The last stand : Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

by Nathaniel Philbrick

Paper Book, 2010




New York : Viking, 2010.


The bestselling author of "Mayflower" sheds new light on one of the iconic stories of the American West, reminding readers that the Battle of the Little Bighorn was also, even in victory, the last stand for the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations.

Media reviews

Why does Custer persist? Nearly 134 years after his last stand, a military debacle that cost the lives of all 210 men under his immediate command, George Armstrong Custer remains such an iconic figure in the American pageant that mere mention of his name evokes an entirely overromanticized era in
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the American West. By all rights he should be a footnote. That he enjoys the glory of single-name recognition is a testament to the power of personality, show business and savvy public relations. Custer wasn’t just an Indian fighter. He was one of the first self-made American celebrities.
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A great strength of this book is its use of eye-witness accounts of that chaotic day – particularly those of the Indians who saw the battle as a great victory – although the sequence does jump back and forth somewhat confusingly at times.
Experts may find more to quarrel with here than I did. But even if Philbrick has everything right, that doesn't make The Last Stand the "definitive" book on the Little Bighorn, any more than Connell's was. There clearly ain't no such animal, and never will be. What may be most to this one's credit
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is a humanity that can make even inveterate Custer-haters pity the men who got stuck following him, as did at least one Sioux warrior at the time. "I felt really sorry for them, they looked so frightened," Standing Bear later told his son. "Many of them lay on the ground, with their blue eyes open, waiting to be killed."
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Sararush
The Last Stand is not only comprehensive well rounded study of The Battle of Little Big Horn, but author Nathaniel Philbrick also gives a near exhaustive study of the context surrounding the infamous battle. I was drawn to the novel due to my enjoyment of Philbrick's other works, but the subject
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matter itself was so engaging that I was surprised at how it held my interest. Deftly told in his characteristically gripping style, the details of the story never become tedious or overwhelming, but instead the story is engrossing throughout. Readers are treated to eye witness accounts and analysis, photos, appendices, and maps. The only complaint is that the sheer volume of information leaves little hope of any quality of retention. Many soldiers’ lives and battle roles are detailed, the ripple effects of the battles conclusions are thoroughly examined, and we get personal and details of the main player's lives and personalities, etc... However, in my opinion the author shrewdly balanced both sides of the battle without caving to opinion or sacrificing his narrative. Anyone interested in Custer, Sitting Bull or the Battle itself will not finish the book disappointed.
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LibraryThing member setnahkt
The Last Stand is the best book I’ve read so far about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Author Nathaniel Philbrick is noted for books on maritime events; he observes (and comments that other historians have also noted) that warfare on the Great Plains was somewhat similar to navigation on the
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open ocean. This turns out to be one of many strong points in the book; other accounts focus on the actual day of the Last Stand, June 25th, but Philbrick shows the complete tracks of the various US Army and Lakota groups as they moved through Montana Territory in the days leading up to the battle as if they were opposing fleets searching for each other on the ocean.

Custer’s image has changed from glorious hero to clueless fanatic over the years; Philbrick certainly doesn’t consider him a glorious hero but notes Custer’s aggressiveness had served him well right up to the day that it didn’t; in particular, he comments that Custer’s cavalry charges against J.E.B. Stuart on the third day of Gettysburg prevented Stuart from breaking into the Union rear at the same time Pickett’s division was attacking the front, and thus may have won the battle for the Union. Philbrick also notes that Sitting Bull had a “Last Stand” of his own, killed in 1890 while being arrested by Lakota police for supposedly supporting the Ghost Dance movement.

I’d always assumed that the battle was lost from the very beginning, but Philbrick notes Lakota interviewed after the battle commented that that if Major Marcus Reno on the right had pressed forward in his original charge or if Custer in the center had charged as soon as he came up, the 7th cavalry might have won by breaking into the village and taking the women and children hostage. Custer has been criticized for splitting his command in two, but the Lakota thought it was genius as the two columns converged on their village. Reno stopped short and deployed skirmishers (a move that temporarily confused Sitting Bull, who thought it might have been preliminary to negotiations – which he was willing to undertake). Reno then downed the better part of a bottle of whiskey and retreated to a defensive position, where he held out – or more accurately, Captain Frederick Benteen held out while Reno drank – until the Lakota, never good at assaulting a prepared position, gave up and left the next day.

On Custer’s side of the battle, some have speculated he may have waited to see the results of Reno’s attack before making his own – possibly out of prudence – uncharacteristic for him, or possibly to gain more glory for himself. There’s conflicting reports from witnesses over whether or not Custer was seriously wounded very early in the battle. On this side, the decisive move came from Crazy Horse, who led his own charge into a large group of 7th cavalry soldiers and disrupted them; Philbrick speculates if Custer’s battalion had stayed organized a little bit longer the troopers might have been able to set up a defensive position like Benteen’s and hold out (indeed, Lakota commented after the battle that if Custer troops had fought as well as Benteen’s they would have survived).

A fluid and easy read. Numerous well-done maps (I admit this is sort of a fetish for me). Photographs of the participants and “ledger drawings” of the battle by the Lakota. Appendices with orders of battle for both sides. The Index seems sparse; I wasn’t able to find a couple of things I was looking for. But overall highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
I guess like most Americans I've heard about Custer and Little Bighorn my whole life, I even visited the battlefield on a cross country trip a few years ago. This is the first book I've read about it, I wanted to uncover what all the hoopla is about. Why is there an entire field of
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pseudo-scholarship called "Custerology"? Why was the remote battlefield, the day I visited, packed with visitors from all over the world? I came to the book with the attitude of "show me", convince me that Custer and Big Horn are interesting. Unfortunately, Philbrick assumes the reader has a high level of interest from the start, and early on begins to de-mythologize and uncover the truth behind legend. I was never hooked, never convinced this was worthwhile to learn more about in detail. Compare with Philbrick's masterpiece In the Heart of the Sea, where he spends a long time about Nantucket and whaling and Quakers before starting into the story of the whale-ship Essex, by which time you are transported into a richly detailed world.

Because of the books revisionism, it inevitably and probably accurately comes across not as legend but tragedy, not as heroic but stupid, not as predestined but a series of contingencies. To its credit it's an interesting affair from a military buffs perspective, to re-create the minute by minute battlefield action, which comprises the majority of the books length. Philbrick also focuses on individual personalities and inter-personal politics as driving forces, supported by primary source material, which is effective. Yet I kept thinking "who cares." Little Bighorn didn't change much in the Plains Indian Wars that wouldn't have happened anyway, if Custer had won it wouldn't have changed much because larger forces were at work, this was not a pivotal battle on which history hinged. Thus we are left with an historical event that has more appeal to pop culture mythology - the story of flamboyant rare bird who "bit off more than he can chew" and got his comeuppance. In that sense the story was and still is best told in the film Little Big Man. For those seeking a more factual account, Philbrick's is a good option, but the truth is not as powerful or psychologically satisfying as the legend.
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LibraryThing member maneekuhi
A rare 5 star rating. Focuses on the days immediately prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn (river), the battle(s), relationships between key players, Sitting Bull (his death is both shocking and hugely disappointing), letters between Custer and wife Libbie, travel for each side immediately
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before battle. There was also mention of previous battles and key events and decisions which led to the Battle, as well as themes of vengeance and career advancement. The book includes many, many very helpful maps, good photos, and a very good index. Even though I intended to just read this "straight-through", I found myself skipping all over the book, re-reading passages, re-checking maps, photos, skipping ahead to see what happens to certain characters - in short, studying the book instead of just reading it. I also went to Flickr and YouTube to get a better idea of the topography of the battlefield, very key to this event, and I will be visiting the battlefield soon. Like most Americans I came to this book with only a smattering of the facts, most of which were wrong. Some major aha's for me - everyone on the US side did not get wiped out, Custer's regiment was divided into 3 major battalions, and he commanded one, approximately 215 men all of whom were killed. But while the other battalions suffered key losses there many survivors. There is some controversy as to where and when Custer was killed. All three of the 7th Cavalry battalions hesitated instead of following the battle plan, and that contributed greatly to the outcome. The size of the Indian camp was humongous, 1000 lodges, 8000 Indians including women and children, spread near the winding river over a campsite 1/4 mile by 2 miles. Charges against much smaller such camps had been effective in 18 previous attacks by US troops, even though the troops were still typically outnumbered by 4-5 times. A few key officers (not Custer) were drunk during the course of battle and that caused many lost lives. I was also amazed to realize once again that at the time of battle (1876) one could ride trains from New York to San Francisco, and that this battle occurred the same number of years before my birth as the years I have lived (67)- not so long ago from my perspective. Finally, both Custer (my Life on the Plains) and his wife (Saddles and Boots) have written books, and I intend to read Libbie's about life at home during those years sometime very soon.
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LibraryThing member queencersei
The Last Stand is an utterly engaging historical novel about the battle of the Little Big Horn. What is fascinating about this work is that the focus is not entirely on George Custer, but instead the other commanders, such as Reno and Benteen are also given much scrutiny. Also analyzed at length
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are the actions and history of the Indian leaders, such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and others.

Historical events leading up to the infamous battle are examined along with how the major participants on both sides interacted with their comrades. This analysis helped to humanize people who have become larger than life over the decades. History buffs will not be disappointed with this highly readable, well researched book.
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LibraryThing member Shahge
This book is about the battle of "Little Bighorn" also known as "Custer's Last Stand", fought between combined forces of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army of which George Armstrong Custer was an integral part. The book details the
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account in such a way that it seemed to me as if i was there watching the battle unfold infront of my own eyes. As far as the authenticity of the book is concerned, or whether the writer is biased or not, or who should be considered as a hero (Custer or Sitting Bull) is not for me to decide. I think it should be left to you or to some serious researcher. But writer's narrative style is excellent and he touches each and every aspect of the battle. Like how the soldiers were really frightened and yet at the same time some of them were very brave, how some of the officers like Reno were drinking during height of skirmish and how some of the soldiers were really coward, how cruel were sometimes both sides including Indian warriors and 7th cavalry soldiers, how Custer's lust for gaining or attaining the Glory all by himself led to incorrect decision of dividing the soldiers into small groups, and how personal conflicts between two persons, especially during war/fight can create difficulties for the rest of group. Overall it was an excellent book. I enjoyed it a lot and really recommend this book. It is certainly going to be one of the best books you will read.
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LibraryThing member thronm
The New Yorker said Philbrick gave Sitting Bull short shrift but, on the contrary, by having him always in the background as the judge of Custer and his incompetent superiors, he made Sitting Bull the judge of us all.
LibraryThing member witchyrichy
A well told tale with interesting digressions about the different characters and a comparison of Sitting Bull and Custer that is new; other than that Son of the Morning Star is the book about the battle.
LibraryThing member theageofsilt
This is an interesting, well written account of the events we know as "Custer's Last Stand". Philbrick does an excellent job of presenting the diverging views of the participants of the battle who survived -- including the Native American combatants, scouts and many innocent civilians who are
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caught up in the conflict. He makes it clear that the actual events immediate to Custer's death are unknown and our understanding of this, like many other critical moments in history, is limited.
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LibraryThing member pt1208
Very good! I've read Elizabeth Custer's memoirs, and enjoyed them. The Last Stand gave a very different perspective. I'm saving the book to give to my brother for Christmas.
LibraryThing member mikewick
After reading 'The Last Stand' I can appreciate why Nathaniel Philbrick's works have all won prestigious recognitions. While it remains to be seen if his newest work will garner the same praise, I wouldn't be surprised if this eminently readable and researched book produces another feather for
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Philbrick's cap. Describing the egotistical personality of Custer is one thing, but it's quite another feat to get a grasp on the facts--and retell them so well--that were lost to time, the fog of battle, and the fact that all of the US military participants were slaughtered in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. While reading it I really began to regret not taking the time to visit the area while traveling through on our way to and from Yellowstone National Park this past year--but I would hardly begrudge a reason to make another trip out there.
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LibraryThing member Unkletom
As he did previously to the Pilgrims in 'Mayflower' and to Moby Dick, 'In the Heart of the Sea', Philbrick has once again taken one of our cherished national legends and exposed it to the harsh glare of truth. Whether you believe that Custer was a national hero or a vain, strutting popinjay whose
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actions doomed those in command, you are probably largely ill-informed. He also ably points out that the title 'The Last Stand' applies equally to those who fought on both sides of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This is an excellent study of one of the most famous battles in our nation's history.
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LibraryThing member phyllis01
I read this after reading The Bounty, and the stories truly parallel one another. Just as we have only a partial knowing of Fletcher Christian and why he did what he did, so is the case with Custer. A flamboyant, distracted man (would probably be labeled ADD in this day & age, along with
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narcissistic personality disorder), there is no way to know what Custer's last thoughts and actions were. Philbrick provides both a character study and a well-defined history in this attempt to unlock Custer's Last Stand.
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LibraryThing member creighley
Great job of reenacting what hapened at the Little Big Horn
LibraryThing member foof2you
This book looks at Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn and the events leading up to this defeat, a week before the nations centennial celebrations. Philbrick tries to gather information from both sides to recreate the days before the battle. Difficult since the Native American participants use an
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oral tradition to hand stories down from generation to generation with very little written information to collaborate the stories. If you are interested in Custer's Last Stand this is a good book to start to learn about a tragic day for the American forces and the last great moment for Indians involved.
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LibraryThing member Michael_Lilly
Good book, as described by the other viewers. It goes well with T. J. Stiles's more recent book, Custer's Trials, which focuses almost entirely on Custer's life before Little Big Horn.
LibraryThing member realbigcat
I have the book but I listened to te audio edition. I found it quite interesting and very complete. A nice historical account of the epic Custer's last stand from every source possible. Also a history of Custer the man and all the events that preceded and followed the great plains indian wars.
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Great insight into the indians including Sitting Bull and Crazt Horse. There are tons of books on Custer and the battle and I would think this is one of the best.
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LibraryThing member cwflatt
One of the best accounts of the battle I have read. Fair unbiased, for Custer, the Indians and all involved, Still makes you wonder was it a blundering attempt at fame or a calcuated battle time decision that went wrong with no fault on Custer.
LibraryThing member stuart10er
Interesting and informative look at the context and events that led up to Custer's Last Stand. I didn't know much about it other than the Hollywood version and am now more acquanted with both sides of it. Easy yet detailed reading. Not a lot of wasted effort or filler, which was appreciated.
LibraryThing member buffalogr
I read this one with relish! It pretty honestly describes the Battle of the Little Bighorn from both sides. Interpreting from oral legend and the written word, the author draws some conclusions about the thoughts and strategies employed by both the Indians and the 7th US Cavalry. This book
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integrates with a recent visit to Fort Lincoln at Bismark ND...the location from which the 7th Cavalry departed before this battle. It confirmed my opinions about the persons on both sides of the conflict and as always with historical events, there is more to be read and enjoyed.
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LibraryThing member delta351
My biggest takeaway from this book is how poorly trained the average 7th Cav trooper was. Poor horsemanship training and poor weapons training. What a bunch of messed up officers too. Lays bare the myth of superhero George Custer
LibraryThing member drmaf
This is definitely the best book I have read about the Little Bighorn. At last I feel I fully understand what actually happened, the chronology of the battle, the mistakes Custer made, the actions of Reno and Benteen and the often glossed over fact that while Custer's entire command died, more than
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200 soldiers miraculously survived 2 days of siege by up to 4000 Indians. Philbrick presents Custer as brave and dashing, but tactically inept and terrible at man management, he seemed to have a knack of making enemies. All of the 3 key commanders on the day made significant errors. Philbrick highlights that Custer had, against the odds, succeeded in the catching the Indians by surprise, but squandered the advantage by splitting his command and then failing to charge the Indians when they were panicked and confused.. Reno had the chance to charge right through the startled Indians but hesitated and the advantage was lost, after which he proceeded to get drunk. Benteen detested Custer and failed to come to his aid as ordered, but partially redeemed himself by leading the heroic defence of Reno Hill. Philbrick doesn't just look at the commanders though, he make the book very readable by giving the stories of individual soldiers and Indians. Its is an intensely personal account where you can feel the fear and confusion, the heat and the dust, the pain of wounds and the finality of death. Philbrick has done a great job of marrying a strategic account of the battle with individual stories, it is really a great read.
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LibraryThing member ArtRodrigues
Philbrick is an excellent writer. He presents a balanced and very readable narrative of the famous battle, as well as its aftermath.
LibraryThing member book58lover
I am not really sure how I feel about this book. If you like to read about military strategy and the minutia of battle then you will like to read this. I was put off by it but fortunately it was just a small part of the book. So much of it was leading up the the battle, outlining the foibles of the
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major characters. Well researched and using voices of both native and white combatants it gives you a feeling for both sides. I was happy to see that it didn't portray Custer as the hero everyone believed at the time. Surprisingly it didn't try to give a blow by blow of Custer's actual fighting and I appreciated that.
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LibraryThing member Tanya-dogearedcopy
Non-fiction title covering General George Armstrong Custer and the Hunkpapa Lakota leader, Sitting Bull against the backdrop of the Battle of Little Bighorn-- Taking an even-handed approach to both leaders, the author takes a fresh, modern approach to the iconic battle waged in Montana. Philbrick
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attempts to mitigate both the hagiography and the propaganda surrounding Custer & Sitting Bull respectively and; tries to reconstruct the motivations and movements of the battle about which there is a lot still unknown. Listening to this in audio does a disservice to the work: The lack of having corresponding maps at hand is keenly felt
and; the narrator barely survives criticism in his voicing of Native American people.
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Ohioana Book Award (Finalist — 2011)
Montana Book Award (Honor — 2010)
Notable Books List (Nonfiction — 2011)



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