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Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer Hardcover – June, 1996


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 540 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Co; 1st edition (June 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805037209
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805037203
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.7 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #771,478 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The source of our endless fascination with the legend of General Custer--the flamboyant general and brilliant tactician who led his troops into a bloody massacre--is perhaps as interesting as the story of the man himself. Why, more than 100 years later, are we still drawn to the story of Little Bighorn? In Touched By Fire, Louise Barnett reexamines the Custer story and finds that the answer may lie in racism and national pride. Her belief is that we still can't accept the fact that a band of Indians could bring down the white troops of a powerful nation.

From Publishers Weekly

When historic personages pass into legend, they lend themselves to reinterpretation by each subsequent generation. So it is with George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876), who here comes into the rigorous purview of Rutgers English professor Barnett (The Ignoble Savage) as she applies the structures of class, race and gender to depict an erratic, complex man who never adjusted to the end of his triumphs in leading patriotic volunteers in the Civil War. Barnett finds that Custer despised the men of his Seventh Cavalry, who fell with him at Little Bighorn, as mercenaries and societal dregs; that he embraced his country's racist policies toward the Plains Indians; that he owed any emotional stability he possessed to a co-dependent relationship with his wife, Libbie. But Barnett is no mere debunker. Her analysis of the Custers' marriage and the workings of the frontier army is solid. Her common-sense approach to the Little Bighorn cuts like Occam's razor through pages of elaborate reconstructions. She wisely attributes Custer's defeat not to esoterica such as disloyal officers and jammed carbines but to poor planning and reconnaissance in the face of the largest gathering ever of Plains Indians. While Robert Utley's Cavalier in Buckskin remains the richest Custer biography, Barnett makes a solid contribution to our understanding of the man and the myth. Photos not seen by PW. Rights, except first serial, electronic, audio: Gerard McCauley.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Hinson on March 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I just re-read this biography, after several years, and I was reminded again what a great book it is. Barnett's Custer is not Custer-the-awful or Custer-the-hero -- but Custer-the-human. She is solid on her sources, and tells a story about Custer that develops his relationship with his wife in ways that I find fascinating. You get a sense from this about a person who was three-dimensional. Her description of the battles are solid, though if you want more detail, you will need to find that in other books. If you want to learn about the person behind the fighting, though, this is the book for you.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Bob Reece on May 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I adamantly disagree with the reviewer, below, from San Francisco. This is one of the best biographies of Custer's life with his wife, Libbie. Their relationship comes to life in Barnett's book.

The reviewer mentions the "New Explorers" program on the History Channel and its reference to Reno and Benteen not coming to Custer's aid when they knew he was under attack was a sham to historical research. Frankly, I was embarrassed for the History Channel when I viewed this program. It has always been understood by historians of the Battle of the Little Bighorn that the men under Reno and Benteen's command heard firing to the north coming from the Custer Battalion. Reno had just got whipped soundly by the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in the river valley forcing him to retreat to the high bluffs overlooking the river (now known as the Reno/Benteen defense site); it was from this position that they heard firing to the north. Reno had lost over 30 men during the valley fight and retreat. His men were demoralized and there were many men wounded. Custer was five miles to the north beyond the hills; it might as well been a 100 miles. The "New Explorers" premise is that it's some great mystery whether the soldiers' heard gun firing or not. So, they conduct a makeshift "experiment" with a tape recorder on the Reno/Benteen defense site. Over the hills, to the north, they have a few guys waiting to fire some carbines. So, the guys with the tape recorder are talking through walkie-talkies to the men who are waiting to fire their carbines and they begin to countdown to zero. At zero, the men fire their carbines and it's recorded on the tape. Wow!
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Alfuso on March 15, 1999
Format: Paperback
Sometimes overlooked in this book are Louise Barnett's fascinating sidebars on women on the frontier. She could make another book out of her research in this area.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Gregory Hope VINE VOICE on September 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
If you are looking for an in depth tactical analysis of the battle of the Little Bighorn or even an in depth look at Custer's military career this is not your book. This book concentrates on the more personal side of the life of George and Libbie Custer. I found it to be engaging and worthwhile especially the latter parts of the book dealing with Libbie's life and work as a widow attempting to honor her husband's memory.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ernie Wild on July 31, 2010
Format: Paperback
First of all, the reader should understand what type of book this is. It's not a battle book. It's a biography of a marriage and a legend, how that legend came about and was and is sustained. I find little to find fault with in this book. The writer is careful and thorough. She is correct in pointing out the problems with the Texas "campaign". That situation hasn't received enough ink as she explains. She is careful with the possible unfaithfulness of Custer. She lays out the facts as known and lets the readers make up their mind.
She is correct about the racist attitude of the frontier military of that era. Nothing new there. Even now it is difficult for some white Americans to accept the fact that Custer and his companies just plain got whipped by a supposed inferior people. It was brought on for the most part by Custer alone. Again, that is difficult for some people to accept. Tired horses and jamming guns and Reno and Benteen not riding to the sound of shots had little to do with anything. It was simply bad choices in a situation that had no tolerance for bad choices! If it wasn't Custer commanding, this incident would be merely a molehill in the history of the Indian Wars rather than the mountain that it has become. I don't believe that this is the right book for someone who has never read Custer to begin with. But other than that it's a good read!
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mick McAllister on June 26, 2010
Format: Paperback
Touched by Fire offers a fresh look at "the Custer myth," and it's worth reading if you want to supplement the strictly historical accounts of Nathanel Philbrick and James Donovan. Barnett only spends about 100 pages on the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The rest is a compact biography of Custer, with a focus on the way his marriage impacted his life and legacy. Folks who are complaining about the material on Libbie should reexamine the title. This is not a biography of Custer, it's an examination of a popular myth, and Custer's wife was the wind that stoked that fire. Barnett does an excellent job of presenting the intellectual environment of the Custer era, weaving together information from civilian and military sources, including the journals of army wives.

The book has two flaws that can't be ignored. First, the history of the battle is inaccurate in ways that taint the credibility of the rest of the book. For example, Barnett claims that the common descriptions of the poor condition of the horses are not supported by facts. This is patently not so. The horses were overworked, underfed, and had gone without water. The travel logs confirm the overwork. The ration records support the food issue (the horses were getting 2 pounds of feed a day instead of the required 12). And journal reports (and common sense of anyone who has seen SE Montana in June) confirm the lack of water. It's a small point, but only one of many little weakness. Both Donovan and Philbrick, writing more recently than Barnett, confirm the weakness of the horses, a crucial problem for a cavalry unit.

The second flaw is one I'm sympathetic with, but I think her position is overstated. She insists that the obsession with Custer and what happened at the Little Big Horn is simply a reflection of white racism.
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