Friday, January 27, 2012

Off Topic---The Last Stands of Custer and Sitting Bull

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking Press, 466 pages, 18 maps, 64 b/w images, 11 color images, notes, bibliography, two appendices, 2010, $30.00 hardcover, $18.00 paperback.

Nathaniel Philbrick handled the histories Mayflower and the whaleship Essex exceptionally well. His consideration of Custer, Sitting Bull and their greatest battle is a fine example of good storytelling with primary sources, archaeology and artifacts. His presentation of the Custer legend and the development of the Little Big Horn story in popular culture is clear and concise. The films They Died With Their Boots On and Little Big Man are set within the Custer and Native American historiographies. Philbrick states that Custer is “more a cultural lightning rod than a historical figure, an icon instead of a man.”

The United State centennial celebration, the Democratic national presidential convention, and army politics are several of the many issues for George Armstrong Custer. The facets of Custer the man include glory seeking, charisma, the ability to deny obvious realities, personal arrogance, and a cheating heart. Sitting Bull is shown to be a prophet, warrior and chief. Philbrick states that Sitting Bull was "convinced that he alone had his people’s welfare in view, a conviction that inevitably exasperated those Lakota attempting to meet the challenges of reservation life in their own way."

Regarding his description of the Battle of The Little Big Horn and Indians' two day siege of Reno's troops, Philbrick is cautious in his claims. He relies on the army's inquiry testimony, survivors accounts, Native American accounts, Libby Custer's promotional efforts and modern archaeology to reveal the discrepancies of past narratives. Multiple points of view are presented in his narrative of specific events such as Custer's wounding and later death, Benteen's and Reno's character and the Native Americans attitudes toward their own chances of self defense. Overall, Philbrick's account is judicious in the weight he gives terrain and weather, weapons and logistics, and behaviors during crises. Compellingly written, informative and fair, Philbrick's The Last Stand is an engaging history book.


Ron Baumgarten said...

I bought this book a while ago and am looking forward to reading it. How would you compare it to the recent PBS documentary, assuming you watched that program? Thanks for any insights.

Rea Andrew Redd said...

The PBS American Experience program was good as 60 minutes will allow. I appreciated the elevated views of the battlefield and the surrounding terrain. The book is first rate. It has a strong narrative, well paced and considers the different interpretations of the events.