Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer
- Thom Hatch
- St. Martin's Press
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Robert I. Girardi
- March 5, 2014
Seemingly unfairly judged for the way he died, this biography of George Armstrong Custer argues he was a legend with a long and valiant military career.
George Armstrong Custer is a man whose name is almost universally recognized. The name conjures an image of a gallant, tragic hero who led his command to disaster against overwhelming odds in the battle we remember as Custer’s Last Stand. Custer is often regarded as either hero or villain, and his legendary status is derived primarily from his spectacular demise.
According to author Thom Hatch, George Armstrong Custer is remembered solely for one day of his life, the day he died. Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer is dedicated to demonstrating the illustrious career of Custer before that fateful day along the Little Bighorn River. Hatch argues that Custer’s Civil War career has been unfairly overshadowed by the notoriety of his failure against the Sioux and Cheyenne in June 1876. Hatch believes that Custer’s Civil War record was more important, and more colorful than his exploits on the Western Plains.
Glorious War. The very title of this book suggests that it will be a favorable discourse upon its subject and that is correct. In the opening chapters, Hatch provides a detailed biography of Custer’s early life, including his education at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and his relentless and precarious, albeit ultimately successful courtship of Elizabeth Bacon. In the remainder of this 384 page volume, Hatch presents a complete narrative of Custer’s dramatic Civil War career. Few officers in the war were as active, as energetic, or as bold as Custer. He truly led a charmed life. He was every bit the man that legend has made him out to be: brave, fearless and full of life. He was also a charming and thoughtful man, almost boyish in his approach to life. In some ways he never matured, but he could be deadly serious when necessary. As a warrior, he was ruthless. As a Civil War cavalry leader he was all a commander could ask for, and he was the sort of leader that men would follow into battle.
One criticism of Hatch’s presentation is necessary. The author has an unfortunate tendency to wander off of his subject to recount the backgrounds and exploits of others. Robert E. Lee, for example, is the subject of several pages-long sidebars. Too many similar deviations from the main theme detract from the overall cohesiveness of the work, because they are irrelevant to the Custer story and they are an unnecessary distraction to the reader. The additional information might have been better placed in the endnotes.
When Hatch stays on his theme, however, his writing is enjoyable. He writes with an engaging style that captures the action and shows off Custer at his best. But Hatch also has a tendency to let his admiration for the general cloud his judgment. Often he overstates the contributions of Custer and Philip H. Sheridan, Custer’s commander, at the expense of other officers’ reputations. Custer’s exploits at Gettysburg were important to the outcome of that 1863 battle, but they were not decisive. And although Sheridan’s victories in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 contributed to Abraham Lincoln’s re-election, they were not the primary reason for that occurrence. Custer’s actions speak for themselves; they do not need to be inflated or overblown.
Sadly, Hatch overstates the overall importance of Custer’s accomplishments, and repeats some of the errors that appeared in Gregory J.W. Urwin’s Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of George Armstrong Custer, and D.A. Kinsley’s Custer: Favor the Bold. For example Hatch repeats the one-sided and erroneous assessment of Major General Gouverneur K. Warren at the Battle of Five Forks. Snap judgments of this type detract from an otherwise worthwhile narrative.
The book is enhanced by the inclusion of two general maps, eight pages of photos, a bibliography and endnotes. Hatch’s presentation of Custer’s Civil War career is a creditable effort, but it is not a revelation to the informed reader. For the general reader or the Civil War novice, this book serves as a good introduction to Custer’s life and Civil War career. But anybody looking for new material or insightful analysis of Custer’s career and his accomplishments will be disappointed. This is a good, but not a great book.
Robert I. Girardi is a past president of the Civil War Round Table of Chicago. He is on the board of directors of the Illinois State Historical Society and has written or edited 10 books on the American Civil War, including The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals in Their Own Words and Gettysburg in Art and Artifacts.