Book Review: The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac

The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac

By Adolfo Ovies
Savas Beatie, 2021, $34.95 hardcover
Reviewed by Doug Crenshaw

Adolfo Ovies has undertaken a massive project in writing a three-volume history of the relationship between George Armstrong Custer and Wesley Merritt. The Boy Generals is the first book of that study. Ovies spends considerable time separately discussing the backgrounds of each man, from their early years at West Point through their work as staff officers during the Peninsula Campaign. While both men enjoyed the perks of their positions, each eagerly sought a more active role in leading troops in combat.

The book doesn’t get too far into their interpersonal relationship; that will likely be revealed in upcoming volumes. It does develop their characters: Custer is the flamboyant type, while Merritt is more reserved. But more than that, Ovies shows the transition in cavalry tactics through his study of each man. As Eric Wittenberg says in the foreword, “their personal relationship was a microcosm of the tension between the hussars and the dragoons.” Custer was the “hussar” who preferred the shock and glory of the saber charge. However, with the advent of more modern weapons, the days of the charging hussar were numbered. Merritt was a “dragoon,” a cavalryman who would dismount and use the repeating rifle to good effect.

Ovies’ work is also more than a story about Custer and Merritt. It goes into detail about the development of the Federal cavalry, particularly during the Brandy Station to Gettysburg period. He also delves into the lack of effectiveness of leaders such as Philip St. George Cooke and Alfred Pleasonton.

The book is well-written and engaging; at times it’s difficult to put down. The story of Brandy Station, Aldie, etc. are of interest, but it’s Gettysburg where Ovies’ writing really shines. There Merritt’s role is disappointing. On July 3 Judson Kilpatrick ordered Merritt’s and Elon Farnsworth’s troopers to attack the Confederate right flank. Unfortunately, the attacks were not properly timed and were ineffective.

Custer’s experience that day was quite different. While he had been ordered to move to the South field, David Gregg, a solid cavalry commander, countermanded the order and told him to stay on the East field. There they met J.E.B. Stuart’s massed attack behind the Federal lines. Custer displayed his trademark personal bravery and hussar style, and the bluecoats stopped the Confederate attack. Ovies’ writing on the actions of this day is riveting.

If you are interested in the story of the Federal cavalry, this book is for you. Following the development of the Federal cavalry will be interesting, as will the relationship between Merritt and Custer. I know I am eagerly waiting for the second volume.

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