[Part of the Great Catch-Up series]
My sister was a horse girl, which meant that she knew the names of every famous horse in history...and told me about them, whether I liked it or not. Ulysses S. Grant's horse? Cincinnatus. Robert E. Lee's? Traveller. Alexander the Great's horse? Bucephalus. And who was Comanche? The only survivor of Custer's last stand, the Battle of Little Bighorn.
And that last fact was all I knew about General George Armstrong Custer and Little Bighorn, other than some vague knowledge that he and his soldiers had died because of Custer's arrogant, poorly planned attack, and that Errol Flynn had played Custer in a movie (They Died with Their Boots On). When I saw that Nathaniel Philbrick had written a new book about Custer's Last Stand, conveniently called The Last Stand, I thought this was a good opportunity to learn the real story. I had enjoyed and learned a lot from Philbrick's Mayflower, about you know what, and absolutely loved Sea of Glory, his book about the 19th century US Exploring Expedition, a massive exploration of the Pacific Ocean. The leader of the expedition, Charles Wilkes, was a brilliant, but also arrogant and bratty, the kind of leader who puts the petty in petty officer. Having read that, I felt I could understand his attraction to Custer, another brilliant, but fatally flawed leader.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and felt I got a basic grasp of the events of Little Bighorn, but it didn't quite wow me. It's impressively researched (in an interesting twist, Philbrick did the endnotes for each chapter as a mini-essay; sadly, the book was quite overdue and I didn't get to spend enough time with these) and easy to read; there are lots of great quotes and excerpts from letters and contemporary reports. I had a few problems, though. One is completely my fault--sometimes, no matter how many maps an author includes (and there really are a good number in here), I still have trouble following descriptions of military movements. A map with arrows isn't enough; I think I need maps in a comic strip layout, showing the progression of little groups of soldiers. I am that poor at visually conceiving a battlefield from the text.
What Philbrick did do that I disliked was to place a partial description of an important event in Custer's career (the Battle of Washita) very early in the book, then came back to it over one hundred pages later. I found myself flipping back and forth to try to clarify references to things that had happened earlier. There were a few other instances where he jumped in and out of chronological order. I hate to be boring old Miss Linear, but for readers who are really unfamiliar with the time period and events, this makes the book difficult to navigate--and I would think that authors hope to attract not just the hardcore fans, but also some people who are new to the subject.
The biggest problem I had was something that is perhaps more about opinion than fact. Sometimes historians write completely down the line neutral; others have a decided point of view. Both can work when done well (and when readers can identify what is fact and what is opinion). In this case, though, I had a sense that of a foggy, unrealized opinion. It seemed to me like Philbrick had gone into the book, or maybe somewhere along the way had decided that he really wanted to find a way to clear Custer's name. Maybe it was his superior, General Terry's fault for giving orders that said one thing, but implied another. Maybe it was Major Reno and Captain Benteen's fault for ignoring signals that Custer was in trouble. Both of these may have elements of truth, but in the end it seems hard for anyone to ignore the fact that Custer's understanding of the situation was wrong (he underestimated the size of the Lakota village, and thought he could force the warriors into surrender taking the women and children hostage), and that he likely fatally weakened his force by splitting it into too many smaller groups.
Overall, this is a pretty good book, perhaps a little confusing at times, but perhaps that's fitting in a story where so many events and people were lost in the fog of battle (Philbrick does an excellent job of conveying how hard it can be for anyone to know what's going on in the middle of a smoke-filled, loud fight). Since most of the survivors came from the Lakota and Cheyenne side, there are plenty of vivid quotes and descriptions from them. Philbrick makes the Lakota leader Sitting Bull the de facto hero of the story, since the other choice of protagonist (Custer), can't live up to the title. It's hard to feel good about that, though, knowing, as Philbrick reveals (partially, again) very early in the book that Sitting Bull came to an unfortunate end in a shootout with US Indian agency police. There's very little to feel good about here at all--except for Comanche, who lived for another fifteen years or so after Custer's last stand. The hero of the day was the one who never could tell a word about what happened.