Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America

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9780307592644: Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History

From the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, a brilliant biography of Gen. George Armstrong Custer that radically changes our view of the man and his turbulent times.

In this magisterial biography, T. J. Stiles paints a portrait of Custer both deeply personal and sweeping in scope, proving how much of Custer’s legacy has been ignored. He demolishes Custer’s historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person—capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years).

The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many areas overlooked in previous biographies, Custer helped to create modern America, but he could never adapt to it. He freed countless slaves yet rejected new civil rights laws. He proved his heroism but missed the dark reality of war for so many others. A talented combat leader, he struggled as a manager in the West.

He tried to make a fortune on Wall Street yet never connected with the new corporate economy. Native Americans fascinated him, but he could not see them as fully human. A popular writer, he remained apart from Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and other rising intellectuals. During Custer’s lifetime, Americans saw their world remade. His admirers saw him as the embodiment of the nation’s gallant youth, of all that they were losing; his detractors despised him for resisting a more complex and promising future. Intimate, dramatic, and provocative, this biography captures the larger story of the changing nation in Custer’s tumultuous marriage to his highly educated wife, Libbie; their complicated relationship with Eliza Brown, the forceful black woman who ran their household; as well as his battles and expeditions. It casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

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Review:

An Amazon Best Book of November 2015: As with many American icons, we really don’t know much about General George Armstrong Custer. Born poor in Ohio, educated at West Point, where he barely graduated, Custer’s reputation expanded quickly during the Civil War. He was brave, he could lead, and he possessed that “Custer luck.” We all know where that luck ended. Or do we? T.J. Stiles, who won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for his biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, illustrates how Custer, who famously extended his military career by fighting in Indian country, “lived on a chronological frontier even more than a geographical one.” He wanted to be a hero. He wanted to be able to fight with a sword. But he came of age at the onset of modernity—where “the new order was industrial, corporate, scientific, and legal.” Custer represents something to each of us—whether brave fighter or ruthless Indian killer who got what he deserved—but he was flesh and blood, and he lived a real life that was buoyed by ambition and hope and riddled with contradictions. T.J. Stiles’ writing and research is as much hero here as Custer, and it sets this biography apart from so many others. – Chris Schluep

About the Author:

T. J. STILES is the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, winner of the 2009 National Book Award in Nonfiction and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Biography, and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History. A member of the Society of American Historians and a former Guggenheim fellow, Stiles lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and two children.

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