THE LAST STAND by Nathaniel Philbrick

Book Quote:

“We interact with one another as individuals responding to a complex haze of factors: professional responsibilities, personal likes and dislikes, ambition, jealousy, self-interest, and, in at least some instances, genuine altruism. Living in the here and now, we are awash with sensations of the present, memories of the past, and expectations and fears for the future. Our actions are not determined by any one cause; they are the fulfillment of who we are at that particular moment. After that moment passes, we continue to evolve, to change, and our memories of that moment inevitably change with us as we live with the consequences of our past actions, consequences we were unaware of at the time.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (MAY 3, 2010)

“Custer had always lived life at a frenetic pace. He thrived on sensation. Whether it was courting Libbie in the midst of the Civil War, learning taxidermy during his first expedition in the northern plains, or writing his articles while surrounded by his dogs and listening to his band, he needed to be in the midst of an often self-created uproar. But by the night of June 21, at the age of thirty-six, Custer was finding it difficult to marshal the old enthusiasm.”

Burdened with financial troubles, having, in his flamboyant fashion, gravely offended the President of the United States and made enemies of several fellow officers, Custer needed a big win. As we all know, he didn’t get it. “Custer’s transformation into an American myth had much to do with the timing of the disaster,” Philbrick writes. The news of Custer’s battalion’s total annihilation reached the public on July 7, 1876, in the midst of centennial celebrations.

Philbrick’s thorough and lively book points out that for the Indians, “the battle marked the beginning of their own Last Stand.” Measures that Congress would not have funded previously allowed the army to mount a vigorous assault and within a few years all but one of the major tribal leaders were living on reservations. The exception was Sitting Bull, who held out until 1881 and even then did not go gently.

Most of the book revolves around the battle itself. Conflicting accounts were produced, it seems, by just about everyone who was in the vicinity. Philbrick picks his way through myriad narratives, piecing together a sequential picture of events from concurring versions, educated speculation and what evidence remains – including an archaeological study which found that the Indians had superior guns in addition to their thousands of arrows.

He gives us a vivid picture of the terrain – its old riverbank hollows and bluffs offering limited and deceptive visibility – and cuts between Indian and Army viewpoints, intensifying the narrative pace and providing a clearer vision of unfolding events. He fleshes out the participants – particularly, but not only, Custer and Sitting Bull – with letters and accounts from their friends, family, enemies, and selves.

Naturally – just as many hindsight accounts took note of omens, prophetic last words, etc. – Philbrick looks at the many ways disaster could have been averted, or at least mitigated. There is plenty of evidence that Sitting Bull wanted to negotiate and Custer, though there was nothing he loved so much as a battle, had shown a talent for Indian negotiation.

Misunderstanding, drunkenness, ambition, personal dislike, blunders and overconfidence all played their part at Little Bighorn and while Philbrick renders no judgments, he doesn’t shrink from expressing opinions.

Of the overall commander, General Alfred Terry, Philbrick says: “As Terry would have wanted it given the ultimate outcome of the battle, Custer has become the focal point, the one we obsess about when it comes to both the Black Hills Expedition and the Little Bighorn. But, in many ways, it was Terry who was moving the chess pieces. Even though his legal opinion launched the Black Hills gold rush and his battle plan resulted in one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history, Terry has slunk back into the shadows of history, letting Custer take center stage in a cumulative tragedy for which Terry was, perhaps more than any other single person, responsible.”

Outside of the battle itself, Philbrick gives us glimpses into Indian culture and the mood of westward yearning, land-hungry Americans. The Teton Sioux, the Lakota, had made enemies of most other Indian tribes in their own westward push to the Black Hills, a land Sitting Bull dubbed their “food pack” in his refusal to sell it the whites after Custer’s discovery of gold there in 1875.

The U.S. army had no trouble enlisting Indian scouts from enemy tribes in its battles against the Sioux, and many of them held personal grudges against Sitting Bull and his warriors.

The Lakota revered war although glory did not always involve killing, but could be satisfied by “counting coup.” Philbrick describes Sitting Bull’s gruesome sun dance rituals – hanging suspended from two sticks thrust through his chest wall, having 50 pieces of flesh sliced from each arm – but does not delve into the meaning of these displays, other than to prove Sitting Bull’s bravery and spiritual strength. These sun dance rituals usually led to visions. Which is not surprising after a couple days without food or water, bleeding in the blazing sun.

Philbrick does, however, provide copious notes (nearly 100 pages!), an extensive (27 pages) bibliography and a through index for those who want to pursue any further particulars.

There are also several glossy inserts of photographs and contemporary pictographs showing all the major principals, the land, and various battle depictions.

Masterfully organized and engagingly written, this is a history for anyone who enjoyed Philbrick’s previous books, among them In the In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower.

PUBLISHER:Viking Adult (May 4, 2010)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 202 readers
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Nathaniel Philbrick
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: For a fictional account of these events read  Dan Simmon‘s novel Black Hills (links to


May 3, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Non-fiction, Reading Guide, US Frontier West, Wild West, y Award Winning Author

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