Death at the Little Bighorn: A New Look at Custer—His Tactics and the Tragic Decisions Made at the Last Stand, by Phillip Thomas Tucker, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2017, $27.99
Phillip Thomas Tucker is certain to get Custerphiles in another uproar with his latest book. A civilian historian with the Department of Defense, Tucker is no stranger to controversy. His book Pickett’s Charge: A New Look at Gettysburg’s Final Attack reconsidered the iconic turning point of the Civil War.
This time Tucker tackles Custer’s Last Stand, arguing that the true turning point at the Little Bighorn came with the earlier charge at Medicine Tail Coulee Ford. Many historians have called that move “a weak feint” to help Major Marcus Reno’s failed initial charge, but Tucker suggests Custer envisioned a potential “overpowering blow.” It didn’t work, and when Custer was wounded leading the charge, his command fell into disarray.
Tucker relies heavily on accounts usually dismissed and/or discredited by most historians—e.g., those from civilian John C. Lockwood and alleged “lone survivor” Sergeant Frank Finkel (aka George August Finckle)—as well as overlooked or ignored versions from Lakotas and Cheyennes, including White Cow Bull. That said, the author is perhaps a bit sure of himself, peppering his narrative with phrases such as “for the first time,” “new and close look,” “unlike previous works” (often singling out James Donovan’s well-received A Terrible Glory), “revealing the true story” and “we now know.”
The truth, of course, is we’ll never know what exactly happened along Montana’s Greasy Grass River on June 25, 1876. That’s why publishers keep bringing out books about Custer and the Last Stand. Once again Custer defenders, detractors and conspiracy theorists will find much to argue about. Don’t they always?
—Johnny D. Boggs