award-winning author exposes gruesome details about Little Bighorn
and revisits the story of its much-hated hero
Review: The Last Stand, by Nathaniel Philbrick
than anything else, he wanted to be remembered." That's how
Nathaniel ("Mayflower") Philbrick sizes up George Armstrong
Custer toward the end of "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull
and the Battle of the Little Bighorn," and no one will dispute
that America's ultimate glory hound got his wish. Too bad the victorious
Lakota and Cheyenne weren't feeling respectful after wiping out
his command in what's now Montana on June 25, 1876. They not only
punctured the dead Custer's eardrums because he "wouldn't listen,"
but -- in a detail long suppressed by decorum -- jammed an arrow
up the corpse's penis.
his own folly was to blame. But to quote an American poet (well,
he was) named Ronald Reagan, who in 1941 played the young Custer
opposite Errol Flynn's J.E.B. Stuart in the wildly implausible "Santa
Fe Trail," facts are stupid things. Idealized in the Budweiser
promotional lithograph that once decorated the nation's saloons,
restaged to gallant or belittling effect in too many movies to count,
the prairie Götterdämmerung we know as "Custer's
Last Stand" has endured, above all, as an iconic American image.
It's the perfect middle panel in an imaginary triptych whose bookends
are Washington crossing the Delaware and the flag-raising on Iwo
the larger enterprises the other two symbolize are less morally
iffy, which is why Custer's main contribution to winning-of-the-West
triumphalism was providing it with a martyr. For 19th-century audiences,
Sitting Bull's morose participation in the reenactments that climaxed
Buffalo Bill's hugely popular Wild West show in the 1880s must have
seemed like the equivalent of the real Pontius Pilate performing
in a passion play.
Custer has long since become an embarrassment to educated white
Americans. But the effort we've put into debunking him amounts to
admitting we're stuck with him. From the Goldilocks hairdo he'd
actually rid himself of before Little Bighorn to the final, almost
certainly inaccurate, tableau of The Last White Man Standing as
the "hostiles" close in, he's the horse's ass we rode
the Custer literature is huge. An online search tosses up almost
twice as many titles as there are books on the Titanic's sinking
-- another shock, as Philbrick notes, that also caused a society
"drunk on its own potency and power" to "wonder how
this could have happened."
of both disasters' fascination is how much we know about everything
but the climax. Events aboard the Titanic after the lifeboats left
are as mysterious as the last moments of Custer and the men who
died with him after he pulled off his hat, shouted "Hurrah,
boys, we've got them!" and vanished from non-hostile sight.
That's despite plenty of firsthand testimony from, so to speak,
the iceberg, since the many Indian accounts of the battle have a
maddening way of giving short shrift to white people's priorities
in the questions they leave unanswered.
research seems to have led him to some tantalizing new finds, but
how much "The Last Stand" adds to the agreed-on facts
is a judgment best left to those most steeped in the lore. As literature,
it isn't in a class with the most acclaimed of all Custer books:
Evan S. Connell's 1984 "Son of The Morning Star," to which
Philbrick pays due tribute in his notes. Yet Connell's treatment
of the material was primarily a triumph of style, and his saturnine
reductiveness had a grating side. Less ostentatiously aestheticized
and more compassionate, Philbrick's account is a better introduction
for readers who want a clear picture of what happened and why we
obsess about it.
of his assets is his unprejudiced curiosity about the main players'
psychologies. The snideness afforded by hindsight isn't his thing.
His gift for narrative organization lets him weave in asides and
biographical nuggets that add context without blurring the complicated
sequence of maneuvers and decision-making leading up to the final
debacle, all the way from Washington -- where the master plan to
subdue the recalcitrant Sioux was hatched -- to Custer's reckless
idea of dividing his command in three to attack an enemy camp whose
strength and even location he hadn't properly reconnoitered.
virtue is Philbrick's concentration on how Custer's last campaign
must have registered as experience. We're kept vividly aware of
the confusing topography, the thirst, heat and stench, the wearisome
fussing with horses and equipment, the loneliness of the whole situation.
This first-rate popular historian is primarily known for his seafaring
books; indeed, The Last Stand is the first time he's ventured this
far from salt water. But that background turns out to be unexpectedly
good preparation for understanding "two self-contained and
highly structured communities" on the move in an otherwise
desolate landscape: the Seventh Cavalry and the Native American
tribes gathering on the Little Bighorn.
1876, Custer was a renowned enough Indian fighter to have published
a bestselling autobiography two years earlier: "My Life on
The Plains," renamed "My Lie on The Plains" by one
skeptic who'd served under him. But after the laurels he'd won as
the Civil War's youngest and most dashing model of a modern major
general, his reduced peacetime rank and constricted room for initiative
left him chafing. Mistrusted by his superiors, he had even more
fractious relations with two of his subordinates: Major Marcus Reno
and Captain Frederick Benteen, who didn't much like each other either.
This was fateful, since Reno and Benteen were in charge of the Seventh
Cavalry's other two columns once Custer's contingent rode off.
of them are fascinating figures in their own right. Reno has often
been faulted for cowardice, but Philbrick blames the bottle instead.
That's something of a chicken-and-egg question, given Reno's behavior
at Little Bighorn. Not only was he too drunk during most of the
battle to exercise command more than feebly, but he recuperated
afterward by buying (and, presumably, downing) "an astonishing
eleven gallons of whiskey over a twenty-two-day period."
hard drinker himself, Benteen -- the source of the "My Lie
on The Plains" crack -- was a very different kettle of fish
otherwise. Cantankerous and sardonic, he saw himself as a hard-boiled
professional disgusted by Custer's "pretentious silliness."
Yet his chilling satisfaction at the sight of Custer and his inner
circle dead on the field -- "The Lord, in His own good time,
had at last rounded the scoundrels up" -- has a touch of Iago.
"In Russia," Benteen once bragged, "they'd call me
a Nihilist sure!"
plan was apparently to duplicate his success eight years earlier
against Black Kettle's Cheyenne band on the Washita, one of those
engagements white people called a battle and Indians called a massacre.
Splitting his command then as now, he'd destroyed the Indians' village
-- populated mainly by women and children -- and devastated their
pony herd, then gotten away before their warriors could hit him
have one unmatched authority's word for it that he came amazingly
close to doing it again. "We thought we were whipped,"
Sitting Bull said, recalling the moment when Custer's men were first
spotted riding toward the valley sheltering the Indian camp's vulnerable
didn't work out that way. Meant to support Custer's attack, Reno's
own bungled charge had been repulsed. That panicked him and his
men into a retreat that became a skedaddle before the survivors
took refuge on a promontory known today as Reno Hill. Meanwhile,
Benteen, sent with his three companies by Custer on an expedition
with no recognizable purpose except to cheat him of his share of
the expected glory, had turned back from his fool's errand even
before getting a message from Custer to "Come quick."
The last communication from him, it was brought by a lucky bugler
named Martin or Martini.
from "coming quick," Benteen didn't come at all after
finding Reno. In retrospect, this was probably sensible. Not only
did Benteen have no idea what he'd have been riding into, he and
Reno were soon surrounded and fighting for their lives. But considering
that Benteen's deepest grudge against Custer was a suspicion that
he'd abandoned another officer to a lonely death at the Washita
back in 1868, his refusal to even try going to Custer's aid is arresting.
fact, any self-respecting Elizabethan would milk that moment for
a "Fair brain, foul heart" soliloquy, especially since
the gunshots and dust clouds in the distance were making it likely
Benteen's C.O. had run into more than he'd bargained for. The appearance
early on June 26 of a large number of Lakota and Cheyenne braves
dressed in cavalry uniforms whose former owners had no further use
for them was an even more definite hint.
the fight on Reno Hill, once Sitting Bull's warriors got done dispatching
Custer and encircled the Seventh Cavalry's remainder, was the part
of the Battle of Little Bighorn that does qualify as a "stand."
But not a last one, since a relief column rescued Reno, Benteen,
and their men late on June 26. With a wealth of survivors' reports
to draw on -- just what's lacking in Custer's case, obviously --
"The Last Stand's" minute-by-minute account of their ordeal
is packed with memorable images and incidents, from the hiss of
escaping gas as fresh bullets strike a horse's bloated body to one
wounded trooper's attempt to take a canteen of precious water at
gunpoint. Only then does Philbrick turn back to Custer's fate.
the folklore, the odds are good that whatever happened was unheroically
over in all of 20 minutes. Viewing the scattered dead on June 27
("You could take a handful of corn and scatter it over the
floor and make just such lines"), Benteen concluded that it
had been "a panic -- a rout." In other words, the sort
of encounter Indians called a battle and white people called a massacre.
evidence suggests that Custer himself may have become a casualty
before the "Last Stand," going a long way toward explaining
the collapse. Another possibility is that, to avoid capture and
torture, he was shot near the end by his own brother Tom -- who
died with him, as did a third Custer brother (Boston). But all anybody
knew for certain was that there all 210 of them were, many mutilated
and nearly all stripped naked. Hence one junior officer's famously
anguished cry: "Oh, how white they look! How white!"
isn't especially successful when he tries to go macro. His attempt
to link Custer's myth to other celebrated Last Stands -- the Alamo,
Thermopylae -- doesn't acknowledge the problem that both of those
were calculated sacrifices, not botched overreach. His occasional
lapses into indicting "arrogance," American imperialism,
and the like come off trite and forced. But that's mainly because
his own storytelling skills make such rhetoric redundant.
much better at sketching the dynamic United States that was turning
Custer into yesterday's hero even as it lionized his exploits. The
1876 Centennial Exhibition, whose grand opening in Philadelphia
predated the Little Bighorn by under two months, lets Philbrick
get a lot of mileage just from listing the modern marvels introduced
there: "Hires root beer, Heinz ketchup, the Remington typographic
machine (later dubbed the typewriter), and Alexander Graham Bell's
telephone." That "later dubbed" parenthesis is a
with a taste for incongruous symbolism may be even happier to learn
that one of the Seventh Cavalry's "more ornery mules"
was named Barnum, after the circus impresario. Loaded with valuable
ammunition boxes, he decided to change sides during the fight on
Reno Hill, which may be the best joke in this grueling saga. The
soldier who headed off Barnum's dash toward the Indians won a Medal
of Honor for it, too.
a sense, thanks to Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull ended up joining Barnum's
side instead. His share of "The Last Stand" falls short
of the full-scale dual portrait implied by the book's subtitle,
but the contrast between "Custer's hyperactive need to do too
much" and his opponent's methodical patience is both illuminating
and good drama. Not only the shrewd strategist we've met before
-- the jolt his victory gave 19th-century prejudices is evident
in the hysterical rumors that he was either a renegade West Pointer
or, even funnier, had learned French to study Napoleon's maxims
-- Sitting Bull emerges here as a first-rate politician, skilfully
managing different factions in his unique role as war chief to an
alliance of frequently disputative tribes.
the odd exception of Crazy Horse, who gets only glancing treatment,
Philbrick is equally good on the lesser personalities on the Indian
side. They're convincingly contentious, complicated human beings,
blessedly lacking in the mystique that "Son of The Morning
Star," for all its sophistication, didn't exactly work overtime
to dispel. Philbrick does best by Gall, the Hunkpapa chief whose
friction since childhood with Custer's favorite scout, Bloody Knife,
is a reminder of how peculiarly intimate the frontier wars were.
For that matter, so is the name of the only Seventh Cavalry horse
to survive the last stand, found "hit by seven different bullets
and arrows" and lovingly cared for until his death 15 years
may find more to quarrel with here than I did. But even if Philbrick
has everything right, that doesn't make "The Last Stand"
the "definitive" book on the Little Bighorn, any more
than Connell's was. There clearly ain't no such animal, and never
will be. What may be most to this one's credit is a humanity that
can make even inveterate Custer-haters pity the men who got stuck
following him, as did at least one Sioux warrior at the time. "I
felt really sorry for them, they looked so frightened," Standing
Bear later told his son. "Many of them lay on the ground, with
their blue eyes open, waiting to be killed."