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Book Review: A Terrible Glory – Custer and the Little Bighorn by James Donovan

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There are advantages to having relatives working in the publishing trade. I often get to read the proof galleys of books before they get published, which is how I came into possession of A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn by James Donovan, which is to be released by Little, Brown & Co. in March of 2008.

Donovan's research covers the entire period of the Indian wars, including conflicts involving tribes far from the Great Plains involving military officers who participated in the campaign which cost George Armstrong Custer his life, but the main focus of the book once this background is established is the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Like many Americans, I have read about Custer's Last Stand many times since I first saw Errol Flynn in They Died With Their Boots On. Considering that ongoing interest, one has to marvel at how it is possible at such a late date to have anything new to say about that debacle, and yet author James Donovan managed to accomplish that very deed.

Donovan culled historical fact from well-known and obscure sources, with source material dates ranging as far back as 1863 to as recently as 2007. Donovan also doesn't exclude information from Native witnesses either, which provide a perspective too often ignored in telling the tale of the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn. Many of the books he cites were published privately, so one must assume that tracking down surviving volumes had to have taken a great deal of time. In addition, many collections of letters and contemporary newspaper accounts were also used, sometimes to great effect, to illuminate the atmosphere at certain times, such as the investigative hearings into the conduct of Major Marcus Reno on June 25, 1876.

These sources were instrumental in forming a view of just how unprepared the Seventh Cavalry was for the chore assigned to them. Many of the troopers were newly inducted, barely trained, and some didn't speak English well. Many had never even fired a weapon in anger in their lives, or knew how to care for a horse much less ride one. A crash course in the absolute basics of cavalry operations was undertaken by a few of the more diligent officers just prior to the Seventh departing on the campaign, but this was the exception to the norm.

Donovan's research points out to the discerning that Custer's share of the blame, besides the well-known historical charges of rashness and impulsiveness, included not knowing the sorry readiness state of his command. He was on poor terms with most of his officers, and wasn't aware of their personal capabilities and deficiencies. In addition, most of the regiment's regular officers — who should have known the condition and readiness of the Seventh — were on detached duty elsewhere, so company command devolved in their absence onto the lower and less experienced officers. So many officers were unavailable for command that, in one case, an officer was borrowed from an infantry unit for temporary cavalry duty.

From Donovan's research, Custer didn't seem to understand that his regiment was asking for the fate it got by going into the field so ill-trained, and he did nothing to improve its prospects. He and many other officers in the Army at that time were more interested in reclaiming their brevet (temporary) Civil War ranks rather than attending to their assigned duties, and the top command of the Army displayed serious incompetence in allowing such self-serving activities to occur at the expense of the Army's readiness. Such blindness, honed with superiority and arrogance, was a major factor in the defeat.

These observations of Custer can also apply to the other commands ordered to conquer the Lakota and their allies that summer. For instance, Gen. George Crook's command expended about 25,000 rounds (roughly ten per soldier present) at the Battle of the Rosebud — only causing between 31 and 84 Lakota and Cheyenne casualties — a sorry result which indicates the command neglect of not improving the Army's marksmanship. Donovan reports that this expenditure of almost all of the rounds carried by Crook's command was one major reason why Crook was not in position to support Custer's later assault.

Overall command was limply exercised by Gen. Alfred Terry, who allowed his three subordinates — Custer, Crook, and Col. John Gibbon — far too much leeway for independent action in what needed to be a tightly coordinated plan. His successor, Nelson Miles, appears to have learned from Terry's mistakes, as he became the most-successful commander in the effort to pacify the Native Americans after Terry was reassigned to department command.

Donovan relates all of this, and also the willingness of intense rivals to band together against outside investigation of the sorry state of the Army in the 1870s. In reporting about the hearings concerning charges of Major Reno's drunken cowardice at the Little Bighorn, Donovan reports — often from obscure newspaper articles — how the officers were quite open with trusted reporters concerning their strategy of protecting the Army and all of the involved officers — with the notable exception of the late Col. Custer — from any potential loss of control to civilians of Army operations or loss of "honor" over their mis- and malfeasance as field commanders. It was all an attempt to buy time until someone — Gen. Miles, as it turned out — could become victorious enough to divert attention away from the Custer disaster.

A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn may not be the total and final chapter in the Custer saga, and he notes as much quite often. He freely notifies when he's taking a chance with history, but carefully notes his sources and reasons for doing so. Custer aficionados will appreciate Donovan's careful and detailed footnotes. But if you aren't interested in all that dusty stuff, the essential story is contained within the chapters. No one should have many questions about the basic tale of the biggest battle of the Plains wars.

I highly recommend Donovan's book to those whose interest extends to conquering the Old West, the Indian Wars, and to the history of this nation.

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About pessimist

  • Sounds like an excellent way to revisit such a historic moment. I am especially interested in the Native American perspective of that day. Thanks for letting us know about this book.

  • Richard Tilford

    Dear Mr. Donovan
    As i tried to explain to other historians
    that my great grand father J.G. Tilford lead senior major and other officers of the
    upper command did not approve of custers methods. Look up the history on my relative on google Richard Tilford

  • Lew

    I’m not sure this review begins to give fair credit to the work done by Donovan. Like some others, I’ve become engrossed in the Battle of the Little Big Horn and have read extensively about it. Donovan does NOT explain the Indian perspective as well as others did, but his wealth of details is far superior to any other source I’ve found. For example, Donovan does not explain how many Indians turned Custer back when he tried to cross the river and attack the women and children (a favorite military tactic–kill Indian women and children to get Indian warriors to back off). Other sources state there were only 6 Indians — and then name them. 6 Indians. On the other hand, no other source so clearly explains Benteen’s lack of support and why Reno and Benteen just sat there while their boot mates were killed in overwhelming combat. Donovan’s work is the best I have seen and will conclude my search.