Nathaniel Philbrick breathes new life into the hoary tale of Custer's Last Stand

By Brian Hall
Sunday, June 6, 2010


Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking. 466 pp. $30

By this point, it might well be impossible to write much that is new about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The archives have been ransacked, the battlefield has been scoured by relic hunters and archaeologists. There have been pro-Custers and anti-Custers with their impassioned briefs; military tacticians with their dense, measured arguments; semioticians with their witty writings about other writers' writings; and popular historians, who strive to weave it all together into a narrative both accurate and entertaining -- often contradictory aims.

Nathaniel Philbrick's new book, "The Last Stand," is popular history, and it's not fair to expect him to bring new evidence to light. To be sure, there's the more or less obligatory reference to a new source -- an unpublished account by the daughter of one of Custer's soldiers, quoting from her father's private papers -- but Philbrick wisely doesn't try to convince the reader that this is important material; it's a touch here and there of marginalia. The only fair questions are whether his account is well researched, his judgments reasonable and his writing engaging. The answers are yes, yes and yes. Moreover, the book is a model of organization, with lots of maps and photographs and extensive endnotes properly delineating Philbrick's sources much more clearly than is usual in this kind of work.

The writing of good popular history is a subtle art, and it's worth comparing "The Last Stand" with James Donovan's "A Terrible Glory," which appeared only two years ago. The two books are concerned with the same event, draw on the same sources and take basically the same narrative approach, favoring a simplifying lucidity over confusing complexity (unlike, say, Evan Connell's marvelously tortured and quixotic "Son of the Morning Star"). At times, reading the accounts in tandem feels like listening to the same fantasia played by two different musicians. Donovan's performance is quite good; but Philbrick's, in a number of small, nuanced ways, is superior.

Philbrick, also the author of the National Book Award-winning "In the Heart of the Sea," better evokes what surely must have been the feeling of that day among the cavalrymen, in which ignorance and overconfidence descended gradually into reluctant confusion, then suddenly fell off a cliff into panic, disbelief and death. A writer's angel is in his details, and here's an example of where Philbrick shines: During the initial charge on the Indian village, a soldier named Roman Rutten lost control of his horse, which raced ahead with him alone toward the enemy. Donovan mentions this briefly among a welter of other details, whereas Philbrick seizes on it as an opportunity to carry his readers vividly into the madness of the moment: "Not until astride a runaway horse, it has been said, does a rider become aware of the creature's true physical power. . . . Unable to stop or even slow his horse, Rutten apparently did what another trooper in the Seventh had done three years earlier when his horse bolted in an engagement during the Yellowstone campaign. 'I, in desperation, wound the [reins] in one hand as far ahead as I could reach,' the trooper remembered, 'and pulled with all my might and pulled his head around . . . and got him turned.' Rutten's horse kept running, but at least he was now running in a circle. Over the course of the next two and a half miles, Rutten's horse literally ran circles around the troopers, circumnavigating the battalion no fewer than three times."

Later, during the soldiers' chaotic retreat up the bluffs, interpreter Isaiah Dorman is about to be killed by several Indians closing in on him. Rutten, still clinging to his panicked horse, comes blasting through. "Goodbye Rutten!" Dorman calls. A few yards farther on is Lt. Donald McIntosh, also seconds from death: " 'The horse tore right across the circle of Indians of which McIntosh was the center,' Rutten later told an interviewer, 'and on [I] went.' " That day must have been full of such lunatic snapshots, their frail human comedy making the terror more terrible.

Philbrick's sense of the unexpected and the absurd lurking in human affairs pays off in larger ways. Donovan was plenty critical of the command decisions of Custer, his superiors and his subordinates, but he tended to hurry over their mistakes and their rivalries, whereas Philbrick brings them to the fore in a way that I find better explains the disaster. His Custer is not an egregious example of reckless command; no, Philbrick's case is more damning than that. He convincingly portrays the entire U.S. military in the West as a capable producer of catastrophes, filled with insubordinate officers who hungered for personal glory at the expense of their soldiers, and who betrayed each other with appalling predictability. Just as Philbrick's good eye attracted him to Rutten's horse, his good ear picked out a beautiful quote from Theodore Roosevelt about that day, which could serve as an epigraph, and an epitaph, for any account of it: "Odd things happen in a battle, and the human heart has strange and gruesome depths and the human brain still stranger shallows."

Brian Hall is the author, most recently, of "Fall of Frost" and "I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company