Custer's Last Stand was one of my childhood touchstones, a staple of TV and movie Westerns, including one of Disney's history films. Even then, I had the sense that the film depictions were based more on Hollywood imagination than historic fact. I'd thought for years about reading a general history of Custer's campaign against the Lakota Sioux in the South Dakota Black Hills. Thus, I welcomed the publication of Nathaniel Philbrick's "The Last Stand, Custer, Sittling Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn."
Philbrick, a noted popular historian, brings alive Custer's time and the surprisingly refined Victorian lifestyle of Western forts, where wives lived and civilized homes. On the other hand, the primitive conditions of the Seventh Cavalry and the motley nature of its soldiers are striking. Philbrick shows a strong knowledge of Indian culture; one theme that stands out is how environmentally destructive they could be. In contrast to the general view of earth-frriendly Indian cultue, the Sioux apparently exhausted lands upon which they lived, frequently abandoning grazed-out territory to establish new camps. Their migrations chewed up swaths of prairie. Another strength of the book is Philbrick's in-depth rendering of the area's network of rivers, traversed by the riverboat "The Far West," an engineering marvel that kept the Army battalions connected to the forts with deliveries of mail and supplies.
While Custer remains of primary interest, Philbrick gives fascinating portraits of other characters such as Custer rivals Marcus Reno and George Crook. Indian scouts, common soldiers, Indian notables and even Custer's hunting dogs come alive. Custer commander Alfred Terry comes off as a fascinating dunce, one of the the bureaucratic, ineffective military planners so prevalent in U.S. history. The flawed heroic figure Capt. Frederick Benteen dominates Phubrick's account of the Indians' harrowing siege of cavalry companies, many of them survivors of a separate attack on the day of Custer's debacle. Trapped in ferocious heat on a ridge without water and replusing a series of Indian attacks, Benteen and Reno's men still thought Custer alive and victorious in his separate excursion.
Custer's Last Stand gives the campaign against the Indians the immediacy of the best writing about Civil War battles. The defeat of Custer was actually the Indians' last stand, the high poinit in their resistance against the white man. Sitting Bull's triumph was shortlived, a moment of victory before the tragedy of Wounded Knee. The Army campaign to seize the Black Hlls, sacred to the Sioux, marks a pivotal event, when America left behind a policy of generosity for the Indians and changed to one of cultural destruction. Philbrick implicates U.S. Grant in the shift. While Philbrick shows the cruelty and belligerence of the Sioux, their downfall is an ugly event in our history. "The Last Stand" makes clear that the lessons of Little Big Horn and the ultimate defeat of the Sioux remain relevant.