Friday, June 22, 2012

Philbrick's The Last Stand

Custer, as a General during the Civil War
Sitting Bull in 1885

I'm reading Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

If you've read any of Philbricks books, you know why I am excited to be reading this one. I've read his Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War and also  In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex the event which was the inspiration for Melville's Moby Dick (or at least it's premise). Philbrick picks big subjects, and charges into them with gusto and detail.

Philbrick is a gifted writer and historian. His writing reads almost like fiction, with character development, conflict between actors, color commentary, development of location, but it all goes to the same end - a deep understanding of the why's of the history, not just the what's. There's no fluff, but it's a much richer landscape than most history I've read.

Philbrick knows that his readers all know how the battle turned out for Custer, and from the little I've read so far makes no secret of it. As it should be. But it's still a page turner, because of the amazing detail revealed about the people, their intentions and how they came to them, the places, and the supporting actors like boat captains, upper level commanders, and scouts.

It's telling that Philbrick, unlike most historians writing about the third day at Gettysburg, let alone Little Bighorn, actually knows about Custer's charge at east cavalry field, effectively stopping J.E.B. Stuart's 6,000 strong cavalry from getting at the Union rear. This is a significant, but nearly completely overlooked aspect of the battle of Gettysburg, yet Philbrick manages to unearth it and include it is this book.

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