Monday, November 28, 2011
Staff Pick of the Week
This week's pick is The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, And The Battle Of The Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick (Author of Mayflower and In The Heart Of The Sea)
Whether it is cast as a tale of bravery in the face of impossible odds or of arrogance finally receiving its rightful comeuppance, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the most potent and embattled episodes in American history. Nathaniel Philbrick now directs his immense talents to this story, bringing new evidence to bear as he moves through layers of fact and myth to find the truth about one of the iconic moments in our history: that there were two Last Stands enacted on that bloody battlefield, and it is impossible to know one without the other.
A pair of legendary figures loom over the story: George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull. Custer was a Civil War veteran with a reputation for incredible if often reckless courage. Sitting Bull, ten years Custer's senior, had also been a brave warrior but had more recently emerged as the leader of an alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne. The tribes of the northern plains were increasingly outraged at white incursions, while the officer corps of the Seventh Cavalry was beset by jealousy and backbiting. By June 1876, when the 650 soldiers of Custer's regiment approached the Little Bighorn River in central Montana, Sitting Bull's village had grown to more than 8,000. The tribes' leaders were not fixed on war, but if the government should be foolish enough to pursue them, they would stand and fight.
Other key characters include the famed Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse and Wooden Leg, a young northern Cheyenne whose memoir provides a stirring account of the attack of the Seventh Cavalry. Custer's officers included Major Marcus Reno, who led the battalion that began the assault, and Captain Frederick Benteen, whose bravery under fire saved Reno. Philbrick brings to light a fascinating new source: the unpublished writings of Private Peter Thompson, begun just months after the battle. But most of all it is Philbrick's account of the final blood-soaked encounter on Last Stand Hill that brings a new dimension to this age-old story, an unforgettable portrait of bravery, cowardice, chaos, and brutality.
The fight over the meaning of the battle began immediately. The story of the Little Bighorn was instantly told and retold, cast and recast, as survivors, witnesses, and other interested parties all came forward, each with a stake in bending the telling in a different direction. For the new nation on the midst of celebrating the centennial of its birth, the timing of Custer's death on June 25, 2876, could not have been worse. But it was the Sioux and Cheyenne who came to know what it means when an entire people--as opposed to a few hundred soldiers--encounters its own Last Stand.
With an instinct for finding both the dark and the honorable threads in American history, Philbrick probes the ultimately tragic story of how two talented leaders and their followers embarked on converging voyages across the plains of North America, leading us to the disturbing realization that nothing ended at Little Bighorn.