Custer's Civil War

G eorge Armstrong Custer's most recent biographer, Robert M. Utley, concludes that, as a Civil War general, he "combined audacity, courage, leadership, judgment, composure, and an uncanny instinct for the critical moment and the action it demanded. He pressed the enemy closely and doggedly, charged at the right moment, held fast at the right moment, fell back at the right moment, deployed his units with skill, and applied personal leadership where and when most needed." These are the characteristics of a God.

Utley, former chief historian of the National Park Service, is the authority on the frontier army. His conclusions demand respect. In this case, however, he has allowed his romanticism about Custer (his title is Cavalier in Buckskin) to overcome his good judgment, as badly as did the New York Times reporter in 1864 who compared Custer to Napoleon.

Utley ranks Custer as a "great cavalry general...second in the Union army only to [ Phil ] Sheridan." Admirers of James Harrison Wilson will hotly dispute that call, but none will disagree with Utley's further point, that had Custer been killed in 1865, or retired from the army to go into business or politics, he would be known today as a solid Civil War hero, rather than "as a folk hero of worldwide renown." His immortality comes from the Little Big Horn.

The contrast between the "boy general" of the Civil War and the Custer of the Little Big Horn has always fascinated Americans. The former never made

-47-

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