Cavalier in Buckskin

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Pat Holscher
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Thu Apr 12, 2001 4:31 pm

As was pointed out in TMH's forum a while back, there is an incredible body of work, growing larger every day, on George Custer. The fact that Custer is the topic of so much ink is itself sort of an interesting topic, but it would also suggest that either some big debate is going on, or that the topic is subject to continued revision. I had based my conclusions on Evan Connell's "Son of the Morning Star" for quite some time, and had not bothered to read any more Custer related books until an associate of mine convinced me to read Ambrose's disappointing "Crazy Horse and Custer". Coincidentally, after that I happened to hear this book recommended by a Ranger at a western fort, so, likely Utley, I picked it up.

Utley is a well-reasoned and levelheaded author. This book was written as part of a University of Oklahoma series on western biographies. Really, I think the Custer biographies should stop here, as this work, short though it is, will not be surpassed. Custer examines each stage of Custer's life in a levelheaded fashion, and with an encyclopedic knowledge of the times in which he lived, and the frontier Army in which he served. His conclusions on the Battle of the Little Big Horn are clear, intelligent, and probably not rationally debatable.

On Custer himself, Utley examines the character and history of the person to the extent that they can be. He avoids the psychoanalization to which the long dead Custer is so routinely put to. He examines Custer's successes and failures, and the positive and negative aspects of his personal conduct. While this should be done in any biography, to often Custer is either portrayed as an unqualified hero, or the epitome of evil. Clearly he was neither, nor was he a bad soldier, nor the greatest Indian campaigner of all time. Utley takes pains to portray Custer as accurately as he can be.

Moreover, this book helps put both Custer and Little Big Horn back in some sort of reasonable perspective, in the larger perspective of both his own career and the Indian Campaigns in which he fought. Highly laudable, this book actually gives the necessary detail as to the rest of the campaign of which Little Big Horn was a part, for example.

Suffice to say, Custer books will continue to come out for as long as anyone who reads this shall live. Little Big Horn will continue to be examined endlessly. Some books in the future may well be justified on Little Big Horn, given as artifacts continue to be unearthed which give an ever more detailed picture of the battle. As for Custer, however, nobody need proceed beyond this book. It may be fun to do so, and some other Custer books are worthwhile, but this one would appear to be as definitive as need or can be.

Pat
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