Heritage, Volume 7, Number 2, Spring 1989 Page: 26
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Cavalier in Buckskin:
George Armstrong Custer
and the Western Military
Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong
Custer and the Western Military Frontier, by
Robert M. Utley. University of Oklahoma
Reviewed by Prof. Chad Oliver, Department
of Anthropology, University of
Texas at Austin.
Robert M. Utley, an authority on the
Frontier Army and formerly Chief Historian
of the National Park Service, is probably
as qualified as anyone to take another
crack at the Custer story. He not only tends
to get his facts straight, but Utley has heard
the music: he spent six summers talking to
tourists on Custer Hill, and he has not
forgotten how the winds blow and the
Aside from the obvious point that it is
impossible to write a non-controversial
book about the Boy General, there is another
problem that Utley addresses with
the first line of his preface: "Do we really
need another biography of George Armstrong
Custer?" The answer, of course,
depends on who is reading the book. There
is very little middle ground on Custer. The
addict is undaunted by the fact that the
literature dealing with what happened to
the Seventh Cavalry in 1876 dwarfs that of
any comparable event in American history.
To those who see in Custer simply a
symbol of all that they detest in the world,
another Custer biography is as useless as
trying to explain big game hunting to a
Utley makes the interesting observation
that a biographer has two very different
Custers to consider. For the first quarter
century of his life, Custer poses no puzzles.
As a boy, as a cadet at West Point, and
during his Civil War exploits, Custer is not
hard to fathom. Whether you admire him
or not, there is no sense of mystery here.
During the final decade that he lived,
1866-1876, another Custer emerges. The
Custer of the frontier was a bundle of paradoxes,
a man of extremes, a man who
aroused strong passions pro or con. This is
the interesting Custer, naturally, the
enigma whose personality permeates an
era. Utley suggests that frustration was part
of the story, which makes sense. He also
offers the notion that a conflict was occurring
between the man and the boy. Maybe.
Utley makes a genuine effort to present
Custer as he probably was, neither god nor
devil. Nevertheless, in the Custer canon,
Utley comes down strongly on Custer's
side. There is a litmus test in Custer books,
and that is the treatment of Benteen. If
Custer is high, Captain Benteen is low and
vice versa. (Never mind about poor Reno.
He is probably beyond salvation.) Here, we
find Custer's bold actions contrasted with
"Benteen's languor." And Utley reaches
one firm conclusion: "George Armstrong
Custer does not deserve the indictment
that history has imposed on him for his
actions at the Little Bighorn."
What else ? Utley's views on the ephemeral
nature of the village attacked by
Custer are worth noting. His command of
military structure and maneuvers is outstanding.
I find his views on the events at
Thle C apitoy
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 7, Number 2, Spring 1989, periodical, Spring 1989; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45432/m1/26/: accessed June 18, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.