Trish's Reviews > The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick
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's review
May 20, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: history, midwest, nonfiction
Read from April 21 to May 19, 2011

This history does what every nonfiction title aspires to do: makes the reader want to run out and read as much as they can on the subject. That is exactly what I found myself doing today--looking in my public library for more. The Last Stand doesn't so much slake your thirst as inflame it. When I looked over the books on similar subject matter, I can see why. It was clear Philbrick used primary sources, but also built on what had come before: he consolidated information and didn't impede the forward momentum of the story. He added maps in the right places to clarify movements, and included photos which flesh out the characters.

This book is about the last stand of the Indians in America. Although the Battle of Little Bighorn was ostensibly a rout of the uniformed troops sent by the American government to move the Lakota off their given land to make way for gold rush settlers, it was also the end of Lakota way of life and was the last concerted attempt to save it. The story is mired in myth, due to the death of all in Custer’s party, though there were other battalions there led by surviving commanders. Due to the personalities involved, and the necessarily self-serving nature of their reports, these “truths” can be difficult to reconcile, one with the other. At the same time, the American government in Washington also had reason to interpret the facts so as to preserve the notion of manifest destiny, westward expansion, and the heroics (rather than the possible disgrace) of their fighting force. Surviving warriors from the Indians tribes were interviewed extensively in the years following the Battle, and much richness of detail (and contradiction with evidentiary evidence) can be gleaned from their accounts.

What does come clear from the story as told by Philbrick is the great-man nature of Chief Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader and warrior of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. Many wise words are attributed to the man from reports at the time, and Sitting Bull’s attention always seemed to focus on the safety and welfare of his people, rather than on revenge or rage at betrayals. Later, after the battle recounted in such detail here, we learn that Sitting Bull did finally lay down his arms, and was shuttled to a reservation, where he was killed in 1890 by a Lakota policeman.

The apparently first-hand testimonies of survivors of The Battle of Little Bighorn do not paint complimentary portraitures of their commanding officers. The sound, smell, heat, and intensity of the battlefield come to life in this account, and we squirm with the uncomfortable knowledge of the end even as we begin reading. Learning the details of any military engagement brings its own horrors, but the facts of this devastation is particularly poignant when realizing that troops were being led by one commander deranged with drink, and another who felt no sense of urgency. All fought bravely in the end, to the end.
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Reading Progress

04/21/2011 page 25
5.0% "Immediate immersion in the American West and the struggle to expand, and conquer."
04/22/2011 page 40
9.0% "Extraordinarily vivid descriptions of Custer, his wife, & his colleagues in arms. Completely engrossing."
05/17/2011 page 97
21.0% "Will never be done before author talk tonight, but his descriptions of Custer & the fellow commanders of this doomed show is memorable."
05/17/2011 page 115
25.0% "Great photos of the area at Philbrick's reading. Interesting how fast he wrote it and how removed it is from what he usually does. Fascinating portraitures."
05/18/2011 page 224
48.0% "Spent a bit of time with this today, and come away with a couple of impressions. The rank arrogance, incompetence, one-upmanship, terror, vengeance, heroism, craftiness displayed on the Little Bighorn during Custer's last stand must go down as remarkable, even as battles tend to go. But many of the characteristics described could also be found in any high powered corporate office atmosphere. Scary."

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Chris You will enjoy this. Probably the best book about the battle.

Trish Look forward to it.

message 3: by Paul (new)

Paul Wow, Trish! Great review! Maybe you should be doing this for a living.

Trish That is such a flattering comment, Paul! Thanks!

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