Book Review: A Terrible Glory (2008)

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Published on: 2010.09.29

Title: A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn – the Last Great Battle of the American West
Author: James Donovan
Subject: Custer’s Last Stand
Genre: American History
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

“Custer’s Last Stand” is a phrase that’s embedded in the American consciousness and used often. Just last night I was watching a TV show where “Mustard’s Last Stand” was printed on a sign above a mustard display in a grocery store, supposedly a clever joke.

Yet when I came across this book, I realized how little I knew about George Armstrong Custer and the battle of the Little Bighorn.

James Donovan’s history lesson is complete and encompassing, yet still maintains a personal vibe, even recounting casual conversations between the men of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. The author doesn’t waste pages covering the entire history of the conflict between white settlers and Native Americans, but gives the reader enough to understand the situation at the time.

Much of the “situation at the time” was because of the white man’s belief in Manifest Destiny, and Donovan begins his book with a startling quote: “The Indian races were in the wrongful possession of a continent required by the superior right of the white man.”

While this is startling to us today, it must have been the norm at the time, or so many atrocities could not have been carried out.

“Terrible Glory” also introduces the main characters succinctly, without the seemingly endless inclusion of irrelevant information that burdens many histories.

Though early accounts of the Little Bighorn battle ascribe most (if not all) of the blame to Custer himself, this book attempts to show that in reality there is rarely a single cause of disaster. Relying almost exclusively on first-hand (primary) accounts of the events in question, Donovan shows the reader how dozens of factors contributed to the demise of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.

Custer’s own problems attributed, certainly, but the cavalry was also besieged with regular drunkenness, lack of training, lack of regular funding, inaccurate maps, misunderstandings, and a plethora of personal relationship problems.

The book not only tells the whole tale of the days leading up to the battle, and the battle itself, but the months that followed, including the official court of inquiry. It also follows several of the other main characters for the rest of their lives.

Donovan draws no conclusions for the reader, which I liked. He just gets the facts out there and lets you decide.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and read it more quickly than most.

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