Nathaniel Philbrick’s brilliant book concludes with an epilogue surveying the historiographical pendulum-swing undergone by the reputation of Colonel Custer and received wisdom surrounding his fate and the battle of Little Bighorn. The Last Stand is as much an investigation into myth-making as it is a straightforward history, and Philbrick charts a course between different extremes of opinion, allowing for a three dimensional portrayal of both sides. Philbrick compares several historical accounts and while not dismissing any nor presenting a definitive revision, he clearly describes the ambiguity around different points in the story, and leaves the decision-making up to the listener’s informed imagination.
Philbrick has achieved one of two great things with this book. The first is his masterful handling of the material at his disposal, and his ability to spin the narrative thread through the build-up to Little Bighorn and the chaos and confusion of the climactic battle. With the help of George Guidall’s assured delivery, the listener never loses sight of the battle’s development, even though the author has a habit of suddenly shifting the narrative back and forth in time and pausing the action to delve into the back stories of even the most minor character.
His other achievement is to bring nuance to the experience of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations – this is, of course, as much their story as it is of western expansionism. His depictions of Sitting Bull, as well as the trackers, warriors, wives, and daughters are all embraced into the main storyline. Hand in hand with this approach is Philbrick’s evocation of the landscape; the nautical theme of his previous books means that he can here write of the Great Plains as if he’s describing the shifting moods of the sea. Again, Guidall delivers these passages beautifully, highlighting the timelessness of the setting, and reinforcing our continued fascination with this epochal page in history.
“Hindsight makes Custer look like an egomaniacal fool,” Philbrick writes with understatement, “but...he came frighteningly close to winning the most spectacular victory of his career.” Note the use of “frighteningly” it’s that ambiguity towards Custer’s story that gives depth to this book, a trait shared by most great histories, of which this is certainly one. Dafydd Phillips
The best-selling author of Mayflower sheds new light on one of the iconic stories of the American West.
Little Bighorn and Custer are names synonymous in the American imagination with unmatched bravery and spectacular defeat. Mythologized as Custer's Last Stand, the June 1876 battle has been equated with other famous last stands, from the Spartans' defeat at Thermopylae to Davy Crockett at the Alamo.
In his tightly structured narrative, Nathaniel Philbrick brilliantly sketches the two larger-than-life antagonists: Sitting Bull, whose charisma and political savvy earned him the position of leader of the Plains Indians, and George Armstrong Custer, one of the Union's greatest cavalry officers and a man with a reputation for fearless and often reckless courage.
Philbrick reminds listeners that the Battle of the Little Bighorn was also, even in victory, the last stand for the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations. Increasingly outraged by the government's Indian policies, the Plains tribes allied themselves and held their ground in southern Montana. Within a few years of Little Bighorn, however, all the major tribal leaders would be confined to Indian reservations.
Throughout, Philbrick beautifully evokes the history and geography of the Great Plains with his characteristic grace and sense of drama. The Last Stand is a mesmerizing account of the archetypal story of the American West, one that continues to haunt our collective imagination.
©2010 Nathaniel Philbrick (P)2010 Penguin
This was my second audiobook ever and I have to say I chose very well.
In my younger years I read several books about Native Americans, Custer, and the Battle at the Little Big Horn and it was so very fascinating then.
After reading (listening) to the "The Last Stand" the fascination and enjoyment continues now that I am older (55+).
Mr. Philbrick has provided an excellent source into this historical period of time. Not only was he able to provide clarifications on the battle, but an insight into how the government thought and acted towards our Native American citizens.
I commend him on this work and thank him for this A+ effort.
true crime fan
This book taught me a lot about "Custer's Last Stand." From previous accounts and less than complimentary movies, I always assumed Custer was an arrogant showboater who put his men in danger because of his hubris and recklessness-that was definitely part of it but there were so many more aspects to this tragedy-stupid decisions made from the beginning of the campaign and poor implementation by less than stellar officers. The fingerpointing after the battle was pathetic; no one wanted to take responsibility for their part in the failure. I have not changed my opinion about Custer but this book makes it clear that he was not the sole architect of this debacle.
Knowing the ending when you start gives every sentence that writing-on-the-wall sense of foreboding. And when its history, you are looking to see how what you think you know fits with the facts. Philbrick structures this book by first giving the reader a look at George Armstrong Custer's military background, and some of his less than humble antics: though he was unarguably a brave and cunning soldier that instilled in his men allegiance, his arrogance and public appeal earned him many enemies among his superiors. The researched insights provided reveal the character of Custer, show the side of the man less written about. He also gives similar backgrounds on the other principal participants involved: Major Marcus Reno, accused here of being a drunkard, outspoken enemy Frederick Benteen (each a leader of two of the three columns of the 7th Cavalry), General Alfred Terry (Custer’s commander), Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux.
The book moves from these key players back and forth through the history, the politics leading up to the battle, and other events circling around the looming battle. I found this approach crisp and easy to follow rather than confusing, wonderfully executed by Philbrick. We know much of this history already, the great deceits that had already nearly destroyed the Indians, the many battles, but it was interesting to read how all of the events and personalities came together. Adding some credence to what we often have to take as speculation were the included interviews with survivors, and information from some of the archeological digs at the battle site in Montana, with the caution that there were no verifiable survivors of Custer's actual fall.
All I can add to the many reviews here is to say that an actual copy of the book is invaluable to this audio version -- the maps and photos are superb and put this on a scope hard to imagine. This was one of the best written books I've read on this monumental battle that was not only Custer's last stand, but the end of the Plains Indians.
The book jumps back and forth through history. This is not a problem with a physical book in front of you, but is problematic on audio. I found myself lost multiple times only to learn that we had gone back 10 years. The last 5 chapters are fantastic and offer great details.
I read this as hard-copy 4-5 years ago, and since I was planning a long road trip I thought I wanted to hear this one again. It was as good as I remembered!
Philbrick does an excellent job of discussing the history between the Lakota, and the US Government and what we were doing to exploit them. He also gives the reader ample history behind the egos of Custer, Reno, and Benteen and how their contempt for Custer played out. That, along with the History lesson on the Indian Nation we tried to destroy (for no reason) had my attention. I’ll gladly listen again.
The only drawback is the fact that I found myself referring to the hardcopy so I could reference pictures, maps, etc. since the final days of the battle refer to many different topographical features, which are not easily imagined. Nor is it easy to picture the story in my head without the visual of Custer, his officers, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the rest of the Native American nation.
Do yourself a favor and pick this one up. You will not be disappointed.
Loved the book
This was one of the best books I have read. A great historical read.
George is one of the best!
I am more a fan or European history, but this was a fantastic book by Philbrick and perfect narrator George Guidall.This battle is not told in school, so books are the only real method to learn about the story. The author left the end of Custer up to evidence found by other survivors. Well read well written and I recommend for anyone interested in history, or war. Enjoy.
Insightful, intelligent and interesting.
The description of the famous battle.
His way of reading made you feel as if you were a witness to the actual events.
What probably really happened at Little Bighorn.
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