Offenburger on Williams, 'Custer and the Sioux, Durnford and the Zulus: Parallels in the American and British Defeats at the Little Bighorn and Isandlwana'

Paul Williams
Andrew Offenburger

Paul Williams. Custer and the Sioux, Durnford and the Zulus: Parallels in the American and British Defeats at the Little Bighorn and Isandlwana. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. 220 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9794-2.

Reviewed by Andrew Offenburger (Miami University of Ohio) Published on H-FedHist (July, 2019) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)

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Offenburger on Williams, Custer and the Sioux, Durnford and the Zulus: Parallels in the American and British Defeats at the Little Bighorn and Isandlwana

The defeat of General George Custer and US forces at Little Bighorn (1876) and that of Major Anthony Durnford and the British at Isandlwana (1879) are tantalizing events for scholars of comparative history. Separated by only three years and popularly remembered through a “last stand” interpretive framework, these events offer clear controls and variables to scholars interested in exploring the similarities and differences of US and British empire in the latter nineteenth century. 

James Gump first picked up this comparison for his The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux (1994), a study that has shaped scholars’ thinking on comparative frontier history ever since. More on this in a moment. Paul Williams’s book, published by McFarland & Company, narrates the emergence, engagement, and aftermath of these two battles along parallel trajectories, switching from one to the other within chapters. The most substantive connection examines the lives and careers of Custer and Durnford. The remaining links are fleeting similes in introductory clauses. For example, Williams writes that the Sioux, “like the Zulu, represented a constant military threat to a nation determined upon expansion” (p. 22). More often, though, the two cases are simply separated by a line of three asterisks. At its core, this is a book of parallel narration, not one of analysis.

The only interpretive work is in the prologue, a brief, generalized narrative, four paragraphs long, crafted to describe either military defeat. This sets up the twelve-chapter structure meant to showcase the historical similarities (“The Land Is Ours,” “Deception and Deceit,” “The Impossible Ultimatum,” “The Three-Column Plan,” “The Last Man, the Last Bullet,” and, among others, “So Who Was to Blame?”). Beyond this gesture and the chapter structure, all interpretation is left to the reader. There is no conclusion to wrap up themes, neither resonances nor dissonances.

This book therefore misses the whole purpose of comparative history and why readers would buy such a study in the first place. Without it, we would do better to consult individual books on each setting, many of which Williams cites. As a result, this book lacks meaningful insights offered by Gump in his well-known study of the exact same topic; Gump’s chapter on “Collaborators of a Kind,” for example, delves into how arbiters like Red Cloud and Cetshwayo, in their own contexts, “served as major mediators” working with others who sought “a peaceful transition to political stability and economic prosperity” (quoted, p. 55).

Bizarrely, Williams does not address Gump’s scholarship in any meaningful way. One wonders how such a specialized publication—addressing the exact same comparison—can conscionably ignore a groundbreaking predecessor. The author does cite Gump’s work, including it in 4 of 414 endnotes: once for the quotation in this review’s third paragraph, once for military details (pp. 118-19), once for a poem on Isandlwana (p. 173), and once to quote Walt Whitman’s poem on Custer’s death and the “fatal environment” (p. 148, also the title of Richard Slotkin’s acclaimed book, which analyzes the memory of Little Bighorn in detail).

Yet, considering how this book replicates such a unique approach to the past, one would expect a substantial portion of text—part of a chapter, a section of the introduction, or even a paragraph or two in the main text—to engage Gump’s scholarship. It is as if one were writing about the Great Lakes region and Native American history as a “middle ground” without discussing Richard White (but citing him).

Such an oversight might be excusable in a book that had not gone through the peer-review process; in fact, it appears that Williams had this book published originally as Little Bighorn & Isandlwana: Kindred Fights, Kindred Follies in 2007 by “Phantascope,” an unknown entity using an Amazon-subsidiary print-on-demand service. But the absence of Gump’s The Dust Rose Like Smoke, except for its citing in four endnotes, does make one wonder how this book was approved by McFarland, a press that touts itself as a publisher of academic nonfiction. This, for academic historians at least, is a deal-breaker. Scholars are better off sticking with Gump’s handling of the comparison.

Citation: Andrew Offenburger. Review of Williams, Paul, Custer and the Sioux, Durnford and the Zulus: Parallels in the American and British Defeats at the Little Bighorn and Isandlwana. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL:

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