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Book review: Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand

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The Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Custer's Last Stand, took place in Montana on the afternoon of June 25, 1876. Since then, it has become so deeply ingrained in American history and imagination, and so much minutiae has been examined, you'd think it was impossible to find anything new to write about it. What's left for writers today are different ways to place the battle in context, or subtle arguments about who in Custer's 7th Cavalry was to blame for the slaughter. There are also so many conflicting accounts of the details of that day, no one can reconstruct a definitive account of everything that happened. In the excellent The Last Stand, however, Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of acclaimed books of well-researched popular history like Mayflower and In The Heart of the Sea, has produced a riveting book on the intricacies of that day, while adding some new takes on a few elements of the battle. And, lo and behold, he also connects old sources that, if accurate, place Custer's role in a whole new light.

Philbrick's specialty is synthesizing huge bodies of information and then creating a compelling, driving narrative that makes what he's reporting seem brand new again. He did it in Mayflower, offering the wide picture of the Pilgrims' struggle to survive in Massachusetts, and how they fit into the early history of Euro-Native relations. He's done it again here, by treating the battle as a prism of those relations' end game.

For Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (who was always referred to as "General," his Civil War rank), it was obviously the last stand, since he and his entire battalion of over 250 men were wiped out by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Philbrick contends that the battle was also, in a real sense, the last stand for the Plains Indians. They had grown more and more irate over the government's Indian policies, and by July 1876, had allied under the leadership of the remarkable mystic/politician Sioux chief, Sitting Bull. Within a few years of their most complete victory over U.S. military forces, all the major leaders would be either dead or confined to reservations.

Custer had been told by earlier reports that around 800 "hostiles" were in the area. What he didn't, and couldn't, know was that the Sioux-Cheyenne alliance, bolstered by an unknown number of Crow and other tribes who had left federal agency settlements, had brought around 8,000 Plains Indians together on the western banks of the Little Big Horn River, within a couple of days of the 7th Cavalry's arrival. It was the largest gathering of American Indians in one place until that time.

Up to the very last, Sitting Bull was ready to negotiate with Custer, even though Plains Indians thought of the cavalry leader as a ruthless killer who, eight years earlier, had ordered the slaughter of scores of women and children on the banks of the Washita River in Oklahoma.

There would be no negotiations that June 25, however. Custer was determined to raise his public profile with a big victory, or at least keep the "hostiles" from escaping. His career was on the line ever since he had openly feuded with President Grant a few months earlier; and he needed new material for a planned lecture tour, which he saw as a prelude to a run for the Presidency. On the day of the battle, he was also in a frenzy of anger at two subordinates, Capt. Frederick Benteen and Major Marcus Reno, each of whom commanded one of the 7th's three battalions at Little Big Horn. Custer considered Reno a coward, while he and Benteen had shared a virulent hatred for years. He thought Benteen did not respect him, and Benteen thought Custer was an egomaniac with mediocre battle planning skills. Both were right.

Philbrick is a writer with style, and a great narrator who keeps things moving steadily, shifting between the two sides, with backstory folded seamlessly into the drama. His eye for the significant details and minor events, that shed light on both that day and the culture of the times, is a treat throughout. He's careful about lending credence to evidence, but doesn't shy away from controversial stands if he finds enough witnesses to confirm them. Specifically, he gives more credence than most previous historians to accounts from various witnesses who said they saw Custer on the east bank of the river, as Reno's men were being routed in the day's first fight. The implication, if Philbrick's sources are correct, is that Custer was so consumed with prospects for his own glory, he was willing to sacrifice Reno's battalion if he could "mop up" afterward. The sad part of this revelation, if it's true, is that it merely confirms that Custer was as egomaniacal and potentially treacherous as nearly everyone who served with him already believed.

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