By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 1999, 2010. All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in 1999.
George Armstrong Custer seems to have an unbreakable hold on the American imagination.
He was a gallant cavalier during the Civil War, the northern counterpart to J.E.B. Stuart’s elan and bravado, and he became a seasoned frontier warrior and nemesis of the Sioux after the Civil War. He was headstrong, impatient, sometimes arrogant, always ambitious. Some historians think that Custer had his eye on the presidency when he and a contingent of his beloved 7th Cavalry were overwhelmed by Indians near the Little Bighorn and, on June 25, 1876, killed to the last man.
“Custer’s Last Stand” shocked a nation celebrating its centennial, convinced of its own manifest destiny and contemptuous of the Plains Indians. The last hurrah for Indian military power, the battle on the Little Bighorn quickly passed into American myth, but the golden-haired cavalryman from New Rumley, Ohio has been with us, in one form or another, ever since. Countless movies and books have since featured Custer. Sometimes Custer is a hero; recently, more often, he’s a villain, but never is he boring.
He is at the heart of Douglas C. Jones’ fine alternative-history novel The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer: A Novel. Jones’ book opens in the spring of 1877, as Army trial judge advocate Asa B. Gardiner prepares to prosecute the Civil War hero, who narrowly escaped the Sioux warriors’ wrath. In Jones’ what-if story, Custer suffered a serious head wound at the Little Bighorn, but was left for dead by the scavenging old women of the Sioux and then found by scouts from Brigadier General Alfred Terry’s relief column. William T. Sherman, Commanding General of the Army, has little difficulty in convincing outgoing President Ulysses S. Grant to court-martial Custer for disobedience of orders, negligence, and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.
There is political and military intrigue aplenty as the court-martial convenes. Many prominent Civil War officers figure in the book. The presiding officer at the trial is Major General John M. Schofield, victor of the battle of Franklin, Tennessee; sitting with him are Major General Irvin McDowell, loser at First Manassas, and Brigadier General John Pope, loser at Second Manassas. Major General Phil Sheridan resists the very idea of court-martialing Custer when Sherman first puts it to him, and he becomes an influential witness for the accused officer. Both admirers and critics of Custer will find something in the book to support their points of view. Partisans for and against Major Marcus A. Reno and Captain Frederick W. Benteen, Custer’s subordinates at the Little Bighorn, who are sometimes blamed for not doing enough to save him, also won’t be disappointed.
Although the court-martial takes place on Governor’s Island, in New York City’s harbor, the 260 men killed at the Little Bighorn are with us throughout the book. The soldiers, Indian scouts, and journalists who take the witness stand vividly recreate the massacre and its aftermath. Jones very effectively contrasts the cosmopolitan, bustling New York City of the late 1870s with the barren and hostile landscape of the Great Plains.
The trial takes some unexpected twists and turns, and the ending is surprising if not shocking. This is an important contribution to the genre of alternative history, well-written and insightful. As Jones writes in his preface, ”This is a fantasy which needs no apology, for who among us has not been intrigued by the alternatives history never reveals?”
I couldn’t agree more.
The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer: A Novel by Douglas C. Jones
From the publisher: Suppose that George Armstrong Custer did not die at the battle of Little Bighorn. Suppose that, instead, he was found close to death at the scene of the defeat and was brought to trial for his actions. With a masterful blend of fact and fiction, The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer tells us what might have happened at that trial as it brings to life the most exciting period in the history of the American West.
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