The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

by Nathaniel Philbrick

New York: Viking

2010

466 pages

$30.00

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The combination of a troubled presidential administration, an unclear national strategy, an army equipped with inadequate doctrine and inappropriate materiel, and a skilled tribally organized foe describes situations that the United States has faced in recent conflicts; however, Nathanial Philbrick's account is about a battle that occurred on the Western Plains of America over one hundred and thirty-five years ago, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, popularly known as the Custer Massacre. While a virtual book-writing machine has thrived over the last century examining every aspect of this event, resulting in thousands of documents, Philbrick has successfully combined insight from first-hand accounts, official histories, campaign studies, personality studies, and other sources to provide a new account that coherently presents a plausible explanation for the 7th Cavalry's tragic defeat.

While The Last Stand is more than just the story of George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment, Sitting Bull, and the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes; there is little coverage of the campaign plan, details on national strategy, history of American policy for its native people, or similar topics in Philbrick's history. Those details are found in numerous other sources, as explained by the detailed endnotes and extensive bibliography in this book. Despite the presence of so many sources, Philbrick notes that a truly accurate account of the battle remains difficult, if not impossible, due to the complete loss of Custer's battalion, the intentional manipulation of history by surviving participants, and the challenge of understanding accounts muddied by bad memory, culture misunderstanding, and poorly skilled interpreters.

Philbrick's methodology in explaining the Little Bighorn battle is primarily chronologic, as he reviews the preparation, conduct, and aftermath of the battle, interspersed with brief historical vignettes that illuminate important aspects of the key leaders. Throughout this account, the author notes the importance of personal relationships. The interpersonal dynamics between Custer and his two key subordinates, Major Reno and Captain Benteen, significantly shaped the conduct of the fight, directly contributing to Custer's decision to split his force prior to the battle and influencing Reno and Benteen's actions when they were unclear about the status of Custer and his battalion. Similarly, Custer's complex relationship with his Commander, General Terry, resulted in orders that are still debated today.

One of the strengths of Philbrick's story is his discussion of the battlefield terrain. …