by Rev. Vincent A. Heier & C. Lee Noyes
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull,
and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
By Nathaniel Philbrick
New York, NY: Viking Press, 2010 Pp. xxii. 466, contents, maps, preface, appendices, acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, illustration credits, index, hard cover, $30
Every year new books on General George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn are published. Whether written by professional historians or interested buffs, most have a limited audience—those who are devoted to the study of the Plains Indian Wars and especially the controversial events of June 25-26, 1876.
Then arrives best-selling author Nathaniel Philbrick, renown for his works on the sea. His latest effort, The Last Stand, attempts to probe the depths of the story and enlighten new readers as to what has already captured us!
We note that the author includes a nearly 30 page bibliography, so he appears to have done his homework. However, what seems to be absent from this impressive list are several original sources, notably records in the National Archives. We also wish that he had consulted some recognized Little Bighorn students so as to determine which sources would have been most helpful. Such expert advice would have enhanced the book’s accuracy, if not its credibility.
By his own admission, Philbrick notes that his first interest in Custer originated from the film Little Big Man. This revelation offers insight as to how he analyzes that officer’s controversial personality. He suggests that Custer may have harbored presidential aspirations and that he was an incessant womanizer (even as he scanned the non-combatants at Little Bighorn). The author dismisses Custer’s horsemanship since officers had better mounts and did not carry their own baggage. Even his well-known abstinence from alcohol was due to the “fact” that his personality constituted an adequate substitute for any stimulus that drinking might offer.
Unfortunately, Philbrick often cites Captain Frederick W. Benteen as the sole source for much of this criticism and facts. Although this officer clearly disliked his commander in 1876, his vitriolic hatred became apparent only in the 1890s—a fact the author fails to take into account. This unfortunate and uncritical reliance on Benteen’s later opinions without corroboration by other primary sources is a significant analytical flaw. No other eyewitness, for example, confirmed Custer’s alleged threat to “horse whip” Benteen after learning of the captain’s letter in the newspapers that condemned the “abandonment” of Major Joel H. Elliot and several enlisted men at the Washita fightin 1868.
Therefore, if we rely only on his extensive, acrimonious correspondence with Theodore Goldin in the 1890s, Benteen was not a credible source. Although the senior captain may have been an excellent source of camp gossip and outspoken example of the anti-Custer perspective in the 7th Cavalry, the “facts” that he remembered are clearly subject to as much question as the bitter opinions he expressed during his last years.
One of the strengths of the book is the way that the author amplifies the story by providing details about certain persons, places and events. His effective use of “flashbacks” does not (for the most part) distract the reader or detract from the current story line.
The major exception to this observation is the lengthy background devoted to the Washita campaign, which should have been condensed or discussed elsewhere. The book’s sources again might be questioned. For example, as to Custer’s alleged sexual relationship with the Cheyenne woman Monasetah, the author refers to the questionable account of Gail Kelly-Custer, who has claimed, without any substantial proof, that she is a descendant from this relationship, among other things.
Nevertheless the author has written a judicious interpretation of the military strategy of the 1876 Sioux War: for example, Custer’s written orders to go “in pursuit of the Indians” and thus prevent the escape of the non-reservation Lakota bands from the attempt of the U.S. Government’s to subdue them. His insightful emphasis on the critical role of expedition commander General Alfred H. Terry is on target and his perceptive analysis of that officer’s personality is a notable contribution to the on-going study of Little Bighorn.
The author credibly interprets the general’s rationale to give Custer an “independent” command. He makes a persuasive argument that, given the wording of his orders to his subordinate, Terry would be “covered” if Custer won or lost.
Philbrick generally follows current scholarship concerning the controversial movements of the two cavalry battalions with Custer at Little Bighorn. He thus agrees that part of that command advanced north past what would become “Last Stand Hill” in order to capture non-combatants. He also addresses and dismisses the interviews of Edward Curtis with the Crow scouts, who claimed that Custer delayed going into action by witnessing the retreat of Major Marcus Reno’s battalion from the Little Bighorn Valley.
The most challenging “source” on which this book depends is Private Peter Thompson of C Company. Although he was initially a member of Custer’s immediate command, this soldier survived by joining the combined Reno/Benteen battalions.
Regardless of its interest, most students of the battle have dismissed Thompson’s account. The author admits that certain events described by this enlisted man are far from plausible (such as his claimed sighting of Custer alone at the river). The map outlining his odyssey (titled “Peter Thompson’s Walkabout”) concedes that Thompson’s farthest downriver position is “highly speculative.”
Thompson’s story cannot be adequately assessed without reviewing his diary and other writings to which Philbrick alone has been granted access by family members. He and Private James Watson probably did fall behind Custer’s column after the two battalions turned north along the bluffs over the Little Bighorn. However, the circumstances that Thompson described (such as the initial stages of the Custer battle) are neither logical nor persuasive.
Moreover, various conversations and episodes involving Custer that Thompson claimed to have heard and/or witnessed are unlikely given the wide social gulf that existed between commissioned officers and enlisted men, a gulf that the author correctly notes. (The caste character of the 19th Century military is effectively examined in persuasive detail in Kevin Adams, Class and Race in the Frontier Army, which was reviewed in the Spring issue.)
The inordinate attention devoted to Thompson’s story (regardless of its merits) is likely to create more unnecessary confusion for the general reader in what is already a complicated series of events.
Any modern study of the Little Bighorn also must take into account the many conflicting Indian accounts of the fight. The author well describes the varied reactions of warriors and noncombatants and their subsequent defense of the village. His sympathetic portrayal of Sitting Bull contrasts with his more critical view of Custer. He echoes the unlikely story that Sitting Bull would have parlayed for peace with the soldiers if they had not attacked.
The book contains several factual errors. For example, Captain Myles W. Keogh’s company is described the “Wild I,” a mistake fostered by photographer Stanley J. Morrow’s early image of the battlefield grave of Corporal John Wild of the unit that died with Custer.
Notable technical errors include: the ammunition mules of the pack train each transported 1000 carbine rounds; two horses pulled each Gatling gun in Lieutenant Low’s battery; carbine sockets stored oats for the horses on the march up the Rosebud; twenty-five Arikara scouts (including Bloody Knife) crossed the Little Bighorn with Reno; horse travois and mule litters are confused, etc.
Finally, the author repeats the unsubstantiated statement that in 1866 Captain William J. Fetterman was “lured beyond the safety of Fort Phil Kearny by a small decoy party that included Crazy Horse.” As John Monnett has persuasively demonstrated (Greasy Grass 2008), no primary source makes this claim; no original documentation supports this statement.
Notwithstanding these factual mistakes, Nathaniel Philbrick presents the Little Bighorn story in a compelling manner. He has crafted a well-written, well-organized literary effort that appeals to the best-seller market (his target). Its excellent prose will maintain the attention and interest of the general reader who is not as well versed as Little Bighorn experts and specialists. A fine selection of photographs, including a section in color, complements this provocative story.
On the other hand, this contribution to the literature of the Little Bighorn will not satisfy scholars and students of Custer’s Last Battle, who will discern that it presents little new information and does not articulate a significant new interpretation of this historic clash of cultures. It does not bridge the gap between two distinct reading audiences with different expectations and interests.
Little Bighorn became a legend in its own time; and no American battle, perhaps not even Gettysburg, has been the subject of so much controversy and debate as to who and what was responsible for this tragedy on that bloody Sunday in 1876. If the legend of the Western Frontier has shaped much of the nation’s culture, the legend of Custer and his perpetual Last Stand has, in turn, so shaped our image of the West. This major literary contribution should again raise awareness of the impact of the Battle on the nation’s culture, history and values.
Although The Last Stand does not offer anything new to the study of the Little Bighorn, we do hope that it will encourage another generation to discover what we already know, that this is a story that stands the test of time no matter how many times it has been told and retold.
Reviewed by Rev. Vincent A. Heier and C. Lee Noyes