Book Review: The Battle of Little Bighorn: A New Appraisal

The Battle of Little Bighorn: A New Appraisal. By Wendy Ann Wallace. South Yorkshire: GB: Pen and Sword Military, 2023. Hardcover, 280 pp. $42.95.

Reviewed by Dan Davis

In the summer of 1874, an expedition by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry explored the Black Hills, part of the Great Sioux Reservation. Custer reported the presence of gold, news that struck like a thunderclap in the economically struggling country. President Ulysses S. Grant approached the Sioux hoping to buy the region. When the Sioux refused, Grant decided to launch a military campaign to compel those not on the reservation to return and force them to turn over rights to the Black Hills.

Three columns set out to find the Sioux and Cheyenne in the spring of 1876. Forces under Brig. Gen. George Crook, Col. John Gibbon, and Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry converged on the Yellowstone River Valley in southeastern Montana Territory. After discovering the presence of a large village under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Terry put a plan in motion. Accompanied by Gibbon, he moved along the Yellowstone River. Custer and his regiment set out through the Rosebud Valley. Terry intended that the two forces would trap the village in a pincer movement. On the morning of Sunday, June 25, under the assumption that his men had been detected, Custer attacked. By sunset, Custer and five companies of the regiment lay dead on the ridges, hills and coulees overlooking the Little Bighorn.

In The Battle of the Little Bighorn: A New Appraisal, Wendy A. Wallace retells this chapter in United States history and one of the legendary battles of the American West’s Indian Wars. Based on decades of thorough research of primary and secondary sources, Wallace weaves together a compelling narrative. She not only recounts the 1876 Campaign, but also the events leading up to it, beginning with the famous Fetterman Massacre in 1866 in present-day Wyoming and Red Cloud’s War, 1866-68 in Wyoming and Montana.

Most importantly, Wallace’s thesis is both new and fascinating. She argues that sending Custer with Terry was a means to an end for the Grant administration. Custer had run afoul of Grant and his military superiors by his congressional testimony that spring and his military future hung in the balance. Aware of Custer’s perceived impetuosity in the field, Grant decided that Custer accompany Terry. If Custer achieved a victory, it would fulfill Grant’s political goal of obtaining control of the Black Hills. Should Custer fail, the administration would have grounds to permanently remove him from command.

Wallace has skillfully added to the expansive literature on Custer and the Little Bighorn. Those both new to the subject as well as seasoned students will appreciated her work. The Battle of Little Bighorn: A New Appraisal will no doubt become a source for debate and discussion in the years to come.

4 Responses to Book Review: The Battle of Little Bighorn: A New Appraisal

  1. Given that there were several columns of troops commanded by generals who out-ranked Custer – all converging on the Sioux/Cheyenne encampment – why would Grant in distant Washington DC – or anyone else for that matter – have assumed that it would be Custer’s column which would achieve – or fail to win – a victory?? The perennial problem here is that we’re so over-focused on Custer and the whys and wherefores of his “Last Stand,” that we’re unable to contemplate any other outcome of the campaign!

  2. Flaws are evident in the review, presumably reflecting flaws in the book and the research for it. For example, neither Terry nor Custer knew of a large village. They knew man natives were in the hicks, but (1) no idea how many nor (2) that they were gathered together. Custer would not have attacked had he know the size of his opponent. The pincher movement was designed to gather what natives they could between them and herd them to the reservations, not to bring in a major battle.
    Assuming this us an example if the revisionist research and analysis behind this book, I will ignore its existence and strongly advise others to do the same.

  3. Red Cloud’s war was unmitigated victory for Sitting Bull. The history of his ascension to tribal primacy is historical record. Obscure but real.

    In 1876, during the summer, he expected that setbacks to the US military would repeat previous success. Life had moved on and this is the real story obscured by history.

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