Book Review: The Last Stand
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, And the Battle of Little Bighorn. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Viking Press, 496 pages, hardcover.
By Philip Armour
The last veteran of the Battle of the Little Bighorn—American or Indian—died in the mid 1950s, and Philbrick’s latest book is a vivid reminder of just how brightly the emotions of those two days still burn. A National Book Award winner, Philbrick is a prolific researcher and first-rate historian. He has done all the heavy lifting for you by distilling the vast body of literature devoted to Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s notorious blunder into 466 taught pages. (The appendices, notes, and bibliography alone are 130 pages.)
Think of the Last Stand as the CliffsNotes version of what really happened in southeast Montana on June 25–26, 1876. Like a forensic scientist, the author studies the evidence and reconstructs the most-probable chain of events that built to the utterly decisive and brutally violent, yet strangely avoidable, conclusion. Custer was but one of many competing personalities jockeying to make a name for himself during the summer of America’s 100-year anniversary. The internal conflicts within the Seventh Cavalry, the national political agendas, and the raw ambition of characters like Brigadier General Alfred Terry, Major Marcus Reno, and Capt. Frederick Benteen are, in some ways, more interesting than the battle itself. In fact, it’s the events that lead up to the actual fighting that shed light on the real story. Why did Reno stop the initial charge? Why did Benteen not reinforce Custer as ordered? Why did Custer hesitate his flanking maneuver?
The result remains the same: 258 U.S. forces killed. But Philbrick presents the who, what, where, when, and why in new light. Technical facts absorbed me, like the inferiority of the single–shot Army-issue carbines, the role of female Native American warriors, and the riverboat, the Far West, that supported troop movements on the Yellowstone River. Also, many of the American troops were born in Europe, and their Indian scouts fought and died with them. Though stirring heroism was displayed on both sides of the fighting, modern readers are reminded that the Sioux and Cheyenne—and Native Americans en masse—lost the war decisively.
Philbrick is sensitive to this irony and to the unique qualities of the drama’s players. Custer’s blinding arrogance and Sitting Bull’s visionary shamanism were no match for America’s westward expansion. In reality, it was Native America’s “last stand” before modernity swallowed Indians whole or, in many cases, passed them by.