The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

( 236 )

Overview

"An engrossing, thoughtfully researched, and tautly written account of a critical chapter in American history." -Los Angeles Times

With a fantastic body of work that includes In the Heart of the Sea and Pulitzer Prize finalist Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick has emerged as a historian with a unique ability to bring history to life. The Last Stand is Philbrick's monumental reappraisal of the epochal clash at the Little Bighorn in 1876 that gave birth to the legend of Custer's Last...

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Overview

"An engrossing, thoughtfully researched, and tautly written account of a critical chapter in American history." -Los Angeles Times

With a fantastic body of work that includes In the Heart of the Sea and Pulitzer Prize finalist Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick has emerged as a historian with a unique ability to bring history to life. The Last Stand is Philbrick's monumental reappraisal of the epochal clash at the Little Bighorn in 1876 that gave birth to the legend of Custer's Last Stand. Bringing a wealth of new information to his subject, as well as his characteristic literary flair, Philbrick details the collision between two American icons- George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull-that both parties wished to avoid, and brilliantly explains how the battle that ensued has been shaped and reshaped by national myth.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A master storyteller's vivid take on "one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history."In the centennial year of 1876, President Grant, intentionally slighting George Armstrong Custer, placed General Alfred Terry in command of the Seventh Cavalry's campaign to force Sitting Bull's Sioux and Cheyenne followers out of the Black Hills and onto reservations. For Custer, the country's most famous Indian fighter, a greater indignity awaited. Philbrick fans, accustomed to his invigorating treatments of American history, will happily recognize an unaltered talent for fresh insight as he tackles one of the most written-about events ever: the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The author opens with an unexpected story about the riverboat journey of legendary pilot Grant Marsh up the Missouri and Yellowstone tributaries to provision the Seventh Cavalry and closes by following the harrowing return in the battle's aftermath that carried wounded soldiers to the Dakota Territory's Fort Lincoln. Philbrick (Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, 2006, etc.) dwells instructively on the importance of the strikingly peculiar landscape-the rolling hills, depressions, heat and dust that contributed so mightily to the usual fog of war. The author frankly acknowledges the difficulty of piecing together the battle's details, weighing contemporaneous accounts against those collected well after, resolving repeated inconsistencies as to how it unfolded. He establishes confidence in his judgments, however, by his meticulous portraits of the chief antagonists, rejecting caricatures of Custer, from blameless martyr to vainglorious fool, and of Sitting Bull, from murdering savage to Native-Americansaint. Philbrick supplements his nuanced appraisal of each man-they had surprising similarities-with deft depictions of subordinate players, including the drunken Major Reno, the brave but vindictive Captain Benteen and the calculating Terry, more responsible than any single individual, the author persuasively argues, for the calamity. A stirring, perceptive retelling of an endless fascinating battle. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky/Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency
Publishers Weekly
Philbrick here takes on an oft-told tale, replete with its dashing, flawed main character, its historically doomed, noble Native chief, and a battlefield strewn with American corpses. While off his usual stride with a surfeit of unnecessary detail, bestselling author and National Book Award–winner Philbrick (In the Heart of the Sea; The Mayflower) writes a lively narrative that brushes away the cobwebs of mythology to reveal the context and realities of Custer's unexpected 1876 defeat at the hands of his Indian enemies under Sitting Bull, and the character of each leader. Judicious in his assessments of events and intentions, Philbrick offers a rounded history of one of the worst defeats in American military history, a story enhanced by his minute examination of the battle's terrain and interviews with descendants in both camps. Distinctively, too, he takes no sides. In his compelling history, Philbrick underscores the pyrrhic nature of Sitting Bull's victory—it was followed by federal action to move his tribe to a reservation. 32 pages of b&w photos, 18 pages of color photos, 18 maps. (May 4)
Booklist
[A] compellingly readable rendition of the famous battle . . . that should rivet [Philbrick's] audience.
Library Journal
After 2006's eye-opening account of the fanatical Pilgrims in Mayflower, Philbrick tackles another American legend. Neither the golden-haired general nor the Indian chief here is the bloodthirsty warmonger often portrayed in other accounts. Both are top soldiers and natural leaders zealously looking out for their respective peoples' interests. There have been so many contrasting accounts from both sides over the years that's it's difficult to get a truthful picture of what transpired on June 25, 1876, along the banks of the Little Bighorn River. There was also such infighting and backstabbing among Custer's senior officers that even their accounts are highly suspect. Philbrick therefore incorporates multiple perspectives for a very round portrait of events. Custer's fatal errors were in divvying up his already meager lot of mostly inexperienced troops into smaller units for a multiangled attack and launching an assault without first appraising the behemoth enemy force. VERDICT More than a detailed chronology of events—at which it excels—this book is an in-depth portrait of the two combatants—it's Sitting Bull's story as much as Custer's. Both shared tragic and triumphant lives indelibly woven into the fabric of American lore. Philbrick humanizes history, not only putting a recognizable face on the players in one of our nation's most notorious events but also providing insight into their hearts and minds. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/10.]—Mike Rogers, Library Journal
The Barnes & Noble Review

"More than anything else, he wanted to be remembered." That's how Nathaniel Mayflower) Philbrick sizes up George Armstrong Custer toward the end of The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and The Battle of The Little Bighorn, and no one will dispute that America's ultimate glory hound got his wish. Too bad the victorious Lakota and Cheyenne weren't feeling respectful after wiping out his command in what's now Montana on June 25, 1876. They not only punctured the dead Custer's eardrums because he "wouldn't listen," but -- in a detail long suppressed by decorum -- jammed an arrow up the corpse's penis.

Only his own folly was to blame. But to quote an American poet (well, he was) named Ronald Reagan, who in 1941 played the young Custer opposite Errol Flynn's J.E.B. Stuart in the wildly implausible Santa Fe Trail, facts are stupid things. Idealized in the Budweiser promotional lithograph that once decorated the nation's saloons, restaged to gallant or belittling effect in too many movies to count, the prairie Götterdämmerung we know as "Custer's Last Stand" has endured, above all, as an iconic American image. It's the perfect middle panel in an imaginary triptych whose bookends are Washington crossing the Delaware and the flag-raising on Iwo Jima.

But the larger enterprises the other two symbolize are less morally iffy, which is why Custer's main contribution to winning-of-the-West triumphalism was providing it with a martyr. For 19th-century audiences, Sitting Bull's morose participation in the reenactments that climaxed Buffalo Bill's hugely popular Wild West show in the 1880s must have seemed like the equivalent of the real Pontius Pilate performing in a passion play.

Today, Custer has long since become an embarrassment to educated white Americans. But the effort we've put into debunking him amounts to admitting we're stuck with him. From the Goldilocks hairdo he'd actually rid himself of before Little Bighorn to the final, almost certainly inaccurate, tableau of The Last White Man Standing as the "hostiles" close in, he's the horse's ass we rode in on.

Unsurprisingly, the Custer literature is huge. An online search tosses up almost twice as many titles as there are books on the Titanic's sinking -- another shock, as Philbrick notes, that also caused a society "drunk on its own potency and power" to "wonder how this could have happened."

Part of both disasters' fascination is how much we know about everything but the climax. Events aboard the Titanic after the lifeboats left are as mysterious as the last moments of Custer and the men who died with him after he pulled off his hat, shouted "Hurrah, boys, we've got them!" and vanished from non-hostile sight. That's despite plenty of firsthand testimony from, so to speak, the iceberg, since the many Indian accounts of the battle have a maddening way of giving short shrift to white people's priorities in the questions they leave unanswered.

Philbrick's research seems to have led him to some tantalizing new finds, but how much The Last Stand adds to the agreed-on facts is a judgment best left to those most steeped in the lore. As literature, it isn't in a class with the most acclaimed of all Custer books: Evan S. Connell's 1984 Son of The Morning Star, to which Philbrick pays due tribute in his notes. Yet Connell's treatment of the material was primarily a triumph of style, and his saturnine reductiveness had a grating side. Less ostentatiously aestheticized and more compassionate, Philbrick's account is a better introduction for readers who want a clear picture of what happened and why we obsess about it.

One of his assets is his unprejudiced curiosity about the main players' psychologies. The snideness afforded by hindsight isn't his thing. His gift for narrative organization lets him weave in asides and biographical nuggets that add context without blurring the complicated sequence of maneuvers and decision-making leading up to the final debacle, all the way from Washington -- where the master plan to subdue the recalcitrant Sioux was hatched -- to Custer's reckless idea of dividing his command in three to attack an enemy camp whose strength and even location he hadn't properly reconnoitered.

Another virtue is Philbrick's concentration on how Custer's last campaign must have registered as experience. We're kept vividly aware of the confusing topography, the thirst, heat and stench, the wearisome fussing with horses and equipment, the loneliness of the whole situation. This first-rate popular historian is primarily known for his seafaring books; indeed, The Last Stand is the first time he's ventured this far from salt water. But that background turns out to be unexpectedly good preparation for understanding "two self-contained and highly structured communities" on the move in an otherwise desolate landscape: the Seventh Cavalry and the Native American tribes gathering on the Little Bighorn.

By 1876, Custer was a renowned enough Indian fighter to have published a bestselling autobiography two years earlier: My Life on The Plains, renamed "My Lie on The Plains" by one skeptic who'd served under him. But after the laurels he'd won as the Civil War's youngest and most dashing model of a modern major general, his reduced peacetime rank and constricted room for initiative left him chafing. Mistrusted by his superiors, he had even more fractious relations with two of his subordinates: Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, who didn't much like each other either. This was fateful, since Reno and Benteen were in charge of the Seventh Cavalry's other two columns once Custer's contingent rode off.

Both of them are fascinating figures in their own right. Reno has often been faulted for cowardice, but Philbrick blames the bottle instead. That's something of a chicken-and-egg question, given Reno's behavior at Little Bighorn. Not only was he too drunk during most of the battle to exercise command more than feebly, but he recuperated afterward by buying (and, presumably, downing) "an astonishing eleven gallons of whiskey over a twenty-two-day period."

A hard drinker himself, Benteen -- the source of the "My Lie on The Plains" crack -- was a very different kettle of fish otherwise. Cantankerous and sardonic, he saw himself as a hard-boiled professional disgusted by Custer's "pretentious silliness." Yet his chilling satisfaction at the sight of Custer and his inner circle dead on the field -- "The Lord, in His own good time, had at last rounded the scoundrels up" -- has a touch of Iago. "In Russia," Benteen once bragged, "they'd call me a Nihilist sure!"

Custer's plan was apparently to duplicate his success eight years earlier against Black Kettle's Cheyenne band on the Washita, one of those engagements white people called a battle and Indians called a massacre. Splitting his command then as now, he'd destroyed the Indians' village -- populated mainly by women and children -- and devastated their pony herd, then gotten away before their warriors could hit him back.

We have one unmatched authority's word for it that he came amazingly close to doing it again. "We thought we were whipped," Sitting Bull said, recalling the moment when Custer's men were first spotted riding toward the valley sheltering the Indian camp's vulnerable noncombatants.

It didn't work out that way. Meant to support Custer's attack, Reno's own bungled charge had been repulsed. That panicked him and his men into a retreat that became a skedaddle before the survivors took refuge on a promontory known today as Reno Hill. Meanwhile, Benteen, sent with his three companies by Custer on an expedition with no recognizable purpose except to cheat him of his share of the expected glory, had turned back from his fool's errand even before getting a message from Custer to "Come quick." The last communication from him, it was brought by a lucky bugler named Martin or Martini.

Far from "coming quick," Benteen didn't come at all after finding Reno. In retrospect, this was probably sensible. Not only did Benteen have no idea what he'd have been riding into, he and Reno were soon surrounded and fighting for their lives. But considering that Benteen's deepest grudge against Custer was a suspicion that he'd abandoned another officer to a lonely death at the Washita back in 1868, his refusal to even try going to Custer's aid is arresting.

In fact, any self-respecting Elizabethan would milk that moment for a "Fair brain, foul heart" soliloquy, especially since the gunshots and dust clouds in the distance were making it likely Benteen's C.O. had run into more than he'd bargained for. The appearance early on June 26 of a large number of Lakota and Cheyenne braves dressed in cavalry uniforms whose former owners had no further use for them was an even more definite hint.

Ironically, the fight on Reno Hill, once Sitting Bull's warriors got done dispatching Custer and encircled the Seventh Cavalry's remainder, was the part of the Battle of Little Bighorn that does qualify as a "stand." But not a last one, since a relief column rescued Reno, Benteen, and their men late on June 26. With a wealth of survivors' reports to draw on -- just what's lacking in Custer's case, obviously -- The Last Stand's minute-by-minute account of their ordeal is packed with memorable images and incidents, from the hiss of escaping gas as fresh bullets strike a horse's bloated body to one wounded trooper's attempt to take a canteen of precious water at gunpoint. Only then does Philbrick turn back to Custer's fate.

Contradicting the folklore, the odds are good that whatever happened was unheroically over in all of 20 minutes. Viewing the scattered dead on June 27 ("You could take a handful of corn and scatter it over the floor and make just such lines"), Benteen concluded that it had been "a panic -- a rout." In other words, the sort of encounter Indians called a battle and white people called a massacre.

Some evidence suggests that Custer himself may have become a casualty before the "Last Stand," going a long way toward explaining the collapse. Another possibility is that, to avoid capture and torture, he was shot near the end by his own brother Tom -- who died with him, as did a third Custer brother (Boston). But all anybody knew for certain was that there all 210 of them were, many mutilated and nearly all stripped naked. Hence one junior officer's famously anguished cry: "Oh, how white they look! How white!"

Philbrick isn't especially successful when he tries to go macro. His attempt to link Custer's myth to other celebrated Last Stands -- the Alamo, Thermopylae -- doesn't acknowledge the problem that both of those were calculated sacrifices, not botched overreach. His occasional lapses into indicting "arrogance," American imperialism, and the like come off trite and forced. But that's mainly because his own storytelling skills make such rhetoric redundant.

He's much better at sketching the dynamic United States that was turning Custer into yesterday's hero even as it lionized his exploits. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition, whose grand opening in Philadelphia predated the Little Bighorn by under two months, lets Philbrick get a lot of mileage just from listing the modern marvels introduced there: "Hires root beer, Heinz ketchup, the Remington typographic machine (later dubbed the typewriter), and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone." That "later dubbed" parenthesis is a nice touch.

Readers with a taste for incongruous symbolism may be even happier to learn that one of the Seventh Cavalry's "more ornery mules" was named Barnum, after the circus impresario. Loaded with valuable ammunition boxes, he decided to change sides during the fight on Reno Hill, which may be the best joke in this grueling saga. The soldier who headed off Barnum's dash toward the Indians won a Medal of Honor for it, too.

In a sense, thanks to Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull ended up joining Barnum's side instead. His share of The Last Stand falls short of the full-scale dual portrait implied by the book's subtitle, but the contrast between "Custer's hyperactive need to do too much" and his opponent's methodical patience is both illuminating and good drama. Not only the shrewd strategist we've met before -- the jolt his victory gave 19th-century prejudices is evident in the hysterical rumors that he was either a renegade West Pointer or, even funnier, had learned French to study Napoleon's maxims -- Sitting Bull emerges here as a first-rate politician, skilfully managing different factions in his unique role as war chief to an alliance of frequently disputative tribes.

With the odd exception of Crazy Horse, who gets only glancing treatment, Philbrick is equally good on the lesser personalities on the Indian side. They're convincingly contentious, complicated human beings, blessedly lacking in the mystique that Son of The Morning Star, for all its sophistication, didn't exactly work overtime to dispel. Philbrick does best by Gall, the Hunkpapa chief whose friction since childhood with Custer's favorite scout, Bloody Knife, is a reminder of how peculiarly intimate the frontier wars were. For that matter, so is the name of the only Seventh Cavalry horse to survive the last stand, found "hit by seven different bullets and arrows" and lovingly cared for until his death 15 years later: Comanche.

Experts may find more to quarrel with here than I did. But even if Philbrick has everything right, that doesn't make The Last Stand the "definitive" book on the Little Bighorn, any more than Connell's was. There clearly ain't no such animal, and never will be. What may be most to this one's credit is a humanity that can make even inveterate Custer-haters pity the men who got stuck following him, as did at least one Sioux warrior at the time. "I felt really sorry for them, they looked so frightened," Standing Bear later told his son. "Many of them lay on the ground, with their blue eyes open, waiting to be killed."

--Tom Carson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594170495
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/4/2010
  • Pages: 466
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and earned a BA in English from Brown University and an MA in America Literature from Duke University, where he was a James B. Duke Fellow. He was Brown University’s first Intercollegiate All-American sailor in 1978, the same year he won the Sunfish North Americans in Barrington, RI. After working as an editor at Sailing World magazine, he wrote and edited several books about sailing, including The Passionate Sailor, Second Wind, and Yaahting: A Parody.  
 
In 1986, Philbrick moved to Nantucket with his wife Melissa and their two children. In 1994, he published his first book about the island’s history, Away Off Shore, followed by a study of the Nantucket’s native legacy, Abram’s Eyes. He was the founding director of Nantucket’s Egan Maritime Institute and is still a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. 

In 2000, Philbrick published the New York Times bestseller In the Heart of the Sea, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction. The book is the basis of the forthcoming Warner Bros. motion picture “Heart of the Sea,” directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Benjamin Walker, Ben Wishaw, and Tom Holland, which is scheduled for release in March, 2015. The book also inspired a 2001 Dateline special on NBC as well as the 2010 two-hour PBS American Experience film “Into the Deep” by Ric Burns.
 
His next book was Sea of Glory, published in 2003, which won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize and the Albion-Monroe Award from the National Maritime Historical Society. The New York Times Bestseller Mayflower was a finalist for both the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, won the Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction, and was named one the ten Best Books of 2006 by the New York Times Book Review. Mayflower is currently in development as a limited series on FX.
 
In 2010, he published the New York Times bestseller The Last Stand, which was named a New York Times Notable book, a 2010 Montana Book Award Honor Book, and a 2011 ALA Notable Book. Philbrick was an on-camera consultant to the two-hour PBS American Experience film “Custer’s Last Stand” by Stephen Ives. The book is currently being adapted for a ten-hour, multi-part television series. The audio book for Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011) made the ALA's Listen List in 2012 and was a finalist for the New England Society Book Award.
 
Philbrick’s latest New York Times bestseller, Bunker Hill:  A City, a Siege, a Revolution, was published in 2013 and was awarded both the 2013 New England Book Award for Non-Fiction and the 2014 New England Society Book Award. Bunker Hill won the 2014 book award from the Society of Colonial Wars, and has been optioned by Warner Bros. for feature film adaptation with Ben Affleck attached to direct.
 
Philbrick has also received the Byrne Waterman Award from the Kendall Whaling Museum, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for distinguished service from the USS Constitution Museum, the Nathaniel Bowditch Award from the American Merchant Marine Museum, the William Bradford Award from the Pilgrim Society, and the Boston History Award from the Bostonian Society. He was named the 2011 Cushing Orator by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and has an honorary doctorate from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he delivered the commencement address in 2009.
 
Philbrick’s writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. He has appeared on the Today Show, the Morning Show, Dateline, PBS’s American Experience, C-SPAN, and NPR. He and his wife still live on Nantucket.

Biography

Champion sailboat racer Nathaniel Philbrick is one of the premier authorities on New England's Nantucket Island, and an all around aficionado of maritime activities. Ever since he published his first book, a short, humorous take on sailing titled The Passionate Sailor, Philbrick has been sharing that passion with readers. Whether exploring his beloved Nantucket or tracing tragedies and triumphs on the open sea throughout history, Philbrick is the writer of some of the most illuminating and harrowing histories to come sailing across bookshelves in the past decade.

While Philbrick broke into publishing with the lighthearted The Passionate Sailor, he truly established his role as a chronicler of Nantucket—the one-time whaling capital of the world—with his second book, Away Off Shore. Instead of focusing on the colorfully quaint legends that hardly scrape the surface of Nantucket's rich history, Philbrick chose to take a more sober look at the island and how it rose to success. He brought that same objectivity to subsequent books such as Abram's Eyes, which delves into the vast Native American population of Nantucket, separating folklore from historical evidence, and his breakthrough In the Heart of the Sea. Here, Philbrick takes a fascinating look at the legendary sinking of the Essex, a tale that would form the backbone of Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick. If anything, the true story of a wayward ship's encounter with a giant whale is even more terrifying and gripping than anything in Melville's imagination. In the Heart of the Sea is at its core a tragedy rife with painful ironies, fatal decisions, cannibalism, and a final encounter with a furious sperm whale.

The key to this National Book Award winner is that it is told with all the flair and suspense of any fictional story. "What I really like is narrative-driven non-fiction," Philbrick explained to Barnes & Noble.com. "A story is important for anyone to engage with what happened in the past." Just as Philbrick used this tactic to relate the tragedy of the Essex, he used it to tell of the triumphant U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838 in Sea of Glory. No less engaging than its predecessor, Sea of Glory is almost like the yang to the shadowy yin of In the Heart of the Sea, gloriously recounting a grander ocean expedition than that of Lewis and Clark, a quest to map the entire Pacific Ocean that would lead to the discovery of Antarctica.

Philbrick's next book retells a story with which most American schoolchildren are familiar but only through a filter of benign Thanksgiving pageants. The story of the pilgrim's journey to Plymouth Rock told in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War is quite a different tale. Philbrick was not exactly burning to revisit this well-traveled chapter in history, saying of the Mayflower's voyage, "what could be more boring?" However, once he peeled away the holiday wrapping, he discovered a dark web of violence, starvation, illness, death, and war to rival the tragedy of In the Heart of the Sea. It is as if the pilgrim and Indian's story, as well as their true nature, is being revealed for the very first time, with provocative depictions of a bloody-thirsty Miles Standish and a duplicitous Squanto.

The Library Journal boldly declared that Mayflower was "clearly one of the year's best books" of 2006, and it is certainly one of the most riveting, a historical work that reads like great fiction written by a master at the peak of his abilities.

Good To Know

When Philbrick was a young boy, his father, a professor of English literature with a focus on Maritime fiction, would tell him about the Essex's tragic sea voyage as a sort of grim bedtime story.

Nathaniel Philbrick served as a consultant on USA television's 1998 adaptation of Moby Dick starring Patrick Stewart.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Nat Philbrick
    2. Hometown:
      Nantucket, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 11, 1956
    2. Place of Birth:
      Boston, Massachusetts
    1. Education:
      B.A., Brown University, 1978; M.A., Duke University
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

List of Maps xiii

Preface Custer's Smile xv

Chapter 1 At the Flood 1

Chapter 2 The Dream 27

Chapter 3 Hard Ass 36

Chapter 4 The Dance 53

Chapter 5 The Scout 71

Chapter 6 The Blue Pencil Line 88

Chapter 7 The Approach 109

Chapter 8 The Crow's Nest 128

Chapter 9 Into the Valley 151

Chapter 10 Reno's Charge 166

Chapter 11 To the Hill 188

Chapter 12 Still Point 206

Chapter 13 The Forsaken 220

Chapter 14 Grazing His Horses 237

Chapter 15 The Last Stand 257

Chapter 16 The River of Nightmares 280

Epilogue: Libbie's House 304

Appendix A The Seventh Cavalry on the Afternoon of June 25, 1876 313

Appendix B Sitting Bull's Village June 25, 1876 317

Acknowledgments 321

Notes 325

Bibliography 419

Illustration Credits 447

Index 449

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 236 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 237 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 8, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Little Bighorn

    Custer ~~ Sitting Bull ~~ Little Bighorn. The names evoke excitement & mystery even today. The events of 25 Jun 1876 are (& will be) shrouded in nystery & will never be known with any confidence of accuracy.All that can be said for sure is that Gen Custer & his 7th Cavalry died fighting to "the last man" in one of the greates "Last Stands" in the American west. And yet, Nathaniel Philbrick, has managed to pick through the strands of time & history to bring it to life. And he succeeds admirably. And, in doing so, he shows the simularities of Gen Custer & Sitting Bull; each had their demons, their flaws, their beliefs & their strategies.This is history at its finest as Mr Philbrick takes us along with the 7th Cavalry on its ill~fated 1876 campaign. And he follows the Sioux as they attempt to recapture tribal life as it was before the white man arrived. It is fascinating & well researched. His conclusions & placement of blame for the disaster may not be much of a surprise but they are backed up with his historian's instinctive grasp of detail & narrative. He gives us a first~hand look at the personalities of Custer & Sitting Bull & how Custer's Last Stand in effect was also the Last Stand for the Sioux & American Indian.

    15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 13, 2010

    No Love for Custer

    Philbrick's work is characterized for its passion, entrancing the reader with the power of his research and historical characters that arouse empathy from his audience. It's clear that both Mayflower and In The Heart of The Sea are subjects that are near and dear to the author. Both aforementioned works provide insight to cultures and eras that are vividly revealed to the reader. The Stand is an aberration to Philbrick's work, a multi-faceted recollection of the first great American military disaster (a subject that is fascinating enough) focusing primarily on the confrontation from eyewitness accounts. His depiction of the American military leadership on the ground (Terry, Custer, Reno and Bennton) leaves a sour taste in the mind of the reader. There is no love for these figures, and Philbrick's narrative places a tremendous amount of weight on individuals that, frankly, are not that interesting. Oddly, Philbrick doesn't seem too interested either. He occasionally discusses Sitting Bull and the Lakota peoples, but these moments are all too brief--and superficial. His inclusion of the Lakota reeks of political correctness, especially when he mentions that this was really Custer and Sitting Bull's "last stand."

    The Last Stand does have its moments. The depiction of the battle, Reno's "Charge," and the subsequent sieges are harrowing stories. Philbrick's narrative is captivating, providing eyewitness accounts of the military tactics and the complete incompetence of the American military operation. Outside of these components, The Last Stand is a disappointment, but for the reader interested in the Custer campaign its certainly worthy of a read.....

    8 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 7, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A pleasure to read

    150 years after George Armstrong Custer's first appearance in the American Civil War, he still fascinates us. We might feel it is a horrific accident or a great work of art but we always look at him. He is a larger than life presence in our history, both loved and hated. There are a goodly number of books and movies on Custer, his record in the Civil War and the Battle of Little Big Horn. The range is from him being "the deranged maniac of Little Big Man" to "the noble hero . in They died with Their Boots On". A good Custer book is always a treat, always worth reading and this is a very good Custer book!
    Nathaniel Philbrick gives the reader a very human Custer. Older but not wiser, he is as flamboyant as ever chafing under the restrictions of military life. The author is careful to be fair to all sides, presenting a balanced portrait. My only reservation is his reliance of Benteen for so much personal information. While most of it is carefully collaborated, the glass is often half full.
    The Seventh Cavalry is a character in this story. The author takes a long hard look at the army during the Indian Wars, providing some surprising information. Top heavy with senior offices reduced in rank after the Civil War, Custer is a Lieutenant Colonel reduced from Brigadier General, complicated by the brevet system of rank and under staffed they soldier on. Careful preparation pays big dividends giving the reader an excellent understanding of the complex relationships within the regiment. Understanding this adds an extra dimension to Reno and Benteen's actions on the battlefield.
    The author fully develops Sitting Bull and his village, providing a full background of tribal politics within their warrior society. This is an extra dimension to the story and an important one. While cautioned that Native American participants guarded what they said, their statements flesh out the account of the battle. The book covers relations between "hostile" and "friendly" Indians and how this plays out during the campaign.
    The centerpiece of the book is the Battle of Little Big Horn. Seven maps and over 130 pages cover this in detail. The author fully captures the chaos, fear and uncertainty of battle. Weaving accounts of saviors with historical evidence produces a well-documented very readable account. The author refuses to speculate on Custer's battle. This is not a HEROIC LAST STAND account of glorious battle. This is a nasty dirty fight where one side is overrun and slaughtered. While avoiding speculation the author captures the fear and collapse of Custer's command.
    Footnotes have a unique presentation. They are endnotes referenced to pages. However, there are no footnote numbers. The endnotes represent a walk through the documents available to historians. I read them as a stand-alone book, finding them very informative.
    This is an excellent book. Interesting, well researched, well documented and a pleasure to read.

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Terrific addition to earlier tellings of this history

    This history does what every nonfiction title aspires to do: makes the reader want to run out and read as much as they can on the subject. That is exactly what I found myself doing today--looking in my public library for more. The Last Stand doesn't so much slake your thirst as inflame it. When I looked over the books on similar subject matter, I can see why. It was clear Philbrick used primary sources, but also built on what had come before: he consolidated information and didn't impede the forward momentum of the story. He added maps in the right places to clarify movements, and included photos which flesh out the characters. This book is about the last stand of the Indians in America. Although the Battle of Little Bighorn was ostensibly a rout of the uniformed troops sent by the American government to move the Lakota off their given land to make way for gold rush settlers, it was also the end of Lakota way of life and was the last concerted attempt to save it. The story is mired in myth, due to the death of all in Custer's party, though there were other battalions there led by surviving commanders. Due to the personalities involved, and the necessarily self-serving nature of their reports, these "truths" can be difficult to reconcile, one with the other. At the same time, the American government in Washington also had reason to interpret the facts so as to preserve the notion of manifest destiny, westward expansion, and the heroics (rather than the possible disgrace) of their fighting force. Surviving warriors from the Indians tribes were interviewed extensively in the years following the Battle, and much richness of detail (and contradiction with evidentiary evidence) can be gleaned from their accounts. What does come clear from the story as told by Philbrick is the great-man nature of Chief Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader and warrior of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. Many wise words are attributed to the man from reports at the time, and Sitting Bull's attention always seemed to focus on the safety and welfare of his people, rather than on revenge or rage at betrayals. Later, after the battle recounted in such detail here, we learn that Sitting Bull did finally lay down his arms, and was shuttled to a reservation, where he was killed in 1890 by a Lakota policeman. The apparently first-hand testimonies of survivors of The Battle of Little Bighorn do not paint complimentary portraitures of their commanding officers. The sound, smell, heat, and intensity of the battlefield come to life in this account, and we squirm with the uncomfortable knowledge of the end even as we begin reading. Learning the details of any military engagement brings its own horrors, but the facts of this devastation is particularly poignant when realizing that troops were being led by one commander deranged with drink, and another who felt no sense of urgency. All fought bravely in the end, to the end.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 10, 2010

    Excellent update of the familiar story, but read it in hardcover!

    Nathaniel Philbrick pulls off the impressive trick of going over familiar ground in a fresh way. Read The Last Stand, then re-read Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star for a different slant -- you'll enjoy the juxtaposition. Meanwhile, I have to say that reading The Last Stand on my Nook was a disappointing experience. The maps are completely illegible, and the striking photographs that grace the hardcover edition are not only missing -- their existence is left unacknowledged. To get the full experience of reading this title, you still need to buy the printed version.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 12, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Inacurate, terrible

    This book is a highly unimaginative look at the life of one of the great heroes of American History. If the author had bothered to look at the facts, he would have seen that Custer's subordinates left him to his fate for personal reasons and then placed all the blame on him to save their own careers later. Reno spent the afternoon and the night after the battle hiding in a hole drinking whiskey. Custer, meanwhile, made mistakes, but not mistakes that were inexcusable given the way that the government was conducting the wars with the Native Americans. Next time, the author might want to actually do something called research. If you want a great book that gives an even-handed account of all sides, read A Terrible Glory by James Donovan, who is a historian rather than a propaganda artist.

    4 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 2, 2011

    Informative

    It has been a while since I have read Son of Morning Star so it was good to read another account of the famous General Custer and be refreshed of the famous battle. There was nothing new in this last book except in the way it was written. The chronology of events and positioning of Reno and Benteen's troops was helpful in visualizing the events. What was annoying and jarring was the flashback style of the characters that did not really help in the flow of those events as they happened. Philbrick treated both the Indian and the army fairly although there seemed to some political correctness laced throughout. Benteen and Reno were the focus and bear much responsibility while Custer's actions can only be told through speculation. While Custer's character flaws are brought out, there seems to be a lack of speculation on the responsibilities of those in the high command and their actions that may have prevented this massacre. Is it possible that Custer was a pawn and that those that gave the vague orders to Custer, Benteen and Reno knowing Custer and his character? At the end of the book, Philbrick says that Sitting Bull's victory over the army was really a loss for the Indian nations. This is very true when the reservation system and the conditions of the American Indian today. They are kept in line by making them dependent on the government the same way as in the later 1800s. It is a policy that needs to be examined force the Indian to become more self-reliant. There is no pride that the Indian once had in living free and self-sustaining. The question that has yet to be answered is, what brought about the gathering of all the tribes some of whom were enemies? The fear of the U.S. Army because of the massacres at Sand Creek and the Minnesota uprising, is a root, however, there had to be another reason for this gathering of largest force of Indian warriors ever. After the Battle at LBH, they went their separate ways. Had they stayed together the army would have had a difficult time subduing them. I would recommend this book to any one who has not read much on Custer.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 6, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Behind the headlines

    Finally after a lifetime study of the Lakota, a writer who helpfully illustrates places and people within numerous first person narrative of events. Much appreciated are the maps showing locations of agencies which are usually overlooked in books about the Plains Indians. There are also depicted details of Indian travels, troop movements, time elements. Many excellent photographs of soldiers and even a few new photos of Indians. Excerpts of written accounts on interactions between leaders in months and days leading up to event. No matter if you are for or against Custer, his own words tell us much, and there are many of them as he was a constant correspondent to his wife, friends, newspapers.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 10, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Into The Valley Of Death

    A hard hitting, well-balanced look at arrogance and jealousy in the U.S. military. As history shows, this was not the "Last Stand" for only General Custer and his men, but, also, for Native Americans. A book that's hard to put down.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 23, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    The beginning of the end of Indians in America...

    This history does what every nonfiction title aspires to do: makes the reader want to run out and read as much as they can on the subject. That is exactly what I found myself doing today--looking in my public library for more. The Last Stand doesn't so much slake your thirst as inflame it. When I looked over the books on similar subject matter, I can see why. It was clear Philbrick used primary sources, but also built on what had come before: he consolidated information and didn't impede the forward momentum of the story. He added maps in the right places to clarify movements, and included photos which flesh out the characters. This book is about the last stand of the Indians in America. Although the Battle of Little Bighorn was ostensibly a rout of the uniformed troops sent by the American government to move the Lakota off their given land to make way for gold rush settlers, it was also the end of Lakota way of life and was the last concerted attempt to save it. The story is mired in myth, due to the death of all in Custer's party, though there were other battalions there led by surviving commanders. Due to the personalities involved, and the necessarily self-serving nature of their reports, these "truths" can be difficult to reconcile, one with the other. At the same time, the American government in Washington also had reason to interpret the facts so as to preserve the notion of manifest destiny, westward expansion, and the heroics (rather than the possible disgrace) of their fighting force. Surviving warriors from the Indians tribes were interviewed extensively in the years following the Battle, and much richness of detail (and contradiction with evidentiary evidence) can be gleaned from their accounts. What does come clear from the story as told by Philbrick is the great-man nature of Chief Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader and warrior of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. Many wise words are attributed to the man from reports at the time, and Sitting Bull's attention always seemed to focus on the safety and welfare of his people, rather than on revenge or rage at betrayals. Later, after the battle recounted in such detail here, we learn that Sitting Bull did finally lay down his arms, and was shuttled to a reservation, where he was killed in 1890 by a Lakota policeman. The apparently first-hand testimonies of survivors of The Battle of Little Bighorn do not paint complimentary portraitures of their commanding officers. The sound, smell, heat, and intensity of the battlefield come to life in this account, and we squirm with the uncomfortable knowledge of the end even as we begin reading. Learning the details of any military engagement brings its own horrors, but the facts of this devastation is particularly poignant when realizing that troops were being led by one commander deranged with drink, and another who felt no sense of urgency. All fought bravely in the end, to the end.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 17, 2011

    Well researched. Lively and interesting material

    I have been reading stories about the old west ever since I read Dee Brown's excellent "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee". This book belongs on the shelf right beside Brown's book. It is that good. I didn't think that Custer was a nice guy but after reading this book and finding out that he indulged in callously raping and murdering helpless native women and children I am convinced my earlier feelings were correct.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 9, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Fine Job

    I still think Connell's Son of the Morning Star is the best book on the Little Big Horn, but Philbrick has nothing to be ashamed of. Like Connell, he understands that part of the battle's power lies in its mystery. He has used many sources and his notes are first rate, giving credit to the many who laid the groundwork for modern Custer scholarship. He is evenhanded, showing the Sioux as victims as much as winners of the battle. Native Americans are treated with respect and as real persons who made poor and wise choices in their struggle to survive the onrushing white tide. Philbrick reminds us that all side suffer in warfare and the price of victory and defeat can be costly indeed. He is an excellent storyteller.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 30, 2010

    another great book from one of my favourite authors

    I could not put this book down. Philbrick's research is amazing. I love the flow of his writing. He is such a wonderful writer.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2013

    Not bad

    You feel left wanting to know more

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2013

    A very entertaining and informative read!  Fans of the story of

    A very entertaining and informative read!  Fans of the story of Custer, the Indian Wars of the 1860's-1880's, and those interested in the history of Sitting Bull will certainly enjoy this book  Philbrick's close attention to detail has made this retelling especially rich..

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  • Posted June 16, 2012

    This book is about the battle of "Little Bighorn" also

    This book is about the battle of "Little Bighorn" also known as "Custer's Last Stand", fought between combined forces of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army of which George Armstrong Custer was an integral part. The book details the account in such a way that it seemed to me as if i was there watching the battle unfold infront of my own eyes. As far as the authenticity of the book is concerned, or whether the writer is biased or not, or who should be considered as a hero (Custer or Sitting Bull) is not for me to decide. I think it should be left to you or to some serious researcher. But writer's narrative style is excellent and he touches each and every aspect of the battle. Like how the soldiers were really frightened and yet at the same time some of them were very brave, how some of the officers like Reno were drinking during height of skirmish and how some of the soldiers were really coward, how cruel were sometimes both sides including Indian warriors and 7th cavalry soldiers, how Custer's lust for gaining or attaining the Glory all by himself led to incorrect decision of dividing the soldiers into small groups, and how personal conflicts between two persons, especially during war/fight can create difficulties for the rest of group. Overall it was an excellent book. I enjoyed it a lot and really recommend this book. It is certainly going to be one of the best books you will read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2012

    Lame

    Custer was never actualy a hero students history textbooks are crap he killed people he was told to retreat he didnt he was neve a friggin hero

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 11, 2012

    Peeling Back the Myth

    I liked this book so much that after reading it in paperback, I purchased a hardcover copy for my library. The author has combined a fantastic amount of research, including the latest interpretations of what happened at the Last Stand based on archeological findings, with a lively and easy-to-read narrative. Publisher’s Weekly complained of a “surfeit of unnecessary detail,” but the details are what I loved about the book. As far as I’m concerned, details are essential to coming closer to the truth about why complex characters think and act as they do. Give me more.

    Intelligent readers, who have only the barest outline of Custer’s story, will come away from "The Last Stand" with a deeper understanding of the personalities and events and the social and political forces that contributed to of one of the worst military disasters in American history. I particularly appreciated that the author takes pains to maintain a neutral stance. Custer’s defeat at the hands of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull is such a contentious subject: Those who regard Custer as a vain, ambitious fool, who wasted the lives of his men, engage in bitter dispute with those who claim he was one of the Union’s most talented cavalry officers—defeated only because he was betrayed by disobedient, malicious subordinates. The truth lies somewhere in-between. Philbrick presents the major players in this historical drama with all their flaws and strengths. He also does a fine job sorting through a morass of contradictory evidence and eye-witness claims from both soldiers and Native Americans.

    This book does not focus on Custer’s personality and marriage; for a more biographical approach try Connell’s Son of the Morning Star. Donovan’s A Terrible Glory goes into what happened on Calhoun and Custer Hill in even more detail. His description seems to follow the scenario described by archaeological research conducted in the mid-80s after a fire cleared the area of grass and brush. For a more technical look at what happened based on archaeology, combat modeling, and history, read Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle by Richard Allan Fox, Jr.
    author’s reinterpretation of the Custer legend.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2012

    Helps to understand the battle and the people

    As someone who has visited the battlefield three times I can say that this book is a "must read" for understanding the personalities involved in that fateful event. Custer's drive for glory and fame is woven into the story of a leader of a people who wished to retain their land against the onslaught of encroaching settlement. Mr. Philbrick's research is thorough and the bibliography serves as a useful stepping point for further reading of other authors.

    Readers of the Killer Angels have a better understanding of the Battle of Gettysburg; readers of The Last Stand have a better understanding of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

    I've purchased this book for others as it is a readable book and quite fluid in its pace.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2011

    Highly Recommended for lovers of history

    Easy to read. Lots of new information. Balanced view of Natives vs. Whites.

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