The legend of Gen. George Armstrong Custer seeps into the cultural DNA of everyone in America. The Battle of the Little Bighorn is mythic, bigger than fact.
So it is an impressive feat that Nathaniel Philbrick can cast fresh eyes onto this battlefield well trod by historians, biographers, apologists and revisionists to tell us anew what happened there.
I was learning new things right from the opening sentences of the preface, in which Philbrick — who has written two histories involving the sea (Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea) — describes Custer alone on the Kansas plains, “Like a shipwrecked sailor … enveloped by wind-rippled crests and troughs of grass…” wildly galloping alongside an enormous buffalo bull.
This page and a half of Custer, pearl-handled pistol in hand, pounding side-by-side with a shaggy giant beast, is a vividly described, giddy, beautifully told scene full of excitement and thunder — and one I had never heard before.
Philbrick later reveals the scene comes from Custer’s own book, My Life on the Plains.
And herein lies the strength of The Last Stand. Philbrick is a tireless researcher who draws together the many strands of this episode and synthesizes them into a clear and powerful narrative.
Suddenly we can follow specific individuals — both white and Indian — around the battlefield and get a richly textured account. We read in splendid, sometimes horrifying, detail what Pvt. Peter Thompson had to do to get the drink of water he had promised a wounded friend. How Moving Robe Woman, whose 10-year-old brother Deeds was killed by troopers, reacted when she encountered wounded interpreter Isaiah Dorfman in the open.
The book has maps aplenty, making it easy to follow movements of Indians and soldiers. There are also three sections of photographs, which include full-color images of the ledger art sketched by warriors in the years after the battle. The level of precision in these drawings, when compared to written accounts, is chilling.
In place of myth, Philbrick offers an intimate and beautifully written history.