Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: Nathaniel Philbrick - The Last Stand

     “Before Custer became the mythic figure we know today, he was a lieutenant colonel desperate to find a way to salvage his reputation after a run-in with President Grant.  Custer did not stride through history doing what he wanted; he, like any military man, spent most of his time following orders.” (Philbrick, 101)  Custer was on the brink of professional and financial ruin.  If he could catch the Indians all would be well again. In his most hopeful fantasies he imagined a draft Custer for President Movement at the Democratic convention which was to open in St. Louis on June 27.  More realistically he could expect accolades at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and big box office receipts for a lecture tour for which he was already booked. (Philbrick, 119)

     The villain of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876) was General Alfred Terry and his flawed battle plan.  According to Philbrick, General Terry “wanted Custer to attack if he found a fresh Indian trail.”  He says, everyone knew perfectly well what Custer was going to do once Terry, “, in the words of Major Brisbin ‘turned the wild man loose.’”(Philbrick, 99)  General Terry was protective of his own military reputation however and was spinning an invisible and cunning web.  “Terry had a lawyer’s talent for crafting documents that appeared to say one thing but were couched in language that could allow for an entirely different interpretation should circumstances require it.”  Terry’s ambiguously worded orders to Custer, allowed him to protect his reputation no matter what happened.  “If Custer bolted for the village and claimed a great victory, it was because Terry had the wisdom to give him an independent command.  If Custer did so and failed, it was because he had disobeyed Terry’s written orders.”  Philbrick continues, “As Terry would have wanted it given the ultimate outcome of the battle, Custer has become the focal point, the one we obsess about when it comes to both the Black Hills Expedition and the Little Bighorn.  But, in many ways, it was Terry who was moving the chess pieces.  Even though his legal opinion launched the Black Hills gold rush and his battle plan resulted in one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history, Terry has slunk back into the shadows of history, letting Custer take center stage in a cumulative tragedy for which Terry was, perhaps more than any other single person, responsible.” (Philbrick, 102-103)

     In 1886, some ten years after the massacre of Custer and 225 men of the Seventh Cavalry, the well-respected Terry was promoted to the rank of Major General.

For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

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