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

Nathaniel Philbrick
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 26 2011
"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 and Pulitzer Prize finalist Mayflower, 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.


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Review

"A mesmerising portrait of two extraordinary individuals and a thrilling blow-by-blow account of a landmark battle, it is a terrific achievement" -- Dominic Sandbrook The Sunday Times "A stirring, perceptive retelling of an endlessly fascinating battle" Kirkus "Philbrick humanizes history, not only putting a recognizable face on the players in one of America's most notorious events but also providing insight into their hearts and minds" American Library Journal "Philbrick 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... compelling" Publishers' Weekly "As brilliant an example of combat reconstruction as one is likely to find in any history of this scope and ambition" -- Trevor Royle Sunday Herald --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Nathaniel Philbrick, is a leading authority on the history of Nantucket Island. His In the Heart of the Sea won the National Book Award. His latest book is Sea of Glory, about the epic U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842. His other books include Away off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890 (which Russell Baker called "indispensable") and Abram's Eyes: The Native American Legend of Nantucket Island ("a classic of historical truthtelling," according to Stuart Frank, director of the Kendall Whaling Museum). He has written an introduction to a new edition of Joseph Hart's Miriam Coffin, or The Whale Fisherman, a Nantucket novel (first published in 1834) that Melville relied upon for information about the island when writing Moby Dick. Phillbick's Why Read Moby-Dick? was a finalist for the New England Society Book Award.

Philbrick, a champion sailboat racer, has also written extensively about sailing, including The Passionate Sailor (1987) and Second Wind: A Sunfish Sailor's Odyssey. He was editor in chief of the classic Yaahting: A Parody (1984).

In his role as director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies, Philbrick, who is also a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association, gives frequent talks about Nantucket and sailing. He has appeared on "NBC Today Weekend", A&E's "Biography" series, and National Public Radio and has served as a consultant for the movie "Moby Dick", shown on the USA Network. He received a bachelor of Arts from Brown University and a Master of Arts in American Literature from Duke. He lives on Natucket with his wife and two children.

 

 

 

 


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4.7 out of 5 stars
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars All you could ever want to know and more . . . July 12 2010
By Rodge TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This blow-by-blow account of Custer's last stand, alternating as it does between the perspective of Sitting Bull and Custer, is a strong candidate for "best popular account" and perhaps the "if you only read one book on this, read this one." The story aspect is very important to Philbrick and he unfolds the narrative as much like a drama as possible, getting into every conceivable detail and trying to tease out who was really responsible for what, and ultimately, why exactly did it all happen?

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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 300 years... Dec 7 2010
By Regnal
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
..had passed before white people managed to end the Natives lifestyle.
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).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reads as a Fast-Paced Novel Sept. 1 2010
By Jeffrey Swystun TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This is my first book on the battle and Philbrick brings it to life with great clarity. No one debates the importance of the event or the inability of history to reveal what actually happened but the author does an incredible job delivering a compelling narrative from fact, witness confusion, and credible supposition (much like speculating on the Franklin expedition).

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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  278 reviews
372 of 387 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vivid history of the Little Bighorn battle May 5 2010
By Bruce Trinque - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Nathaniel Philbrick is normally associated with nautical history, so it might be something of a surprise that in "The Last Stand" he has chronicled the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a military event that took place about as far from the ocean as you can get. But, it might be remembered that a large part of his "Mayflower" book was focused on the violent relations between the Pilgrims and Indians and on the slightly later King Phillip's War. Here in "The Last Stand", the author has returned to the subject of white-Indian relations and has created a vivid, engaging book.

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.
121 of 132 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Nice treatment, nothing new or noteworthy May 25 2010
By Mark A. Cartier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As the owner of over 40 books on the Little Big Horn, I found this book to be a nice, reasonably "light" treatment of the Little Big Horn. If you are new to this particular event in our history, this is certainly a decent primer. I would also recommend "A Terrible Glory" by James Donovan, and "Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn" by Evan S. Connell which was reviewed (quite favorably) in Time Magazine when originally released.

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.
108 of 125 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A story of two nations and one climactic moment. April 23 2010
By DanD - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Much has been said about the Battle of Little Bighorn. George Armstrong Custer has been portrayed as both an arrogant imbecile and a national hero. Sitting Bull has been portrayed as a murderous villain and a cultural icon of steadfastness.

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.
113 of 131 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great detail, but treatment of characters is uneven May 4 2010
By Enjolras - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Custer, Sitting Bull, and Little Bighorn have become iconic names in American history, but often only through a distorted lens. Like many other students, I learned that George Armstrong Custer was a buffoon who led his troops to disaster at the Little Bighorn and that Sitting Bull was a "noble savage" (to use the term that sums up modern stereotypes of 19th century American Indians).

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.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Splendit Foray into the Past May 8 2010
By Hrafnkell Haraldsson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
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.
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