Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Reads for Fun: James Donovan’s "A Terrible Glory"

This will be an occasional series in which I write about non-fiction books I’ve been reading for sheer personal pleasure – though inevitably, I also manage to glean a few things for apologetics too. Over our recent vacation, I brought along this one, which is a detailed account of Custer’s battle at the Little Bighorn. 500 pages, including notes. You can tell I like them thick.

I never looked into this event in much detail until I read this book. Popular perception seemed to me to be that Custer was all by himself with his men when they were slaughtered, with no hope for being helped with reinforcements. I was surprised to find out that there were actually many other soldiers nearby, but that for various reasons, they didn’t come to his aid. There was a court martial later for the man held mostly responsible for that failure, a fellow named Marcus Reno who was not only inept, but seriously drunk at the time of the battle. Yikes.

I was also interested to learn that Custer and his wife, Libbie, had a very – shall we say – intensely happy relationship, much like Mrs H and I have. I got glimpses of Custer as a person before this from Harry Turtledove’s alternate history novels, in which Custer never went to the Little Bighorn and survived to become the lead general in World War One (which was also fought in North America, in Turtledove’s version). Turtledove did a pretty good Custer, but he didn’t catch all his nuances, evidently.

There was plenty else of interest as well. Donovan breaks into the background of the conflict, and how the various Indian tribes jockeyed for power with each other. You may also not generally hear that Custer had members of other Indian tribes with him as scouts, but he did. After the court martial, there was also a war of words as various parties vied to defend their reputations, including Reno on one side and Libbie Custer (representing her husband) on the other. It was also of interest to follow all the characters in the account of what happened in their later lives, including Sitting Bull.

A minor lesson for apologetics I got from this book: Donovan has an unusual problem for a historian, inasmuch as he has too many sources to sift through rather than not enough of them. Naturally, some of those sources conflict, and in ways that can parallel ways that the Gospels are perceived to conflict. For example, was Reno carrying around a quart of whiskey, or a pint? Donovan doesn’t resolve the question, but there are many ways it could be resolved. Maybe one set of witnesses was in error. Or maybe throughout the day, Reno carried around different containers. Either way, unlike Gospel critics, Donovan doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater; eg, he doesn’t use these variations to try and claim that, for example, Reno wasn’t drunk at all. And can you imagine some "Custer skeptic" answering solution two by saying that the "Custer historian was just trying to preserve the inerrancy of the accounts"?

It’s also funny to read what happens on Amazon to those few who have reviewed this book negatively. This reviewer sounded like a fundy atheist on the Bible:

As a long-time student of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Plains Wars, this book is a travesty to be sold as well researched, etc. Donovan is so blatantly a Custer fan that he has altered, omitted and colored proven historical facts to portray Custer as a "scapegoat." Do not read this book with the intention of learning about the Battle of the Bighorn. This is like a fictional movie script to glorify a proven buffoon and military criminal.

He was rather decisively put down by two other reviewers who called themselves students of Custer’s history, and asked for details, which the reviewer never came back and provided.
Contrary to this review, Donovan is an excellent writer who offers a wealth of detail on this event in American history which is so often stereotyped as a microcosm of what happened on the American frontier.

Maybe you think I’m weird for reading and enjoying this sort of stuff, but if I didn’t, would I also be able to stand being in apologetics ministry?

Heh heh heh…


  1. Well, I have studied the Custer event for over half my life, mainly because my father studied it and was working on a book when he died. He did write numerous articles on the battle for a historical magazine.

    One thing I can say without a doubt is that Reno was not drunk. That old wive's tale was started as a way to scapegoat Reno, and was disproven long ago, which is why I'm surprised it was brought up again in this book.

    I haven't even heard of this book, so I can't intelligently discuss the details, but I do own numerous others on the subject. What I can say was that even if those troopers who were able to come to Custer's aid had indeed gotten there (and Weir tried), the result would have been most likely even more disastrous. At least were they dug in they had a fighting chance, but Custer's position was in the open. The other theory is that if everyone had followed Weir and continued they could have helped extract what was left of Custer's immediate command, but in reality by that time there wasn't much left to save.

  2. Obviously I'm not expert enough to comment, though I recall seeing in some Amazon reviews that others held to the same view you do.