The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn Paperback – Apr 26 2011
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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."
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."
About the Author
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
Philbrick humanizes both Sitting Bull and Custer in a commendable way, leaving us with a better sense of the flesh-and-blood behind the dubious legends that quickly came to stand in the public imagination. Perhaps what suffers most here is that the detailed analysis ultimately doesn't lend itself to a strong big picture understanding of what was happening. Its very likely that the ultimate reduction of the Sioux to confinement on reserves was not strongly impacted by this battle - the disappearance of the buffalo from the plains was the decisive factor. However, as Philbrick points out, the Sioux have not disappeared, and they still have a preserved sense of culture and identity, so to view them as a defeated people is actually rather near-sighted. The results of military encounters do not a defeated or victorious people make.
If you've not read Philbrick's other books, I would suggest reading Mayflower before this one, simply because its better. If you liked Mayflower, you'll very likely enjoy this book as well, since Philbrick employs a similar narrative method, albeit mostly confined to a shorter passage of time.
One thing Philbrick cannot avoid is that "true prodigy of war - charismatic, quirky, and fearless" - none other than Colonel George Custer. As the author points out "Custer was more of a cultural lightning rod than a historical figure, an icon instead of man." But he does chip away at the hyperbole and saint-making that has made Custer a significant figure in American history. On the other side of the battle is, of course, Sitting Bull. He too has been oversimplified in many ways but Philbrick shares him as a spiritual and sympathetic leader who carried the burden of the loss of his way of life. These two eventually died alongside family members with Sitting Bull losing a son and brother at his later death and Custer dying at the battle with two brothers, a brother-in-law, and a nephew.
The book is replete with other interesting facts like; 40% of the 7th Calvary were born outside the US, one gold mine in the contested Black Hills yielded an estimated $1 billion over the next hundred years, the practice of Counting Coup, though Custer was called "Long Hair" by his adversaries he was actually going bald, Custer finished last in his class at West Point yet experienced a meteoric rise in stature and rank when in battle, and Custer's brother Tom who died in the battle was the only soldier in the American Civil War to win two Medals of Honor.Read more ›
This masterpiece by Nathaniel Philbrick (who keeps writing extraordinary books) presents the symbolic struggle of Lakota/Cheyenne and their last confrontation with the invaders. Even when I was a small boy, I heard about Sitting Bull and Custer. But now, after many years, I have finally learned the details and significance of this tragic battle. The book is so colorful and vivid that I could not stop reading. I still cannot stop thinking about characters and people involved, those who died and survived. I endlessly wonder whether the whole story could have less dramatic conclusion. Probably not..as history teaches us repeatedly about English-Indian relations; check titles in chronological order: "Mayflower" (end of East Coast tribes), "The War that Made America" (fate of Mohawks and other Great Lakes People), "Blood and Thunder" (subduing Navajo Nation) and "Empire of the Summer Moon" (pacification of Comanche).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Philbrick's "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn" quite naturally invites comparison with 2008's "A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn" by James Donovan, about the same subject. Although both volumes present lengthy, quite comprehensive narratives, they do differ significantly. Donovan's book takes a more straightforward approach, while Philbrick's is more consciously "literary" in style, filled with numerous colorful incidents almost cinematic in impact. Additionally, Philbrick's "The Last Stand" devotes somewhat more attention to the Indian side of the story than does Donovan's volume.
Which book is "better"? The answer to that undoubtedly depends on the reader and his/her needs and expectations. Philbrick's volume is perhaps the more suited for random browsing or reading a chapter at a time, while Donovan's is probably better suited for focused, prolonged study. I personally enjoyed both Philbrick's and Donovan's volumes. Both books are representative of a much more balanced, even-handed approach to the Little Bighorn battle than had been characteristic of the past. Originally, accounts tended to overly laud Custer and his soldiers as peerless representatives of Civilization, done to death by a savage, scarcely human foe. By the latter part of the Twentieth century, however, it had become commonplace to reverse roles, depicting Custer and his men as mindless murderers and the Indians as peaceful, innocent victims. We now seem to have finally reached a point, as demonstrated in both Philbrick's "The Last Stand" and also Donovan's "A Terrible Glory", where the participants on both sides can be depicted as three-dimensional, realistic blends of virtue and flaw, neither demons nor angels.
Any serious student of the Little Bighorn battle - I count myself among them - can find elements in Philbrick's book (as in Donovan's) with which to disagree. The events are complex enough and the evidence sufficiently murky that this is inevitable. I cannot say that I learned anything wholly new here, but then again I've been studying the Little Bighorn battle for more than 40 years. An intelligent general reader, previously uninformed about the details, can come away from "The Last Stand" with a good understanding of the events and the people involved on both sides. If that reader should wish to proceed further with studying the battle, Philbrick supplies detailed notes and source lists.
If you aren't new to this topic, and are looking for new insights - they are not here (in my opinion).
This is a well written, pleasant book and recommended to those who have little knowledge of the topic. Recommended for those folks.
Nathaniel Philbrick, as he did in his wondrous MAYFLOWER, digs deep into the heart of the legend. Custer and Sitting Bull were both men--human beings with faults and virtues, men who both appeared to desire peace, on the eve of the Battle--and yet, neither many any great overtures for it. Why? What drove these two men into what can only be described as a massacre? And what really happened at Little Bighorn that day?
Obviously, to the latter question, there is only conjecture, though Philbrick unbiasedly presents the various eye-witness accounts. When it comes to the battle itself, he places more emphasis upon Custer; yet it is clear that the purpose of the book is not just to describe the specific massacre, but to show how it was a last stand for two people: Custer, the most renowned Indian fighter in the West; and the Native Americans of the Northern Plains, who after that day faced a slow decline to reservation life, ridicule, and almost cultural obliteration. Philbrick's prose is smooth and readable; you don't have to be a history buff to enjoy this book. You just have to love a good story, and have an appreciation for what makes mankind both so great and so terrible. THE LAST STAND is another memorable work by Nathaniel Philbrick, and serves as a wonderful introduction into an oft-mythologized segment of American history.
Nathan Philbrick's The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn certainly provides a more nuanced and interesting account of that history. The Last Stand follows both Custer's 7th Cavalry and the Sioux Indian tribe in the weeks before and during the battle.
Philbrick did an incredible amount of research to reconstruct the events and characters in the famous battle. This is a long book and it is brimming with detail, from the geography of the area to the colors of the 7th Cavalry's horses. At times, I felt like he introduced the reader to every single member of the 7th Cavalry (he pretty much does in the appendices).
If nothing else, The Last Stand will probably force you to reevaluate these men. Philbrick isn't a revisionist and Custer doesn't get off too lightly. Nevertheless, there is much about him that most Americans don't realize. For example, he became a brigadier general at the age of 23 (23!) and played a crucial role at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. He was also calm under fire and inspired pride among the lower ranks. However, he seems to not have managed his officers well. In the run-up to the battle, he seems surrounded by officers whom he doesn't trust and scouts who are more intent on politicking than providing accurate information.
Philbrick writes well, but at times The Last Stand can become a difficult read simply because it seems like he wanted to cram so much detail into the book, even when it didn't advance the narrative. One thing that frustrated me was that the narrative sometimes jumps to different points at time. For example, the Battle of Washita (1868) is recounted after preparations for the Black Hills campaign, but just before the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876).
I wasn't crazy about how Philbrick develops characters. He tends to provide short historical pieces about the soldiers in the 7th Cavalry whenever they figure into the narrative of the battle. That means that sometimes, during the thick of the battle, we hear how some soldier who plays little role in the overall battle was a gambler back home and was married to a certain person. This breaks the flow of the narrative and, especially for readers unfamiliar with the history of the American West, can be confusing. If the character is really so important, we should be introduced to him before he becomes important!
Philbrick also sometimes essentializes characters by taking one piece of background information and claiming it is responsible for that character's personality or decisions. For example, at several times he points out that General Terry was a lawyer, and as such was cautious and phrased his orders in an ambiguous way. But that's also how many officeholders in a bureaucracy think and operate. It probably doesn't matter for smaller characters, but sometimes becomes a bit cliche.
I'd recommend this book to American and military history buffs. However, I would really only recommend this to somebody who was somewhat familiar with post-Civil War American history. This book is definitely not for readers with short attention spans. In retrospect, this might be a book worth rereading twice, once just as an introduction to the people, places, and events, and the second time to really absorb it.
It needs to be stated at the outset that Mr. Philbrick wastes no time in revealing his bias against George Armstrong Custer; it is to put things lightly to say that he takes a dismal view of Custer as a person, but it should be noted for those Custerphiles he might pick up the book that his judgments seem harshest at the outset than they do later on. He is somewhat more nuanced in his appraisal of Custer the soldier, citing his bravery and dash, but really, these compliments fall to the wayside in the face of such judgments as "His emotional effusions unhinged his judgment in way that went far beyond alcohol's ability to interfere with clear thinking." At his point, we are on page 17 out of a 448 page book. At this point I was left with the impression that I could not reasonably expect any sort of impartial study of one of the two central character's of this work.
I would have been mistaken, at least in part.
Even so, in these early pages there is little Custer is not accused of, including infidelity and dishonesty. He is rash, impetuous, and does not think before he leaps. This is an image completely at odds with the Custer of the Civil War (at this point I was left wondering if Philbrick bothered to study Custer's wartime career). Indeed, Philbrick seems to take every charge made against Custer at face value while assuming Custer's own words were invariably self-serving. One example of this process of vilification is that the author mentions the Cheyenne tradition that Custer fathered a child on Indian captive Monahsetah without revealing that the young woman gave birth less than two months after her capture, which makes Custer's fatherhood a thing of myth. He is more than happy to present Custer as a pimp who passed the hapless girl among his officers because "Indian women rape easy."
We see too the old charge renewed that Custer went into the 1876 campaign looking for a big victory to restore his reputation and once again put him before the public as America's hero. That Custer might have had as a goal his duty - to defeat the "hostiles" - seems inconceivable to the author.
Mr. Philbrick for some reason also feels the need to revive the mythical Custer-for-president tale invented by leftist activist Mari Sandoz out of whole cloth. Well before we come to the crucial events of June 25, 1876, Custer's character has been completely trashed.
I had expected better. And as I persevered, I was rewarded with a more thoughtful appraisal of Custer, as a soldier at least, if not as a man.
Custerphobes might be disappointed to learn, for example, that Mr. Philbrick's judgment is that the man most responsible for the "sad and terrible blunder" of the last stand was none other than General Alfred Terry, whose final instructions to Custer left the commander of the Seventh Cavalry "hesitant and depressed", doubting himself for the first time in his very successful career.
Mr. Philbrick makes a thoughtful examination of Terry's orders, pointing to his "lawyer's talent for crafting documents that appeared to say one thing but were couched in language that could allow for an entirely different interpretation should circumstances require it" - his orders to Custer being a case in point. "With these orders," the author tells us, "Terry had managed to protect his reputation no matter what the outcome. If Custer bolted for the village and claimed a great victory, it was because Terry had had the wisdom to give him an independent command. If Custer did so and failed, it was because he had disobeyed Terry's written orders." And of course, Custer did very nearly pull off a brilliant victory (as Mr. Philbrick admits) and Terry did use his cleverly written orders to put all the blame on Custer.
As the author points out, Custer was expected to attack. And as he also points out, even had Custer waited until the 26th (which he was not expected to do), Terry did not arrive until the 27th and his approach was so haphazard it is difficult to see how he could have been any use to Custer at all.
Benteen and Reno, reasonably enough, fail to come across in a sympathetic light, along with many of the officers of the Seventh. Reno was drunk, Benteen disobeyed orders and failed to march to the sound of the guns, as was expected of any commander of the period. Moylan and others broke down or like Reno and Weir, succumbed to the bottle. Mr. Philbrick rightly wonders what would have happened had Reno pressed his initial attack when the Indian participants themselves admit the village was in utter confusion and panic.
Much of the account of the battle itself not unreasonably focuses on that part we know best - Reno's charge, blundering retreat, and hilltop siege. Here we have survivors and abundant if sometimes conflicting testimony. Mr. Philbrick does the best he can with this. If Benteen disobeyed orders, and barely participated in the initial stages of the battle, he more than made up for it once he decided to fight. There is little anyone can do to restore Reno's reputation, though in the author's view he was "not the sniveling coward some later made him out to be."
There is a speculative account of the actions of Custer and his battalion after trumpeter Martini's departure. Here the author follows the outline provided by archaeologist Richard A. Fox's Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle. In a sense, it is disappointed that the account is as brief as it is, as the book's title is, after, the Last Stand. Much more thorough accounts are to be had and I recommend Gregory Michno's Lakota Noon and his The Mystery of E Troop: Custer's Gay Horse Company at the Little Bighorn, which boasts its own speculative account of the movements of this well known company. In brief, Mr. Philbrick argues that Custer's battalion battled for a couple of hours (not mere minutes as detractors claim) and that Custer remained on the offensive almost until the very end.
The author rounds out his study with a brief examination of the aftermath of the Last Stand, including Sitting Bull's efforts to retain leadership of his people once on the reservation and his murder at the hands of the tribal police, and Libbie Custer's efforts to restore and maintain the reputation of her husband as a courageous and upright soldier and loving husband. In this regard, James Donovan in his A Terrible Glory, does a superior job, but this can be put down to the differing agendas of the two authors.
The reader will find rewarding Mr. Philbrick's ample notes, written in narrative style, which are a very useful and informative accompaniment to the text but also an excellent read on their own.
The bibliography is exhaustive, and the book contains numerous maps and illustrations, both in black and white and in color. There are also two appendices, one on the Seventh Cavalry on the afternoon of June 25, 1876, which lists all the officers, men and civilians mentioned in the text by battalion and company, and another which does the same for Sitting Bull's village on that day, listed by tribe.
The Last Stand may not be the best account of the Little Bighorn but it is a worthy read and I highly recommend it to students of the battle.