Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand

George Armstrong Custer is one of those Americans whose name has become legend, and as a big fan of Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower I was eager to see the author take on Custer's myth in The Last Stand.  The Last Stand tells the story of Custer, Sitting Bull and Little Bighorn, and I found it to be a refreshing take on what would prove to be the last great battle of the American frontier.

Custer's behavior on the battlefield could be rash and impulsive and he had been court-martialed in the past, but thanks to what he called "Custer Luck" he had won some impressive victories and gained a reputation as a premier Indian fighter.  Despite this reputation, on a previous campaign he had chosen to negotiate with Indians rather than fight.  Sitting Bull also had no real desire to fight, instead preferring for his people to be left alone.  But on a campaign to gain access for gold miners to the Black Hills, Custer was given a blank check on how to approach any Indians that he came across, and he chose the bloody path.
The massacre of Custer's troops was by no means inevitable.  The "last stand" term that is often used to describe this event feels inappropriate, in that it was actually a botched offensive maneuver.  So what happened at Little Bighorn that caused Custer's troops to be massacred, with only one four-legged survivor hobbling out? There were more Indians that they had expected, due to a confluence of events.  Soldiers were unprepared for this type of battle, and many of them could barely control a horse.  Custer divided the troops when a single massive attack may have been more appropriate.  Commanders performed poorly due to panic and drunkenness.
Since there were no white survivors much of the actual Battle of the Little Bighorn is conjectured or taken from later oral histories from Native American survivors.  Much time is spent on the near-massacre that happened when Custer divided his troops and sent in another unit to attack the Indian camp from the South.  In this case, the Indians were taken by surprise, but due to fear and inexperience the troops were unable to act upon this advantage.  The panic and desperation that Philbrick captures is impressive, as nearly half of this regiment was wiped out.
While this book may not have had the expansive feel of Mayflower, one of the things that both books do really well is explore politics between Indian tribes and between the Indian and non-Indian.  Another interesting subtext in the book has to do with Custer's relationship with fellow officers.  While generally loved by his men, past conflicts meant that many of the officers felt distrust and jealousy towards Custer, who admittedly felt the same way towards them. Philbrick speculates on how the interrelationship between these men might have affected their conduct on the battlefield.  The book feels big but reads brisk, and with over 100 pages of appendices and endnotes you know that Philbrick has done his research!
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