by Daniel T. Davis
I’ve always been fascinated with George A. Custer. As a second grader, I watched the film They Died With Their Boots On. While far from historical fact, it appealed to my imagination. When Kris White and Chris Mackowski launched Emerging Civil War, it was a foregone conclusion that my first post would focus on Custer’s career.
The idea of writing a book on Custer was also my first thought when the Emerging Civil War Series launched. After Phill Greenwalt and I finished Bloody Autumn, I turned my thoughts toward a Custer book, although it was on the back burner as I worked on other projects. There are many excellent biographies available on Custer, and I needed to make the narrative fit within the series. This came through a number of discussions with Chris. I decided not to write a book that covers Custer’s life chronologically but shape the narrative to focus on critical events during his Civil War career. At the same time, I address the event of his life, the final day at the Little Bighorn, but the focus remains on the years of 1861-1865.
The journey of the book, not just writing and editing, but travel was one of the best aspects of the project. I went from Williamsburg on the Virginia Peninsula to the banks of the Yellowstone in Montana and on to Last Stand Hill. Much of the time was with my lovely and supportive wife, Katy, to whom the work is dedicated. (You can read about those travels here and here.)
Custer is an incredibly complex individual. He walked this earth for 36 years—in fact, his birthday is tomorrow—but is remembered for the last 48 hours of his life. Criticism of his actions are certainly warranted, but I wanted to produce a narrative that explained the “what” and the “why” to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. I hope I was able to bring a fresh perspective to Custer and, in doing so, potentially spark a new thought that leads to further study, similar to what Errol Flynn did for me as a child.
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Editor’s Note (from Chris):
We have a lot of ground left to cover in the ECW Series, but we’re already aware that, at some point, we’ll run out of battles to write about. So, we started thinking about ways we could extend the life of the series while still providing valuable, interesting content (rather than fluff, like a TV series that has overrun its heyday and keeps limping along).
The ECW guidebooks—like No Turning Back, Last Road North, To Hazard All, and Embattled Capital—seemed like one good path forward. The tour sections of our books remain a strength, and the guidebooks make a logical extension of that.
We also started looking at compelling stories that weren’t necessarily battle-focused. The Aftermath of Battle and Grant’s Last Battle are good examples of great stories (and, for not being battle-focused, I just notice they both have “battle” in the title–hmmm). We have a couple of those now in the works.
Biographies also seemed like a natural way to expand. Custer seemed like a good candidate for testing those waters. Yes, he was a widely known person, so if anyone could support an ECW-style biography, it would be George Armstrong. More importantly, though, Dan Davis was truly passionate about Custer as a subject. Custer fascinated him. Knowing Dan’s great work as a historian, I knew his Custer interest would translate well into book form.
We wanted to keep a Civil War focus for the biographies, although necessarily the bios would have to get each character to the war and then carry them onward after the war. The war needed to be the meat-and-potatoes, though. With Custer, of course, he’s best known for the last hours of his life, so that was an elephant in the room. Dan used the Little Bighorn as bookends for framing Custer’s wartime service in a way that proved illuminating. It also brought Dan into the story at the end, which served as an excellent way to bring the whole project home in a lovely way that, again, illuminated Custer’s story.
Dan’s work with Custer really showed the way for how bios could fit well into the ECW Series.
The Most Desperate Acts of Gallantry: George A. Custer in the Civil War
by Daniel T. Davis
Savas Beatie, 2019
Click here for more about the book, including a book description, reviews, and author bio.
Click here for the audiobook, read by Bob Neufeld.