Brad D. Lookingbill, ed. A Companion to Custer and the Little Bighorn Campaign. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. 536 pp. $195.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4443-5109-5.
Reviewed by Denis Alfin (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Published on H-War (May, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Historiographical volumes are particularly useful for scholars embarking on research in a new field as well as graduate students preparing to take their qualifying examinations. These compendiums capture the current arguments in a particular field of history and illuminate the way for further research. One such series I grew familiar with preparing for my own examinations was the Wiley Blackwell Companions to American History series. According to the series description, the Companions are designed to be “accessible for the non-specialist, while also engaging scholars seeking a reference to the historiography” and should “tackle one of the major periods or themes of American history.” In A Companion to Custer and the Little Bighorn Campaign, the editor Brad D. Lookingbill and his contributing scholars have succeeded admirably at this first task. They have balanced their essays so that the historiography is inviting to many: the casual reader, historians with a general interest, and finally, the Custer expert. However, Lookingbill might have chosen a more inclusive title to advertise the wealth of knowledge contained within this fine volume.
The first section studies the historiography of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne peoples, with many contributors highlighting the individual style of Northern Plains Indian warfare. Touching a living enemy combatant—known as “counting coup”—served as the ultimate demonstration of prowess for a warrior, while touching or scalping the corpse of an enemy brought lesser honors. Thus, during large battles like the Little Bighorn, some historians have argued that Indian warriors were more apt to seek personal glory at the expense of group objectives. Such individualism on the battlefield reflected the tension between the individual and the group in Plains Indian culture more broadly. While an itancan (chief) had some authority, small bands of men could go out and conduct raids on their own prerogative (p. 21). Kurt Windisch’s chapter pushes back on these arguments, instead insisting that the “Patriot Chiefs”—Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall—provided essential strategic vision to their peoples, and that to only emphasize individual tactics on the battlefield “diminishes their victory” (p. 57). Other authors describe how contact with whites forced the Plains Indians to adapt their individual style of warfare (p. 286).
Section 2 includes five authors who analyze the US Army of the West by tackling the political, social, and cultural issues that molded the regulars of the late nineteenth century. For good reason, Kevin Adams’s monograph Class and Race in the Frontier Army (2009) makes multiple appearances throughout the various essays. Scholars like Adams demonstrate the various ways that life in western army forts often mirrored “the social and cultural milieu of broader late nineteenth-century America” (p. 164). Shannon Smith’s essay provides a fascinating insight into the state of scholarship on women and dependents in the West. Camp laundresses acted as class interlopers who, through their job duties or relationships, could transition from worker to prostitute to officer’s wife. A good deal of the perspectives regarding women come from Elizabeth Custer’s writings and are American-centric, while work on Indian women has been more limited due to a deficiency in sources as well as male-focused ethnohistories. Despite these limitations, Smith waxes optimistic about the direction of the field and encourages scholars to continue to expand on the scholarship of women in the West—both Indian and American.
The heart of this edited volume lies in the two sections that narrow in on Armstrong Custer and the Little Bighorn. Section 3 follows Custer from his time as a West Point cadet through his tenure as a brevetted major general in the Civil War, culminating with his death as a lieutenant colonel at the Little Bighorn. The authors of these biographic chapters attempt to place their finger on the pulse of what made Custer “tick.” One theme runs constant: Custer either struggled to or did not care to understand the psyche of the peacetime volunteer in contrast to that of the Civil War volunteer he had grown accustomed to and it likely impeded his leadership abilities on the Plains. Fighting in the West meant a different war with different men (and women).
Historical interpretations of the Battle of the Greasy Grass have shifted significantly in recent decades, in large part thanks to ethno-historical approaches which integrate Native accounts of the battle. The chapters examining “Custer’s Fight” and “The Aftermath” explain the historiography surrounding Custer’s Last Stand and the subsequent impact of the battle on the Sioux, all with painstaking detail. Other chapters in this section prove less satisfying, as the authors shy away from historiographical analysis and instead lay out their own interpretations of the history. One such essay concludes that “before a new narrative of the battle is written, a historiographical study is sorely needed” (p. 315). Was that not the objective of this compendium? Similar problems arise in the final section, where an essay examining Custer in popular culture provides a fascinating analysis on the cavalryman’s historical role in American media yet contains little commentary on the secondary sources.
Like other books in the Wiley Blackwell Companion series, Custer and the Little Bighorn Campaign will be far above the acceptable price point of most historians. However, for those whose institutions subscribe to the company’s online library, Wiley Blackwell offers what is perhaps the most generous digital access of any publisher. The use of parenthetical citations (used throughout all the Companion volumes) can prove irritating as the authors often do not include a specific page number to assist in further research. Finally, I take issue with the title of the volume. While Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn certainly make up “the pivotal section” (p. 8) of the work, many of the essays reach deeply into a variety of historical fields. Unfortunately, I fear that because of this, scholars outside of military history might never find this wonderful book because they don’t see the relevance. Nevertheless, Lookingbill and his contributors have made their intent clear and executed it masterfully.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Denis Alfin. Review of Lookingbill, Brad D., ed., A Companion to Custer and the Little Bighorn Campaign.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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