Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in 1999.
George Armstrong Custer seems to
have an unbreakable hold on the American imagination.
He was a gallant cavalier during
the Civil War, the northern counterpart to J.E.B. Stuart's elan and
bravado, and he became a seasoned frontier warrior and nemesis of
the Sioux after the Civil War. He was headstrong, impatient,
sometimes arrogant, always ambitious. Some historians think that
Custer had his eye on the Presidency when he and a contingent of his
beloved 7th Cavalry were overwhelmed by Indians near the Little
Bighorn and, on June 25, 1876, killed to the last man.
"Custer's Last Stand" shocked a
nation celebrating its centennial, convinced of its own manifest
destiny and contemptuous of the Plains Indians. The last hurrah for
Indian military power, the battle on the Little Bighorn quickly
passed into American myth, but the golden-haired cavalryman from New
Rumley, Ohio has been with us, in one form or another, ever since.
Countless movies and books have since featured Custer. Sometimes
Custer is a hero; recently, more often, he's a villain, but never is
He is at the heart of Douglas C.
Jones's fine alternative-history novel The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer: A Novel
(Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y. 1976). Jones's book
opens in the spring of 1877, as Army trial judge advocate Asa B.
Gardiner prepares to prosecute the Civil War hero, who narrowly
escaped the Sioux warriors' wrath. In Jones's what-if story, Custer
suffered a serious head wound at the Little Bighorn, but was left
for dead by the scavenging old women of the Sioux and then found by
scouts from Brigadier General Alfred Terry's relief column. William T.
Sherman, Commanding General of the Army, has little difficulty in
convincing outgoing President Ulysses S. Grant to court-martial
Custer for disobedience of orders, negligence, and conduct
prejudicial to good order and discipline.
There is political and military
intrigue aplenty as the court-martial convenes. Many prominent
Civil War officers figure in the book. The presiding officer at the
trial is Major General John M. Schofield, victor of the battle of
Franklin, Tennessee; sitting with him are Major General Irvin McDowell,
loser at First Manassas, and Brigadier General John Pope, loser at Second
Manassas. Major General Phil Sheridan resists the very idea of
court-martialing Custer when Sherman first puts it to him, and he
becomes an influential witness for the accused officer. Both
admirers and critics of Custer will find something in the book to
support their points of view. Partisans for and against Major Marcus
A. Reno and Captain Frederick W. Benteen, Custer's subordinates at the
Little Bighorn who are sometimes blamed for not doing enough to save
him, also won't be disappointed.
Although the court-martial takes
place on Governor's Island, in New York City's harbor, the 260 men
killed at the Little Bighorn are with us throughout the book. The
soldiers, Indian scouts and journalists who take the
witness stand vividly recreate the massacre and its aftermath. Jones
very effectively contrasts the cosmopolitan, bustling New York City
of the late 1870s with the barren and hostile landscape of the Great
The trial takes some unexpected
twists and turns, and the ending is surprising if not shocking. This
is an important contribution to the genre of alternative history,
well-written and insightful. As Jones writes in his preface, ''This
is a fantasy which needs no apology, for who among us has not been
intrigued by the alternatives history never reveals?"
I couldn't agree more.
The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer: A Novel
By Douglas C. Jones
Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y. 1976, 291 pages
the publisher: Suppose that George Armstrong Custer did not die
at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Suppose that, instead, he was found
close to death at the scene of the defeat and was brought to trial
for his actions. With a masterful blend of fact and fiction, The
Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer tells us what might have
happened at that trial as it brings to life the most exciting period
in the history of the American West.
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