book response: The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Philbrick (2011)


Cover of
Cover via Amazon
I thoroughly enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick's history of the Pilgrims, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (see my previous multi-part book report) and was more than willing to learn again from him about an historical subject I know nothing about, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This book was available for a Kindle loan through my local library and a great read on the Kindle, but I have the same complaint with all the Kindle books that include maps; the maps are very hard to read.

The short summary is this book is excellent. Philbrick credits Sitting Bull's success to prophecy and Custer's defeat to his own hubris, his fellow officer Reno's cowardice and drunkenness, and his fellow officer Benteen's passive aggressive attitude. This way he can appease all the hard-core amateurs who like to single out a single reason for the loss of over 200 US soldiers at the Little Bighorn River. This book was an excellent introduction to this historical event.


The rest of this is my interaction with excerpts from the book, although there are no page numbers, just Kindle locations. Philbrick's observations on Plains Indian culture sounded to me like the ideal of today's libertarians.
 The concept of having a supreme leader did not come naturally to the Lakota, for whom individuality and independence had always been paramount. Even in the midst of battle, a warrior was not bound by the orders of a commander; he fought for his own personal glory. Decisions were reached in Lakota society by consensus, and if two individuals or groups disagreed, they were free to go their separate ways and find another village to attach themselves to. Loc. 1148-52
Although the US government's treatment of the American Indians was atrocious, including the relocation of nomadic groups to reservations, one chief was quoted in the book,and I forgot to highlight it, that he did appreciate not having to worry every night if his horse would get stolen and if he had to go out and fight someone for it the next day, which would be the flipside of the libertarian ideal.

The nomadic life was necessary to follow the buffalo which provided the protein, tools and shelter (bones and hide), as well as religious elements. But settling too long also left their large pony herd without forage. When it was time to move, the families would pack everything on two teepee poles and tie them to a pony. The sticks wold furrow the ground behind them. I imagine this left each location for fertile for natural grasses and other wildlife. Of course, the size of a camp would affect how long they could stay in an area.
A village of that size had to move every few days as the pony herd consumed the surrounding grass and the hunters ranged the country for game. Since almost three weeks had passed since the hostiles had been last sighted, and an Indian village could move as many as fifty miles a day, the hostile camp might be several hundred miles away by now. Loc. 1580-83

Philbrick does not shy away from the atrocities committed by both sides against each other. I'm sharing these here partly to dispel the notion that the Indians were noble savages and that the white soldiers were noble Christians. I'm sure nobility was embraced by some in each group, the ghastly subhuman things tend to leave more evidence and shock. Decades afterwards, Teddy Roosevelt heard some first hand accounts from some Indians.
Roosevelt found the Crows’ account “wildly improbable.” This, however, did not necessarily make it untrue. “Of course, human nature is so queer that it is hard to say that anything is impossible…,” Roosevelt wrote in an April 8, 1908, letter to Curtis. “Odd things happen in a battle, and the human heart has strange and gruesome depths and the human brain still stranger shallows; Loc. 3751-53 - highlight is mine- jpu

While looking for Sitting Bull's encampment, Custer came across a recently evacuated site, where some dead Indian warriors had been just buried. In response, they attacked the dead. "That afternoon, Custer and his troopers systematically desecrated the graves." Loc. 1657-58 But desecration of the dead was not unique to the white invaders.They came across the bodies of US soldiers. "The bodies had been so horribly mutilated that it was at first impossible to determine which one was Elliott’s."
Also, Indian raiders of homesteaders on Indian lands were often accused of raping the women. Less known, to me anyway, is the rapes by US soldiers of Indian women captured after a village was vanquished. This next revelation is stomach turning, involving a the destruction of an Indian village by Custer a few years before the Little Big Horn.
If Custer had committed one certain crime at the Washita, it involved not Major Elliott but the fifty or so Cheyenne captives who accompanied the regiment during the long march back to the base camp. According to Ben Clark, “many of the squaws captured at the Washita were used by the officers.” Clark claimed that the scout known as Romero (jokingly referred to as Romeo by Custer) acted as the regiment’s pimp. “Romero would send squaws around to the officers’ tents every night,” he said, adding that “Custer picked out a fine looking one [named Monahsetah] and had her in his tent every night.” Benteen corroborated Clark’s story, relating how the regiment’s surgeon reported seeing Custer not only “sleeping with that Indian girl all winter long, but…many times in the very act of copulating with her!” There was a saying among the soldiers of the western frontier, a saying Custer and his officers could heartily endorse: “Indian women rape easy.” Highlight Loc. 2561-68 - highlight is mine-jpu

The intertribal warfare was also brutal, even before the invasion by the whites. So it's not surprising that some Indians worked for the US Calvary, not only against other tribes but even to settle personal scores.

For Bloody Knife, who wore the black handkerchief with blue stars that Custer had brought back with him from Washington, this was a very personal battle. His mother was an Arikara, but his father was a Hunkpapa, and Bloody Knife had grown up with Gall, Sitting Bull, and many of the other warriors gathered here today on the Little Bighorn. Whether it was because of his Arikara parentage or his sullen personality, Bloody Knife had been tormented by the other Hunkpapa boys, with Gall—barrel-chested, outgoing, and easy to like—leading in the abuse. Bloody Knife eventually left to live with his mother’s people, but in 1860, at the age of twenty, he returned to visit his father on the mouth of the Rosebud, only to be once again beaten up and humiliated by his old nemesis, Gall. Loc. 3069-75
 In the 1st half of the raid at the Little Bighorn, led by Major Reno, Bloody Knife was able to kill Gall's wife and children. In fact, success against tribal villages was almost guaranteed. But Custer had run into the biggest gathering of tribes in recent history. "Between 1868 and 1878, there were eighteen cavalry attacks on Indian villages of two hundred tepees or fewer, and every one of these attacks proved successful." Loc. 3131-32 This history of "success" sickens me, to think of how many men were killed for simply living on their land that white men wanted for their greedy purposes.

While Bloody Knife was able to settle his score with Gall, others were not as successful, including Dorman, also part of Reno's raid.
One of the wounded was the African American interpreter Isaiah Dorman. Since he was married to a Hunkpapa woman at the Standing Rock Agency, he was well known to many of the Indians gathered there that day, one of whom was Moving Robe Woman. Loc. 3618-20 ... The second cartridge worked, however, and Moving Robe Woman killed Isaiah Dorman. Dorman’s body was later found beside his coffee kettle and cup, both filled with his own blood. His penis had been cut off and stuffed in his mouth and his testicles staked to the ground with a picket pin.Loc. 3624-26
At the end of the battle, with all of Custer's men dead, the winners celebrated in different ways.
As the warriors fought over plunder, the women, many of whom had lost loved ones that day, took a leading role in mutilating the dead. “The women used sheath-knives and hatchets,” remembered Wooden Leg, who used his own knife to scalp one of Lieutenant Cooke’s shaggy sideburns. Loc. 4954-56
Again, this was not a practice limited to the Indian savages, but was practiced by the white savages in uniforms as well.
Chivington’s soldiers had mercilessly killed and mutilated the women and children and later displayed their lurid trophies of war at a parade in Denver. For the Native women who’d survived what was known as the Battle of Sand Creek, the mutilation of Custer’s troops provided at least a modicum of revenge. Loc. 4957-59
I have two previous blogs (1, 2) on the Sand Creek massacre. If you read those expect to cry some. And then it's hard for me to mourn so much for Custer.
Of the Seventh Cavalry’s approximately 750 officers and enlisted men, 268 had been killed and 62 wounded. They’d lost not only their leader, but almost half their officers and men in the most devastating military loss in the history of the American West. Loc. 5098-5100
Hitler was able to point the finger at America's history in the subjugation of the West and use it as a positive example to justify his invasions to the east and the inhuman practices he endorsed. At least Germany has sought to make amends. The US, on the other hand is still derelict in its promised duties and obligations to those confined to reservations. What it couldn't do by direct action, it did by ruining the ecology of the plains.
In 1944, the Army Corp of Engineers decided to turn the Missouri River into a series of lakes. It’s been called “the single most destructive act perpetrated against an Indian tribe in the twentieth century.” With the building of five dams in North and South Dakota, the U.S. government flooded 550 square miles of tribal land. Since the waters of the Missouri were what sustained the Native peoples in this region, the dams eliminated their most fertile and sacred lands. Hundreds of Lakota families along the Missouri were displaced. But it was those peoples whose ancestors had assisted Custer’s Seventh Cavalry—the Mandan; the Hidatsa; and Bloody Knife’s people, the Arikara—who suffered the most. With the building of the Garrison Dam in North Dakota, these three tribes lost the very heart of their reservation at Fort Berthold, forcing approximately 95 percent of the agency’s residents to relocate. Loc. 5501-7

America's success rests on the timbers of great injustices. It's amazing how much mercy God has extended to our country.  As we learn in 2 Peter 3:9, The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. May we learn from our history and try to fix what we've left wrong.
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