Book Review: "A Terrible Glory"

2008-06-21T23:00:00Z Book Review: "A Terrible Glory"CHRIS RUBICH Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
June 21, 2008 11:00 pm  • 

After 132 years, most events are long forgotten. But the Battle of the Little Bighorn continues to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to Montana each year and to stir imaginations.

It also generates heated debate about just what happened and why.

Many books - of wildly varying quality - try to provide answers about the 1876 battle that led to the deaths of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his troops.

James Donovan's new work, "A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - The Last Great Battle of the American West," stands out in this crowded literary field. He brings together the style of a novel with solid research.

The text covers 398 pages, and the book has an additional 16 slick pages of historical photographs. But Donovan also includes more than 100 pages of notes providing additional information or citing sources plus bibliography.

That attests to the scholarship behind the work but also frees the author to present lots of information in a far more readable fashion than many historical works.

Donovan begins his story decades before the battle and covers the history behind both the military and tribal experiences leading up to the last great battle of the Indian Wars. This provides good background to help newcomers to the topic understand the personalities and motives behind actions. For those familiar with the events, Donovan incorporates documents that have surfaced in recent years to shed new light.

Award-winning historian Robert M. Utley notes, "James Donovan's 'A Terrible Glory' is exemplary. The research into first-hand sources is broader and deeper than I have ever seen."

That's high praise from the author of a noted biography of Sitting Bull.

And it's deserved.

Yes, Custer and his decisions are a key focus of the book, but he's only a part of a much greater whole.

Donovan lets readers see the man whose personality made him the targets of courts martial and jealousy, fierce loyalty and bitter detraction from those whom he led. Those are balanced against his skills as a marksman and his record of success.

But the book also reveals tribal leaders Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and others on a human level with family interactions as well as in their leadership roles. Donovan clearly documents what, even beyond the loss of their lands and ways of life, kept many Indians off the reservation.

He writes of broken treaties, corrupt officials and whites attacking innocent tribes to avenge the actions of others.. Inadequate supplies played a key role in forcing some Indians to leave the reservations in warm weather and link up with the off-reservation warriors in search of food, swelling the forces found by the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.

The Army troops were under-trained, undermanned and undersupplied. Rivalries, even hatred within the officer corps, colored decisions, as did officers' disbelief at information from their own scouts. Even President Ulysses Grant's anger at Custer's role in the corruption probe of his White House had a role leading up to and after the battle.

The book gives a rare look into details of the cover-up by the Army after the headline-grabbing military defeat in which leader after leader ignored orders or failed to follow standard procedures or may even have been inebriated while in command under fire.

Maj. Marcus "Reno had made a round or two of the lines but had spent most of the time in his bedding," Donovan writes of Custer's second-in-command's actions while fighting an action not far from where Custer made his last stand.

Reno, whiskey bottle in hand, came out of his sheltered site to walk the camp only after nightfall.

In comparison, the author writes, Capt. Frederick Benteen "had strolled the line oblivious to the rain of enemy fire, encouraging the men and helping them gauge firing distance."

But Donovan also relates how Benteen despised Custer and "offered outright lies, abundant sarcasm, and frequent obfuscation, all with a degree of wit," before a military court years later.

Coverage of the court testimony is fascinating and shows much of the personalities and problems at hand.

It's also one of the special strengths of Donovan's book as he looks at the aftermath of the battle and its effect on individuals, the military, the tribes and the nation.

A virulent stew of hubris, inexperience, misunderstanding of other cultures and misinformation overflowed into disaster. And Donovan puts it all into perspective without the biases of so many works about the battle's events and personalities.

Contact Chris Rubich at crubich@billings.com or 657-1301.

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