A master storyteller’s vivid take on “one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history.”
In the centennial year of 1876, President Grant, intentionally slighting George Armstrong Custer, placed General Alfred Terry in command of the Seventh Cavalry’s campaign to force Sitting Bull’s Sioux and Cheyenne followers out of the Black Hills and onto reservations. For Custer, the country’s most famous Indian fighter, a greater indignity awaited. Philbrick fans, accustomed to his invigorating treatments of American history, will happily recognize an unaltered talent for fresh insight as he tackles one of the most written-about events ever: the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The author opens with an unexpected story about the riverboat journey of legendary pilot Grant Marsh up the Missouri and Yellowstone tributaries to provision the Seventh Cavalry and closes by following the harrowing return in the battle’s aftermath that carried wounded soldiers to the Dakota Territory’s Fort Lincoln. Philbrick (Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, 2006, etc.) dwells instructively on the importance of the strikingly peculiar landscape—the rolling hills, depressions, heat and dust that contributed so mightily to the usual fog of war. The author frankly acknowledges the difficulty of piecing together the battle’s details, weighing contemporaneous accounts against those collected well after, resolving repeated inconsistencies as to how it unfolded. He establishes confidence in his judgments, however, by his meticulous portraits of the chief antagonists, rejecting caricatures of Custer, from blameless martyr to vainglorious fool, and of Sitting Bull, from murdering savage to Native-American saint. Philbrick supplements his nuanced appraisal of each man—they had surprising similarities—with deft depictions of subordinate players, including the drunken Major Reno, the brave but vindictive Captain Benteen and the calculating Terry, more responsible than any single individual, the author persuasively argues, for the calamity.
A stirring, perceptive retelling of an endless fascinating battle.