T. J. Stiles’ most recent book “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America” was published in 2015 and won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2016. His previous book “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” was published in 2009 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2010. His first book “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” was published in 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
While acknowledging that George Armstrong Custer is not an under-covered biographical subject, Stiles’ objective was to examine his life from a new perspective – as it was experienced within the context of his times – rather than focusing on his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In this respect the biography is quite successful…Custer’s “Last Stand” receives fewer than twenty pages at the end of a 460-page narrative.
But Stiles also set out to write a biography that would fully immerse its readers in the world as Custer saw and lived it. That, along with the fact that Custer’s life was so incredibly eventful and interesting, makes this an uncommonly rewarding biographical experience.
“Custer’s Trials” begins with one of the more compelling introductions of anyone that I’ve read. Following this Preface, the narrative launches into Custer’s West Point education (he graduated last in his class) and his ensuing military career. More than one-third of the book is dedicated to Custer’s Civil War service but the war itself is never the real focus. Custer’s personality, proclivities, actions, heroics, flaws and relationships more often take center stage.
In order to provide a complete picture of General Custer, Stiles paints irresistible portraits of the two most important women in Custer’s life: his wife, Libbie, and Eliza Brown, an escaped slave who became his cook and long-time attendant. In many ways Libbie Custer (who outlived her husband by nearly six decades) is the real hero of this book. She is a strong, intelligent, spirited, and keenly perceptive woman who seems to be Eleanor Roosevelt in an earlier era. As a result of my encounter with the indomitable Libbie, I now consider Shirley Leckie’s 1993 biography “Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth” a must read.
There are numerous other high points in this book including a vibrant description of Custer’s travels from Michigan to New York City with his new wife, subsequent observations and revelations regarding their relationship, revealing pages devoted to Custer’s service on General McClelland’s staff, and brief but insightful synopses of Ulysses Grant (as general and politician).
In addition, Stiles weaves excellent background into the narrative, including a review of the plight of African-Americans during Reconstruction, an overview of Native Americans in the mid-to-late 19th century, a discussion of rise of the railroads during the Gilded Age and a review of monetary policy with a useful overview of the Gold Standard.
But this book is not without complexity. Like most fascinating individuals, Custer is easy to caricature but deceptively difficult to understand. And while Stiles assiduously avoids oversimplifying his subject, virtually nothing of Custer’s childhood is covered – leaving the reader to ponder the issue of nature vs. nurture. Later, certain discussions of troop movements and various battles during the Civil War may prove more confusing than clarifying to some.
In addition, Stiles occasionally seems to dissect Custer’s personality with the precision of a trained psychologist, but many of the conclusions are based on limited information and are, at best, deductions. Finally, the chapters focused on Indian affairs (and Custer’s role safeguarding the frontier) eventually begin to feel like a politically correct literary atonement for America’s treatment of Native Americans.
Overall, T. J. Stiles’ biography of General George Custer proves to be a rich and rewarding biographical experience. In many ways it reminds me of Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey“…but with a somewhat more ambitious scope. Anyone interested in understanding Custer’s brief but epic life – and not just his death – will find this a remarkably satisfying journey.
Overall rating: 4½ stars