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Custer

Custer

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In this lavishly illustrated volume, Larry McMurtry, the greatest chronicler of the American West, tackles for the first time one of the paramount figures of Western and American history.

On June 25, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry attacked a large Lakota Cheyenne village on the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. He lost not only the battle but his life—and the lives of his entire cavalry. “Custer’s Last Stand” was a spectacular defeat that shocked the country and grew quickly into a legend that has reverberated in our national consciousness to this day.

Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry has long been fascinated by the “Boy General” and his rightful place in history. In Custer, he delivers an expansive, agile, and clear-eyed reassessment of the iconic general’s life and legacy—how the legend was born, the ways in which it evolved, what it has meant—told against the broad sweep of the American narrative. We see Custer in all his contradictions and complexity as the perpetually restless man with a difficult marriage, a hunger for glory, and an unwavering confidence in his abilities.

McMurtry explores how the numerous controversies that grew out of the Little Bighorn combined with a perfect storm of technological developments—the railroad, the camera, and the telegraph—to fan the flames of his legend. He shows how Custer’s wife, Libbie, worked for decades after his death to portray Major Marcus Reno as the cause of the disaster of the Little Bighorn, and how Buffalo Bill Cody, who ended his Wild West Show with a valiant reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand, played a pivotal role in spreading Custer’s notoriety.

While Custer is first and foremost an enthralling story filled with larger-than-life characters—Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, William J. Fetterman, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud—McMurtry also argues that Little Bighorn should be seen as a monumental event in our nation’s history. Like all great battles, its true meaning can be found in its impact on our politics and policy, and the epic defeat clearly signaled the end of the Indian Wars—and brought to a close the great narrative of western expansion. In Custer, Larry McMurtry delivers a magisterial portrait of a complicated, misunderstood man that not only irrevocably changes our long-standing conversation about Custer, but once again redefines our understanding of the American West.
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  • Simon & Schuster | 
  • 192 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781451626223 | 
  • November 2012
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Read an Excerpt

AT ONE TIME A PICTURE called Custer’s Last Stand hung in virtually every saloon in the land, and quite a few barbershops too. I first saw it in our small barbershop, in Archer City, Texas. A painting by Cassilly Adams, lithographed by Otto Becker, was given away by the thousands by Anheuser-Busch, the great brewing enterprise of St. Louis: General George Armstrong Custer, long locks flying, was fighting on staunchly against terrible—in fact impossible—odds. And when he fell, along with some 250 of his men, the world was no longer the same.

Buffalo Bill Cody often used a skit called “Custer’s Last... see more
BY 1876, THE YEAR THE Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought, the United States had become a nation of some forty million people, the vast majority of whom had never seen a fighting Indian—not, that is, unless they happened to glimpse one or another of the powerful Indian leaders whom the government periodically paraded through Washington or New York, usually Red Cloud, the powerful Sioux diplomat, who made a long-winded speech at Cooper Union in 1870. Or, it might be Spotted Tail, of the Brulé Sioux; or American Horse, or even, if they were lucky, Sitting Bull, who hated whites, the main exceptions being Annie Oakley, his “Little Sure... see more
TO SAY THAT THE LITERATURE on Custer—Custerology, Michael Elliott calls it, in a fine book of that name—is large would be to understate by a considerable measure. As a rare book dealer I once owned a collection of Custerology numbering more than one thousand items: scrapbooks, diaries, trial transcripts, regimental histories, publications of learned societies, reprints of reprints, and so on. And this collection was compiled long before the cyber-experts weighed in. It could easily be three times as large today, and the same could be said for the bibliography of Billy the Kid, which is now up there with Napoleon and Jesus when it comes to... see more

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