Book review: the Sacrificial Lion

Publié le par custerwest

-BOOK REVIEW -

 The Sacrificial Lion
 George Armstrong Custer, From American Hero to Media Villain
 
by Brice Calhoun Custer
1999,
Upton and Sons, Publishers, Hardcover, 294 pages, $32.50.
 

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Reviewed by Jeff Broome Ph.D, custerwest.org member and author of Dog Soldier Justice: The Ordeal of Susanna Alderdice in the Kansas Indian War (Lincoln, KS: LincolnCounty Historical Society 2003)

 

In The Guidon, Vol. 2, #1, Bob Bradley writes in a letter to the editor, "I regard Custer as being a vain, self-centred fool, who used his command and the men under him to gain personal glory." Finally, a book has been written for such biased persons. But this is no ordinary book. The Sacrificial Lion is written by a Custer, a Real Custer, the first Custer to defend their famous relative since Libbie Custer wrote her books from 1885-1890.
            The author, Brice Custer, is the great grandson of Nevin Custer, the only Custer boy who was not at the Little Big Horn, and consequently the only Custer son to live past June 25, 1876. 
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  The author, Brice Custer, is the great grandson of Nevin Custer, the only Custer boy who was not at the Little Big Horn, and consequently the only Custer son to live past June 25, 1876.
 
            The Sacrificial Lion is an amazing book, and Brice Custer wants all of the Bob Bradleys in the world to read his work. But he also wants everyone to know that such people as Bradley are bigots regarding their views about Custer (p. 12). And while Bradley, in his Guidon letter, chided Custer enthusiast Tony Cox for earlier writing that George Custer was a true American hero, and noting that Tony no doubt got his information from Hollywood, to the contrary, Brice notes that bigots such as Bradley have derived their bigotry from Hollywood. But, unlike Bradley, Brice backs his argument with nearly 300 pages of factual evidence. Writes Brice, "Let me propose that the true Custer should be that of an exceptionally competent commander of cavalry, more friend than enemy to the Indians, admired and respected by a majority of his superiors as well as the troops who served under him, possessed of positive traits of character greatly outweighing his faults, whose boldness and daring combined with a mastery of tactics resulting in victory after victory during the Civil War, warranted his status high in the ranks of our nation's heros." (pp. 15-16) 
 
            The real issue regarding Custer is how the reader should judge him, and Brice backs his case for a positive judgment with a plethora of documented facts. While it is safe to say The Sacrificial Lion is a vigorous defense of the character of George Armstrong Custer, there is much more in the book than just this, and Brice is modest in noting it. 
 
            The Sacrificial Lion has 15 chapters. The first chapter gives the reader information regarding how Custer's name gradually went from hero to goat, and the principle weapons in this assault have been Hollywood and politicians. Chapter Two gives an overview of the book, and brief biographies of important people related to Custer. Brice notes early that Autie was the name the family used to identify George Armstrong, and Brice proudly continues in that tradition. Since my vehicle license plate reads "Autie 7" I am happy with Brice's decision. This brings a warm feeling to the reader to know the care and compassion from which Brice writes. But Brice himself was not always fond of his famous Uncle Autie. Brice tells us that earlier he himself questioned Autie's rightful place in history. Indeed, when he first decided to learn more of his famous uncle he unfortunately chose a book that was horribly biased against Autie. Brice doesn't tell us which book this was, but it shouldn't surprise one to learn if it was Van de Water's Glory Hunter or Dustin's The Custer Tragedy, both of which present a vitriolic diatribe against Custer. 
 
Brice is especially grateful to the many researchers within the ranks of the Little Big Horn Associates, who have over the past thirty years made an aggressive effort to restore Autie to his rightful place of honor in American history. 
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Brice is especially grateful to the many researchers within the ranks of the Little Big Horn Associates, who have over the past thirty years made an aggressive effort to restore Autie to his rightful place of honor in American history. 
 
            Chapter Three covers Autie's exploits in the Civil War. This review is competent, well documented and demonstrates without question that Autie was more than merely brave. He earned every accolade that went his way, and the best evidence for this is the testimony of the men who served both with him and under him. Near the end of this chapter Brice marvels "that he was not killed many times over almost defies explanation. It is also difficult to understand how anyone could possess the necessary poise and confidence to perform so brilliantly at so young an age." (p. 85)
But what Brice does so well throughout this book he does at the end of Chapter Three, namely, to go from the past to the present or vice versa, and make a telling observation. In commenting on the senate hearings that a few years ago resulted in the removal of Autie's name from the battlefield, one unnamed senator (again, don't be surprised if it is learned this was Ben Nighthorse Campbell) noted Autie's military record with two comments, namely, he graduated last in his class at West Point, and he was an admirer of McClellan. (p. 86)
            Chapter Four discusses the transition Autie went through at the close of the Civil War until his appointment more than a year later to the newly formed 7th Cavalry. This period covers the controversy of Autie's tumultuous command of soldiers in Texas who did not want to continue with their service commitment after the end of the war but who were obligated nevertheless to serve under Custer.
            Chapter Five deals with the Indian "question." Brice shows similar insight and compassion towards the Indian as Autie did in the post Civil War era. The clash between the advancing white civilization into a land domain under Indian care is complex and easy to oversimplify with critical comments pro-Indian or pro-white, or vice-versa. Brice handles this tricky issue with competence and shows the reader that he is not unaware of the complexities of advancing white civilization at the time Autie commanded the 7th Cavalry.
            Autie's baptism in fire on the plains occurred in the summer of 1867, when he served in the ill fated Hancock Expedition, and Brice does a masterful job of summarizing all the intimate details of this failed expedition, which resulted in Custer's courtmartial and suspension from service for nearly a year. But Brice calls a spade a spade, and there is no exceptions in this chapter. Consider this: After noting that Autie made a forced march to Ft. Harker from Ft. Wallace in mid-July because of his concern for and wish to see Libbie, this occurring after he had failed to have her delivered to him while in the field, Brice writes: "In my mind, Autie's attempt to have Libbie join him in the midst of actively campaigning in the field was the poorest judgment he ever exercised." (p. 122) The reader should be grateful for Brice's dogged honesty, and this is just one example among many where this is played out in the book. 
 
            Chapter Seven deals with Autie's return to duty after his suspension, and Chapter Eight covers the battle against Black Kettle's village at the WashitaRiver. The end of the chapter carries the reader back to the present, and we learn that Brice's dismay over the extreme misinformation at the BlackKettleMuseum in Cheyenne, Oklahoma was a key inspiration in his writing this book. Indeed, I remember well Brice's visit to this museum. It was my first convention of the LBHA, and I had just met Brice when we were together in the museum. Brice was hurt and angry at what he saw. Little did I known then, nor could I envision, Brice's ability to take this shame, anger and disappointment and channel it into The Sacrificial Lion. I will not summarize what he corrects with what is wrong at this museum, but suffice it to say that his pen is mighty in this chapter, and no reader should be able, after reading this, to continue to disbelieve the power of anti-Custer attacks that infiltrate the presentation of history today. I believe this chapter alone is worth the price of the book. 
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  The end of the chapter carries the reader back to the present, and we learn that Brice's dismay over the extreme misinformation at the Black Kettle Museum in Oklahoma was a key inspiration in his writing this book. 
 
            Chapter Nine continues Custer's career in the campaign following the
Washita, and again Brice shows how Autie's skill in leadership and negotiations with Indian chiefs prevented unnecessary further bloodshed.
            Chapter Ten is entitled "Preliminaries to the Sioux Campaign of 1876," and it is just that, competently covering the 1873 Stanley Survey Expedition to the Yellowstone, and the 1874 Black Hills Expedition. 
 
            Chapter Eleven is "Review and Preview," and here Brice again reiterates that bigots such as Bradley are probably not persuaded at this point to change their opinion of Custer, but he does note that the previously misinformed reader hopefully will by now see an Autie quite different than the "Indian-hating, fool of a commander so prevalent a hundred years later." 
 
            Chapter Twelve covers the political incident involving corruption under the administration of Secretary of War William Belknap. Chapter Thirteen deals with the 1876 campaign from the time of leaving Ft.Lincoln on May 17, until leaving General Terry and the Gibbon column on June 22. Brice does a fine job of arguing that Custer did not disobey Terry's written orders. 
 
            Chapter Fourteen covers Autie's last stand, and again, Brice shows a masterful job of assimilating all the known facts and advancing conjectures that are plausible within these known facts. Though Brice tells the reader he has no insights to offer about this battle that haven't been offered by brighter and better authors of this famous engagement, he shows with what he has written that he understands all the details that can be known of this fight. 
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 Chapter Fourteen covers Autie's last stand, and again, Brice shows a masterful job of assimilating all the known facts and advancing conjectures that are plausible within these known facts.
 
He is critical of Benteen for not advancing to join Custer after receiving two orders to do so, and he finds nothing positive to say of
  Reno. But let Brice say it in his own words: "As far as Reno's and Benteen's troops were concerned, it was Benteen's competence and leadership that may well have saved them from being destroyed and he demonstrated commendable initiative and courage in the process. In contrast, I find no reason to soften my prior criticism of Reno." (P. 247)[I ask here, can bigots like Bradley be objective like Brice has shown himself to be? Place Brice's positive statement of benteen in contrast with the fact that had Benteen come to Custer's aid as he was ordered to do there might have been a different outcome of this battle. 
 
Consider this from the fact that Autie, Tom and
Boston are Brice's great great uncles, and Brice's openmindedness is remarkable indeed. Do you think you can show a little similar maturity and abandon your bigotry? Huh? It is for you Brice wrote this book, but can you really read it and change your bigoted opinion? Or is your mind made up already? The challenge is for you to see your bigotry, my friend.]
            Regarding the Reno Court of Inquiry in 1879, brought to examine Reno's conduct during the fight of June 25-26, Brice calls it a whitewash.
            Chapter Fifteen is a short summation of what Brice set out to do in his book, which is to defend the honor, integrity and character of Autie against those who have gratuitously attacked him over the decades. It is the opinion of this reviewer that Brice could not have done a better job. Surely Brice's book is written not only to Custer bigots but also to all persons interested in Custer and his last battle. 
The last chapter gives the reader some insights of the Custer family and adds an appreciation to the fact that, though Autie did not have children, his brother Nevin did, and Autie would no doubt be proud with what his nephews have accomplished. 
 
This is a must own book and should be on the shelves of every student of the American Indian wars. I could not put it down once I started reading it, and in fact, after I read it, I read the whole book again.
            


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