The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, from the Gettysburg Retreat through the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 Review


By Adolfo Ovies
El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2023
ISBN 978-1-61121-617-2
Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxx, 352. $34.95

The Boy Generals is the second installment of Adolfo Ovies’s trilogy on the Civil War service of Brigadier Generals George Armstrong Custer and Wesley Merritt as members of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac, from after the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg until Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. In addition, this well-researched endeavor provides a detailed overview of the tactical evolution and eventual supremacy of the Union’s mounted units over their Confederate counterparts that Custer’s actions on Gettysburg’s East Cavalry Field on 3 July 1863 appeared to forecast.

In a broader context, Ovies also emphasizes that gone were the days of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry serving as an auxiliary unit confined to reconnaissance missions, guarding supply trains and the infantry’s flanks, and other subordinate duties. At Sheridan’s insistence, the Union horseman became an independent strike force whose new role was symbolized by their victory over their Confederate counterparts and the death of Major General J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern in May 1864. However, there were also setbacks. As Ovies chronicles (in too much confusing detail for the uninformed reader), Custer’s brigade was nearly captured during a two-day cavalry fight at Trevilian Station the following month.

A consistent, insoluble campaign obstacle that Ovies ably documents was the Cavalry Bureau’s failure to provide an adequate supply of suitable horses, as well the poor condition of the steeds due to battles and other campaign rigors such as inadequate, sporadic forage. For Custer and Merritt, care of the horses complemented their shared obsession as drillmasters and disciplinarians. “For both Custer and Merritt, it was—first, last, and always—about the horses,” according to Ovies (p. 138).

Without question Ovies has portrayed two different personalities, the flamboyant extrovert Custer, who benefited from (if not cultivated) the press, and the reserved, publicity-shy Merritt, who avoided the media. As his first installment noted, Merritt clearly did not “recognize the crucial role of the printed media in the grand scheme of things.” However, even if Merritt did not appreciate the value of publicity, this reviewer reserved judgment pending this second volume on Ovies’s previous conclusion that he “grew to despise Custer with a passion.”

As to the claimed enmity between these acknowledged rivals and their “battle for the soul of the cavalry,” The Boy Generals cites little if any clear primary source documentation such as Custer’s or Merritt’s private correspondence, that of third parties, or of third party memoirs. There are inferred instances, for example: “Both Merritt and Custer pointed fingers of blame in their respective reports on Trevilian Station. If indeed their rivalry had ever been ‘friendly,’ it was now out in the open, and was beginning to smell more like bitter enmity” (p. 253). However, there is no “smoking gun” on this issue in the absence of clear incontestable documentation, private or public.

A more judicious assessment of the interactions between the two boy generals would be Ovies’s observation: “Theirs would never be a friendly relationship, though both, at first outwardly strove mightily to maintain a professional demeanor. That did not last long. It began to show strains, exacerbated by the fact that Merritt held seniority over Custer by the narrowest of margins…Merritt always received the higher command—a fact that did not escape Custer’s notice” (p. 128).

Adolfo Ovies should be commended for his exhaustive, meticulous research that includes several manuscript collections and numerous other primary sources such as official military records. Numerous maps and photographs complement this ambitious effort. However, it will lose the attention and interest of the uninformed reader or subject matter novice due to its excessive tactical descriptions and ponderous space devoted to campaign maneuvers, notwithstanding its useful maps. Ovies would have better served his audience by further condensing his enormous research to retain their interest.

C. Lee Noyes
Morrisonville, New York