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They Died With Their Myths On

One of Gary Larson's cleverer Far Side cartoons depicts Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer astride his horse, speaking quietly to a couple of fellow cavalrymen. “Get a load of that stupid hat,” Custer says of the elaborate headdress worn by a Native American warrior parading on horseback before him. Of course, the joke is on Custer. His view obscured by a rock reformation, the rakish Civil War veteran cannot discern the sea of Indian warriors gathered in the near distance. Custer’s alleged sartorial slight probably was not, as the cartoon’s title claims, his “last snide remark,” but Larson’s riff on the Battle of the Little Bighorn is a useful barometer of national sentiment—proof, if any were needed, that Custer ceased to be an American hero some time ago.

Such a prospect would have been unthinkable in Custer’s day, or even sixty years ago. Within weeks of his death on June 25, 1876, at the hands of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors, Custer ascended high into the country’s pantheon of martyrs. Few Americans at the time had the moral courage or historical foresight to denounce Custer as a barbarous standard-bearer of Indian dispossession. The country, after all, was at war with the Western Indians. Hating Indians was something of a national pastime—a tradition embedded deep in the American consciousness that extended back to the earliest days of colonial settlement. A Minnesota congressman surely spoke for the nation at large when he said, in 1868, that “I have never seen in my life a good Indian … except when I have seen a dead Indian.”

If this sentiment is hard to fathom, it may be harder still to understand the terrible psychic wound that Custer’s slaughter in 1876 inflicted on a country preparing to embark on a virtual orgy of centennial celebrations. And it may be toughest of all to write about Custer without sounding like a Jeremiah. Custer’s crimes against indigenous peoples have been so thoroughly cataloged and so deeply imbibed, both here and abroad, that it seems old-fashioned to usher into the world yet another book about the erstwhile hero of Little Bighorn. Even Custer’s redoubtable foe, the Lakota Sioux war chief Sitting Bull, seems a bit shopworn. His formerly unsung heroism is now so roundly acknowledged that it hardly bears repeating.

Nathaniel Philbrick does not shy from thrice-told tales. He is a consistently perceptive celebrant of true American grit in the face of danger. Over the last decade—in books about the nineteenth-century Pacific whaling industry and the Pilgrims of Plymouth, among other subjects—Philbrick has written almost exclusively about, as he puts it, “what occurs within the behavioral laboratory of a ship at sea.” In The Last Stand, Philbrick proposes that this decidedly landlocked battle registered on the same scale as the more expansive sea conflicts he has previously chronicled.

In 1875, soon after an Army expedition led by Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, the United States sought to clear the land of nomadic Indians to make room for prospectors. The Indians declined to sell the Black Hills, or to budge. The rest, as they say, is history. Custer conducted the Seventh Cavalry against the Sioux and their Cheyenne allies. Depending on your view, he either made the honest mistake of underestimating the strength of his opposition or he arrogantly refused the counsel of friendly native scouts. Whatever the case, by the night of June 25, 1876, Custer and 210 of his men had perished.

Philbrick aims to recount anew the face-off between Custer and Sitting Bull, but readers hoping for a conventional dual biography organized around a chronological narration of the battle itself will be disappointed. The Last Stand is a subtler enterprise, a kind of cultural biography of the battle and its key players. True to his métier as a close student of human character, Philbrick goes looking for smaller personal battles within the larger battle—overlooked clashes of personality that, once elucidated, promise to rescue Little Bighorn from decades of pedestrian interpretation. Philbrick’s Custer and Sitting Bull are neither heroes nor monsters; they are actual people.

Whatever else he may have been, Custer was not an uninteresting man. Vain and tempestuous, yes; but not incurious or stupid. With his Samsonesque cascade of ringlets and his embellished uniforms, he cut a figure by turns dashing and absurd. But he had fire in him. Philbrick portrays his progress from dismal prospect—bottom of his West Point class—to household name as a quintessential American success story. Here, refreshingly, is a three-dimensional person: a troubled, gifted cavalryman with a keen eye for the main chance, not simply the clod of recent legend. Philbrick’s Custer is more Petraeus than Patton—a thinking man’s soldier who spent entire days in his study reading The Anatomy of Melancholy, fiddling with taxidermy, and writing articles (chiefly about himself).

He was also, predictably, a difficult man to adore. Philbrick explains, at considerable length, that Custer was not alone in seeking immortality at Little Bighorn. Indeed, he had fierce competitors throughout the better part of his military career. None of these men is as compelling as the object of their envy. Still, Philbrick’scollective portrait of Custer’s legion of detractors—including President Ulysses S. Grant, his former West Point classmate, as well as two fellow cavalry officers—is a superb study in narcissism among the warrior class.  

Custer’s shrill protestations to the contrary, critics frequently had legitimate cause to resent him. He loved to showboat; worse, he was a serial exaggerator. He’d performed luminously in the Civil War—Philbrick calls him “one of Union’s greatest cavalry officers”—but he had run afoul of his superiors, notably Grant. (Grant nursed a grudge against Custer for disrupting—with his equestrian dash and spirited horse­—the Washington parade meant to honor the general.) After the war, Custer thought briefly of entering politics or going into business. But he loved the saddle and the field; in 1866, he resumed active duty as Lieutenant Colonel of the Seventh Cavalry. In 1867, he joined an expedition against the Cheyennes. A star was born. However vociferously Army comrades contested Custer’s record of exploits, the former rural schoolteacher from Ohio quickly acquired a devoted public following. When President Grant ordered Custer’s arrest in 1876—as punishment for testifying against his administration before Congress—the New York Herald denounced Grant as “the ‘modern Caesar.’ ”

If Custer’s enemies had anyone to fear, it was his wife and veritable comrade in arms. Libbie Custer reveled in the grandeur of her husband’s aspirations, and adopted them as her own. Custer was an imperfect husband; but hurt as she was by his occasional infidelities, Libbie retained an extraordinary hold on Custer’s affections. With epistolary grace and intimacy worthy of John and Abigail Adams, the pair communicated often while Custer was away. From the first, Libbie harnessed her fortunes to Custer’s star. By the time of her death, in 1933, she had devoted roughly three-quarters of her life to tending his flame—and ruthlessly cutting down any who challenged his posthumous monopoly on heroism.

Libbie Custer was crushed but also invigorated by George’s martyrdom, which provided her with a dramatic cause and a national celebrity otherwise beyond her grasp. The country’s grief and rage stoked her own. Philbrick does not exaggerate when he likens Custer’s death to “the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic thirty-six years later.” On the eve of Little Bighorn, Custer enjoyed substantial reputations as a Civil War hero and virtuoso fighter in the Indian wars—reputations that he and Libbie had worked tirelessly to burnish in the press. Custer had been working his magic for years. Small wonder, then, that Americans rallied so quickly behind the fallen thirty-six-year-old.

Custer’s Last Stand is famously regarded as the Western Indians’ last stand, too. And so, after a fashion, Philbrick’s book is “the story of two Last Stands, for it is impossible to understand the one without the other.” True enough. Custer’s demise furnished a virtuous pretext for escalating the U.S. Army’s brutal incursion into the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West, where the mania for acres and minerals had unleashed a torrent of violence against Indians nominally protected by federal treaties. And for members of the Seventh Cavalry, the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890, sated a fifteen-year-old thirst for vengeance.

Yet Sitting Bull’s Last Stand will always be less knowable than Custer’s. Philbrick recognizes the frustrations of doing Native American history: reliable sources are scarce. The temptation, when evidence vanishes or simply does not exist, is to take refuge in the present. Anyone familiar with the field knows the difficulty—indeed, the peril—of separating the modern-day disputes of indigenous peoples from events as distant in time as Columbus’s arrival in the “New World.”  

For a time, Philbrick strains against the urge to let moral concerns trump the evidence. Sitting Bull emerges not as the Nobler Man, but as a man not so unlike Custer. Both of them, Philbrick emphasizes, were heirs to distinguished martial traditions. Both had vast ambitions. Both were relentless self-promoters. Both relished the spotlight. Both had bitter enemies. Both had made names for themselves in the years leading up to Little Bighorn. Both continue to shoulder the enormous weight of prejudices and expectations accumulated over hundreds of years.

Then as now, much was made of Sitting Bull’s contempt for white culture, of his refusal to abandon native traditions while others urged accommodation or assimilation. Sensitive as we are to the value of native traditions lost and destroyed, we are inclined to take pride in Sitting Bull’s resolve. His righteous mien—so brilliantly captured in the photographs—conforms exactly to our fondest dream of an indomitable pan-Indian spirit immune to the corrupting influences of the white man’s world.  

Philbrick argues persuasively that Sitting Bull’s native critics saw him differently. They renounced his siren song of native self-sufficiency as suicidally impractical and self-aggrandizing. Fairly or not, they accused of him of leading desperate and gullible followers down the path to extinction. Sitting Bull savored the fame that Little Bighorn conferred on him. In the battle’s wake, he sat for multiple interviews. Later in life, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which bred further resentment among Indians disinclined to view him favorably. When Lakota Sioux policemen fatally shot Sitting Bull in December 1890, two weeks before the Wounded Knee Massacre, they may well have committed a vengeance killing of their own.

The whole story is fascinating, while it lasts. But Philbrick does not follow through. When confronting apparently contradictory political sensibilities among Indians, academic historians often salve their consternation by looking away; and Philbrick, who is a popular historian, does the same. For all of its psychological depth and its stylish prose, The Last Stand never really goes beyond conventional and prevailing beliefs about Indian­–white relations, so that his Custer and his Sitting Bull never quite cease to be caricatures.  

Perhaps Philbrick can’t help himself.  He explains in his preface that he came of age in the 1960s and witnessed at close hand Custer’s transformation from idol to scourge. For him, that transformation still resounds as a powerful reminder of all that alienated his parents’ generation from his own in the age of Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Custer was scarcely alone in falling from grace during that tumultuous decade, but his legacy continues to hold a particular uneasy significance for Native American activists and scholars now. Perhaps more than any figure in American history—more even than Columbus—Custer embodies the tension between two competing visions of the Native American past: triumphant resistance, and grim defeat. Is it possible to have it both ways, to claim Custer’s grisly end as symbolic proof of pan-Indian endurance and strength, while also conceding that his death paved the way for what—by any historical standard—looks an awful lot like Native American collapse in the face of overwhelming military force?

As dualisms go, this one ranks among the most stultifying. But its persistence reveals the truth about our unwillingness to look beyond these shores for richer interpretations of settler colonialism. America is not the only place in the world with a colonial legacy. But American scholars, no matter how loudly they proclaim their commitment to complexity and “global history,” remain largely wedded to the usual simple categories: Indian and white, colonizer and colonized, aggressor and reluctant combatant.

To be fair, Philbrick is an equal opportunity contortionist when it comes to casting his subjects in the best possible light. He informs us that in all likelihood neither man wanted to do battle on June 25, 1876. “Sitting Bull held out hope that peace, not war, would be the ultimate result of the army’s appearance at the Little Bighorn.” For his part, “Custer had demonstrated a remarkable talent for negotiation and diplomacy prior to his last battle.” And so, according to Philbrick, “the tragedy of both their lives is that they were not given the opportunity to explore those alternatives.” In this otherwise fine book, historical perspective goes wanting. Custer and Sitting Bull make unlikely peaceniks indeed.

Kirk Davis Swinehart, a historian and book critic, teaches at Wesleyan University. He is at work on a book about a British family undone by the American Revolution.