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Posted on May 5, 2010 in Books and Movies

The Last Stand – Book Review

By Jerry D. Morelock

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick, Penguin, 2010, Hardback, 496 pages. $30.00.

Military history fans, some wags have claimed, are like children who want to hear the same bedtime story over and over again. They never tire of reading about the same battles and leaders, even though they may already know the story by heart. That claim is never more accurate than when the subject is Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Hundreds (probably thousands) of books and articles have been written on the subject; yet military history fans seem never to tire of hearing the story … over and over and over again. Part of the appeal of the Little Bighorn story is that the exact actions and sequence of events – although not the ultimate fate – of Custer’s battalion (about a third of the 7th Cavalry Regiment) necessarily remain speculative. No member of Custer’s battalion survived the battle to relate exactly how the disaster unfolded. Indian eyewitness accounts abound, but must be used judiciously and with due regard to a number of troubling aspects: apparent inconsistencies between the individual accounts; the Indians’ “personal” rather than “big picture” battle perspective; a tendency of Indian battle eyewitnesses to tell interviewers what they wanted to hear (or to “edit” their accounts for fear of retaliation if the gory truth were told); Indian battle survivors’ failing memories that seem to merge fact with myth when their testimonies were related (sometimes many decades after the battle); and perhaps most troublesome, the inadequacies of the various interpreters’ ability to properly and accurately translate the Indian oral testimony when it was collected. The groundbreaking 1983 battlefield archaeology by the team led by ACG Advisory Board member and noted forensic archaeologist, Dr. Doug Scott, added much needed physical evidence to help tell the story of the fate of Custer’s battalion; but much of how Custer’s battalion actually fought that part of the battle remains a mystery or, at best, educated speculation. Recently, a very talented “story teller” has published yet one more version of this particular “bedtime story” – and it’s a good one.

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This reviewer’s rather eclectic interests – which include, among other things, studying the Battle of the Little Bighorn and collecting different editions of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick – actually come together somewhat in this latest major book on the much-written about June 25, 1876 battle between the 7th U. S. Cavalry and the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians camped along the Little Bighorn River in south-central Montana. The author, Nathaniel Philbrick, is best known for his award-winning best-seller, In the Heart of the Sea, the true story of the whaler Essex, rammed and sunk in 1820 by a Sperm whale in an incident that became one of Herman Melville’s inspirations for some of the dramatic action he portrays in Moby Dick. In The Last Stand, Philbrick turns from sea to land – although he does not abandon the watery world altogether: he compares the trackless terrain of the West to the vastness of the ocean; repeats Custer subordinate, Captain Frederick Benteen’s comparison of an Army regiment on remote frontier duty to the close-knit crew of a ship isolated at sea; extols the watery exploits of Grant Marsh, captain of the Far West riverboat steamer; and even compares Custer to Melville’s obsessed protagonist, Ahab (“As Herman Melville wrote of that seagoing monster of a man Captain Ahab, ‘All mortal greatness is but disease.’”). The result of melding an award-winning author of considerable narrative skills with one of the most fascinating battles in American military history is a book that makes the oft-told story seem fresh, compelling and exciting.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong CusterHaving studied this battle for many years (including following the 7th Cavalry’s route to the battlefield and walking the ground at the Little Bighorn many times), discussed and debated the battle while walking the battlefield with noted experts like Gregory Michno, W. Glenn Robertson, Louise Barnett and Doug Scott, and having read dozens of books and articles on the subject, this reviewer found no startling new revelations in Philbrick’s version. Therefore, Little Bighorn aficionados likely won’t be surprised by anything in The Last Stand – but they won’t be disappointed either. Philbrick’s superbly written book (466 pages) is a generally balanced treatment of the background, conduct and aftermath of the battle, as well as a mostly sympathetic examination of the main figures on both sides of the battle line – Custer and Sitting Bull. Philbrick is to be commended for his presentation of Custer, the battle’s most complicated and controversial figure, and his examination of Custer’s life strikes a mostly fair balance between what he describes as two conflicting historic images of the “boy general” (the heroic image his parents were most familiar with as portrayed by Errol Flynn in the 1941 film, They Died With Their Boots On, and the crazy, “Custer had it coming” egomaniacal villain image portrayed by Richard Mulligan in the 1970 film Little Big Man, Philbrick’s own first exposure to the Custer image). Philbrick succeeds in presenting Custer’s often conflicting personality traits and complex nature, and he avoids falling into the trap that too many who write about the battle succumb to – presenting Custer merely as a one-dimensional caricature fixed at one or the other extreme of the ‘hero-villain’ spectrum. Philbrick’s presentation of Sitting Bull likewise avoids being that of a one-dimensional, stereotypical “noble savage,” and the Lakota holy man and tribal leader comes across as a real person, subject to normal human foibles, problems, pressures and motivations (not all of them particularly “noble”). Both of these men are brought to life for readers in the pages of The Last Stand, a tribute to Philbrick’s insight and writing skills.

Major supporting characters in Philbrick’s tale of the battle (Custer’s wife Libby, Gen. Terry, Maj. Reno and Capt. Benteen on the Army side; Crazy Horse and Gall on the Indian side) are also examined in sufficient detail to bring these characters to life for the reader and not merely inserted into the narrative by repeating the long standing stereotypes too often contained in other books. Libby’s single-minded devotion to her husband, largely responsible for creating the long-lasting ‘heroic Custer’ image after his death, was not simply due to her genuine love for him; but she saw it as serving a higher purpose (as she told another Army wife, “we are making history.”). Reno was no coward, but he was visibly drunk and alcohol-sodden during the crucial events of the battle. Benteen was heroic and competent – but only when this vindictive and belligerently-cantankerous officer wanted to be. Crazy Horse was not the military genius solely responsible for masterminding the Indian victory; but his example of personal courage and initiative was crucial to Custer’s defeat. Gall was, indeed, a “wolf among sheep” when fighting the soldiers that day, his actions vital to speeding the collapse of the defense of Calhoun Hill; yet it was a fury fueled by the death of his family early in the battle, not the reasoned military response of a tactical ‘troop’ commander calculating the best course of action to defeat an enemy force. Perhaps Philbrick’s greatest criticism is reserved for Gen. Alfred Terry, overall commander of the effort to find the Indians and force them back to their Dakota Territory reservation. A pencil-pushing administrator, not a fighter, Terry was not only responsible for getting Custer back in good graces to lead the 7th in the expedition, his dispatch of Custer to lead an independent command as the expedition neared the Indians’ suspected location – arming Custer with a written order that included a “blank check” provision to use his own judgment, but given with full knowledge of Custer’s aggressive character and track record – as much as any other decision set up the final disaster. When the full extent of the tragedy became known, Terry expended more energy marshalling his evidence to blame Custer solely for the defeat than he ever did in finding or fighting Indians during the entire campaign. Philbrick also exposes the fallacy of Terry’s post-disaster claim that all would have worked out swimmingly if Custer had only followed Terry’s plan and waited one more day to attack the Little Bighorn camp on June 26 – Terry’s lackluster leadership (and the slowness exhibited by Montana Column commander, Col. John Gibbon) unnecessarily delayed the arrival of Terry’s troops at the battle site until June 27 – had Custer delayed his attack until June 26, Terry’s main point in damning the 7th’s commander, it likely would not have changed the battle’s bloody outcome. If there is a “villain” in the book, it seems to be Alfred Terry, an officer who has largely escaped the ire of previous authors of books on the battle.

Philbrick’s handling of the surmised actions of Custer’s battalion after the last white witness (bugler Giovanni Martini, aka John Martin) departed with a final message to the rest of the regiment generally tracks with what is now accepted by most historians of the battle – Custer maneuvered toward the north end of the village, probably split his 212-man battalion into multiple wings, then backtracked to what is now called “Last Stand Hill” as Indians inexorably overwhelmed and destroyed the subordinate elements of Custer’s battalion, bit by bit. Philbrick commendably mines the historical and archaeological evidence to show that the destruction of Custer’s battalion was a relatively long range affair – Indian superior firepower overwhelmed Custer’s troopers (until the very end) not some massed sweep by charging warriors overrunning outnumbered soldiers. The actions of Reno’s battalion, Benteen’s battalion and the pack train, all well-documented by survivor accounts, is covered in detail by Philbrick and makes for a tense and exciting narrative, even to readers who are familiar with the action and know the outcome. As do many other books, Philbrick credits Benteen’s actions with being vital to the successful defense of Reno Hill; but unlike other accounts, Philbrick balances Benteen’s successes with his failures during the Reno Hill fight – his lack of concern for the troopers of his H Company, his inexplicable failure to order them immediately to dig protective entrenchments which exposed them to galling Indian fire and caused unnecessary casualties, his decision to take a nap instead of organizing his company for defense, his petty vindictiveness toward Custer throughout the campaign and the battle. As Philbrick has managed to achieve throughout most of the book, his presentation of Reno and Benteen is balanced, revealing and insightful.

Sitting BullPhilbrick deftly sets the Battle of the Little Bighorn within the broader historical context of the Western Indian Wars, both before the battle and afterwards. In general, this is well done and certainly necessary in order to bring out the battle’s significance and effect on the wars. However, his account of the brutal end of the Indian Wars, the 1890 Wounded Knee tragedy, is perhaps the weakest part of the book. Although Philbrick’s account of Wounded Knee is brief, it lacks the balance he has generally maintained throughout the rest of the book. He largely writes the events as presented by discredited historian, Dee Brown, in the latter’s popular but polemical and one-sided book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (although Philbrick does not mention Brown’s polemic in his notes to this section of his book, The Last Stand presents the story essentially as Brown’s book does, citing accounts that Brown uses). This is especially disappointing since Philbrick’s bibliography lists what is likely the best-researched account yet written of Wounded Knee, Robert M. Utley’s The Last Days of the Sioux Nation (1963). Philbrick seems to ignore Utley’s meticulously documented account (he does not cite it in his notes to this section) that brings out the mistakes made by both sides that led to the appalling Indian and substantial soldier casualties, accepts the premise (largely fueled by sensationalist reporting at the time) that Wounded Knee was the 7th Cavalry’s premeditated act of revenge upon Custer’s killers, completely leaves out eyewitness accounts that it was an Indian fusillade from hidden weapons that initiated the firing, attributes (without supporting evidence) the substantial number of soldier casualties to “friendly fire,” and fails to make any mention of the post-battle effort by the Army after the firing died down to treat Indian wounded and to take them to shelter from the bitter cold. Although Philbrick’s account correctly notes that the soldiers were surrounding the Indians on all four sides in a “box” formation, he fails to “connect the dots” on that telling troop disposition: if the 7th’s field commander that day, Col. James Forsyth, an experienced officer, had intended all along to shoot the Indians, he would hardly have positioned his soldiers in a formation that put his own men in the line of fire. The “box” formation was intended to facilitate disarming Indians, not shooting them down – Philbrick either missed this important and revealing point, or chose to ignore it. Yet, Wounded Knee is only a small portion of the overall book, and his failure to get the story right does not detract significantly from the overall excellence of The Last Stand.

Little Bighorn aficionados may not find that Philbrick’s skilful re-telling of the story reveals any remarkable new evidence, but they will cheer the inclusion of numerous clear and excellently-drawn maps that illustrate every phase of the campaign and battle. The 18 elegantly simple but superbly rendered maps that are included – expertly created by Jeffrey L. Ward – perfectly complement Philbrick’s narrative and allow readers to easily follow the action without undue confusion. The maps are conveniently placed near the text that describes the action that they show, a procedure not always followed in other books. Likewise, Custer/Little Bighorn fans will discover Philbrick’s extensive, comprehensive bibliography to be particularly helpful. The 27-page bibliography contains over 700 entries, virtually all of the significant and important books and articles written about the subject. The extensive bibliography alone is worth the price of the book (a reasonable $30).

Much less helpful to readers was the egregiously awful decision (author’s or publisher’s?) on how “footnotes” would be presented. The Last Stand does not use traditional footnotes or endnotes (i.e. there are no numbers in the text to identify referenced passages), but maddeningly handles the documentation of Philbrick’s scholarship via “Notes to Pages __ to __,” a narrative presentation of the references used to support Philbrick’s text that is not linked to specific footnotes contained in text passages. This makes it exceedingly difficult, not to mention time consuming, to match what Philbrick writes in the main text to the references that he cites to support it. One can only hope that this is not a “trend” in publishing that will take hold in future history books. Our plea to Philbrick or to Penguin Publishers: Please stop this insane method of handling notes!

Armchair General rates this skillfully written re-telling of the Little Bighorn story 4.5 STARS (out of 5).

Author: Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of the New York Times best-sellers In the Heart of the Sea, which won the National Book Award, Sea of Glory, winner of the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize, and Mayflower, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and one of the New York Times’ ten best books of the year. He has lived on Nantucket since 1986.

Reviewer: Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, Colonel, U. S. Army retired, is Armchair General Editor in Chief. Formerly, he was the Director of the Combat Studies Institute (CSI), the history department of the U. S. Army Command & General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. CSI offers CGSC students an elective course on the 1866 and 1876 Sioux Wars which includes a battlefield Staff Ride of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Morelock participated in about a dozen of the Little Bighorn Staff Rides, which included retracing the exact route of Custer and the 7th Cavalry as it approached the Little Bighorn, an examination and tactical evaluation of all the “decision points” as the unit moved to combat and fought the battle, as well as a military analysis of Custer’s and his principal subordinates’ command of the June 25, 1876 battle. Morelock is a life member of the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee, a non-profit organization which has succeeded in preserving thousands of acres of the Little Bighorn battlefield (the majority of the battlefield lies outside of the rather small Little Bighorn National Battlefield boundaries officially administered by the U. S. National Park Service).

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