The defeat of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry near the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876, has been so painstakingly chronicled and relentlessly mythologized that it’s hard to imagine anyone could find much new to say about it. And apart from providing a few fresh minor details, Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand doesn’t change the overall picture of the battle that has come down to us. Nor does he find Custer less arrogant and impulsive than a succession of other historians claimed him to be. Instead, Philbrick’s great service is to sift through the bounty of original sources from both sides of the fray, factor in recent forensic discoveries from the battlefield and emerge with a documentary-like narrative that has all the aspects of a Greek tragedy.
Essentially a washout at West Point but a valiant fighter for the Union in the Civil War, Ohio-born George Armstrong Custer soon enough found himself on the sword’s edge of Indian removal in the rapidly developing West, a task he relished. He was supported in his ambitions (which extended to the political and journalistic) by his doting wife, Elizabeth, who followed him to virtually every wilderness outpost.
Philbrick immerses the reader in the dull minutiae and stark terror of the battle at Little Bighorn, using the same close-up, minute-by-minute perspective he demonstrated in Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea. He not only delves into the characters of Custer and his subordinate officers but also identifies by name and actions dozens of Lakota, Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho people who witnessed or fought alongside Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in the epic battle. Philbrick’s scholarship is equally epic; his appendices, notes and bibliography take up 135 pages, and he includes 18 maps. Like that of all historians, Philbrick’s account of Custer’s final hours rests on speculation. But it is well-informed and reasonable speculation—and immensely vivid.