Sunday, July 15, 2012

Philbrick's "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn"

It's all over now except for the finger pointing, and me reading through the notes that are almost a book on their own. I've finished this great read from Nathaniel Philbrick, and it's on a par with his Mayflower. This is a more challenging subject, because no one really knows what happened to Custer's wing, or battalion as they called it.  All we know for sure is that they all died, some by their own hand. "Save the last bullet for yourself" was a cavalry maxim during the Indian wars. But Philbrick does a good job in speculating about the Last Stand, based on good evidence.

The campaign against the Sioux in 1876 was conceived and executed by some of the American Civil War's (ACW) most effective leaders - Grant, Sheridan, Terry, Crook, Gibbon, Custer, and others.  Most Americans probably know who Grant was as a general, and that he was president of the United States. Few know who Gen'ls Sheridan, Terry, Crook or Gibbon were. But I'd bet that if you asked a typical American about Custer's Last Stand, they'd have at least an inkling of what happened at the Little Bighorn. And they'd know nothing of how Custer planned the battle, how he split his command, and how two-thirds of his forces  failed to execute that plan. I didn't know these things before I read this book.

Part biography of each important player in this story, part who shot who, when, where, and why, this book tries to explain the character of the people involved. And it succeeds. From the lowliest cavalry private, to Grant; from the mentality of young Indian warriors eager to prove their courage, to Sitting Bull, a political as well as military master, to Crazy Horse, the Patton of his day; to Custer - that rare thing, a successful, hyper-aggressive leader (but aren't all successful leaders aggressive?).

Philbrick does explain the character of these men in wonderful detail, and, while not pulling his punches, these are sympathetic explanations. Even Major Marcus Reno, commander of one of the three battalions Custer split the 7th Cav into for the attack, and who blatantly disobeyed his orders, is given a fair treatment. A fair treatment still leaves Reno looking pretty bad, as it should. Reno's Monty Python's Holy Grail-esque "Run Away!" retreat from the western valley that he later characterized as a "Charge" is damning, particularly since he never actually carried out the attack on the village, stopping short to conduct an indecisive, out of range demonstration that accomplished nothing but to bring a lot of Indian warriors his way with bad result.

To be fair, the situation Reno's wing found itself in after this poor deployment was more than many in Reno's command could bear, Reno included. As is often the case in extremis, leadership fell to subordinates with natural abilities, who stepped up and did their best as their appointed leaders did nothing of substance. Lt. Luther Hare's actions are worth investigating, as are private Thompson's.

Custer's other battalion commander, Captain Benteen, doesn't fare much better, although he does salvage his hapless superior officer Reno's tactical mess when he arrives on scene, and can be credited with saving their two wings (Custer's wing was killed to the man, as you know). But Benteen is certainly guilty of purposefully moving slowly, in an effort to undermine Custer's plan for the attack. Philbrick can't rehabilitate Benteen despite Benteen's oft-demonstrated ability as a tactical commander; the eveidence is too strong against the man at the Little Bighorn.

At the end, Custer rode into the huge Sioux/Cheyenne village expecting similarly audacious and aggressive coordinated attacks and support from his subordinate commanders, but there was none of that to be had on June 25, 1876, from Benteen or Reno.

We expect to see from others our own qualities, and expect from them our own reactions to events, and this was, I think, Custer's undoing. He knew his subordinates Reno and Benteen hated him, which they did, but I think it was impossible for Custer to conceive that they would not do their duty, and I think that he fully expected that they would charge in with him. They didn't, because they weren't at all like Custer.

Custer's mistake of judgement was that he expected his subordinate commanders to be more like him than they had the ability to be, had they even wanted or intended to do what what Custer had ordered that day.

I could write more about this great book about a complicated battle, but if you've made it this far I'm certain you'll read it yourself. I'm going to read more and try to figure this out. There is a lot of source material out there.

But I don't think we'll ever know for sure the details about the demise of Custer's wing.

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