The Last Stand, by Nathan Philbrick, is a splendid foray into the past, an examination of not only the Battle of the Little Bighorn but also of two of its more prominent participants, Sitting Bull and Custer. Though he relies on the testimony of those involved whenever possible, he is quick to point out that he "remains an outsider doing my best to make sense of it all."
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.