Little Big Horn was a defeat for both sides

Nonfiction: "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Big Horn," by Nathaniel Philbrick. Viking, $30.

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Nathaniel Philbrick, who learned to sail on state park lakes while growing up in Pittsburgh, has made his mark writing about the sea in the books "In the Heart of the Sea," "Sea of Glory" and "Mayflower."

Not only did those forays into American history have a watery theme, but they explored forgotten stories of whaling, exploration and the days after the Pilgrims' landing.

Mr. Philbrick has now changed course into landlocked Montana and a story that has been told dozens of times, Custer's Last Stand.

Initially, it seems an unlikely choice for the Nantucket, Mass., resident, but in light of Mr. Philbrick's study of the relationships between the native tribes of New England and the white settlers, it actually makes sense.

For years after the Pilgrims established their settlement, they managed to coexist with the native peoples until other factors led to the bloody King Philip's War.

Steeped in this early history of America's natives, Mr. Philbrick recognized the pattern reoccurring on the Far West plains in the 1870s, a pattern that drew the U.S. Army and Lt. Col. Custer, demoted in rank from general after the Civil War, to the Black Hills.

Claimed by the Sioux who refused to sell, the Black Hills were luring settlers to mine for gold in 1875 and the government wanted the "Indians" subdued.

On the other side was Sitting Bull, a kind of mystic who was the leader of a collection of tribes including the Sioux and Lakota and sought to maintain their independence despite federal orders to live on reservations.

One part of Mr. Philbrick's revision of the Last Stand story is his claim that both sides were open to negotiation, including the headstrong Custer whose ambitions leaned toward the White House. He was hoping to emerge from the confrontation with a victory, either through talking or fighting.

But, mistrusted by President Ulysses S. Grant, he was not in charge of the Dakota expedition despite earlier military successes. As Mr. Philbrick tells Custer's biography, the 36-year-old career soldier was quick to disobey orders, eager to attack and not above using women and children as hostages to discourage attacks.

He was not above seizing comely native women as bedmates, either, despite his vocally loyal and dedicated wife, Libbie, who carried the torch long after his death.

Not exactly the stuff of heroes.

Sitting Bull comes across as more of the classic "noble savage" who provided inspiration and guidance to a collection of tribes, resisted "civilizing" on the reservation, but did take part in Buffalo Bill's staged "Wild West" shows briefly in the 1880s. He was slain by reservation authorities in 1890.

"The Last Stand" is both a widely researched history of the ill-fated military campaign into Indian country in 1876 as well as a sympathetic attempt to capture the humanity of all involved.

The author's account of how other U.S. soldiers, cut off from Custer's units, bravely survived a difficult siege on that day revives the story of a military victory overshadowed by the massacre of 210 of Custer's men.

Also missed in the mythology of the Last Stand, argues Mr. Philbrick, is that the fallout from the battle sentenced native Americans to decades of reprisals, poverty, disease and second-class citizenship. It was their "last stand" as well, signifying the death of the frontier and eventually pushing America's aggressive nature to cast about for other worlds to conquer -- Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines.

Mr. Philbrick faced a mountain of material, so at times, he loses control of the research, resulting in chapters knee-deep in facts that blur the focus. The numerous maps are too small and sketchy to be of much help, but the many photos provide essential information.

"The Last Stand" is history ambitiously written and sympathetically told. There's no positive side to Mr. Philbrick's tale, however, just more evidence of the nation's legacy of mistreatment and murder when it comes to its native peoples.


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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