'The Last Stand': An end for Custer, Sitting Bull and a way of life
A review of Nathaniel Philbrick's "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Big Horn" — the National Book Award-winning author's story of George Armstrong Custer, his archrival Sitting Bull and the epic battle that ended an era in American history.
Special to The Seattle Times
Nathaniel PhilbrickThe author of "The Last Stand" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. May 27 at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
'The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn'
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking, 473 pp, $29.95
The seemingly endless fascination over Custer's Last Stand has claimed yet another author. This time it's Nathaniel Philbrick, winner of a National Book Award for his earlier work, "In the Heart of the Sea," the dramatic story of the wreck of a whaling ship.
A writer with such credentials might be expected to bring a different perspective to the timeworn tale of the Last Stand, and Philbrick does so in this absorbing account. He presents the June 25, 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn not just as Custer's last stand, but also that of his Native-American adversaries.
"Most Americans think of the Last Stand as belonging solely to George Armstrong Custer," Philbrick writes. "But the myth applies equally to his legendary opponent Sitting Bull. For while (Sitting Bull's) Sioux and Cheyenne were the victors that day, the battle marked the beginning of their own Last Stand."
The tribes' victory was shortly followed by the collapse of the buffalo herds on which they depended, forcing them to surrender to confinement on reservations.
Philbrick's Custer is not the dashing, impetuous, golden-haired cavalryman who won fame in the Civil War. This Custer is older, with thinning hair and a growing reputation as a womanizer and habitual gambler. But he didn't drink.
"He didn't have to," Philbrick says. "His emotional effusions unhinged his judgment in ways that went beyond alcohol's ability to interfere with clear thinking."
Custer isn't the only one on trial in this book; much of it deals with the conduct of his subordinates, Maj. Marcus Reno and Capt. Frederick Benteen. Detached from Custer's main force, both officers survived the battle, although Reno's battalion suffered heavily.
In Philbrick's view, both men were guilty of neglect of duty, inspired by personal animosity toward Custer.
Describing himself as "a curious outsider doing my best to make sense of it all," Philbrick relies on both traditional and nontraditional sources to piece together an account of Custer's own final comeuppance.
He interviewed Sitting Bull's great-grandson and gained access to the written account of Pvt. Peter Thompson, a cavalryman who survived the battle because his horse gave out. Custer and his men rode off without him.
Thompson's narrative, published 38 years after the battle, includes inconsistencies that have caused many historians to reject it, but Philbrick joins those who believe it has enough credence not to be summarily dismissed. Without fully endorsing its veracity, he offers it as part of a speculative account of Custer's final maneuvers.
Not that this version changes the outcome: Custer, and all his men, were later found dead on the field. But it was a close call, according to Philbrick.
"As Sitting Bull ... and many other Lakota and Cheyenne realized that day, he (Custer) came frighteningly close to winning the most spectacular victory of his career."
"Despite his inconsistencies and flaws, there was something about Custer that distinguished him from most human beings," Philbrick concludes. "He possessed an energy, ambition, and charisma that few others could match. He could inspire devotion and great love along with more than his share of hatred and disdain, and more than anything else, he wanted to be remembered.
"Some are remembered because they transcended the failings of their age. Custer is remembered because he so perfectly embodied those failings."
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