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Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America Paperback – Illustrated, October 25, 2016
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Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History
In this magisterial biography, T. J. Stiles paints a portrait of Custer both deeply personal and sweeping in scope, proving how much of Custer’s legacy has been ignored. He demolishes Custer’s historical caricature, revealing a capable yet insecure man, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (court-martialed twice in six years) and the new corporate economy, a wartime emancipator who rejected racial equality. Stiles argues that, although Custer was justly noted for his exploits on the western frontier, he also played a central role as both a wide-ranging participant and polarizing public figure in his extraordinary, transformational time—a time of civil war, emancipation, brutality toward Native Americans, and, finally, the Industrial Revolution—even as he became one of its casualties. Intimate, dramatic, and provocative, this biography captures the larger story of the changing nation. It casts surprising new light on one of the best-known figures of American history, a subject of seemingly endless fascination.
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WINNER 2016 - Pulitzer Prize for History
FINALIST 2016 - National Book Critics Circle Awards
FINALIST 2016 - California Book Award
FINALIST 2016 - Mark Lynton History Prize
LONGLIST 2016 - Plutarch Award
WINNER 2016 - Western Writers of America Golden Spur Award
WINNER 2016 - William H. Seward Award for Excellence in Civil War Biography
FINALIST 2015 - Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History
BookPage Best Books of 2015
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best of 2015
“If anyone could make a reader forget Custer’s last stand, at least for a few hundred pages at a time, it would be T.J. Stiles. . . . Stiles is a serious and accomplished biographer, but he is more than that. He is a skilled writer, with the rare ability to take years of far-ranging research and boil it down until he has a story that is illuminating and, at its best, captivating.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Epic, ambitious. . . . [Stiles] scrupulously avoids caricature. . . . Stiles’s accomplishment is to show that, within the context of Custer’s life, the Battle of Little Bighorn really was an epilogue.” —The Wall Street Journal
“If you want to understand how Custer's character became his fate, then Stiles's book is the one to read before any other.” —Thomas Powers, The New York Review of Books
“[This] sympathetic biography attempts to demythologize and reassess a complicated figure. . . . Stiles captures his subject with verve.” —The New Yorker
“In this deft portrait, Stiles restores Custer as a three-dimensional figure. . . . [Stiles’s] prodigious knowledge of 19th-century institutions is on display throughout Custer’s Trials. He is able to situate Custer in the shifting culture of the Civil War and its aftermath in a way no other biography has achieved. . . . Stiles’s Custer is life-size.” —The Washington Post
“This energetic biography puts emphasis on the years in between Custer’s Civil War heroics and his infamous Last Stand. Stiles is neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic in his treatment of Custer’s profound need for attention.” —The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Riveting. . . . [Stiles] has given us a different way to look at the flesh-and-blood man and his times.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Custer's Trials is exemplary in every way, replete with instances of detailed scholarship and compelling analysis, dense with psychological insight, and written in a tight, adroit style." —The Wichita Eagle
"Custer was the product of an America which changed more dramatically during his brief life than at any time in its history, except for the present sorry epoch, and Stiles, who can write, and also research, recounts how those times shaped him and, in the process, demolishes some of the Custer despisers’ (there are many, and I am one) most cherished myths. . . . Terrific." —Field & Stream
"Stiles portrays a complex and deeply flawed man. . . . Stiles' biography is a long, detailed, well-researched but highly readable account." —The Denver Post
“Engaging… A teeming portrait of the birth of modern America—and a gripping account of Custer's role in it.” —San Jose Mercury News
“A nuanced, complex and convincing portrait of the man.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Rousing. . . . An immersive, emphatic, bloody and very assured book.” —Newsday
“A good and meaty biography.” —Christian Science Monitor
“T.J. Stiles portrays Custer in the context of his time, and the man who emerges is much more than merely a martyr or a fool. . . . [Stiles] goes furthest in exploring [Custer’s] contribution to Union victory during the Civil War and the difficulties he faced adjusting to the world that he helped to create.” —The Daily Beast
"[Stiles's] biography is thorough, engrossing and fair. Custer is seen as a man wearing many faces, some good, some not. The author has done a commendable job drawing out from other sources to write a balanced account of a misunderstood historical figure. A+ read." —San Francisco Book Review
“Spectacular . . . a satisfying portrait of a complex, controversial military man… Confidently presenting Custer in all his contradictions, Stiles examines the times to make sense of the man—and uses the man to shed light on the times.” —Publishers Weekly *starred review*
"Stiles presents a much fuller picture of the tragic figure many of us know. . . . Custer's Trials masterfully adds dimension to his life, helping us better understand the man behind the legend." —BookPage
"Stiles doesn’t disappoint with this powerful, provocative biography. . . . A highly recommended modern biography that successfully illuminates the lives of Custer and his family as part of the changing patterns of American society." —Library Journal
"A warts-and-all portrait. . . . Stiles digs deep to deliver genuine insight into a man who never adapted to modernity." —Kirkus Reviews
“T. J. Stiles has written a marvel of a book—the best life of Custer right up to the moment he marched the 7th Cavalry out of Fort Abraham Lincoln while the band played ‘The Girl I Left Behind,’ on their way to whip the Indians.” —Thomas Powers, author of The Killing of Crazy Horse
“This magnificent biography lifts the shroud of myth that has long hovered over Custer. Well-written, exhaustively researched, and full of fresh insights, it does a superb job of re-creating not only his life but even more the world in which he lived. Building on the work of previous writers, Stiles surpasses them all with his breadth of detail and depth of analysis.” —Maury Klein, author, Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War
“T.J. Stiles has done it again. With this searching, memorable portrait of George Armstrong Custer, Stiles recaptures the complexities of a man whom posterity has been content to caricature. Until now, in this wonderful book.” —Jon Meacham, author of Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H. W. Bush
“T. J. Stiles has written another splendid book. He portrays a real Custer, full of flaws but possessed of outstanding combat skills and leadership. This biography easily overshadows its many predecessors, offering new facts and interpretations as well as a wonderful read.” —Robert Utley, author of Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier
“Despite the numerous works on Custer, this thoroughly researched and riveting book is new. It is the first to interpret him as a representative of his times.” —Shirley Leckie Reed, author of Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth
“George A. Custer has proven an enduring metaphor for the American West, an ‘exaggerated American’ seen as flamboyant military hero, icon of national expansion, or doomed oppressor of Native Americans. More even than his compelling portrait of this central figure of American history, T. J. Stiles brilliantly examines Custer within transforming national events—civil war, slavery’s end, and economic and social modernization that privileged the powerful under guise of democratic triumph—proving yet again why he is this generation’s finest biographer.” —Christopher Phillips, author of The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border
"In this definitive reconsideration of an icon, Stiles reminds us why Custer remains such a fascinating fixture in our national consciousness: To understand Custer is to understand a significant sequence in the American DNA.” —Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder and In the Kingdom of Ice
About the Author
- Publisher : Vintage; Reprint edition (October 25, 2016)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 640 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0307475948
- ISBN-13 : 978-0307475947
- Item Weight : 1.76 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #507,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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This biography is very good when it recounts Custer’s experiences in the Civil War. He is described as a superb warrior with an ability to size up a combat situation and swiftly and calmly take the appropriate steps to gain control and prevail. He was not the reckless battlefield maniac that is too often portrayed in media today.
Custer’s courage and swift action may have prevented the Union army from losing the Battle of Gettysburg, a battle the North could not afford to lose if the Union was to be preserved. Operating to the rear of the Union army Custer spotted a large mass of Confederate Cavalry on the way to getting behind the Union lines and into a position to attack. Already closely pressed, an attack in the rear could have collapsed the Union position at a critical moment. Even though he was heavily outnumbered, Custer charged knowing that surprise was on his side and also knowing that the Confederate maneuver had to be blunted. He just might have saved the Union that day.
Custer was promoted from a lowly officer all the way to the rank of general without stopping at the intervening ranks because of his battlefield performance. No other American soldier I am aware of has made such a dramatic leap since Nathaniel Greene was promoted from private to general (without intervening ranks) in the Revolutionary War.
Where the account collapses into nonsense is where the author looks at 19th Century behavior through the lens of 21st century social justice. At best that blurs our picture of the past and at worst it gets things completely wrong. The worst happens often in the latter part of this book. Surprisingly that happens often even when his own narrative provides information that belies his thesis. Having said as much, it is only fair to provide some examples.
In a hand-wringing statement he declares that the Indians were put in ‘internment camps’. I assume he is referring to the Indian Reservations.
The Navajo ‘internment camp’ is greater in area than the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
The Crow ‘internment camp’ is greater in area than Delaware.
The Hopi ‘internment camp’ is greater in area than Rhode Island.
There isn’t a lot of development in many of those ‘internment camps’. In fact, they look a lot like Phoenix and Tucson did before European settlement. They were intended to be areas where the Indians could continue their traditional lives with their own tribal government and police. Chief Sitting Bull was killed by tribal police, not by the Cavalry.
In many cases Indians have elected for improvement on reservation land. You can spot the reservations by the big, bright casino signs showing the way. How many ‘internment camps’ normally have casinos? When I took a bus tour through Santa Barbara we were told that the local Indian casino paid $45,000 a month to every member of the tribe.
The Indians were not trapped in the Reservations. When they wanted to they could join the rest of American society and many of them did.
The author is trying too hard to find a grievance here.
He is also at pains to say that the Indians are victims of ‘cultural appropriation’. That is a ridiculous and childish concept that could only have emerged from today’s university culture. But it should be addressed. Most of the ‘cultural appropriation’ was from Europeans in favor of Indians. The Plains culture depended upon horses, but they had no horses before the Spanish brought them to the Americas. All of the Indians quickly took to European beads, fabrics, metals, tools, knives and guns. In one famous picture of the Apache war chief, Geronimo he is wearing a cotton print shirt, a cloth scarf, beads, and carrying a rifle—all cultural appropriation from European culture. They liked it, they wanted it, and they got it. Perhaps we should put the nonsense of ‘cultural appropriation’ to rest. I don’t think modern Indians want to give up their casinos either.
The author bemoans the movement of whites and blacks into Indian lands. Certainly the Indians could, and did, complain, but in the same volume he lets on that the Sioux and Cheyenne were warrior tribes that took their land by conquest from other Indian tribes. That is the reason Custer had so many Indians eager to join him fighting the Sioux. They had been victims of Sioux aggression. Basically, when the Grantor in your Deed of Ownership is ‘Conqueror’ you do not have a strong moral claim when someone else uses the same mechanism of property transfer.
Attitudes toward race were different then, but the author wants to label Custer as a racist for believing the skull measurement studies of Samuel Morton, a naturalist who determined that different races had, on average, different skull sizes. The author relies on the report of Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man, for debunking Morton’s thesis. Gould even did a video in which he showed how Morton’s bias led him to reach his erroneous conclusions. But it was Gould who was biased and in error. A few years ago the original Morton skulls were re-measured using advanced techniques and it was discovered that Morton’s measurements were very good and Gould had fudged a result he wanted, either consciously or unconsciously. This author is too eager to embrace a conclusion that confirms his own bias.
The author extends his racism grievance when it comes to the cook in the Custer household. She was a runaway slave taken in by Custer and who worked in the household for many years. When she was fired for being ‘insolent’ that was seen as a clear sign of racism. Yet, the author himself tells how the cook was passing out supplies from the Custer kitchen to gain favor with others in the camp and how she had become so dominant in the kitchen that Custer and his wife had to take turns braving her when they had a request. Regardless of race, few employers would put up with that from an employee indefinitely. I would have fired her sooner.
Last, the author insists on calling the Confederates ‘conservatives’. In fact, it was the North that was willing to abide by previous agreements to leave the South and its ‘Peculiar Institution’ alone. Lincoln said as much in his inaugural address. The Democrats in the South broke with the understanding and demanded that slavery be extended to new territories acquired by the Federal government. They rebelled. The clue that they were not ‘conservatives’ lies in the fact that they were called Rebels, people who wanted to break with agreements and tradition. I think the author just believes that anyone he doesn’t like must be a conservative.
He dropped the ball on the Battle of the Little Big Horn too.