Rummaging among the well-picked-over bones of George Armstrong Custer.
Mueller, a professor of journalism, begins on a note that many historians would find—well, unhistorical: namely, the observation of a contemporary painter that Civil War leaders such as Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman had the visage of a soldier, “a hooded look where the skin hangs down from the eyebrow over the upper eyelid,” whereas Custer had the bright-eyed, eager look of an intellectual and artist, one “drawn to creative endeavors like writing and performing.” That “artistic temperament,” writes the author, suggests that had Custer survived Little Big Horn, he might have become a writer or a lecturer like Mark Twain, or he might even have signed on to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. As it is, Custer was an indifferent student but an ardent writer at West Point, where he’d enrolled, Mueller suggests, simply in order to get an education; he would later have to be reined in by editors skillful enough to cut through his orotund language. But he was also a showman: When appointed to command in the Civil War, where he undeniably showed ample soldiering skills, he learned the fine arts of costumery (growing his hair long and wearing bright clothing and a broad-brimmed hat) and gallantry far beyond conspicuousness. In short, as Mueller holds, he became a kind of polar opposite of his commander, Ulysses S. Grant: “One is the flamboyant, imaginative, and creative type, a soldier who often skirts or breaks the rules but gets things done. The other is more solid and conventional. One likes the show business side of the military, the uniforms, parades, and glory. The other provides the strategy and eschews the limelight.” Yes, Custer liked the pageantry, but it’s his military skill—and lack of caution, at the end—that we remember him for.
An ancillary addition to the Custer shelves.
Pub Date: today
Page Count: 392
Publisher: Univ. of Oklahoma
Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2020