Custer’s Trials, by T. J. Stiles
It’s not too often you get to write up a review of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. T. J. Stile’s fascinating new work, Custer’s Trials, was just announced this week as the prize-winner for history. It seems like a daunting task, but I’ll give it my best shot.
Regardless of how much you perceive you know about George Armstrong Custer, it’s a pretty good bet that the massacre at the Little Big Horn occupies a great percentage of that knowledge. Books abound with histories and fictions about his famous “Last Stand.” The accounts of that event and the events leading to it have been documented and picked apart so many times that I doubt anything significantly new has been said for decades. Custer’s Trials does not exist in the realm of those previous books.
Stiles has done a masterful job fleshing out Custer’s pre-Little Big Horn life. From his poor upbringing to his years at West Point, from his meteoric rise to young general in the Civil War to his subsequent army postings before his last, Stiles paints a vivid picture of a brash and self-involved individual forced to reinvent himself at several junctures in his career. Circumstances shape his actions, focus and beliefs at every turn. I imagine that the constant reinvention of oneself was common among most who ventured westward in the 19th century, putting much of Custer’s life of constant adjustment on par with many others of the time, regardless of social stature.
Like or despise him, in Custer’s Trials you are reading the story of a man making his way through the quickly developing America from the mid-1800s through his final progression toward the Little Big Horn. Stiles is adept at making you realize how a man makes his way through time and circumstance to becoming either hero or goat to millions of Americans who came after. This is definitely a part of the story that has never been told fully. A thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone interested in Custer, or those who are interested in examining the ebbs and flows of the human condition in history.