Matt'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 07, 2010

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bookshelves: american-indian-wars, biography, custer

I was going to give this book one star. Two at the most. But my wife stopped me, and insisted on five. To keep her happy, I split the difference.

There are roughly two types of Little Big Horn book. The first is the type directed towards the Obsessed. These are the readers who pour over every detail, however minute, in a vain effort to fully understand an event that really won't impact their lives in the least. They are a lot like Trekkies, or Star Wars fanboys, except they, if possible, might like girls even less. For these readers, there are a number of everyday-guys-turned-amateur historians (e.g., Gray, Michno) who have written incredibly detailed, well-researched, and in-depth analyses. Unfortunately, these guys aren't authors, and it shows.

The second group of Little Big Horn book is directed at the general reader. It is easily digestable, simple to follow (Custer = yellow hair), and generally treats the reader like Forrest Gump. Because this second type of book is written by a professional (e.g., Ambrose, Donovan, and now, Philbrick), there is very little incentive to leave the beaten path and - gasp! - speculate as to what happened at the famous battle. Instead, it follows the same pattern as every book before, and never teaches you anything new.

I thought this book was going to be a well-written example of the first type; instead, it was a well-written example of the second, and that's not good enough.

See, there are a lot of Custer books. If you're going to add a new one to this crowded bookshelf, you really need to bring something to the table, otherwise, you might as well name your tome Here's My Custer Book Now Where's My Check? This is especially true when you are Nathaniel Philbrick and semi-famous (and the author of some pretty darn good histories). This is doubly-especially true when James Donovan just released A Terrible Glory last year (although it is a popular history, for the general reader, it is up-to-date with the latest scholarship.)

A lot of my rancor comes from the title. You called it The Last Stand, so I mistakenly believed it was, you know, about the last stand.

Instead, the book reads like a warmed over, half-assed version of Evan S. Connell's classic, Son of the Morning Star. For those of you unfamiliar with Connell's work, I would compare it to a dendritic tree, where each idea branches off into another idea, and then another. Somehow, in the end, all the tangents come together, as threads in a loom, to create something that you feel, subconsciously, as much as you discern, consciously. I mean, I didn't learn anything, but I'll be darned if I could put the book down once I started. It is a structual marvel. Some reviewers claimed it was "novelistic"; I'd say it's a lot like the television show Lost, with flashbacks, flashforwards, flash-sideways, and many, many gunshot wounds.

Philbrick self-consiously apes this framework for much of the book. Unlike Connell, he has a more straightforward, chronological throughline; but like Connell, he uses his narrative throughline as a laundry-line on which to hang biographies, past battles, and discussions about topics as varied as riding bits, visions, and adultery within the 7th Cavalry.

Utilizing this approach, Philbrick takes us along with the 7th Cavalry as it embarks on its final campaign in the Summer of '76. Though Philbrick isn't Connell, he is Philbrick, and I'm not going to pretend I didn't enjoy his telling of well-known events. As previously demonstrated (In the Heart of the Sea is particularly impressive), he has a great eye for telling detail, and you can sit back and enjoy the raconteur at work. For instance, I really liked this thumbnail portrait of Captain Frederick Benteen, the acidic, vendetta-carrying, tough-as-nails leader of Company H:

During the early years of the Civil War, Benteen's two commanding officers feuded incessantly; the scuffle that killed one of them and sent the other to prison seems to have been a kind of object lesson for Benteen, who, as several officers in the Seventh could attest, instinctively reached for his pistol whenever he felt his honor had been slighted. Benteen loved his wife, Frabbie, intensely and passionately (he sometimes decorated his letters to her with anatomically precise drawings of his erect penis), but they were a couple who had known more than their share of hardships...and over the course of the last decade, he and Frabbie had lost four out of five children to illness.

For a reader new to the world of Custer, this is good stuff. But if you already know the story, it's just a lot of filler. You don't find out what happens to Custer and his men until page 257 (out of 312).

All the stuff leading up to the battle has been covered before. Well covered. By James Donovan. Last year. At times, the only thing that separates Donovan from Philbrick is that Philbrick is a little kinder to Major Reno (who was drunk during the battle) and a little harsher on Benteen (whom Philbrick comes close to accusing of abandoning Custer to his fate out of spite). In order to get the book published, I'm sure that Philbrick had to argue he had something "new" to add. This "new" piece of evidence is the wild story of Private Thompson, who lagged behind Custer's battalion as it rode to its doom, and eventually joined up with Reno and Benteen. However, as Philbrick notes in the text, this really isn't new material; in fact, it's been commented on many times before. Thus, once again, the dust jacket has lied to me. (Someday, dust jacket, I will even the score).

The frustrating thing about Philbrick is that he's really smart, done a ton of research, and really knows how to synthesize the work of others. Throughout the book, there are glimmers of his "theory" of the battle. For instance, he makes some really interesting observations about the similiarities between the battle of the Washita and the battle of the Little Big Horn. Building off of Sklenar's To Hell With Honor, Philbrick posits that Custer believed there were a series of smaller camps, rather than one big one, and that Custer sought to capture one of these camps and use the hostages as bargaining chips (as Custer had done to extricate himself from the Washita in 1868). He also believes that Custer maintained an offensive posture for over an hour, waiting for a link-up with Benteen. This is interesting stuff, and it would've been wonderful to have it delivered by a polished author. However, because Philbrick is writing for a general audience, and because he prefers literary flourishes to logical rigor, the theory sort of vanishes like smoke dissipated by the wind.

As already noted, Custer's battle is dealt with in a cursory manner, when compared to the many chapters devoted to the Reno-Benteen fight. The reason, of course, is that Philbrick, aiming for a wide audience, refuses to do much speculating. Really, though, isn't it time we agreed that we know a lot more about Custer's Last Stand than we've ever let on? I mean, you have archaelogical evidence (thanks to Fox and Scott), you have forensic evidence (thanks to Hardorff's compilations), you have tons of direct, eyewitness testimony (thanks to Hardorff and Michno), and you have good insight into Custer's military mind (thanks to Wirt). With all that evidence, you could put together a pretty good blow-by-blow account of Custer's fight on battle ridge.

Why am I belittling this point? Maybe I'm just bitter, like Benteen. Maybe I'm drunk and beligerent, like Reno. Or maybe it's because I'm sick of buying books about the Little Big Horn that don't have the guts to talk about the one part of the Little Big Horn that anyone cares about: Custer and his men. (For the record, I won't stop buying these books, no matter how many disappointments).

Back to my wife and the stars. On a long-distance road trip, she was reading The Last Stand aloud to me as I drove (I am too cheap to buy audiobooks; instead, I got a wife). Eventually, car sickness forced her to stop, but she mentioned how she almost wanted to keep reading, just to see how it ended (I promised not to ruin the surprise).

I told her I didn't like the book, because it felt derivative. She told me I was being elitist, and that people like her would find the book invaluable. I pulled over and made her get out. She later tracked me down and slashed my tires. In short, I grudgingly came to see her point.

This book wasn't written for me. It was written for those who don't know Custer, and who want a good overview of the story culled from the best sources (and who coincidentally failed to read James Donovan's worthwile effort). Still, I maintain that the title should've been different. Maybe: Another Custer Book, Just Like All the Rest, Except a Little Better. Or perhaps: The Twilight Saga: Custer's Last Stand (This would help boost sales).

Strangely, even with all the Custer literature out there, I believe there's a great book still waiting to be written. I'm just disappointed it didn't belong to Philbrick.
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Reading Progress

May 7, 2010 – Shelved
June 1, 2010 – Started Reading
June 7, 2010 – Finished Reading
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: american-indian-wars
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: biography
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: custer

Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

This was AWESOME.

message 2: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! It was the Trekkie reference that hooked you, wasn't it, Ceridwen? ;o)

message 3: by Eric (new)

Eric Benteen's pornographic margin art!!

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Eh! wrote: "It was the Trekkie reference that hooked you, wasn't it, Ceridwen? ;o)"

That, and (Custer = yellow hair). And the tire-slashing.

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

I was pretty sure you’d be disappointed in Philbrick’s account of the events – too commercial.

You’re at the point, much like the other amateur historians you list, of being unable to enjoy any new work about Custer and Big Horn; you need to write your own history, elitist bastard.

I’d be especially interested in how you would handle Benteen’s letters to his wife. With images of Lebowski attempting to read a phone note at Jackie Treehorn’s house, I could hardly finish the review.

message 6: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Kraemer I believe I insisted on six but settled for five (and wound up with three). Sorry about your tires :)

Matt John and Kris wrote: "I’d be especially interested in how you would handle Benteen’s letters to his wife...."

Unfortunately, even though I scoured the endnotes, Philbrick made the unfortunate decision not to present an example of Benteen's doodling.

I believe Benteen's anatomical self-art is the last mystery of the Little Big Horn.

message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

You should write a grant proposal to Larry Flynt’s Freedom of Speech Foundation. But do it quickly, you may have competition from the inquisitive Errol Morris if he learns of the letters.

You have to give it to Benteen for coming up with a creative way of “signing” his private correspondence.

Did Mrs. Benteen reciprocate in her letters?

So many questions! Maybe you should answer via email or long letter in the U.S. Mail, if it is okay with C? Don’t expect much more than a Post-It Note size reply from Minnesota.

message 9: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer I was in Barnes and Noble starring at this book, trying to remember if you had read it or not. I am glad to see you got a hold of it. I got the biggest DDE bio ever!!! I am so excited about this. I LIKE IKE

message 10: by Ken (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ken Just finished your very thorough and insightful review however I do feel you're being a little too tough on Philbrick. I do agree with your conclusion that this book was designed for a larger audience. I read history books infrequently and have a cursory knowledge of Little Big Horn. For me this was a well-researched well-told read that I would not hesitate to recommend to readers similar to myself...but not history professors. Anyway, well written summary.

message 11: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt Ken,

I appreciate the comment. You're totally right with regards to Philbrick: he did exactly what he set out to do, and he did it very well.

The more I reflect on it, the easier it is for me to say this is the best, most complete, most readable general history of Custer ever written. It really manages to cover a lot of ground without becoming incomprehensible to readers approaching the Little Big Horn for the first time.

I'm tempted to change my star-rating for this reason, though I don't really want to start a tend (I think, unfortunately, my review was swayed by the fact that James Donovan beat Philbrick to the punch in terms of a fresh, popular history of Custer's last stand, but it didn't get nearly as much attention).

Chuck You managed to express my opinion of the book in a much more enjoyable (and much longer) review. I'm sticking with 3 stars, good book, good writing, but nothing really new.

message 13: by Don (last edited Jul 07, 2011 08:53AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Don ... Yeah! What he said! (read: terrific review!)

Shannon Hart Personally, I liked it and gave it four stars. Philbrick wrote well and kept it interesting. Setting up Custer's thought process with the comparison to Washita was done well. P.S. - Wives are most expensive! ;)

message 15: by Jeff (new)

Jeff First off -- loved the review. I am nearly finished with A Terrible Glory and am enjoying it, except I've read many better authors than Donovan. I've always had an interest in the LBH battle because - like you said -- of the mystery of it. That, and I am from Montana, so I learned a lot while in school. But I digress... What's a good followup to what I am reading, Obi-wan? I thought Philbrick's book may have been it, but your review makes it seem lesser to Donovan's. Thanks.

message 16: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt Jeff wrote: "First off -- loved the review. I am nearly finished with A Terrible Glory and am enjoying it, except I've read many better authors than Donovan. I've always had an interest in the LBH battle becaus..."

Thanks, Jeff.

When I wrote this review, I think I was rating if against my own overly-heightened expectations. I'd totally recommend this book; indeed, the more I've cogitated on the matter, the more certain I am that it is superior to Donovan's A Terrible Glory.

The Last Stand is probably the best general interest book on the Little Big Horn. It is well written, accessible, and even goes out on a bit of a limb in peddling a certain theory of the battle (i.e., that Custer's movements along the ridge may have been an attempt to find and capture a smaller camp, ala his tactics at the Washita).

Ms.pegasus Didn't agree, but loved your review. I'm part of that vast "general audience." My point of comparison was CUSTER'S FALL; The Native American Side of the Story, by David Humphreys Miller.

message 18: by John (new) - rated it 3 stars

John Humber I think, Matt, you are probably quite lucky to have found a wife who is prepared to read out loud to you; and to live with you.

Sweetwilliam Matt, as always your review is very good and a little longer than the actual book you are reviewing. I had to laugh when you mentioned Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star. I think this may be my favorite book of all time. Like you, I couldn't put it down. I read the first chapter of Philbrick's book just the other day. I thought to myself, why the heck is he writing this? I loved Mayflower, 1775, and Valiant Ambition but this 1st chapter - if it is an indication - was very weak. I am fascinated by the man - GAC - and I have read all the other books that you have mentioned (did you read Custer Victorious?) with Fox's and Connell's books near the top of the heap. I may not continue with this one. I think I will get Heart of the Sea next or the one about exploring the Pacific Ocean. This is more Philbrick's genre I think.

BTW - Have your tried Blood and Thunder about Kit Carson? This reminded me of the Son of the Morning Star. I loved it.

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