Little Big Horn: A defeat for both sides?



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.

Philbrick has now changed course into landlocked Montana and a story that has been told dozens of times, Custer's Last Stand, in The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle Of Little Big Horn.

Initially it seems an unlikely choice for the Nantucket, Mass., resident, but in light of 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, Philbrick recognized the pattern reoccurring on the Far West plains in the 1870s, a pattern that drew the U.S. Army and Lt. Col. George Armstrong 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 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 Philbrick tells in 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.

Sitting Bull comes across as having 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 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.

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 Philbrick's tale, however, just more evidence of the nation's legacy of mistreatment and murder when it comes to its native peoples.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bob Hoover is a writer for the Post-Gazette.

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