Friends Of The Little Bighorn Battlefield

The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Interview -- Thom Hatch

Webmaster's Note: Historian and Friends member, Thom Hatch, talks with us about his new book Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer, his craft as a historian, and his future book about the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

March 2014

Bob Reece: I first met Thom Hatch when he spoke at the Friends fundraiser in June 2010, even though we only live about 100 miles from each other and had been trading email for years. Thom is a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, and his military experience serves him well in his writing. During his 2010 presentation for Friends, he presented a no-holds barred view of Custer's Last Stand. He held the attention of our audience, followed by a very robust Q & A. Thom made it very clear to the audience that he is not a "Reno Man."

Thom's books have covered Custer and/or the Little Bighorn, the Civil War, Alamo, Osceola, Butch and Sundance, and Black Kettle. Last December, Thom returned to his roots to recently publish Glorious War: the Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer. Custer is a good subject to start our interview.

It seems Custer is either loved or hated. Why do you think that is the case?

Thom Hatch: Custer is probably the subject of more misinformation, misconception, myth, and fabrication than any other figure in American history. Then you can combine that dubious honor with the silly portrayals of pop culture and the fact that he has become a symbol to certain groups and individuals. Consequently, most people--even historians--do not know the true character and accomplishments of George Armstrong Custer. They rely on those random sources with which they have come in contact to form their opinions, good or bad.

I have learned that Custer has been for the most part judged on one day in his life--the day he died--which has caused a failure to understand the complete man. I base that statement on the response to my book, Glorious War: the Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer. Almost daily, I receive an email from someone who has read that book, amazed by Custer’s true personality, and his prowess as a field commander. They are surprised that the real Custer does not resemble the perception that most people and popular culture have of him.

B.R. That's very true. I'm amazed at how people still form their views of Custer based on the character in Arthur Penn's 1970 movie, Little Big Man. From the multitude of historical subjects you have written about, what or whom have you found most fascinating and most challenging?

T.H. My time spent with every historical figure that I have written about has been priceless. I have truly appreciated every one of them for various reasons. Without question, the most fascinating has been George Armstrong Custer, who may be enigmatic to some but not to me anymore. He was truly an American success story -- a boy born on the wrong side of the tracks who rose through his own abilities and ambition to become one of the most popular figures of his era.

My greatest challenge has been striving to portray each of these characters and their time period with accuracy and creativity so that the reader can sense the flavor of the day and end up knowing my subject as if he or she had been an acquaintance.

B.R. I applaud your ability to not judge historical characters based on 21st century values. How do you decide on the subject to write about?

T.H. Thanks, Bob. Numerous factors determine a subject--the primary ones being a need for the book and a market for it. American history has been saturated in so many areas with books that simply duplicate material already written and add nothing of value to the historical record. With popular subjects, I have learned that there is usually new information available for the ambitious researcher or a perspective that has been overlooked by previous authors and can be interpreted in a provocative manner that creates a fresh approach for the thinking reader.

B.R. Once your decision is made for the subject, what is your workflow in producing a final draft?

T.H. The first element I consider is how to present the material so that it is entertaining and captivating for the reader. Too many history books are so “scholarly,” with the author showing off how much he or she knows, that they are virtually unreadable. History should be thrilling entertainment, not tedious homework. I then proceed with my research from that point and seek out angles of interest and information that may have been overlooked or misinterpreted by other researchers. I will go to great lengths to ferret out the truth and analyze the facts with a military as well as a logical point of view.

For example, I have been questioned for contending in Glorious War that Custer had a significant, if not history changing, influence at Gettysburg. Historians have been comfortable with believing that Pickett’s Charge failed because it simply “melted away.” Pickett’s Charge failed because those 13,000 troops had no support. Why? Because Custer and 2,300 troopers prevented Jeb Stuart and his 6,000 men from striking the Union rear in coordination with Pickett. In studying the scenario accepted by popular history, I thought: would General Lee, the master tactician, be that dumb and not support those exposed men who would be facing artillery fire and an entrenched enemy? So…I started digging. How many historians have read Jeb Stuart’s official report from Gettysburg? Very few--it is 14,300 words in length. I took the time--and believe me it took time--to read the entire report in the official records of The War of the Rebellion. Stuart twice stated in that report that he was trying to reach the Union rear at Gettysburg. Obviously, someone or something stopped him from completing that mission successfully--and Custer was the only one in the way of Stuart. When in doubt, look it up--go where others have feared to go. There are other factors for the Custer-Stuart-Pickett scenario that are included in my narrative, but the Stuart admission is certainly solid evidence that has been ignored.

B.R. Paul Walker tried to make this assertion in his book, Cavalry Battle that Saved the Union, but you do a much more masterful job at making the argument for Custer's role in the last day of fighting at Gettysburg. What would be your dream project to write and publish?

T.H. I have dozens of projects in various stages of completion that inspire me but for one reason or another have not seen the light of day. If I were to choose just one, it would be a Vietnam era novel titled “Casualty Call.” I started it about 30 years ago, and may soon complete the manuscript. I took part in that life-altering period of American history on both sides of the pond--as a U. S. Marine in Vietnam and as a stateside Marine, and then a civilian newspaperman after my honorable discharge. This book reflects my knowledge, observations, and experiences in certain areas that have heretofore been overlooked. I believe that I am uniquely qualified to add a new historical perspective to that era. The reason for presenting my story as a novel rather than a nonfiction work has to do with the range of lasting emotions that can be created by fictional characters as opposed to a more journalistic approach.

B.R. Well, I hope you do finish that novel because there are few great works of fiction about Vietnam. Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn was one of them. While on the subject of writing fiction, let me digress a moment into history on cable television. In February, you appeared in an episode on PBS American Experience about Butch and Sundance. American Experience has a positive record of producing good history for television. Their episodes on Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp were stellar. What are your thoughts about history on television? Are there some better than others?

T.H. Yes, some are definitely better than others. I have been involved in documentaries for both the History Channel and PBS as an on-screen expert commentator and behind the scenes consultant, so I do have some knowledge of the process. To be fair, it must be taken into consideration that the producer and writer of a documentary must educate themselves on what may be a complicated subject within a very short period. That necessity leaves plenty of room for error.

Before going in front of the camera, I spent hours on the phone with the producers of the Butch and Sundance documentary, who were loosely using my book, The Last Outlaws: the Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as a guide. I was impressed at how well they grasped the subject matter, which I believe was reflected in the final product. I have watched too many historical documentaries, however, where the producers failed to do their homework or simply had an agenda that may not have been consistent with the facts or evidence.

B.R. Your book The Last Outlaws was such a fun book to read. Is there another book we can look forward to reading?

T.H. Yes, indeed. I just finished writing the manuscript for The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer: the True Story of the Little Bighorn, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press at some point in the future.

B.R. What can you tell us about it?

T.H. The Last Days is a book of bare-knuckle history--no punches pulled, no holds barred--unrestrained by the shackles of political correctness, or the rants of misguided pseudo-revisionists, and undeterred by accusations of bias or prejudice, where the reader will encounter unexpected ideas, opinions, and conclusions.

This book assuredly is not for the thin-skinned or faint-hearted who cannot handle blunt statements, harsh judgments, barbed-wire criticism, or graphic details, and need their history doled out in warm and fuzzy familiarity. It is time to cast aside the myths and allow the evidence to lead us to the promised land of truth, justice, and the American way.

What was it really like for those cavalrymen who rode with Custer that day? How could such a tragedy have occurred to such an elite regiment? What really happened on June 25, 1876 in the Valley of the Little Bighorn?

The Last Days is the next best thing to having been there.

B.R. I sure won't miss that one, Thom. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.

You can visit Thom online at his website.

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