Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book review: "Glorious War" by Thom Hatch

History has not been kind to General George Custer. He is remembered almost solely for his ignominious defeat and death at Little Bighorn in 1876. He was, in the popular view, an arrogant leader who foolishly rushed headlong into battle without preparation.

In "Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer," author Thom Hatch rides to Custer's rescue.

In Hatch's view, Custer was not just a better man than the Little Bighorn legend suggests, he was one of the greatest generals of the Civil War. Without Custer, Hatch suggests, the Union may have lost the war.

Custer was brash and full of bravado, Hatch writes, but he also backed it up by winning battles at the most crucial times. Unlike "ambulance officers " who stayed safely in the back of the lines, Custer inspired his men by boldly going to the front and leading the charge. His achievements earned him the rank of general at the age of just 23.

Custer, Hatch writes , "was not an impetuous loose cannon, but a man with an inherent talent and skill for sizing up the weaknesses of his enemy and exploiting it for his beneift."

In particular, Hatch focuses on Custer's little-known role at Gettysburg, where his troops turned back a Confederate attempt to squeeze Union forces by attacking them from behind simultaneously with the South's famous "Pickett's Charge."

"If nothing else, the fact that he (Custer) had a hand in turning the tide at Gettysburg should make him a legendary figure in the history of this country," Hatch writes.

Custer was also very lucky. He had at least 14 horses shot out from under him during the war, but suffered only one minor wound himself.  In one battle, his panicked horse carried Custer straight into and through enemy lines without him suffering a scratch.

"Glorious War" is a solid piece of Civil War research, and I liked how Hatch offers us slices of related history along the way. We learn, for example, how Custer's West Point classmates were divided by the approaching war between North and South.  Hatch describes how Confederate General Jeb Stuart confounded and frustrated the Union Army with his cavalry's fast-moving raids.

The biggest weakness in "Glorious War"' is that it has no maps. Hatch describes the movements of troops in numerous battles, and it's simply hard to understand what's happening without maps.

Also, for my tastes, Hatch details too many battles some of them start to sound alike. He could have summarized more. 

While Hatch is thorough in recording Custer's actions, he has a harder time capturing the general as a person. Excerpts from Custer's letters help provide some clues to the personality of a man who is yes, cocky, but also thoughtful. 

Early in the war, he writes to a cousin that, while he understands that peace will be good for the country, "I shall regret to see the war end. I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life."

Much later in the war, Custer writes that he always prays before going into battle.

"Never have I failed to commend myself to God's keeping, asking Him to forgive my past sins, and to watch over me while in danger ... and to receive me if I fell, while caring for those near and dear to me. After having done so all anxiety for myself, here or hereafter, is despelled. I feel that my destiny is in the hands of the almighty."

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