The Blog

Coming October 27, 2015: Custer's Trials

June 2, 2015

Tags: Custer, George Armstrong Custer, frontier, American history, history, Civil War, Native Americans, American Indians

At long last, my next book is being prepared for publication: Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, to be released by Alfred A. Knopf on October 27, 2015. As of this writing, the typeset pages are being corrected, the maps are being corrected, the photographs are being laid out in special inserts, and the index is being prepared.

I did not write this book to refute existing works on Custer, or because I lack respect for them. Unlike my previous subjects, Custer has received a great deal of attention in print, and many of the biographies and studies are quite good. Many consider Son of the Morning Star a modern classic; it may be impossible to surpass Robert Utley's insights into Custer or mastery of the Indian wars; Shirley Leckie produced a profoundly important book about Custer's wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer; and Richard Slotkin, Louise Barnett, Nathaniel Philbrick, Jeffry Wert, Paul Hutton, and many other writers and scholars have written excellent narratives and studies.

So why did I jump in? Because I want to change the camera angle. Rather than focusing on Custer's death, I am interested in his life—and the significance Americans found in him him long before the Little Bighorn. I try to integrate the best-known aspects of his career—his role as a fighter against Native Americans and as a Union general in the Civil War—with the broad range of activities and experiences that filled his weeks and months. It all leads me to the central premise of my book: From beginning to end, Custer lived on a frontier in time.

During his lifetime, a new America arose from the burned-out ruins of an earlier republic—the America we know today. This transformation defined his existence, whether as a West Point cadet, a wartime general, an Indian fighter—and as a politician, businessman, writer, and husband. In every aspect of his public career, he worked to usher in the modern United States.

Here I find an essential truth: Personally he could never adapt to the very modernity he helped to create. All his confounding contradictions, volatility, and complex personal relationships pivoted on the changes in his world, and his difficulty in coping with them. This is also why Americans either loved or hated him so much, for he embodied what they feared they were losing, or what they thought would hold them back.

I want this book to be an immersive experience for readers, full of the rich, complex characters I saw in the letters, reports, diaries, memoirs, and newspaper stories of the nineteenth century. My hope is that my interpretation of history and Custer's role in it will add to the stakes, placing greater weight on the decisions and reactions of the characters who fill this book. With the last word of the narrative, I hope I leave the reader with the sense of having lived with real people throughout their dramatic lives.