The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
by Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking, New York, 2010, $30.
The Last Stand is the latest of more than 3,000 books written about George Custer and/or the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Unfortunately, Nathaniel Philbrick gives the reader little new insight as to Custer, the battle or the times. The author says he spent four years researching the book, which may sound exhaustive to some but leaves scholars who have spent a lifetime studying Custer wondering if that is a boast or an apology.
Philbrick makes a number of questionable assertions, for instance that Sitting Bull might have peacefully returned to the reservation if Custer would have only stopped to speak to him—this is just eight days after the Indians had aggressively sought out and attacked Brig Gen. George Crook on the Rosebud. The author alludes to the old “Custer wanted to be president” scenario, long known to be a concoction of Mari Sandoz. Philbrick also uses Peter Thompson’s “survivor’s” testimony—called “a new source”—although Thompson’s story has been published, studied and repeatedly dismissed as so much nonsense. The use of footnotes would have been a great aid to those wishing an easy check of sources.
One cannot help but compare Philbrick’s book with the previous “definitive” book on Custer, James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory; the latter prevails for providing insights into the intrigues during Major Reno’s Court of Inquiry. But perhaps the general reader will remain unburdened by the historical baggage weighing down those who have studied the topic for decades. Philbrick delves into his topic with the relish of one making new discoveries and writes with a fresh, lively prose. For those somewhat unfamiliar with the Custer/Little Bighorn story, there is plenty of action, drama and pathos, and if Philbrick can capture new readers with his portrayal of a fascinating slice of our history, his efforts will have been worthwhile.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.