New look at 'The Last Stand'

"The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn" by Nathaniel Philbrick; Viking (312 pages, $30)

There are two views of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and they stem from movies rather than history books. Custer is either the golden-tressed, dashing military leader played by Errol Flynn in "They Died With Their Boots On" in 1941. Or he is the vain, deranged egomaniac portrayed by Richard Mulligan in 1970's "Little Big Man."

In truth, Custer was a bit of both, according to Pulitzer Prize finalist Nathaniel Philbrick. "The Last Stand" will dispel the extremes in cinematic takes on Custer as well as on Sitting Bull, whose Sioux army defeated the 7th Calvary at the Little Bighorn in Montana on June 25, 1876.

After reading this even-handed, engrossing account of that fateful battle and the events leading up to it, I can promise you will want to see the lonely, rolling hills where it took place. Philbrick gives us vivid pictures of the main characters and a solid background of the times in which they lived.

Custer largely enjoyed a good reputation among his peers. Some considered him the finest U.S. Calvary officer, having shown courage and leadership in the Civil War. He did have an outsized ego, fed by an adoring wife and several family members who served (and died) with him.

He was known to take risks, on and off the battlefield, was ambitious and wasn't shy about making public statements that irked his superiors and Washington politicians, including President Ulysses S. Grant.

Like most calvarymen after the war, Custer ended up on the plains fighting the Indian Wars. He wasn't the most bloodthirsty fighter in the U.S. government's campaign to place Indians on reservations to open up western settlement. He occasionally parleyed with chiefs rather than fight, encouraging them to move to reservations.

The Plains Indians were defeated as much by the demise of the buffalo as by the U.S. Cavalry, however. When the buffalo dwindled, the tribes lost their livelihood, which drove them onto reservations to survive.

Sitting Bull was one of the last chiefs to hold out, but he knew the inevitable would come. He was a great warrior and not afraid of a good fight.

He also was one of the most influential tribal leaders. On paper, he and Custer made a good match.

Inarguably, the U.S. government's long war with America's Indians is one of its most shameful chapters. And Custer got caught up on one of most cynical pages of that chapter. The Black Hills of the Dakota Territories was sacred Indian land, most notably to the loosely aligned Sioux nations. No white settlers were allowed. But that didn't stop prospectors from searching for gold. When they found it, President Grant yielded to pressure and offered to buy the land. The Indians refused. So, with absolutely no provocation, he sent the U.S. Cavalry to take the territory by force.

After two years of skirmishing and a few battles, a three-pronged force was sent to the Montana Territory to rout the Indians. Only Custer's group met a devastating fate.

At Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull had a huge encampment with hundreds of warriors itching to fight. Custer split up his forces of 700 men, which may have been his worst mistake. So might overconfidence.

Philbrick gives a meticulous account of each skirmish and a siege that one group, separate from Custer, managed to survive.

But he can only re-enact Custer's battle with Sitting Bull's warriors, for there were no survivors. Using the accounts of Indian warriors and their descendants, plus post-battle congressional testimony and Army archives, Philbrick gives the battle an elegiac retelling.

Custer believed in his own destiny and wanted to leave a lasting legacy of glory. He did leave a legacy, but not quite the one he'd planned.

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