By Marcia Allen, Technical Services & Collections Manager
Author Larry McMurtry achieved almost instant fame in 1985 when he wrote the now-famous saga of the West, Lonesome Dove. In fact, the novel earned the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was later developed into an Emmy Award-winning TV series that starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. McMurtry went on to write other tales of the West, but none achieved the same stardom of that Gus McCrae/Woodrow Call cattle drive partnership.
McMurtry’s latest is his take on the life of Custer, but readers hoping to find a definitive biography about the controversial Custer will be disappointed. McMurtry’s Custer does not follow the boyhood and maturing of the West Point graduate, nor does it contain an in-depth study of his development as a military leader. It mentions his parentage in passing and speaks of his siblings only in listing family members who died with him at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
McMurtry admits in the text that there are other writers, most notably Evan S. Connell in his magnificent biography, Son of the Morning Star, and Nathaniel Philbrick in his historical account, Last Stand, who have written outstanding accounts about Custer. McMurtry elected to write what he calls a “short biography,” designed to bring clarity to its subject.
Does he succeed? In some ways he does. We have clear notions of Custer’s character flaws. Yes, he graduated last in his class at West Point. Yes, he seems to have had an enormous ego that compelled him to behave rashly, making enemies of those who outranked him (like General Grant) as well as those he commanded (like troops he abandoned at the Washita Battleground). Yes, he had difficulty heeding authority, and was charged with disregarding orders an astounding number of times.
In contrast, we also have the Custer who was admired by many. He did conduct himself bravely during Civil War battles and was promoted to general in as astoundingly short time. He did verify the existence of gold in the Black Hills. And he did earn the admiration and loyalty of his wife, Libbie, who spent her widowhood defending his character to any who would listen.
McMurtry also presents a wide array of period photographs. We find Custer amid the troops in Civil War shots. We see portraits of the young Custer couple, taken at various encampments and forts. We peruse portraits of various Native American tribal leaders, especially shots of Sitting Bull who may or may not have encountered Custer on the hills of the Little Bighorn. We also find depictions of the battle itself: some romanticized heroic stances, others realistic imaginings of what might have occurred.
But the book has flaws of its own. There are times when the language is amazingly unsuited to the tale. McMurtry, for example, alludes to Custer and his doomed troops battling the countless numbers of Native American warriors with: “Surprise, surprise, you’re dead!” The book also takes tangents that have little relevance to the subject. The author, for example, spends unsubstantiated speculation about Custer’s involvement with a Cheyenne woman and with Libbie’s possible reaction to any dalliance. How this relates to events in 1876 in Montana remains unclear. And I am troubled by a photograph that is labeled “Custer with his horse, Comanche.” Comanche, the scarred survivor of Custer’s charge in the Montana hills, belonged to Myles Keogh, who was killed during the battle. It seems likely that the photograph was taken after the battle and that the man holding the bridle was not Custer at all.
Where is the appeal of the book? For those like me, who like enjoy reading about the American West, it offers unique ways of examining those past events. I was intrigued, for example, with McMurtry’s perceived likenesses between George Armstrong Custer and John C. Fremont, who like Custer, proved a controversial figure in his time. I also better understand the animosity between Libbie Custer and Major Marcus Reno, a man Libbie blamed for her husband’s death. And I think McMurtry’s assessment of the Little Bighorn Battle as the final blow against Native American independence is accurate. McMurtry’s book is not an authoritative account of Custer’s life, but it does illuminate aspects of a violent time clouded in question.