George Armstrong Custer, they say, died with a smile on his face. The Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who overwhelmed him and some 260 men of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry on June 25, 1876, in what is now Montana, no doubt bore heartier smiles. They were fighting to preserve their homeland from white incursion, and on that day they prevailed.
But Nathaniel Philbrick's "The Last Stand" bookends Custer's famous "Last Stand" with the American Indians' own. For Custer's humiliating defeat, on the eve of the nation's centennial celebrations, only ensured the redoubling of U.S. military efforts to subdue the Plains Indians, contain them on reservations and strip them of their culture.
Philbrick demonstrated his flair for storytelling in the acclaimed narrative histories "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Mayflower." And in "The Last Stand" he has another fabulous tale to tell. It's been told many times before, but never with such a winning combination of sure-handed pacing, gimlet-eyed pen-portraits and telling details amid the contextual big picture.
Though Philbrick does frame Custer and Sitting Bull within their respective milieus, his is not a study of cultural icons. In his evenhanded approach, the Indian fighter is not an unblemished hero nor the Indian chief a noble savage. Both, for instance, were adept at media spin.
Twenty-six years ago, novelist Evan Connell wrote a similar nonfiction work, "Son of the Morning Star." Philbrick pronounces it "in a class by itself as a lyrical exploration of the evidence." It was lyrical, for sure, but exasperatingly slow-paced and meandering. Following Connell's narrative was a bit like tracking Lakota creeping through prairie grass; it required enormous patience.
Reading "The Last Stand," by contrast, is like trying to catch a herd of stampeding buffalo. My only cavil is that Philbrick doesn't pause long enough to tell us more about his two protagonists' backgrounds. Sitting Bull receives short shrift, maybe because we just don't know a whole lot. About Custer, Philbrick seems to assume we already know enough.
In any event, both leaders were veteran commanders. Sitting Bull had vanquished Kiowa, Crow and other enemies. Custer, though sometimes impulsive and erratic - he had been demoted from major general to lieutenant colonel for disobeying orders - had proved himself "one of the Union's greatest cavalry officers" in the Civil War.
Philbrick draws on a huge cache of reminiscences and interviews with participants on both sides of the conflict. His narrative darts smoothly back and forth between the men in blue advancing into Indian Territory and the feathered warriors watching, waiting and preparing to strike. We know it's a death march, but the author's gift for gradually adding bits and pieces of relevant information ratchets up the tension nicely.
The factor of greed, for one. What drew U.S. attention to the region in the first place was gold, discovered two years earlier in the Black Hills, an area sacred to the Lakota and supposedly off limits to the Americans. The military strategy for pushing the Indians out was a three-pronged pincer movement, of which Custer's Seventh Cavalry was one. But communications were poor, and maps outdated. (Philbrick's maps, thankfully, are numerous and vital for clarifying the ever-shifting action.)
Custer's superior, the crafty Gen. Alfred Terry, covered his back by issuing ambiguous orders about whether to attack the Indian forces alone or to wait for reinforcements. In Philbrick's "necessarily speculative account," Custer wasn't reckless but, in effect, fighting the last war, at Washita in 1868, where he won by attacking a larger force. Against Sitting Bull, despite the evidence of massive forces arrayed against him, he assumed that their forward movement amounted to a feint, allowing women and children to escape. He was wrong.
Sitting Bull faced demons among his own people. A brilliant military leader, he had trouble convincing them to avoid the reservations he viewed as a death sentence for his culture. Ironically, Sitting Bull turned to playing himself in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. He survived that indignity, but in 1890, amid the Ghost Dance craze arousing messianic hopes of Indian renewal and white retreat, he was killed, not by whites, but by Lakota policemen.
If gold represented the American money-based economy, for Plains Indians, buffalo were the economy, and the rapidly diminishing herds were about to seal their doom. Thus the massacre of Lakota at Wounded Knee, which climaxes Philbrick's story, was mere exclamation point.