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the last stand

14 june 2010

Nathaniel Philbrick is one of those popular-history writers, like Simon Winchester or Erik Larson, that I'll rush out and read anything new by. The topic doesn't much matter: you know that the results of their treatment will be diverting, the narrative absorbing, and the take on the material will offer something individual.

So it is with Philbrick's Last Stand. Philbrick has been a chronicler of ships in American history: the Essex, the Mayflower. It's therefore unsurprising that a fair portion of his book about Custer and Sitting Bull should be devoted to the Far West, the river steamer that supplied Custer's regiment (and shipped its wounded survivors back to hospitals). Philbrick's nautical take on Custer is metaphorical, too. He makes the analogy that a commander of a frontier cavalry unit was much like the captain of a warship, often operating far from supervision, an autocrat by law but a diplomat perforce, struggling with the jealousies of subordinate officers who had been cooped up far too long together. In June 1876, those fermenting antagonisms spelled disaster for Custer's Seventh Cavalry.

In purely military terms, Little Bighorn is a stark illustration of the advantage of "interior lines." To put it less technically: sometimes it's an advantage to be completely surrounded. U.S. General Alfred Terry was sent to the territories in 1876 with a substantial army, on a mission to bring Sitting Bull and his many followers in to the reservation. Terry proceeded to divide his army into three groups and plan an encirclement. Custer, in charge of one third of the army, divided his third into thirds, and rode off toward Sitting Bull's village with that ninth of an army, which he promptly divided in half again. You probably know what happened next.

Attacking a village of 8,000 superb riders (many of them, including women and children, armed to the teeth) with a few hundred underequipped cavalrymen is not smart, but it still might have worked had Custer and his lieutenants swept down on the fold with the panache of their opposite number, Crazy Horse. But while Crazy Horse spent the day charging through the Union lines like his mad equine namesake, Custer, Marcus Reno, and Frederick Benteen spent their time waffling in an uncoordinated fashion. Like all hesitaters, they ended up lost, though at least Reno and Benteen lived to never live the day down.

Philbrick's gruesome, unvarnished account of Little Bighorn conveys the "fog of war" exceptionally well: when the survivors lose track of Custer and his doomed men, we lose sight of them too. The only thing to fault in Philbrick's narrative is its hysteron-proteron forward-and-backing across great stretches of the 19th century, leaping ahead to 1890 and Wounded Knee while Terry is still retreating from the Little Bighorn aboard the Far West.

Conveyed brilliantly in The Last Stand, too, is the brutality of frontier war. Both Custer and Sitting Bull behaved hideously toward prisoners and towards battle dead. To blame either side seems inappropriate in hindsight, and to ask who started the atrocities would probably lead back to Plymouth Rock, if not Columbus. The fact is, by 1876 both the Cavalry and the Lakotas were engaged in a war that had no concept of Geneva conventions. Each new horror on either side begat horrors in revenge.

Americans like winners, though, and ever since 1876, Sitting Bull has been one of the most revered figures in the history of the West. Custer, on the other hand, has had mixed press, presenting an image that is likely to stay ambiguous for many years yet to come. He was unarguably as brave as they come. He was unarguably foolhardy. If he was brutal, he was no more brutal than his colleagues or his enemies. He had panache. It's impossible to admire Custer, but one comes away from The Last Stand with some respect for him within his own demented profession. Alas, even the most respectable agent of destruction cannot aspire to any greater status than angel of destruction, and Custer's final sacrifice is hardly an expiation.

Physically, over 1/4 of The Last Stand consists of documentation (notes, index, appendices). The volume contains excellent maps. Cheers to Nathaniel Philbrick for insisting on these accompaniments, and to Viking for providing them. Most publishers seem scared to death of apparatus, as if anything but text and the occasional photograph would unnerve readers. But being able to follow troop movements visually makes all the difference when reading military history.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the battle of the Little Bighorn. New York: Viking, 2010.