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

3.3 235
by Nathaniel Philbrick
     
 

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"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, Pulitzer Prize finalist Mayflower,and the forthcoming Valiant Ambition,  Nathaniel Philbrick has emerged as a historian

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, Pulitzer Prize finalist Mayflower,and the forthcoming Valiant Ambition,  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.

Editorial Reviews

"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
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
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
From the Publisher
"An engrossing, thoughtfully researched, and tautly written account of a critical chapter ni American history."
Los Angeles Times

"An evocative and cinematic narrative."
The New York Times

"A carefully historical account that is also a ripping good yarn."
—The Wall Street Journal

Praise for Mayflower, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History

"Vivid and remarkably fresh...Philbrick has recast the Pilgrims for our age of searching and turmoil."
The New York Times Book Review

"A signal achievement. Philbrick enlightens and even astounds."
—Salon.com

Praise for Sea of Glory, winner of the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize

"Brilliantly told...has to be among the best nonfiction books of this or any other year."
Los Angeles Time Book Review

"A breathtaking account of one of history's greatest adventures."
Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670021727
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
05/04/2010
Pages:
466
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for Mayflower, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History

"Vivid and remarkably fresh...Philbrick has recast the Pilgrims for our age of searching and turmoil."
The New York Times Book Review

"A signal achievement. Philbrick enlightens and even astounds."
—Salon.com

Praise for Sea of Glory, winner of the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize

"Brilliantly told...has to be among the best nonfiction books of this or any other year."
Los Angeles Time Book Review

"A breathtaking account of one of history's greatest adventures."
Entertainment Weekly

Meet the Author

Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of In the Heart of the Sea, winner of the National Book Award; Mayflower, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Bunker Hill, winner of the New England Book Award; Sea of Glory; The Last Stand; Why Read Moby Dick?; and Away Off Shore. He lives in Nantucket. His new book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, will be published in May 2016.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Nantucket, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
June 11, 1956
Place of Birth:
Boston, Massachusetts
Education:
B.A., Brown University, 1978; M.A., Duke University
Website:
http://www.nathanielphilbrick.com

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Last Stand 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 235 reviews.
dragonsscape More than 1 year ago
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.
James_Durney More than 1 year ago
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.
GoldenEagle50 More than 1 year ago
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.
Rick63 More than 1 year ago
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.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
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.
atomsplitter More than 1 year ago
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.
earthwind More than 1 year ago
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.
rjnFL More than 1 year ago
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.
glauver More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it. The first-hand battle accounts from both sides were vivid and interesting. Brought the story to life.
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You feel left wanting to know more
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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