Book Review: A Terrible Glory by James Donovan

The primary goal in this review was to provide a basic description of the book, analysis of the book, and finally an opinion in regards to its usefulness and quality.  The review discusses the content of the book, and particularly how the historical information along with the author’s ideas contribute to the understanding of the West.

James Donovan, A Terrible Glory.New York: Little, Brown and Company 2008

Book Review by Thomas White


A Terrible Glory is a well researched history of the controversial Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, and the events which led the infamous battle. James Donovan’s significant historical research brings to light a far more complex picture than the classic Hollywood epic which culminated in the emblematic ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ pitting the forces of righteousness, against those of evil. Instead Donovan’s research reveals a far more complex story.  A Terrible Glory presents in its twenty-one chapters a four part epilogue which examines the economic circumstances leading up to the battle, an introspective into the personality of the legendary General George Armstrong Custer, the dissection of what went wrong with the battle, and finally the assignment of fault which followed the battle.  Donavan’s research relates in endlessly fascinating detail the entire story of one of the greatest historical mysteries inU.S. military history.

The first part of Donovan’s A Terrible Glory begins by laying the groundwork for the conditions which existed on the Great Plains during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Civil War had ended, and the thousands of U.S troops were now being shifted west for the purpose of securing the region. Donovan points out that “treaties had accomplished their main goals: the seizure of Indian lands…the avoidance of widespread bloodshed, and the removal of Indians to reservations as far away from emigrant routes as possible”[1]As U.S troops began to amass in force within the Plains region, they also embarked upon a campaign aimed at moving those Plains Indians onto reservations who had previously ignored orders to relocate. General William T. Sherman of civil war fame was tasked with the job of securing the plains.Sherman had no qualms against the complete annihilation of the Plains Indians, and only employed restraint at the direction of the newly elected president in 1869, Ulysses S. Grant, who implemented a policy of peace with regard to the Plains Indians. Grant’s peace policy however was about to change, due to the newly discovered presence of mineral wealth, and the economic Panic of 1873 which resulted in thousands of miners and immigrants converging upon the Black Hills. The Black Hills belonged to the Sioux, and the Sioux had no interest in renegotiating their treaty or selling the Black Hills, and this created quite a predicament for Grant. In 1875 Grant, during a meeting with Generals Sheridan and Crook, decided upon a change in his peace strategy in which Grant secretly ordered the army to no longer bar settlers from entering theBlack Hills.  Donovan contends that following the clandestine plan aimed at allowing settlers to enter theBlack Hills, the administration also gave the go ahead to the army to issue an ultimatum to all plains Indians, which would require them to return immediately to the reservations or be declared hostile.

It was at this juncture that the U.S. Army began to assemble the manpower necessary for the forceful relocation of the Plains Indians back to the reservations if they failed to comply. General Philip Sheridan, Commander of the Division of the Missouri which comprised almost half of the U.S territory, began the selection process of who would answer the call to lead these assembled troops against these ‘hostiles’.Sheridanfor his choices had a number of top ranking officers to choose from, who had been languishing in a stagnant promotion status following the Civil War. Amongst this group was George Armstrong Custer who would come to occupy a prominent position in the scheme of things to come.

George Armstrong Custer, who had finished near the bottom of his class at West Pointin 1861, had earned an enviable reputation as a cavalry officer during the Civil War. Custer had distinguished himself as a “natural combat leader”[2], and was one of only a handful of Generals who actually led their men into battle. Following the Civil War, only three Union Generals were held in higher esteem amongst the public than Custer, Grant (later) President,Sherman (later) Commanding General of Sheridan, andSheridan (later) Commanding General of Missouri Territory. All three of these individuals would figure prominently in theBattle of the Little Big Horn and its aftermath.

Following the Civil War Custer chose to remain in the downsized army receiving assignment with the Seventh Calvary with the reduced rank of Lieutenant Colonel. It was while assigned atFortLincolnin 1875 that Custer was involved in negotiating peace treaties with the local Sioux leaders. It was also during this 1875 time period that Donovan presents a far different image of Custer. Custer, in March of the same year after having discovering that the Standing Rock Indian Agency’s supplies and rations had failed to arrive, offers to feed the agencies five thousand Sioux out of Fort Lincoln’s own reserves. This position of Custer’s as Donovan points out stands in sharp contrast to the famous Indian fighter public image Custer is renowned for. Donovan speculates that Custer’s experience in dealing with the different Sioux leaders at Fort Lincoln during the 1875-76 time period was probably responsible for helping to “soften Custer’s position on ‘the Indian question’, which if it had been anything like his superiors would have called for the complete extermination of the Indian.

Custer also played a unique role in speaking out against the widespread fraud and corruption that had been plaguing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Custer was subpoenaed in 1876 to testify before a congressional House Committee on Military Expenditures investigating fraud and corruption involving the Secretary of War William Belknap and the president’s brother Orvil Grant. Custer’s testimony detailed how the Belknap scheme worked in billing the government twice for Indian Agency supplies, and this damaging testimony resulted in the downfall of both Belknap and the president’s brother.

Unfortunately as Donovan points out “One of Custer’s failings was his inability to anticipate or appreciate fully the reactions of others to his vocal opinions”[3]  Custer as a result of speaking out in the Indian Bureau scandal incurred the wrath of his superiors, including President Grant. As a result of Custer’s testimony, Custer nearly missed his date with destiny at Little Big Horn had it not been for the persistent and direct intervention of General Terry, Custer’s superior. Only through Terry’s direct intervention, would Custer return to action with the Seventh Calvary.

Much has been speculated about as to why the Seventh Calvary met the catastrophic end that it did. In James Donovan’s, A Terrible Glory, Donovan does a thorough job examining the evidence and presenting that evidence to the reader. Donovan points out that following the Civil War the state of the U.S. Army, and especially the Seventh Calvary, was dismal. The reduced army was poorly trained, suffered from poor morale and desertion, not to mention alcohol abuse. The Seventh had not fought in three years, and very few individuals who fought at that time were still around. Further difficulties compounding the make up of the Seventh Calvary was the fact that almost half the men were foreigners and more than ten percent entered service under an alias to hide a dubious past.

The U.S Army’s strategy was to mount a campaign aimed at hitting the Indian’s villages in force before they could scatter, which was in keeping with past protocol. Donovan is clear to point out that General Terry, General Sheridan, and Custer didn’t have any intrepidness about fighting the Sioux, their main concern had always been to find them and engage them before they scatter. Unbeknownst to all three of these military leaders was the fact that Sitting Bull’s growing coalition of comprised of Sioux andCheyennehad been swelling to over fifteen hundred warriors. General Terry’s plan called for a three prong approach by which Custer would drive Sitting Bull’s forces into Colonel John Gibbon’s forces and General George Crook’s forces would then cover the area south of Custer cutting off any escape routes.

Donovan points out that communications problems soon began to unravel that June, as Gibbons had been spotted by the Indians, and Crook’s troop had been mauled at the Battle of Rosebud, a fact that had not been communicated to General Terry. Terry’s main objective was to find the Indians and engage them, and in a carefully worded directive to Custer, Terry states that “the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to impose precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy”[4] Donovan is clear to point out that this last directive is especially important because in it General Terry indicates clearly that Custer can expect a certain freedom of movement. Foremost also in Custer’s mind was the fact that when Indians had been allowed to escape, commanders were chastened and ridiculed. Custer, after realizing that his force had been discovered, did what a commander was supposed to do according to Donovan, and that was press ahead as the attack force, just as he was ordered to do. Unfortunately the results of Custer’s actions require no further comment, except to say that they presented Sitting Bull’s forces a golden opportunity. 

Following the defeat of Custer’s forces at the Little Big Horn the assignment of blame began in earnest. Donovan points out that almost immediately following the battle the assignment for fault focused upon the dead Custer. General Terry would declare that if only Custer had not been so negligent and followed orders, a far different outcome would have occurred. General Sheridan would comment that Custer and his men comprised “an unnecessary sacrifice”[5]; while President Grant would proclaim the massacre as “wholly unnecessary”[6] Donovan is quick to point out though that there was blame enough to be shared by others besides Custer. Gibbon’s for his failure to keep tabs on the Sioux force, General Terry for his ill advised marching route which exhausted his men and caused great delay all rightfully deserve some share in the blame. However, the fact remains that the dead Custer would provide the ultimate scapegoat, and the fact that Custer had spoken out against fraud within the Indian Bureau didn’t earn him any fans from the Grant administration or his cronies. 

Donovan points out that one of the important lessons which can be gleaned from the aftermath of the massacre at Little Big Horn is that circumstances affixing blame are not as clear cut as many of Custer’s detractors would have the public believe. Donovan’s work provides still more material for debate, providing a closer look at Custer the man versus the myth, and all of the mitigating circumstances which led to the crucial battle. Donovan’s writing demonstrates quite clearly that after more than a century, historians are not of one mind concerning the chain of events about the explanation of the Battleof the Little Big Horn and what exactly went wrong. James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory is an extremely well researched historiography that would provide valuable research material to any scholars studying Native American, Western, or Military history.

Donovan makes extensive use of newspapers, periodicals, books, personal writings, written interviews, and court records for developing his research. Donovan also provides added authenticity to his research by his generous use of maps, and photographs which add even greater significance to his writings. James Donovan’s writing style is such that one feels as though they are reading a wonderfully written novel as opposed to a historical interpretation. Donovan’s descriptiveness and telling of history has the ability to transport one in time.

 A Terrible Glory conveys Donovan’s position that a series of circumstances regarding economics, personalities, and a combination of tactical errors led to the controversial outcome of the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, and Donovan presents his argument in a very compelling manner. Donovan effectively demystifies Custer the myth and presents him in a very sympathetic light. His research provides for a much clearer understanding of the shortcomings which were in abundance concerning the U.S Army following the Civil War and how these shortcomings adversely affected the military worthiness of the Seventh Calvary. Donovan also provides very compelling evidence to suggest that the responsibility following the debacle at Little Big Horn should not have been shouldered by one man alone, but should have been spread evenly amongst most the officers involved, and could also be blamed on the lack of readiness of the U.S Army in 1876.  A Terrible Glory provides for a compelling argument that a series of circumstances was the cause of the massacre known as the Battle of Little Big Horn, and not the thirst for glory of one man by the name of George Armstrong Custer.

[1] James Donovan. A Terrible Glory.(New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 22

[2] James Donovan. A Terrible Glory.(New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 46

[3] James Donovan. A Terrible Glory.(New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 108

[4] James Donovan. A Terrible Glory.(New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 180

[5] James Donovan. A Terrible Glory.(New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 322

[6] Ibid

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