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Cagey Men

The Battle of the Littie Bighorn actually represents two last stands, says Nathaniel Philbrick.

Book Cover For the purpose of this communiqué I don’t need to resolve whether myth-making is both a necessary and sufficient ingredient of nationalism—let’s agree that it is at least a sufficient condition.

Hence, the various fabricated or embellished narratives regarding the Pilgrims and their Native American hosts, the notion of happy-go-lucky black slaves whistling Dixie, Davy Crockett and the Alamo, Custer’s final encounter with the Sioux, manifest destiny and the U.S. imperative to bring democracy and Christianity to those not blessed, and so on, are also important telltale signs of a less acknowledged reality.

Perhaps the most famous and romanticized incident in U.S. history is what is ignominiously referred to as Custer’s Last Stand (more accurately entitled The Battle of the Little Bighorn). Already well documented and accounted for—Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (1984), M.A. Elliot’s Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars, George Armstrong Custer (2007), and countless TV and film representations to name but a few—now add Nathaniel Filbrick’s The Last Stand (Viking Press) as the newest entry to an already copious bibliography.

Philbrick begins:
Both Custer and Sitting Bull were more than the cardboard cutouts they have since become. Instead of stubborn anachronisms, they were cagey manipulators of the media of their day. Custer’s published accounts of his exploits gave him a public reputation out of all proportion.

The collision that occurred on June 25, 1876, resulted in three different battles with Sitting Bull’s village of Sioux and Cheyenne: one fought by Custer; another fought by his second-in-command, Major Marcus Reno; and yet another fought, for all intents and purposes, by Captain Frederick Benteen. Reno, Benteen, and a significant portion of their commands survived. Custer and every one of his officers and men were killed.

Custer and his men were last seen by their comrades galloping across a ridge before they disappeared into the seductive green hills. Not until two days later did the surviving members of the regiment find them: more than two hundred dead bodies, many of them hacked to pieces and bristling with arrows, putrefying in the summer sun. Amid this “scene of sickening, ghastly horror,” they found Custer lying face up across two of his men with, Private Thomas Coleman wrote, “a smile on his face.” Custer’s smile is the ultimate mystery of this story, the story of how America, the land of liberty and justice for all, became in its centennial year the nation of the Last Stand.
Philbrick (Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War) reconstructs a taut narrative that takes into account that despite the Lakotas’ victory in battle, it was also a last stand for warrior chief Sitting Bull and his Plains Indian cohort, and, for what it is worth, contextualizes this sorry episode in subsequent American history. As such it is a useful monograph, and Philbrick, as he has shown in his past histories, is a vivid storyteller.
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