This book was rather a disappointment for me. Many years ago I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Mayflower, which also delved into white/native relations, and I absolutely loved it. Despite filling it to the tips of every page with detail, he managed to keep the story well paced and engaging throughout. I wish I could say the same about The Last Stand.
This latest work centers, according to its subtitle, around Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The front end of the book spends a great deal of time and detail enlightening the reader as to the previous exploits of George Armstrong Custer and the shaky relationship that they gained him with the army. I did enjoy this portion of the book, as Custer was the major figure which drew me to the title. Also, I appreciated the fact that Philbrick gave a lot of ink, and well balanced narrative, to the lives of the Indian chiefs and warriors who made up the other side of the story. However, the book went off on rather a bit of a tangent once you actually began the run up to the Little Big Horn.
Philbrick regales his readers with the details, and by this I mean every single meticulously plotted movement that the army made in pursuit of the plains Indians who were refusing to move onto the reservations. When their progress finally brings them to the famed showdown on the banks of the Little Bighorn River, Custer is nowhere to be seen nor heard from. One thing that I learned from this book was that there was more than one battle front, but given the book’s title one would think that the narrative would focus on Custer’s role in his famed Last Stand. Instead, the balance of the tale centers around the other two prongs of the attack, one by the drunkard Marcus Reno and the other by Frederick Benteen. Custer’s role in the battle is dealt with in far less detail, which was confusing for me, as this is one of only a couple of books which I have read on the subject. Philbrick uses his focus on the other aspects of the siege of the Indian village along the banks of the famed river to illustrate his point that Custer watched from an over looking bluff as the other commanders, who were supposed to be his support, failed spectacularly. Far from painting Custer as a martyred hero, he is drawn as a man who hoped to ride his own horse to glory on the backs of two other commanders who’s men he should have ridden to support.
I would highly recommend this book to those who are students of the battle and know Custer’s side of the struggle well. For such a reader, the level of detail would be a plus, and the interesting angles taken by Philbrick to refute and support many of the legends surrounding the events of those days would no doubt be of great interest. Also, do not listen to the audio for this one. George Guidall, one of my favorite narrators, does a fine job, but the printed book is full of maps and pictures which would have made the detailed battle movements much easier to follow. Or, listen to the audio with good maps of the area (or a copy of the book) in front of you.