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Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History: Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America

"A biography of stunning richness and sophistication."
—Matthew Price, Boston Globe

"Epic, ambitious, bursting-at-the-seams. . . . Scrupulously avoids caricature. . . . A particular highlight of Mr. Stiles's work is its focus on the women in Custer's life. . . . Mr. Stiles's accomplishment is to show that, within the context of Custer's life, the Battle of the Little Bighorn really was an epilogue."
—Randall Fuller, Wall Street Journal

"If anyone could make a reader forget Custer's last stand, at least for a few hundred pages at a time, it would be T. J. Stiles. . . . Stiles is a serious and accomplished biographer, but he is more than that. He is a skilled writer, with the rare ability to take years of far-ranging research and boil it down until he has a story that is illuminating and, at its best, captivating."
—Candice Millard, New York Times Book Review

• Winner, Pulitzer Prize for History and Finalist for Biography
• Winner, Spur Award for Biography, Western Writers of America
• Winner, William H. Seward Award for Excellence in Civil War Biography
• Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography
• Finalist, California Book Award
• Finalist, Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History
• Longlist, Mark Lynton History Prize
• Finalist, Plutarch Award for Biography

Custer's Trials: A Brief Description

From the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, a brilliant new biography of George Armstrong Custer that radically changes our view of the man and his turbulent times.

In this magisterial biography, T. J. Stiles paints a portrait of Custer both deeply personal and sweeping in scope, proving how much of Custer’s legacy has been ignored. He demolishes Custer’s historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person—capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years).

The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many areas overlooked in previous biographies, Custer helped to create modern America, but he could never adapt to it. He freed countless slaves, yet rejected new civil rights laws. He proved his heroism, but missed the dark reality of war for so many others; a talented combat leader, he struggled as a manager in the West.

He tried to make a fortune on Wall Street, yet never connected with the new corporate economy. Native Americans fascinated him, but he could not see them as fully human. A popular writer, he remained apart from Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and other rising intellectuals. During Custer’s lifetime, Americans saw their world remade. His admirers saw him as the embodiment of the nation’s gallant youth, of all that they were losing; his detractors despised him for resisting a more complex and promising future.

Intimate, dramatic, and provocative, this biography captures the larger story of the changing nation in Custer's tumultuous marriage to his highly educated wife, Libbie, their complicated relationship with Eliza Brown, the forceful black woman who ran their household, as well as his battles and expeditions. It casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

More Praise for Custer's Trials:

"Stiles . . . grounds this spectacular narrative of George Armstrong Custer in skillful research to deliver a satisfying portrait of a complex, controversial military man."
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"Custer's Trials is exemplary in every way, replete with instances of detailed scholarship and compelling analysis, dense with psychological insight, and written in a tight, adroit style."
Wichita Eagle

"A rich, subtle, and persuasive narrative of a compelling figure who was fortune's child during an era of exploding American growth. Stiles has written a marvel of a book—the best life of Custer right up to the moment he marched the 7th Cavalry out of Fort Abraham Lincoln while the band played 'The Girl I Left Behind Me,' on their way to whip the Indians."
—Thomas Powers, author of The Killing of Crazy Horse

"T.J. Stiles has written another splendid book. . . . This biography easily overshadows its many predecessors, offering new facts and interpretations as well as a wonderful read."
—Robert Utley, author of Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier

A Custer Gallery: Photographs illustrating Custer's life that did not make it into the book
Click on the image to see it at full size.
Source: the Library of Congress

From West Point to Bull Run

The Peninsula Campaign

From the Confederate Surrender to the Little Bighorn

In November 1868, Custer returned from nearly a year's suspension from rank and pay—his sentence after being convicted by a court-martial—and led the 7th Cavalry in an attack on the Southern Cheyennes. He followed the trail of a war party through deep snow, hoping to strike the Cheyennes while their ponies were weak from lack of forage and their mobility was limited.
On November 27, 1868, Custer surrounded a village at the end of the trail of the Cheyenne war party. He signaled the attack by ordering his band to play "Garry Owen." The surprise attack fell on a band led by Black Kettle, the leading Southern Cheyenne advocate for peace and accommodation. Many women and children died in the attack. Custer did not target them, but tried to save them. He did, however, see to it that all males of fighting age who fell into his hands were killed. He brought back no adult male prisoners. The battle was also costly. Major Joel Elliott led a detachment in pursuit of some escaping Cheyennes, and was surrounded by warriors riding up from a far larger village downstream on the Washita. The battle rescued Custer's career, but left him permanently surrounded by controversy. He killed a man of peace, along with women and children, and lost a large detachment of men, whose bodies Custer left behind as he tried to escape the large number of fighting men from the larger village.
The last message from General Philip Sheridan, commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, to Gen. Alfred Terry, Custer's superior and department commander. Though this page of instructions does not by itself explain the Little Bighorn, it does show that no one in the army suspected that Custer would face overwhelming numbers when he encountered the Lakotas and Cheyennes. Indeed, Sheridan hoped that Custer would strike a particularly large body. He did, of course, to Custer's misfortune.