My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mr. Philbrick’s run-up to the last stand is perhaps as dizzying and exhausting as the real-life travails of Major Reno and Capt. Benteen. But the narrative gradually finds its feet, and the description of the final day, June 25, is well-executed and quite readable. The conclusions are insightful, meaningful without overreaching. Recommended.
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I wanted to mention that I finished the book about Custer.
What went wrong? Generally, the author suggests that there simply were too many Indians for Custer or anyone else to have had much success.
The author tells some interesting stories, though, and includes a lot of native accounts, including Black Elk’s touching memory of shooting a soldier through the forehead, and broadly speaking produces what feels like a comprehensive treatment. In the end, it made me curious to know what a scholar of the period would say about the work over all.
…history has become legend.
One interesting bit is that the author says Custer had left his troops and was close to the Little Bighorn River at about the time Maj. Marcus Reno attacked the Sioux village from the south. Custer was apparently with just a scout and no one else. The anecdote comes from one of his soldiers, who had gotten lost when his horse went lame. He relates this long memory of meeting Custer, and how Custer could see Reno’s attack being repulsed. It has the feel of a revelation, though it may not be true.
What was going through Custer’s head in the hours before that last bullet cannot be known. Probably Custer shouldn’t have divided his forces. But to be fair to Custer, I don’t think he realized how many Indians there were until Reno had already attacked, (i.e. when it was too late).
Neither is it clear that the Indians knew what they were doing; it didn’t turn out to be much of a victory in the end.
“It was the last stand for the Lakotas, too.”
Possibly, Custer should have ridden south to help Reno, but I think he believed his own attack across the river to the village would have a similar effect. In any case, he probably believed such an attack had the more immediate prospects for glorious success.
In the end, the writer doesn’t dwell on Custer’s peculiar personality, his mindless eccentricities or his reputation for reckless behavior, though these were serious handicaps. Indeed, he makes room for Custer’s charisma and Indian-fighting experience.
Vain and tempestuous, yes; but not incurious or stupid.
As for the other principals, the writer hints tantalizingly at Sitting Bull’s desire to avoid a battle altogether. He also concludes that Reno was probably drunk and seriously bungled his part of the attack. Likewise, Capt. Frederick Benteen comes off as petulant, and he also made serious initial bungles. But both men would play an important role in avoiding what could have been — should have been — a much larger rout.
Perhaps it was the infighting among the American officers that really led to disaster. Benteen hated Custer; neither man trusted Reno. These feelings were vented anonymously in the press. Just as none of them seemed able to comprehend the developing disaster, they also seemed unable to work in concert without rancor or jealousy.
Once divided, both in space and in spirit, the Seventh was doomed, and it was something of a triumph that only 200-some died and not all 700.