Custer's Trials: Book summary and reviews of Custer's Trials by T.J. Stiles

Custer's Trials

A Life on the Frontier of a New America

by T.J. Stiles

Custer's Trials by T.J. Stiles
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2015
    608 pages
    Genre: Biographies & Memoirs

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Book Summary

From the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, a brilliant new biography of Gen. George Armstrong Custer that radically changes our view of the man and his turbulent times.

In this magisterial biography, T. J. Stiles paints a portrait of Custer both deeply personal and sweeping in scope, proving how much of Custer's legacy has been ignored. He demolishes Custer's historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person—capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years).

The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many areas overlooked in previous biographies, Custer helped to create modern America, but he could never adapt to it. He freed countless slaves yet rejected new civil rights laws. He proved his heroism but missed the dark reality of war for so many others. A talented combat leader, he struggled as a manager in the West.

He tried to make a fortune on Wall Street yet never connected with the new corporate economy. Native Americans fascinated him, but he could not see them as fully human. A popular writer, he remained apart from Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and other rising intellectuals. During Custer's lifetime, Americans saw their world remade. His admirers saw him as the embodiment of the nation's gallant youth, of all that they were losing; his detractors despised him for resisting a more complex and promising future. Intimate, dramatic, and provocative, this biography captures the larger story of the changing nation in Custer's tumultuous marriage to his highly educated wife, Libbie; their complicated relationship with Eliza Brown, the forceful black woman who ran their household; as well as his battles and expeditions. It casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

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Book Awards

  • award image Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music, 2016

Reviews

Media Reviews

WINNER 2016 - Pulitzer Prize for History
FINALIST 2016 - National Book Critics Circle Awards
FINALIST 2016 - California Book Award
FINALIST 2016 - Mark Lynton History Prize
LONGLIST 2016 - Plutarch Award
WINNER 2016 - Western Writers of America Golden Spur Award
WINNER 2016 - William H. Seward Award for Excellence in Civil War Biography
FINALIST 2015 - Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History


"Starred Review. Confidently presenting Custer in all his contradictions, Stiles examines the times to make sense of the man—and uses the man to shed light on the times." - Publishers Weekly

"Stiles doesn't disappoint with this powerful, provocative biography… A highly recommended modern biography that successfully illuminates the lives of Custer and his family as part of the changing patterns of American society." - Library Journal

"A warts-and-all portrait... Stiles digs deep to deliver genuine insight into a man who never adapted to modernity." - Kirkus Reviews

"If anyone could make a reader forget Custer's last stand, at least for a few hundred pages at a time, it would be T.J. Stiles… Stiles is a serious and accomplished biographer, but he is more than that. He is a skilled writer ... a story that is illuminating and, at its best, captivating." - The New York Times Book Review

"Epic, ambitious… [Stiles] scrupulously avoids caricature… Stiles's accomplishment is to show that, within the context of Custer's life, the Battle of Little Bighorn really was an epilogue." - The Wall Street Journal

"[This] sympathetic biography attempts to demythologize and reassess a complicated figure… Stiles captures his subject with verve." - The New Yorker

"In this deft portrait, Stiles restores Custer as a three-dimensional figure… [Stiles's] prodigious knowledge of 19th-century institutions is on display throughout Custer's Trials. He is able to situate Custer in the shifting culture of the Civil War and its aftermath in a way no other biography has achieved… Stiles's Custer is life-size." - The Washington Post

"This energetic biography puts emphasis on the years in between Custer's Civil War heroics and his infamous Last Stand. Stiles is neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic in his treatment of Custer's profound need for attention." - The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Riveting… [Stiles] has given us a different way to look at the flesh-and-blood man and his times." - Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Stiles portrays a complex and deeply flawed man... Stiles' biography is a long, detailed, well-researched but highly readable account." - The Denver Post

"Engaging… A teeming portrait of the birth of modern America—and a gripping account of Custer's role in it." - San Jose Mercury News

"A nuanced, complex and convincing portrait of the man." - San Francisco Chronicle

"Rousing… An immersive, emphatic, bloody and very assured book." - Newsday

"A good and meaty biography." - Christian Science Monitor

"T.J. Stiles portrays Custer in the context of his time, and the man who emerges is much more than merely a martyr or a fool…. [Stiles] goes furthest in exploring [Custer's] contribution to Union victory during the Civil War and the difficulties he faced adjusting to the world that he helped to create." - The Daily Beast

"[Stiles's] biography is thorough, engrossing and fair. Custer is seen as a man wearing many faces, some good, some not. The author has done a commendable job drawing out from other sources to write a balanced account of a misunderstood historical figure. A+ read." - San Francisco Book Review

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T. J. Stiles is the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, winner of the 2009 National Book Award in Nonfiction and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Biography, and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, which won the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship. A member of the Society of American Historians, he wrote his latest book, Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, with the assistance of a Guggenheim fellowship. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and two children.

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