Many Americans incorrectly believe that the Battle of the Little Bighorn left no survivors, but there were countless men and women who survived. They were able to recall details of a battle that remains a quintessential moment in American history, but they were Indians. One Lakota warrior recalled that the fighting had lasted no longer than a hungry man needed to eat his lunch. In historical context, June 21, 1876, the day that George Armstrong Custer and nearly 300 soldiers and scouts of the Seventh Calvary were killed in battle with Indian warriors led by Sitting Bull, was as significant in its time as was September 11, 2001.
Still, today there is far more unknown about the battle than known. Was Custer foolish, unlucky, or betrayed by fellow officers? Did he die immediately, or did he fight courageously? Did the battle last minutes or hours? Questions abound and answers are few. Perhaps that explains why the life of George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn remain fertile ground for historians and writers.
Nathaniel Philbrick, author of MAYFLOWER, SEA OF GLORY, and IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, has shifted his focus to the American west with THE LAST STAND. Recounting the battle in a clear and neutral account, he adds to the rich history of the battle and the participants. Custer, Sitting Bull, Major Marcus Reno, and Captain Frederick Benteen are portrayed as neither heroes nor villains. Each made decisions in the fog of battle that were closely examined in 1876 and continue to be debated to this day. Students of the Little Bighorn may find some new information in the book. For example, Philbrick reports that Sitting Bull did not physically lead his troops in battle but exhorted his minions a distance from the battlefield. Generally, THE LAST STAND offers no “smoking gun” to those seeking answers to the mysteries of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
George Custer is the focus of THE LAST STAND. While Philbrick spends little time on Custer’s Civil War battle experience and its influence on his military career, he offers readers insight into the enigmatic soldier who is certainly one of history’s most recognized military figures. Custer was obsessed with cleanliness. He washed his hands constantly and carried a toothbrush on him at all times. He was a gambler and a womanizer, but did not drink. While known to the Indians as “yellow hair” for his long flowing locks, he fought his final battle with his hair closely shorn. Custer had lived an incredible life when one considers that he died in battle at age 36.
Philbrick focuses his historical writing on the role that major events have in shaping the American experience. The portrayal of the battle shifts among the Indians, Custer’s troops, and Benteen and Reno. Each of the four sum of the parts behaved in a fashion that led to the final conclusion of the battle. Had any of the four behaved differently, the battle may well have ended with a different outcome. A victorious George Custer may have influenced American history in a far different fashion than did the martyrdom of his death.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the life of George Custer remain one of history’s mysteries and myths. Custer has been portrayed in movies as an idealist, madman, and tactician who made fatal errors in June 1876. THE LAST STAND is a worthy addition to Custerology, an unsolved mystery that historians seek to solve today and certainly will continue to do so in the future.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 30, 2010