Much has already been written about Custer’s Last Stand so it’s hard to see what else can be told about it. However, gifted story-teller Nathaniel Philbrick had access to recently surfaced memoirs to add to the already formidable amount of Custer lore. Readers of Philbrick’s prior best sellers about nautical events, Mayflower, Heart of the Sea and Sea of Glory, will not be disappointed as he turns his skills to dry land.
To those who study military tactics and strategy, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is required reading. Custer was a brilliant, if reckless, military leader. He made several mistakes at this battle including splitting up his forces and attacking an enemy force that was many times larger than his own. He acted as if defeat were not possible.
Custer could be forgiven a little hubris. After all, he was one of the most successful officers in the Civil War and was an acclaimed Indian fighter. To date his tactics had worked so why stop now? In retrospect, the massacre of Custer and his troops was almost inevitable. It had almost happened to him in earlier battles but he was able to shrug off the lessons of those events due to his eventual victories in them.
I learned a few interesting facts about Custer. I had forgotten how instrumental he was to the Union victory in the Civil War. During the famous Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, Custer was engaged in a different action on the battlefield that many historians claim turned around the battle and thereby the course of the war. In fact, after the surrender at Appomatox, Union General Sheridan gave Custer the table on which Grant wrote the terms of surrender. Sheridan included a note to Custer’s wife which read in part, ” there is scarcely an individual who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband.”
Custer’s two brothers, a brother-in-law and a nephew also died at Little Bighorn. One of the brothers, Tom, was the only soldier to win two Medals of Honor in the Civil War. Courage certainly ran in the family.
Something else I learned was that Custer’s father was a Joe Kennedy type, pushing his war hero son to run for President. One of the reasons that Custer was so eager to win this battle was that the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia was due to begin soon. He figured the news of his great victory would reach the Centennial just as it opened on July 4th, thereby increasing his stature and future political prospects.
Philbrick also conducted research among Native American documents to tell their side of the battle. They were, after all, the only survivors of the Last Stand. While they won the battle it was just a temporary reprieve to their eventual herding onto reservations and the loss of the war.
Philbrick manages to tell a tale of what could be dry military maneuvers so artfully that the book reads like a fast paced novel. He makes great use of maps to highlight the maneuvers that took place. This is a highly readable and engaging account of one of the major disasters of American military history.