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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

“The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn”, by Nathaniel Philbrick

496 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670021727

Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn is a masterful account of the battle told from all possible angles and using a variety of eyewitness accounts. As he makes clear throughout his narrative, each account must be weighed against each other in order to reach the most accurate and believable account possible – a difficult proposition at best; just ask your average cop. The title, The Last Stand, as described by Philbrick, has a double meaning: not only was it the last stand of Custer and his command, but it was also the last stand of the native tribes of America. Measures that Congress would not have funded previously allowed the army to mount a vigorous assault and within a few years all but one of the major tribal leaders were living on reservations, the exception being Sitting Bull, who held out until 1881 and even then did not go gently.

Most of the book revolves around the battle itself. Conflicting accounts were produced, it seems, by just about everyone who was in the vicinity, but Philbrick manages to pick his way through these myriad narratives, piecing together a sequential picture of events from concurring versions, educated speculation and what evidence remains – including an archaeological study which found that the Indians had superior guns, in addition to their thousands of arrows. He gives us a vivid picture of the terrain, with its old riverbank hollows and bluffs offering limited and deceptive visibility, and cuts between Indian and Army viewpoints, intensifying the narrative pace and providing a clearer vision of unfolding events. He fleshes out the participants – particularly, but not only, Custer and Sitting Bull – with letters and accounts from their friends, family, enemies, and themselves. Naturally, just as many hindsight accounts took note of omens, prophetic last words, etc., Philbrick looks at the many ways disaster could have been averted, or at least mitigated. There is plenty of evidence that Sitting Bull wanted to negotiate and Custer, though there was nothing he loved so much as a battle, had shown a talent for Indian negotiation.

Misunderstanding, drunkenness, ambition, personal dislike, blunders and overconfidence all played their part at Little Bighorn, and while Philbrick renders no judgments, he doesn’t shrink from expressing opinions. Of the overall commander, General Alfred Terry, Philbrick says:

As Terry would have wanted it given the ultimate outcome of the battle, Custer has become the focal point, the one we obsess about when it comes to both the Black Hills Expedition and the Little Bighorn. But, in many ways, it was Terry who was moving the chess pieces. Even though his legal opinion launched the Black Hills gold rush and his battle plan resulted in one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history, Terry has slunk back into the shadows of history, letting Custer take center stage in a cumulative tragedy for which Terry was, perhaps more than any other single person, responsible.

Outside of the battle itself, Philbrick gives us glimpses into Indian culture and the mood of westward yearning, land-hungry Americans. The Teton Sioux, the Lakota, had made enemies of most other Indian tribes in their own westward push to the Black Hills, a land Sitting Bull dubbed their “food pack” in his refusal to sell it the whites after Custer’s discovery of gold there in 1875. The U.S. army had no trouble enlisting Indian scouts from enemy tribes in its battles against the Sioux, and many of them held personal grudges against Sitting Bull and his warriors.

The Lakota revered war although glory did not always involve killing, but could be satisfied by “counting coup” – that is, touch the opponent with your weapon but not harming him. Philbrick describes Sitting Bull’s gruesome sun dance rituals – hanging suspended from two sticks thrust through his chest wall, having 50 pieces of flesh sliced from each arm – but does not delve into the meaning of these displays, other than to prove Sitting Bull’s bravery and spiritual strength. These sun dance rituals usually led to visions. Which is not surprising after a couple days without food or water, bleeding in the blazing sun. Philbrick does, however, provide copious notes (nearly 100 pages!), an extensive 27-page bibliography, and a through index for those who want to pursue any further particulars. There are also several glossy inserts of photographs and contemporary pictographs showing all the major principals, the land, and various battle depictions.

Masterfully organized and engagingly written, this is a history for anyone who is looking for a description of one of the seminal events of American history by an impartial historian without an axe to grind.

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