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THE BIG LEGENDS OF LITTLE BIG HORN

Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand focuses on both leaders, the victorious Sitting Bull and the defeated Custer.

Review by Michiko Kakutani

New York Times

Few events in American history have generated as much commentary as the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, and George Armstrong Custer has become one of those contested figures who have been mythologized to the point of caricature: glorified as a romantic figure of frontier individualism and reviled as a glory-seeking avatar of genocidal hatred.

In recent years Custer's story has been told with more detail and dispassion: in Jeffry Wert's 1996 account of his military maneuvers (Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer) and in Evan S. Connell's 1984 novelistic classic, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn.

It's not clear why Nathaniel Philbrick decided that the world needed another book on Custer; perhaps he simply wanted to turn his storytelling talents, showcased in his 2006 book Mayflower, on the dramatic and symbol-laden battle. The Last Stand makes it clear that Philbrick has done a prodigious amount of research (his source notes are one of the outstanding features of this volume), and he has woven it all into an evocative and cinematic narrative. Still, he has turned up little that's substantially new about Custer, and readable as his book is, it lacks the lasting visceral resonance of Connell's masterpiece.

As he did in Mayflower, Philbrick has tried to spread around his sympathy for his subjects freely, sometimes performing contortions that come perilously close to rationalizations of Custer's behavior. He cuts back and forth between the points of view of the Lakota, who saw their ancestral hunting grounds being stolen by the white men, and the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry, many of them poor immigrants who "had no other employment options." He gives us a moving portrait of Custer's main antagonist, the great Lakota chief and wise man Sitting Bull, who valiantly tried to protect his people's future, as well as smaller, pointillist portraits of other Lakota and Cheyenne warriors and some of Custer's soldiers.

Philbrick nimbly evokes the beautiful but unforgiving landscape that was this theater of war. And in drawing upon diaries and oral histories, he also conveys the hardships of surviving on the Great Plains: the physical rigors and isolation experienced by ordinary cavalry soldiers, some of whom barely knew how to ride; and the threat of starvation Indians faced as the buffalo herds, on which they depended, disappeared with the encroachment of railroads and settlers. "By the end of the 19th 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."

What this book brings home is what an astonishingly distant world America was less than 150 years ago. Many Indians still led a nomadic existence, moving their tepees and horses from site to site, and warriors used bows and arrows, as well as rifles. As for the 7th Cavalry, it marched into campaigns with a band and flag bearers, and Custer, who was as vain as he was impulsive, flaunted a ridiculous fringed white buckskin suit.

The Custer who emerges from The Last Stand is recognizable from a host of earlier books and movies: arrogant, narcissistic, self-dramatizing, brave, reckless, determined, impatient and hungry for glory. Sorting through many Rashomon-style accounts of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Philbrick does a powerful job of conjuring the fog of war that enveloped Custer and his men, while acknowledging that his account is "necessarily speculative."

Along the way he offers a familiar assortment of reasons for Custer's doomed decision to lead several hundred men into battle against a group of Indians that numbered in the thousands, from his desire to hog the limelight (and quickly, so that he might lift his political prospects back East or at least the success of a planned lecture tour) to his acrimonious relationships with other officers.

Throughout this book Philbrick seems to be looking for mitigating factors on his subject's behalf. He quotes a passage from Custer's book My Life on the Plains that suggests that he had some sympathy for so-called hostile Indians like Sitting Bull, who were reluctant to submit to the will of the U.S. government: "If I were an Indian, I often think I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people adhered to the free open plains rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation."

He gives the reader scathing portraits of Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen, battalion leaders who had adversarial relationships with Custer and who behaved less than honorably in the Battle of Little Bighorn. And he suggests that Custer's superior, Gen. Alfred Terry, was really the one "moving the chess pieces" - the one who, "perhaps more than any other single person," bears the responsibility for the "cumulative tragedy."

In the end, however, Philbrick's approach to Custer isn't terribly persuasive. A few lines Custer once wrote in a book, after all, hardly make up for his cruel desecration of a Lakota burial ground. And mistakes made by other officers in the leadup to Little Bighorn hardly erase Custer's own startlingly poor decisionmaking.

The most compelling portrait in this book is that of Custer's great adversary, Sitting Bull, who, Philbrick concludes, was not just a great warrior like Custer but "a leader, a prophet, and a politician." Philbrick notes that Sitting Bull had wanted peace at Little Bighorn; he gave his nephew One Bull a sacred shield and sent him to talk with the soldiers, but was rebuffed by gunfire. He later told riverboat captain Grant Marsh: "I did not come on your land to scare you. If you had not come on my land, you would not have been scared either."

Although the Lakota and Cheyenne were victors at Little Bighorn, Philbrick writes, "the battle marked the beginning of their own Last Stand." The government redoubled its efforts against the Indians, and within a few years of Custer's defeat "all the major tribal leaders had taken up residence on Indian reservations with one exception."

"Not until the summer of 1881 did Sitting Bull submit to U.S. authorities, but only after first handing his rifle to his son, Crowfoot, who then gave the weapon to an Army officer. 'I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle,' Sitting Bull said. 'This boy has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living.' "

The Last Stand:Custer, Sitting Bull,and the Battle ofthe Little Bighorn

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking, 466 pages, $30

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