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33 people found this helpful
on 7 July 2011
The tale of "General Custard" (that's how I first heard it in a school playground in Belfast) was one of the first I heard of the Wild West, and it remained a fascination. We have been through several variations, from Custer as hero (Errol Flynn in "They died with their boots on") to Custer as incompetent ("Little Big Man"). In addition, it depended on the prevailing attitudes to native Americans, from murdering primitive savages, who must inevitably give way to the wiser, civilised white man, to a noble people fighting to preserve their ancient ways in the face of a onslaught of pure greed (the US Government had conceded the Black Hills to the Sioux - but then they found gold there...).
The author paints a detailed and highly interesting picture, taking in both sides of the conflict, both Sitting Bull and Custer. Along the way, he fills in the back stories of the various protagonists, the arrogant, relentlessly self-publicising and almost recklessly brave Custer, the determined Sitting Bull, seeking to preserve the old ways in the face of the evidence that their time was running out, and importantly Custer's juniors, Reno and Benteen, who detested him and who had problems of their own (Reno was drunk for most of the battle). The Little Big Horn campaign itself is covered meticulously, and we get to watch as the Seventh Cavalry, with absolutely no idea as to how many Indians there were (the terrain made it impossible to see how big the Indian village was, until they were right on top of it), made the fatal mistake of dividing into three separate companies, all of which were defeated, Custer's being completely wiped out and Reno's and Benteen's survivors being forced into the defence of Reno Hill (I had never heard of this), where Benteen distinguished himself. (Benteen was later severely criticised for disobeying orders and not joining Custer, but this may have saved the Seventh Cavalry from total annihilation).
Sadly, the conflict came at a time when Sitting Bull was ready to talk peace. However, he hadn't reckoned on Custer, who was seeking to raise his name and reputation to its former heights, and who was willing to take outsize risks to do so. Both the Seventh Cavalry and the native American population of the USA were to pay dearly for this.
Having said all this, I emphasise that I am no expert. On the other hand, there are on the Amazon.com site many who have studied Western history and the Indian Wars meticulously. Some are less than impressed by this book, but largely on points of detail.