by C. Lee Noyes
A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn
By James Donovan
New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2009 Pp. xv, 528, contents, author’s notes, prologue, acknowledgements, bibliography, index, softcover, $17.00
There appears to be no end in sight to the volume of studies on George Armstrong Custer and his last battle. However, there has long been a need for a credible, well-written book on this subject intended for the general reader that is also well-researched.
Jim Donovan has successfully filled this void with A Terrible Glory. Devoting some attention to the Lakota perspective through such leaders as Sitting Bull, the book’s focus is on Custer and the 7th Cavalry to portray (and to document) the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn and thus the military reasons for its outcome.
In this context Donovan presents a balanced and realistic assessment of all major themes whether addressing the character and abilities of Custer, the effectiveness of his regiment, the strategy of the U.S. Army or tactical decisions on the day of the battle.
The author has demonstrated a fundamental (if not the fundamental, in the opinion of this reviewer) military explanation for the defeat of the 7th Cavalry—its inexperience as an Indian fighting unit. “The reputation of the ‘Fighting Seventh’ was a hollow one.” A “shaky” chain of command compounded this critical weakness.
Custer possessed “an uncanny ability” to process available intelligence and to make instant decisions. However, his own self-promoted reputation as an Indian fighter was equally inflated. “Custer seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the importance of celebrity.”
Donovan places Custer’s orders and thus his decisions on June 25, 1876 in the proper context of the contemporary military mindset. Custer, Gen. Terry and all other soldiers were “too obsessed with the hostiles scattering to conceive of anything else.” It should be no surprise, therefore, that Custer’s written orders were “a curious combination of specific directives and surprising largesse that reflected the uncertainties” of locating the non-reservation Lakota bands and preventing their escape from the Army’s attempt to subdue them.
In addition to this mindset, the author effectively articulates other factors that drove Custer’s decision to divide the regiment, including the intelligence void as to the location/s of their encampment/s and the safety of the slow-moving pack train and its ammunition reserve. His reconstruction of the actions on the Custer Battlefield (and of Custer’s prior movements) is a plausible synthesis.
To this reviewer (though perhaps not to the general reader) the most valuable section is the excellent perspective of the 1879 Reno Court of Inquiry. Donovan’s interpretation is difficult to dispute, notably his emphasis on the adverse impact that these proceedings might have had on the Army and its congressional appropriation. The inquiry, he notes, must be seen in the context of the effort within the military command to “blame the dead Custer” for the Little Bighorn.
As with any study of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, one might differ with some of the author’s observations (for example, the action, if any, in the timber and thus the duration of Reno’s Valley Fight). Many will challenge his statement that “Custer had shared no overall strategy with Reno, nor told him exactly what he planned to do.”
There are also a few factual errors. The “Montana Column,” for example, included six (not five) infantry companies. The Gatling gun battery contained three (not four) guns each being pulled by four (not two) condemned cavalry horses, etc.
This book is based on in-depth research and extensive documentation. The author notes that he has “relied on primary accounts almost exclusively.” However, several records in the National Archives and other primary accounts are quoted from such secondary sources as John Gray, Centennial Campaign.
A case in point is Terry’s alleged letter of June 21, 1876 to his sisters. This often quoted criticism of Major Marcus Reno is not among the General’s campaign letters at Yale University; and the reviewer’s efforts to locate it or verify its existence have been unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, the author should be commended for his clear, articulate prose that should retain the interest of the general reader unfamiliar with this controversial subject. Moreover, this book belongs in the library of every Little Bighorn student.
Reviewed by C. Lee Noyes