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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Last Stand: The unknowable

Submitted by on April 10, 2015 – 3:13 PM13 Comments
Charles Marion Russell, "The Custer Fight"

Charles Marion Russell, “The Custer Fight”

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.




  • attica says:

    I’ve liked Philbrick’s other stuff: onto the list! I’m worried, however, that while reading it, I’ll keep imagining Gary Cole’s performance in that tv miniseries from back in the day. Not delightful, was it.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Gary Cole’s somewhat hilarious turn as Jeff MacDonald has never affected Fatal Vision negatively for me, if that helps at all?

  • attica says:

    Hmm. Dunno. I’d read FV before I saw the mini. I only saw Cole-as-Custer within the last year or so, in one of those trawling-the-cable-list-for-something-to-record mishaps.

    No reason not to read the book, tho. I can always remember Robin Weigert in Deadwood talking profanely about what Custer was like as a cleanse.

  • Lisa says:

    After looking up his bibliography I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read anything by Philbrick even though I consider myself a pretty big fan of this genre. Sarah, I’m not sure if you’ve read any of his other stuff, but since I know attica has – any recommendations for which of his books to read first? I’m leaning toward In the Heart of the Sea because the internet seems to believe his most popular work, and Ron Howard is apparently making it into a movie (thanks Wikipedia!), but I just finished a book about a boat (Dead Wake by Erik Larson) and might need a break from the sea for a bit. Maybe I should go with Custer, landlocked as he was. Thoughts?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Oooooh, I just added Dead Wake to my wishlist. Any good? And I was going to ask which Philbrick to do next…and hoping it was Mayflower so I could nick it from my dad’s bookshelf.

  • ProfessorLear says:

    If you’re interested in reading about some of the larger context for the Sioux Wars, I recommend “The Heart of Everything That Is,” which covers Red Cloud’s War in the 1860s. More importantly, it looks at how Red Cloud was able to unite a number of Plains tribes to fight against the US Army. Personally, I think Clavin and Drury could have done a better job with their presentation of Native life on the Plains in a general sense, but I thought the biographical information about Red Cloud was thorough and their presentation of the war was fascinating.

  • attica says:

    I just saw a trailer for Heart of the Sea; apparently it’s been in development hell since forever, and finally will be released later this year. Anyway, it’s a super good book. Way better than Moby-Dick, since you know: Melville.

    Yep: nick Mayflower.

  • Lisa says:

    I liked Dead Wake so much. I was actually surprised at how my interest stayed high even though the damn boat didn’t sink until 80% of the way through the book. I think it might be similar to The Last Stand in that way, Larson’s writing style and research kept me interested in all of the details about the passengers, the U-boat operators, even Woodrow Wilson. The first 3/4 of the book are interesting enough, but once the boat started sinking I couldn’t put it down. I’d definitely recommend it if you like historical writing. Or if you, like me, just realized how embarrassingly little you know about World War I. I blame the Wisconsin public school system.

    I’m going to give Heart of the Sea a try. Having never read Moby Dick (WI public schools for the win this time) maybe I can assuage that guilt a bit.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Hardcore History is so great on WWI, if you haven’t checked that out. Made a six-hour I-95 hellscape trip to the Cape go by in no time.

  • c8h10n4o2 says:

    If you’re interested in WWI, The National WWI Museum has a good list of books at their online store to troll through.,11.html

    I read the new translation of Poilu this past summer. Absolutely breathtaking and available on Kindle.

  • cayenne says:

    +1 for Philbrick’s Mayflower. He’s one of the more accessible historians, one who’s solid research-wise and yet thankfully avoids Academese. He cuts through a lot of the Pilgrim/founding mystique; I’d love to see him take on Jamestown as a contrast.

    I have his Bunker Hill in the TBR – this has reminded me to bump it up the queue.

  • Beth C. says:

    Question: On my library’s site it looks like Philbrick has two books about the Essex, Heart of the Sea and Revenge of the Whale. Anyone know what the difference is and if one or the other would be best read rather than heard audiobook-style? My library’s descriptions don’t help much.

  • swimmyfish says:

    Hi Beth – I don’t know if you’ve gotten this information elsewhere already, but on Amazon it looks like Revenge of the Whale is an adaptation of Heart of the Sea, intended for youths in the 6th-10th grade ranges.

    So, Heart of the Sea = full story; Revenge of the Whale = most of the story.

    Here’s the Amazon link, if you want to find out more:

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