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‘Little Bighorn’: Novel depicts a complex George Custer

The Custer Fight by Charles Marion Russell (1903)
The Custer Fight by Charles Marion Russell (1903)
Charles Marion Russell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Little Bighorn by John Hough, Jr.


On June 25, 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in present day Montana, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, along with some 600 men, attacked a force of Sioux,Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors who had left their reservations. Custer had divided his forces. The two battalions under the command of Maj. Marcus Reno and Capt. Frederick Benteen suffered heavy losses, but the roughly 200 men under the direct command of Custer, as well as Custer himself, all died in perhaps less than an hour. The dead included Custer's brother, his nephew and his brother-in-law.

Estimates of the size of the opposing force vary, but the warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse among others, certainly numbered in the thousands.

Author John Hough, Jr. uses the account of the horrific battle to create a story of love, of coming of age and of a young man coming to terms with forces he can’t control. The writing is enjoyable throughout and the depiction of period life convincing without being overpowering.

Eighteen-year-old Allen Winslow’s mother, the actress Mary Deschenes, decides her son needs bit of growing up and direction in his life. She talks a military gentleman friend of hers into hiring him as a “secretary” and sees that he is sent west. His first errand is to escort the sister of the officer’s surgeon from New York to Fort Lincoln in the Dakota Territory. The military gentleman friend is, of course, Custer. He is on his way to fight Indians who have left their reservations and "need" to be brought back.

Custer is a hero of the Rebellion, known for his courage and for his canny ability to turn a battle to victory. He sees himself as blessed with the “Custer luck.” In the meantime, he has made some powerful enemies by testifying against corrupt officers.

Most of the narrative is told through Allen’s eyes. The Custer that emerges is a man whose deep love for his wife does not include fidelity and whose personal bravery is beyond reproach, but who is capable of cruelty that is never forgiven.

Telling much of the story from the fictional Allen Winslow's point of view works well. Winslow is, if not innocent and wide-eyed, inexperienced enough to be in awe of Custer and conflicted about his relationship with his mother. The only sour note is Winslow’s 21st century feelings towards Native Americans. He heads west without a rifle and has to be talked into carrying a sidearm, which he then has to be talking into loading.

This is an interesting and complex take on a chapter of American history that is often reduced to a black and white morality tale.

A copy of this book was provided to the reviewer in exchange for an objective review.