The Last Stand: The unknowable
I wondered, at a certain point in Nathaniel Philbrick's detailed narrative of Custer's Last Stand, why he was spending such a long time on other soldiers in another company, on another hill, trying to survive a different battle. Get to it!, I thought. Get to the Stand! Lay Custer's folly bare!
But of course The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn has nothing to get to. Nobody survived. It's one of the reasons the incident fascinates us to this day — that a legendary general suffered such a humiliatingly complete defeat and demise. (Emphasis on the humiliation: "Out of respect for his widow, the soldiers who viewed Custer's remains had neglected to mention that an arrow had been jammed up the general's penis.") Another reason is the response of the U.S. government, which didn't necessarily choose to see the battle and Custer's loss as a settling of hubristic accounts, but rather as permission to wreak disproportionate vengeance on the Lakota, Cheyenne, Hunkpapa, and every other Native American settlement within 500 miles. And…all the rest of them.
It's a testament to Philbrick's smooth prose and excellent but not intrusive research that, once I reached the fateful day in the narrative, I had come to expect a cut back over to the climactic battle — to "see" Custer surrounded and cut down. That didn't happen; it couldn't. The closest contemporary Native American accounts could come to it is confusing childlike pictographs with lots of red colored pencil, many many dead horses, Anglos studded each with many many arrows, blood and guns dropped everywhere.
The monument isn't like that. It's quiet…ish. I went on a very hot day and the insects were singing, and our tour guide killed a rattler mid-sentence, but it's pretty there, open, peaceful. Standing where it all happened, it's hard to imagine the dusty hugger-mugger of shrieking bullets and collapsing strategy that Philbrick describes so well, and all the more frustrating to realize that to imagine what happened is the best we can do.
I definitely recommend The Last Stand, and keeping in mind if you do read it that, when Philbrick is, say, counting buttons on Benteen's men, it's not showing off how much he knows. It's making up for what none of us can know.
Tags: books Charles Marion Russell Frederick Benteen George Armstrong Custer Nathaniel Philbrick Sitting Bull untimely demises