anyone seeking an honest and well-informed understanding of Custer is Robert Utley’s Cavalier in Buckskin. I tried to follow Utley’s sensible approach with regard to Custer’s entire life.
C&I: Research is frequently a fascinating business. How did you start out and where did your research lead you?
Stiles: My starting point was a belief that Custer tried to engage with his changing times but failed to adapt to them. That certainly bore out, though the specifics surprised me. For example, most biographers skip over his many months in Kentucky. In the National Archives, I proceeded from post records showing how his men were frequently detailed to assist deputy U.S. marshals, to the U.S. attorney’s correspondence with the Department of Justice. I discovered a massive federal offensive against the Ku Klux Klan in the state, involving the 7th Cavalry. But Custer wanted nothing to do with it, and even scorned it sarcastically in an official report.
C&I: Is there one incident or discovery that was particularly interesting or revealing?
Stiles: Custer usually isn’t thought of as a figure in Reconstruction, but the entire U.S. Army played a role in reshaping the South, and that included Custer. In the Freedmen’s Bureau records, I found a letter from one of his officers that described the murder of a 9-year-old black girl by the son of her former master on October 10, 1865. She was killed going to find her mother in a town 23 miles away. For justice the mother went to Custer, the general commanding the occupying federal troops. He arrested the boy — then thought better of it and released him. It casts Custer in a different role than we’re accustomed to, and shows how he, too, was embroiled in the great questions of emancipation and the meaning of freedom after the Civil War. It’s not so surprising that in 1866 he threw himself into politics in support of conservative President Andrew Johnson.
C&I: Do you think there’s any truth to the rumors that Custer planned on running for office or that he fathered a child by a Cheyenne woman?
Stiles: Custer was asked to run for Congress in 1866, but his wife, Libbie, vetoed the idea. She had served as his unofficial liaison to Congress during the Civil War, and she warned him that politics was best left to the professionals. At the end of his life, she again warned him against throwing himself openly into politics. Furthermore, I’ve read the papers of the Democratic kingmakers; in 1876, they don’t even mention Custer. He was not going to run for president that year. As to his having a Cheyenne child, it’s certainly possible. The main fact that raises doubts about it is that he had no children with any other women, though he slept with quite a few, including, of course, Libbie. As Jeffry Wert speculates, he may have been sterile from a gonorrhea infection during his cadet years, or from the horrid treatments of the era.
C&I: Did you get the impression that Custer would have been a good commander to work for, or was he a self-centered prima donna?
Stiles: Near the end of his life, Custer began a second serialized memoir in [The] Galaxy magazine. He tried to explain the failure of his hero, Gen. George B. McClellan, in part by noting that he was elevated to high rank without an internship at lower levels of command. The same was true of Custer, though his personal strengths and flaws were the mirror image of McClellan’s. Custer excelled as a combat commander — inspirational, courageous, and highly competent. In wartime his men loved him. But he failed as a manager under routine circumstances. He compensated with a high-handed manner, alienating subordinates and superiors. In this he resembles other controversial combat leaders, such as Patton or Col. David Hackworth. Custer had confidence in himself in battle, but he suffered insecurities that led him to lash out recklessly up and down the chain of command.
C&I: Did your research into Custer’s life give you any insight into his decision-making process and perhaps why he made the decisions that led to the disaster on the Greasy Grass [the Lakota name for the Little Bighorn River]?
Stiles: I have to be clear that I make no attempt to reinterpret the Little Bighorn, which isn’t my focus. Like Robert Utley, I think the main factor in the result was the Lakotas themselves and their allies. They presented Custer with different circumstances than he or any other Army officer had encountered before. The Indians had far greater numbers, militancy, confidence, and leadership than ever before. It’s less that Custer lost than they won. My research into his 1873 battles convinces me that he was not blindly arrogant toward the Sioux but respected them as opponents. I suspect the key factor in his decision-making was the fact that they were attacking a village. He expected his foe to flee to protect the women and children, giving him an advantage. That confidence would explain his dividing the 7th Cavalry, the decision that proved to be his downfall. But we can never really know.
C&I: Was Custer an unusual character or simply representative of his times?
Stiles: I write in the preface that Custer was “the exaggerated American.” He was representative, but he blew everything up to a larger scale. Antebellum America had a romantic sensibility, with an attention-getting performative style; Custer shared those qualities, but carried them to extremes. In other areas, such as his views on race and politics, he reflected the views of many more conservative Americans, but this was also the era when many were challenging old prejudices. It’s important to note when he made a choice, as opposed to simply doing what everyone was doing.
C&I: How successful could someone of his temperament expect to become today, be it as an Army officer, a politician, or a businessman?
Stiles: As I mentioned before, the demands of management baffled him, as did life in a large institution (the Army, in his case). The same traits that made him a good combat commander seem to have led him to push his luck and search for the big score. He played cards, bet on horses, bought racehorses, and speculated on Wall Street. He never demonstrated slow, steady patience, let alone tact. The best thing he did to secure his future was to die at the Little Bighorn.
C&I: Do you have a view of what happened at the Little Bighorn?
Stiles: In my book, I attempt to shield readers’ eyes from the blinding light of the Little Bighorn to see why Custer was both a celebrity and notorious before his death. Ironically, I think my approach helps to explain why the battle had such a cultural impact. If, for example, Col. Wesley Merritt had switched places with Custer and died in exactly the same way, we wouldn’t have the same fascination. Custer himself matters, not just the way he went out. In terms of the battle, the main point I wish to make is that made by Robert Utley: We should give the Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos credit for their victory rather than putting all the focus on Custer. They earned that victory, not just with numbers but with fighting skill, morale, and exceptional leadership.
C&I: There are those who see the disaster at the Little Bighorn as a form of poetic justice — that Custer sowed the seeds for his own destruction. How do you see it?
Stiles: There was a poetic justice in the eyes of many to Custer’s death. His 1874 expedition to the Black Hills found gold, and thus paved the way for a massive illegal immigration into this piece of Sioux territory. President Grant’s administration provoked the war in order to justify seizing the Black Hills. I think Custer does not bear much of the blame personally, but he certainly served as a willing instrument of federal policy. Everyone expected his expedition to find gold. Custer did not oversell the discovery, but he did state that anyone could find gold “in paying quantities” merely by panning, and historians have found that accessibility drives gold rushes.
As far as the campaign goes, Custer joined it late. As in 1868 on the Southern Plains, Gen. Philip Sheridan planned for three columns to converge on hostile territory. Unknown to Custer and his commander, Gen. Alfred Terry, the southern column was driven off at the Rosebud shortly before the Little Bighorn. Custer was sent to attack the big gathering of Lakotas and Cheyennes and drive them north, toward Terry and another force under Col. John Gibbon. Custer found the village, and on his approach divided the 7th Cavalry Regiment into three battalions and a pack train. He and the largest battalion were surrounded and wiped out; the others were besieged on a hilltop through the next day, before Terry and Gibbon rescued them.
Sympathy for Native Americans certainly existed in 1876 — one reason why Custer was notorious as well as celebrated — but today it is far more widespread. The injustice of federal policy toward the Sioux and Cheyennes seems more apparent to most Americans. As a result, the Little Bighorn is much more commonly seen as poetic justice, both for Custer personally and for the frontier Army.
C&I: It would seem that Custer is forever doomed to loom large as the Boy General turned Indian fighter. Your book suggests that there was much more to this man than the stereotype preferred by competing factions. ...
Stiles: Custer’s death focuses our attention on his role as an Indian fighter. But he did so much more — and was controversial for so much more. An intense, ambitious person, he was extremely volatile, lurching from great successes to self-created disasters. I see him as a figure on a frontier in time, as modern America came into existence. He helped to create modernity, yet he could never adapt to it. He was a career officer in the Army, the first large institution in an increasingly organizational society, yet he never functioned smoothly in that setting. He fought in what some call the first modern war, the Civil War, yet he escaped the brutal mass slaughter of the infantry battles that characterized it. A new, much darker literary sensibility arose out of the war, yet Custer remained a romantic, his illusions reinforced by his wartime adventures. He wrote for new national magazines, which fostered a more economical, modern prose, yet he wrote in a florid antebellum style. He threw himself into politics, but he opposed the new vision of universal rights that emerged after emancipation. He used his image as a frontiersman to try to float a silver mine on Wall Street, yet he never got a grip on the new world of finance.
His life is a fascinating story of a capable yet self-destructive man struggling to escape obsolescence in a changing world.
C&I: With his flowing locks and flashy self-designed uniform, Custer always put on a show, seeming to overflow with authority and self-confidence. Was this the real man or a careful construct?
Stiles: The underside of Custer’s ambition was insecurity. He always feared that the world would see him as nobody from nowhere — the no-good son of an uneducated blacksmith from rural Ohio. It made him brittle and volatile; he lashed out whenever he was criticized. He won high rank in the Civil War, where his men loved him, but he felt unsure of his ability to inspire men outside of combat. He compensated with martinet manners and ferocious discipline, leading to widespread resentment. He also failed to maintain healthy relations with his subordinates. At the Little Bighorn, he was not served well by Maj. Marcus Reno or Capt. Frederick Benteen, his two senior subordinates; Benteen in particular hated Custer. Yet, despite the failings of these men, Custer was the commander. He bore the ultimate responsibility for the atmosphere in his command.
C&I: So there was an aspect of the showman to George Armstrong Custer?
Stiles: Custer was always projecting a story about himself, yet he also had real ability. I find the best summary of Custer’s character can be found in “The Raid,” a short story by Leo Tolstoy. It’s about a retaliatory strike on Chechens by the Russian army and Tartar auxiliaries, based on his experience as a Russian army officer in the mid-19th century (from the 1906 translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude). In it Tolstoy describes a young man who had a reputation as the most dashing man in the regiment. It is not an actual description of Custer, of course, but in writing of this Russian officer, Tolstoy captures Custer perfectly:
“With the mounted Tartars ... rode a tall handsome lieutenant in Asiatic costume on a large white horse. He was known in the regiment as a desperate daredevil who would spit the truth at anybody. He wore a black tunic trimmed with gold braid, leggings to match, with closely fitting gold-braided oriental shoes, a yellow coat, and tall sheepskin cap pushed back from his forehead. ...
“When any lady came to the fort he considered it his duty to walk before her window with his bosom friends ... and shout and swear at the top of his voice. But all this he did not so much with the intention of offending her as to let her know ... how easy it would be to fall in love with him should he desire it. ... He always carried two things: a large icon hanging round his neck, and a dagger which he wore over his shirt even when in bed. He sincerely believed he had enemies. To persuade himself that he must avenge himself on someone and wash away some insult with blood was his greatest enjoyment. ... But his mistress (a Circassian of course) ... used to say that he was the kindest and mildest of men, and that every evening he wrote down his dismal thoughts in his diary, as well his accounts on ruled paper, and prayed to God on his knees.
“And how much he suffered merely to appear in his own eyes what he wished to be! For his comrades and the soldiers could never see him as he wished to appear.”
C&I: Beautifully put — and so appropriate. Were Tolstoy’s tale set in the American West, you could certainly picture Custer as what Utley called the “Cavalier in Buckskin.” Now, speaking of warlike tribes, what did you uncover regarding Custer’s view of Native Americans? I know he thought very highly of some, like his Arikara scout Bloody Knife.
Stiles: In his serialized memoir, Custer struggled with how to characterize American Indians. Despite the racial “science” of the day, which held them to be inferior to whites, he knew he had been outargued, outmarched, outfought, and outsmarted in 1867 by Cheyennes, Oglala Lakotas, and others. Yet he was also clearly a white supremacist. He resolved his dilemma by presenting their strengths, as he saw them, but by claiming that they could never live and prosper in civilization — that they were inherently savage creatures of nature. It was his version of the Vanishing Indian concept — that they would wither and die once they were defeated, put in houses, given pants and dresses to wear, and taught to read and write. Despite all the talk of Custer arrogantly dismissing Indians as fighters, he respected them. In 1873 he fought two battles with the Sioux and exercised discretion, keeping his men well in hand until he finally found a moment to break the stalemate and drive off his foe. And he did.
C&I: Are you already thinking about your next project?
Stiles: In examining the roots of federal policy toward American Indians, I became fascinated with how, ironically, the egalitarian ideals of Reconstruction became the basis for stripping Natives of their group rights and autonomy. The same Congress that passed the Ku Klux Klan Act banned any further treaties with Indian nations, for example. I’ve always been interested in Chief Joseph. When I reflected on the fact that the Nez Perce War was started by Gen. Oliver O. Howard, founder of Howard University and head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, I realized Joseph would be a terrific subject — a dramatic, consequential life that speaks to surprising interconnections in American history.
C&I: And, you never know — you might be pressed into service as a consultant on a movie about the life of Custer. I suspect that it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood takes another run at portraying him on the big screen. Who would you cast as the impetuous Boy General?
Stiles: He would have to be young, and he would have to be able to express the complex combination of an often-brash exterior with internal vulnerability. The role could easily (and improperly) descend into caricature, but a depiction of the real man calls for a deep, complex performance.
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) by T.J. Stiles is widely available in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and through the author’s website.
From the May/June 2016 issue.