What I’m Reading: The Last Stand, Nathaniel Philbrick

Author: George Spencer

“The Last Stands” might have been a better title. In his engrossing history of the events that led to the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the slaughter of George Armstrong Custer and his 214 men, historian Nathaniel Philbrick makes clear the Lakota Sioux lost, too. Within months of their victory on June 25, 1876, they and almost all other Western tribes were forced onto reservations by the United States government.

“The victory, great as it was,” writes Philbrick, “had simply been the prelude to a crushing and irresistible defeat.” The U.S. government would officially announce the closing of the frontier in 1890, but the real end had come during this brutal and ghastly clash under the hot sun one afternoon in present-day southeastern Montana.

Philbrick Spencer

In Philbrick’s hands, the fates of Custer, Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and their respective nations were as preordained as events in a Greek tragedy. Back east, the massacre was doubly shocking because it came days before the celebration of America’s centennial. Like the sinking of the Titanic, the defeat marked a defining moment in time: How could this have happened, people asked, to someone as indestructible as Custer? The answer was easy. Custer met the iceberg of his destiny.

In the years before the battle, some 15,000 miners had swarmed the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory — land that belonged to the Sioux. Custer himself had discovered gold there. The conflict left the scandal-besieged U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant, with a decision to make: Evict the white settlers or declare hostile those Indians who refused to accept reservation life and send the Army to protect the pioneers. Grant chose the easy way out.

Philbrick weaves the Rashomon-like stories of Sitting Bull and Custer with those of other Army and American Indian leaders. He finds little to praise on either side. For his part, Custer projected “an aura of righteous and charismatic determination.” While on vacation in New York City, he saw Julius Caesar performed at least 40 times. Brutus and Cassius, writes Philbrick, “struggle with the realization that all was lost and that they must fall on their own swords, but not before Brutus, whom Marc Antony later dubs ‘the noblest Roman of them all,’ predicts, ‘I shall glory by this losing day.’”     

Meanwhile, Philbrick portrays an uncompromising Sitting Bull who “clung defiantly to traditional Lakota ways” because of “narrow-minded nostalgia for a vanished past.” Buffalo, which the tribe needed to survive, were dwindling. By the turn of the century, Philbrick writes, “The buffalo had become so rare that when a small herd appeared near the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, several elderly Lakota felt compelled to hug, instead of kill, the animals.” Sitting Bull knew a fight was coming yet had no interest in negotiating with the Army.

Both sides committed horrific atrocities. The Sioux tortured wounded U.S. soldiers and desecrated their bodies. “Save the last bullet for yourself,” Custer’s men had joked. Sitting Bull had foreseen a great victory, but his vision included a warning — the Sioux must not take any of “the normal spoils of war.” (An awl was used to pierce Custer’s eardrums, so he could hear better in the afterlife, and an arrow was stuffed in his penis.)

For their part, Custer and his men had desecrated a burial ground 10 days before the battle. They heaved corpses in the river and looted remains for souvenirs. That wasn’t all: “There was a saying among the soldiers of the western frontier,” Philbrick writes, “a saying Custer and his officers could heartily endorse: ‘Indian women rape easy.’”

Philbrick has written a dozen books mostly on colonial and 19th-century U.S. history, notably In the Heart of the Sea, the story of the whaleship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by an apparently enraged sperm whale. The incident, well-known in its day, inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. Here, Philbrick compares Custer to Captain Ahab, quoting Melville: “All mortal greatness is but disease.”

What exactly Custer’s soul-corroding malady was Philbrick leaves for readers to decide. “Maniacal” might be the best word to describe George Custer, with “arrogant” and “impatient” runners-up. He was an epic egotist. At Little Bighorn he was a lieutenant colonel, not a brevet major general, the rank he achieved in the Civil War at the age of 25. He had been court martialed in 1867 and demoted for abandoning his men and his post to race 150 miles across the prairie in 60 hours for a tryst with his wife, Libby. “One long perfect day,” she called it.

In another episode tailor-made for television, Custer ordered his troops to trade horses so each company had mounts of the same color. This was especially stupid since many of his soldiers, immigrants who could find no better work, could barely stay mounted while galloping. Imagine them up against the Sioux, who might as well have been born in the saddle.

Vain and obsessive-compulsive, Custer washed his hands constantly. He always took his toothbrush into battle with him. Famed for his shoulder-length blond ringlets, by age 36 he was balding. He shaved off his signature locks shortly before the battle. He may have died with his boots on, as the title of Errol Flynn’s 1941 Custer biopic suggests, but he didn’t leave the Sioux much to trim.

By some accounts, Custer had been a brilliant commander. The Union Army’s chief of cavalry called him “the greatest cavalry general in the world.” On the last day at Gettysburg, he led a charge that arguably won the battle that turned the course of the war. General Philip Sheridan called Custer his “indispensable” officer. Yet an officer who served under him in the West later said, “I had known General Custer for a long time, and I had no confidence in his ability as a soldier.”

Custer intended the 1876 campaign to be his last. He told New York City business leaders he would “whip and defeat all the Indians on the plains.” The boast masked a crumbling ego: Thanks to unwise investments in silver mines and railroads, Custer left for the West a shaken man.  

He hoped a quick victory would vault him to the pinnacle of public consciousness at the instant of the nation’s 100th anniversary. But he was far from focused on his mission to finish off the Sioux. Night after night, he stayed up so late in his tent writing a magazine article and letters for newspapers that his staff found him slumped over his desk at dawn. (He had also signed a contract to write his Civil War memoirs.) That fall a national lecture tour awaited him.

Angling to claim full credit for a glorious U.S. victory, Custer divided his forces, which numbered about 650, into four detachments. He expected to meet 800 Sioux and whip them with a quarter of that number. Instead as many as 3,000 braves greeted him. They cut down Custer and his men like blades of grass.

“I really felt sorry for them, they looked so frightened,” recalled Minneconjou warrior Standing Bear.

As if haste, vanity, egotism, obsession and greed weren’t flaws enough, Custer had ambitions to be president. He bragged to his Indian scout that he would soon be ‘the Great Father’ in Washington. “What if news of a thrilling Custer victory should arrive just as the [Democratic] convention opened on June 27?” writes Philbrick. “Might not a draft-Custer movement soon follow?” He speculates Custer wanted a victory at the latest by July 4, in time for the Independence Day celebration at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Why is his name legendary in American history? Why does his Last Stand rank with the Alamo, Valley Forge, Corregidor and Bastogne in the annals of American heroism? After all, few remember the name of the Titanic’s captain. (It was Edward Smith.)

Philbrick again finds the answer in promotion. After her husband’s death, Libby Custer went on the lecture circuit and devoted her life to glorifying his name.

Sitting Bull also sought celebrity. After Little Bighorn, he gave newspaper interviews and went on tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a decision that bred resentment among other Sioux and helped set the stage for his murder. Only in America.

Perhaps on the brink of their 100th anniversary as a nation Americans could not tolerate, could not accept, could not fathom the possibility that their best and brightest could be wiped out by “savages.” They needed to immortalize a hero, and found what they were looking for in Custer with his fringed white buckskin suit, wide gray hat and flouncy red tie.

For Philbrick, The Last Stand is a morality tale with implications for the future. “Wars are no longer fought with arrows and single-shot carbines,” he reflects. “There are weapons of mass destruction. Instead of several hundred dead and a guarantee of eternal fame, a Last Stand in the future might mean the devastation of a continent.”

Let us hope we are no hurry to dress for the occasion.

George Spencer is a freelance writer based in Hillsborough, North Carolina.