It is a chapter of American history that is integral to our nation’s story, but too often seems to be overlooked. Coming between the Civil War and America’s rise as a global power in the dawn of the 20th Century, the battles between the US Army and Native tribes in the West are important to this country’s history.
That era’s most prominent military figure – then and now – is George Armstrong Custer. Renowned for his catastrophic defeat and death at the Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer and the battle are more complex than common perception acknowledges. Raise your hand if you knew that Custer, in some pre-Little Bighorn campaigns, chose negotiation over battle. Raise your other hand if you knew that not all of Custer’s soldiers died that day on the banks of Little Bighorn.
These truths and many others can be found in Nathaniel Philbrick’s superb “The Last Stand.” Using the Battle of Little Bighorn as his focal point, Philbrick describes the lives of the battle’s two opposing leaders: Custer and Sitting Bull. Throughout the story, Philbrick examines both men in terms of their military history, their abilities as leaders, and their ultimate demises.
Philbrick wants us to believe the story of Little Bighorn is about more than just a battle. He is right. In “The Last Stand,” he explains that the discovery of gold in the Black Hills led to an unstoppable flood of settlers moving to the Dakotas in the hopes of getting rich. The problem for the US Government was that previous treaties had ensured those very same Black Hills to tribes that had been forced to move west. Unable to stop these settlers, the US Government offered to buy the land from the tribes. With the tribes unwilling to accept this proposal, the government gave them an ultimatum. On December 6th, 1875, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and all non-reservation Indians in the area were told to either report to government agencies by the end of January or be brought in by force.
Philbrick describes the inter-unit politics that bedeviled the US Army’s force as it set out in the late spring of 1876 to track down Sitting Bull and the Lakotas. The military force consisted of three columns. One moving north from Wyoming, another heading east from Montana and the final one, the group Custer was in, moving west. While Custer clashed with his superior, General Terry, it was his relationship with two officers in his own unit that helped seal his fate at Little Bighorn.
The days before the Battle of Little Bighorn, June 25th 1876, are filled with moments, that if handled differently, could have saved Custer and the units he led into battle. Mutual animosities, missed opportunities, and hubris doomed too many to death that day. One of the interesting parts of the books is how Sitting Bull’s belief in waiting to attack helped the Lakota maximize their numbers advantage and minimize the psychological advantage of a surprise cavalry attack.
Perhaps most haunting, considering the eventual outcome of the fight for the west, is a vision that came to Sitting Bull prior to the Battle of Little Bighorn. In it, he was told that his people would achieve a great victory against the army. He was also told that after the fight, his warriors and people were to leave the bodies and not pilfer their valuables or else they too would suffer a great defeat. As the dust cleared and the fight past on that warm June evening, Sitting Bull saw his people doing exactly what he had beseeched them not to do.
The story of the last stands made by Sitting Bull and Custer, as told by Philbrick, are riveting parts of American history. Addressing all sides of the battle and doing his best to give context to the decisions made during the military campaign that led to the Battle of Little Bighorn, Philbrick brings these actors to life. “The Last Stand,” by Nathaniel Philbrick, is a book that should be required reading in all US History classes.