When I was a kid we used to have some Eddy Arnold albums around the house, one of which contained the track “Battle of the Little Big Horn.” As a song, it’s mawkish and lame; as history, it’s hilarious. There are references to muskets and cannon balls (neither were used), “old General Custer” (the man was a 37-year-old lieutenant colonel), and a force of a thousand Indians, half of whom are killed (it was probably closer to 100). In the song, the savage Indians just up and attack the troopers “waiting there with pride” on the opposite bank of the Little Bighorn. (Custer’s forces initiated the attack.)
I mention it to illustrate how kids of my generation formed our early impressions of American history in general and the Plains Indians in particular. “Battle of the Little Big Horn” was recorded in 1959. Because of songs like that and certain John Wayne movies, we were sometimes reluctant to take our turns being Indians during our playground battles. It just wasn’t that fun being the bad guys and having to die all the time.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book The Last Stand isn’t the first to revise the ’50s version of Custer and the U.S. Cavalry, but it’s one of the better ones. Unlike Evan Connell’s pedantic and rambling Son of the Morning Star, Last Stand manages to read more like a good story than a collection of facts and official testimony. Philbrick draws sharp portraits of the remarkable personalities involved, but he also sketches some pretty sharp landscapes – the physical and political geography upon which Custer and Sitting Bull played their roles in 1876.
Terrain played a big role in the battle. If you’ve ever walked the battlefield near present-day Hardin, Mont., you can appreciate Philbrick’s stirring description of how and why the fight unfolded as it did. I was also interested to learn about the role the Yellowstone River played in Custer’s last campaign: a specially built steamboat called the Far West used it to supply the Seventh Cavalry in the weeks prior to the battle. Afterward, it steamed up the Little Bighorn river to evacuate the wounded. In one passage, Philbrick describes how the strong Yellowstone current overwhelmed a boat carrying mail from the Seventh Cavalry. A man was drowned, and the mail wasn’t recovered until after the battle. From recent experience, that part had special resonance with yours truly.
I do call this the Fiction Warehouse because that’s usually what I read. But once in awhile some nonfiction comes along that equals a good novel. The Last Stand is such a book.
Before I close, I’ll also recommend another history I read over the summer: Empire of the Summer Moon. It’s all about the Comanche Indians, and how the tribe retained their dominion over the American Southwest long after the great Eastern tribes had been driven down the Trail of Tears. They were considered the best cavalry in the world. And arguably the most brutal. Beside them, Sitting Bull’s fighters look like Jesuit priests. It’s a great read, though. Dave Bob says check it out.