The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Big Horn
The Last Stand Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Big Horn Nathaniel Philbrick * * * * * The Bodley Head 466pp £20 ISBN 978 1847920096
On July 4th, 1876, the citizens of the United States of America began celebrating their Republic’s centennial. Within three days euphoria changed to anger as shocking news was telegraphed from the West: on June 25th the nation’s foremost Indian fighter, the Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer, with more than 200 of his men, had been slaughtered by Sioux and Cheyenne Indians.
The bloody encounter on the Little Big Horn River swiftly captured the public imagination. That fascination has endured, generating hundreds of books and articles and a crop of feature films. Verdicts have fluctuated wildly over the years, influenced as much by prevailing sentiments as by the events themselves. As a high-school freshman in 1970, Nathaniel Philbrick watched the movie Little Big Man, which transformed Thomas Berger’s brilliant novel about a reclusive survivor of Custer’s Last Stand into a bitter allegory on the Vietnam War: reversing the scenario familiar to previous generations, the Plains Indians were now the victims, Custer and his cavalrymen the villains.
Philbrick’s own account in The Last Stand is commendably even-handed. Underpinned by a palpable sense of impending doom, it is concerned less with political correctness than with making sense of a tragic and dramatic story for which much of the evidence is wildly conflicting, posing what he likens to a ‘great unsolved cross-word puzzle’.
Despite the on-going debate, Philbrick identifies significant factors that sealed Custer’s fate. Poor intelligence failed to reveal the daunting size of the target village: Custer accordingly gambled by dividing his command in three before attacking. Yet, as Indian participants testified in oral accounts, the outcome might have been different had Custer received determined support from his subordinates. Instead, both became bogged down in defensive actions: Major Marcus Reno, who was seen swigging a bottle of whisky, clearly lost his nerve; Captain Frederick Benteen fought bravely but without any sense of urgency. Both officers distrusted each other and loathed Custer, prejudices that had disastrous consequences.
By contrast, the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors under Sitting Bull, Gall and other leaders fought with unity and purpose. In addition, they not only outnumbered their assailants by perhaps ten to one, but also outgunned them: while the Seventh Cavalry were armed with single-shot Springfield carbines, many Indian warriors carried quick-firing Henry and Winchester repeaters.
Philbrick readily acknowledges Evan S. Connell’s lyrical, meandering classic Son of the Morning Star (1984) as a key inspiration. The Last Stand takes a more direct approach, mostly setting a pace worthy of ‘hard ass’ Custer himself. Ironically, Philbrick only draws rein when he reaches the bluffs above the Little Bighorn, opting to follow the fortunes of the beleaguered Reno and Benteen before turning back the clock and exploring the fate of Custer’s command.
Realistic assessments by combat veterans, bolstered by archeological evidence from the battlefield itself, argue against any ‘last stand’ in the traditional sense of a dwindling knot of stoical bluecoats, surrounding a buckskin-clad Custer. But Philbrick’s title reflects other meanings. Above all, Sitting Bull’s triumph was the swansong of the Plains Indians, a final victory won in the teeth of the USA’s remorseless westward expansion.