I’ve been reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s history, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Philbrick first splashed ashore the publishing world with his award-winning history, Mayflower, an engrossing account of the Pilgrims and their Native American counterparts. With The Last Stand, Philbrick moves the European and American Indian conflict two centuries into the future and most of a continent away from where he began his recounting of it with Mayflower. There is a large gulf of time and space between these two stories, but they make for suitable bookends to this tragic conflict, one near the beginning of armed conflict and one near its end.
As his subtitle implies, Philbrick gives ample treatment to Sitting Bull and all of the other significant Native American and European characters leading up to, participating during and in the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It is Custer though, that always steals the show. While he was alive, he lived a lifestyle that was larger than life. After his death, Custer was venerated as one of America’s most cherished of fallen heroes. This sentiment continued until the 1960s, when the paradigm cowboys = good and Indians = bad began to dissolve. Thomas Berger’s novel, Little Big Man, capitalized upon this shift in perspective. Director Arthur Penn’s movie version, starring Dustin Hoffman, gave this viewpoint an even wider audience.
Come on, you Wolverines! – Custer to his Michigan calvary at Gettysburg
Philbrick mentions Little Big Man and discusses the profound impact that it had upon him at the time, but by the end of The Last Stand we are not left with the buffoonish cartoon version of Custer portrayed in Little Big Man. Nor do we have Errol Flynn’s sainted version either. Instead we are left with a complex, but flawed man. Custer was able to parlay his military disaster into his stepping stone onto the stage of history. Philbrick has shined the light of clarity upon Custer, but his light also acts like footlights, making the actor larger than life.
The photographs with this post were taken at the Indian Arts Museum in Grand Teton National Park. Anne and I visited this museum last July as part of our Yellowstone vacation. I have already published these photos and I don’t normally recycle my media, but they relate well to the content of this post, plus they are nice pictures too. One of the reasons that I picked up The Last Stand was that during our Yellowstone trip we were only a couple of hundred miles from the battlefield, at least as the crow flies. When we make it back to that part of this country, I would like to visit its site. I expect it is not much to see, rolling, grass-covered hills, but I still want to see it, such is Custer’s fame.