Monday, February 01, 2010

Custer Survivor by John Koster

Custer Survivor: The End of a Myth, The Beginning of a Legend by John Koster
Copyright 2010
History Publishing Company - NF/History
220 pages, incl. Afterword, Bibliography, and Index

From the cover: It is commonly believed that the 210 troopers under Custer's command were killed to the last man. Careless military reports and inadequate record keeping allowed this belief to stand. . . .

Through carefully detailed research and forensic evidence, Custer Survivor reveals that the five companies were not killed to the last man. One trooper did escape from the deadly encirclement of warriors. He was the Second Sergeant of C Company. Custer Survivor is the story of the man, how he escaped, his ensuing ordeal and the subsequent years of his successful life. This is the book that corrects the record and makes complete the history of Custer's Last Stand.

Well, who could pass up reading about that? Certainly not this book addict and history buff. I knew the bare bones about the battle, but no details beyond the fact that Custer and his men were surrounded by Indians and slaughtered. So, Custer Survivor was yet another wonderful dive into history that I knew I'd enjoy.

I've struggled with reviewing this book because when I've written about Custer Survivor, it seems like I have a tendency to say too much. So, this is actually my third attempt. Good thing nobody is paying me by the hour (or at all -- that's for the FTC and IRS) to write this because it would cost them a fortune. Let me just say this: I thought the evidence was convincing but there's one thing that I thought was glaring in its absence and that is a photo of the man in question as a young army officer -- something with which to compare his features as both a young and older man.

The "forensic evidence" mentioned in the book's description involves documents with signatures by a man named Frank Finkel and a fellow who enlisted in the army by the name August Finckle. It's all explained in the book and I think the evidence is fairly convincing. Frank was too young to enlist; Prussians were much admired and he would make more money if he claimed he was a Prussian officer; Frank spoke German fluently because his family spoke German in their home and he was technically a deserter so he kept his counsel after his escape -- which sounds more like a function of his injured horse running away than an escape, actually, but I suppose that's beside the point.

The author explains how Finckle got away, how his horse figures into the evidence and how August/Frank became a deserter. Plus (news to me), the men who died were stripped by Indians and . . . nasty business . . . scalped, their faces hacked off so that they were only identifiable by body size and shape. All that makes sense. Without identifying features, uniforms and other objects on their persons, it's understandable that someone may have misidentified a body.

The only thing that really seems lacking to me, then, is photographic evidence. There are tons of photos in the book, but none of them show young August Finckle. Not one. When you look at the photographs, you can't help but wonder why on earth there is not a single photo of August, or Frank pretending to be August. It's apparent that soldiers were awfully fond of having their photos taken in uniform, individually and in groups. The author mentioned that record-keeping in those days was sloppy, but surely there is a photo of Company C with August Finckle in the ranks, somewhere. I'd feel a lot more comfortable comparing photos in addition to signatures.

Having said that, I still do believe the author presents a convincing argument for the possibility that a single man escaped Custer's Last Stand. And, I enjoyed reading the book very much, which I suppose is what really counts.

4/5 - Parts were a little confusing, but I found this book very readable and enjoyed the peek into history. Pretty well-written (not perfect, but clear enough) and convincing. Photos and documents add a great deal of perspective, even if the man in question is not shown as a young officer.

A side note of peculiar interest: The author and a man named Michael L. Nunnally have quite an entertaining and heated discussion going within the comment section at Amazon. Both have studied the deadly battle for many years and are a wee bit obsessed. I highly recommend that you traipse over to Amazon's Custer Survivor page to read the discussion. And, then you might as well buy the book while you're there (but I won't profit if you do) because it's awfully fun reading and I'd love it if some of you came back to tell me what you think about Frank Finkel. Was he genuine or just another fraud?

Many thanks to Don of History Publishing Company for the review copy.


  1. Interesting comments that got me going about the book-- I knew there were a lot of (discredited) claims by folks who claimed to be survivors, and was curious where this one "fell out."

    Poking around a bit, I hit an interesting exchange between a skeptic and the author in reviews in Amazon. I was also puzzled by the authors claims for the handwriting experts that seem the core of his book. What does psychiatry have to do with handwriting expertise?

    I was interested that the lack of pictures made you dubious. Did you end up persuaded or doubting?

    btw, I'm blogging from up here in Oxford ( and enjoy your twitter feed....

  2. nmisscommenter,

    Oh, wow, thanks for drawing my attention to the fact that the conversation at Amazon has gone on (and on, and on) since I last looked. There were only 2 comments when I was in the midst of reading the book and 4, shortly after. Their verbal dispute is massively entertaining; I'll have to add a note at the bottom of my review.

    Psychiatry and handwriting expertise -- no idea how those two correlate. I'm guessing the psychiatrist he described is in some way an expert in handwriting, but he never says so in that exchange.

    In the end . . . I feel 95% convinced. The 5% of me that isn't sure is, in part, curious about the absence of photographs and also persuaded that the guy was pretty terrific at lying, at least in his youth. Obviously, he was a deserter -- he was injured but he could have and should have checked in, eventually. An injury that left someone feverish for weeks seems like a valid excuse to disappear for a time, especially in those days. It's not like there was a clinic on every corner. That makes me question why he would choose to go back to his real identity and not mention his army experience for decades. I would have thought the army would be happy to find that there was someone who was present and could clarify the facts, but perhaps he was young enough to imagine he'd be hanged for desertion without a second thought.

    You're in Oxford? Coolness! I love Oxford. Is Mamasita still hanging out in Off-Square Books? I didn't see her, the last time I was in town.

  3. I saw Mamasita on Saturday when I was in OffSquare. My office is just off the Square (it was Phil Stone's law office...)

    The more I think about this, the less convinced I am, but I'd like to see the book. Codgers claiming to have survived Little Big Horn were the basis of Little Big Man. I can't tell from the publishing info whether Square Books is likely to have this one (I doubt it), and it's not likely one I'd order on spec without seeing it, so I may never know.

  4. nmisscommentator,

    Wahoo! I'm so glad to hear that Mamasita is still around. I worry about the kittycats of the world and she's a sweetie. Lucky you, working just off the square. It's a marvelous place just to BE.

    I've never seen Little Big Man. Shame on me. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

    Hmm, I don't know if Square Books would have a copy. Seems unlikely. History Publishing Company appears to be a pretty small press. I have a deep desire for you to read it and come back to tell me your thoughts. "Get used to disappointment, Bookfool"?

  5. We lived in Wyoming when I was small, and Cowboys & Indians were a huge part of the culture. We went to the Little Bighorn Battlefield and Museum in Montana once. The interest in the Cheyenne, the Sioux, all of the Western Indians and their leaders has continued throughout my life.

    Whether the survivor was genuine or a fraud, it sounds like Custer Survivor would be an interesting read!

  6. Jenclair,

    I've only been to Wyoming once, but it was a great experience. Very cool that you lived there.

    Of course, I think you should seek out Custer Survivor so I can hear your thoughts! :)

  7. nmisscommentor (and anyone else interested),

    I just spoke to the publisher and he said it's hard for a small pub to sell to the indie bookstores, but Custer Survivor's available through Barnes & Noble.

  8. And, sorry. I keep getting your name wrong, nmisscommenter. I can spell, really.

  9. Brilliant review, Nancy!! This sounds like a book that I would love. I want to read it NOW, lol!!

  10. April,

    Thanks! I agree. Rush right out to your nearest Barnes & Noble, read it, and then come back and tell me what you think, please!! :)


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