Bugles in the Afternoon
“White men have fought each other since the beginning of time. Red men have fought each other. Now the races fight. Well, we’re in the hands of history, and history is a cruel thing,” aptly summarizes this well-plotted, classic western tale about the Seventh Cavalry’s preparation for and experience at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against the Dakota Sioux.
Kern Shafter, newly returning to military life and exposure of a dark secret, joins the Seventh Cavalry, only to find his nemesis, Lieutenant Edward Christian Garnett. Each man eagerly awaits the opportunity to destroy the other while vying for the acceptance of a woman, Josephine Russell – who elicits their devotion yet deepens their mutual animosity. Her reactions to both men force them to face their lack of trust in both themselves and all women. In between courting her, they participate in cavalry training, drinking, card playing, and serious brawling.
Haycox parallels their story with that of General Custer, whose rash behavior earns him more enemies than friends and awaits a redemptive chance to bring glory to himself and his men. Since the Sioux Indians are finally rebelling against being evicted from their reservations, all America expects a decisive conflict in the coming spring. The gradual portrayal of Custer’s character increases the troops’ and readers’ dread of what will be a disastrous, unpreventable outcome.
Haycox, renowned for his well-documented western novels, portrays Custer’s refusal to follow orders, his desire to shape history his own way, and another officer’s weakness, which shape a disaster that the narrator recounts with riveting, detailed pathos. This is a superb novel, exemplifying the carefully crafted account of a momentous historical event.