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

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

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1St Edition (May 4, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670021725
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670021727
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 5.9 x 1.9 inches

150 years after George Armstrong Custer’s first appearance in the American Civil War, he still fascinates us.  We might feel it is a horrific accident or a great work of art but we always look at him.  He is a larger than life presence in our history, both loved and hated.  There are a goodly number of books and movies on Custer, his record in the Civil War and the Battle of Little Big Horn.   The range is from him being “the deranged maniac of Little Big Man” to “the noble hero … in They died with Their Boots On”.  A good Custer book is always a treat, always worth reading and this is a very good Custer book!

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel PhilbrickNathaniel Philbrick gives the reader a very human Custer.  Older but not wiser, he is as flamboyant as ever chafing under the restrictions of military life.  The author is careful to be fair to all sides, presenting a balanced portrait.  My only reservation is his reliance of Benteen for so much personal information.  While most of it is carefully collaborated, the glass is often half full.

The Seventh Cavalry is a character in this story.  The author takes a long hard look at the army during the Indian Wars, providing some surprising information.  Top heavy with senior offices reduced in rank after the Civil War, Custer is a Lieutenant Colonel reduced from Brigadier General, complicated by the brevet system of rank and under staffed they soldier on.  Careful preparation pays big dividends giving the reader an excellent understanding of the complex relationships within the regiment.  Understanding this adds an extra dimension to Reno and Benteen’s actions on the battlefield.

The author fully develops Sitting Bull and his village, providing a full background of tribal politics within their warrior society.  This is an extra dimension to the story and an important one.  While cautioned that Native American participants guarded what they said, their statements flesh out the account of the battle.  The book covers relations between “hostile” and “friendly” Indians and how this plays out during the campaign.

The centerpiece of the book is the Battle of Little Big Horn.  Seven maps and over 130 pages cover this in detail.  The author fully captures the chaos, fear and uncertainty of battle.  Weaving accounts of saviors with historical evidence produces a well-documented very readable account.  The author refuses to speculate on Custer’s battle.  This is not a HEROIC LAST STAND account of glorious battle.  This is a nasty dirty fight where one side is overrun and slaughtered.  While avoiding speculation the author captures the fear and collapse of Custer’s command.

Footnotes have a unique presentation.  They are endnotes referenced to pages.  However, there are no footnote numbers.  The endnotes represent a walk through the documents available to historians.  I read them as a stand-alone book, finding them very informative.

This is an excellent book.  Interesting, well researched, well documented and a pleasure to read.


One response to “Book Review: The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

  1. Dan Avatar

    I am about halfway through the book and it does take a balanced view of Custer. Anyone with a wit of history education understands that Custer was not Errol Flynn and not as Little Big Man portrayed.

    Unfortunately, most people forget movies are entertainment and not history, so the real Custer and what happened at LBH is never known by people that never crack a book.

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