All fall down

Who won at Little Bighorn? A new history argues there were only losers

By Buzzy Jackson
May 9, 2010

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As a concept, Manifest Destiny rested on many spurious assumptions, and one of the most important was the myth of the vanishing Indian. According to this idea no matter how noble, proud, or honorable Native Americans might be, they were simply doomed to extinction. This myth had some basis in fact; millions of Indians had died both directly (war) and indirectly (disease, loss of land and food supplies) as a result of the arrival of Europeans to North America.

Yet even 200 years after their arrival, Anglo-Americans were still fighting the natives. On June 26, 1876, the US Army’s Seventh Cavalry was crushed by the largest gathering of Indians any white man had ever seen: perhaps as many as 1,800 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and 20,000 ponies, led by the great Hunkpapa Sioux chief, Sitting Bull. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer lost more than half of his 600 troops, including all 208 members of his own regiment. Although they lost most of their land and much of their freedom, Indians did not vanish. Custer did.

The Battle of Little Bighorn lives on in America’s collective memory because it is, at heart, a mystery. Although we know Custer died and Sitting Bull lived, it’s never been entirely clear who won. The title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book, “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn,’’ constitutes a subtle yet significant hint at his book’s central argument: This was not simply Custer’s Last Stand, but also a denouement for the allied Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux, as well. The Indians won the battle, but their victory only reenergized the US government’s policy of “relocating’’ Indians to reservations. As Philbrick convincingly illustrates, if the Battle of the Little Bighorn was anyone’s “last stand,’’ it was that of Sitting Bull — and perhaps of America’s view of itself.

Books about Indian conflicts and the United States’ frontier army are enjoying a spike in popularity, from Brian DeLay’s “War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the US-Mexican War’’ (2008) to Kevin Adams’s “Class and Race in the Frontier Army’’ (2009), among many others. As in these recent works, Philbrick strives to find a middle path between the “Great Men’’ historical narrative and its abstract opposite, the “clash of cultures.’’ As Philbrick puts it, “[T]he Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought by individual soldiers and warriors, each with his own story to tell.’’

Building on these individual narratives, Philbrick structures his story as a “Rashomon’’-like series of chapters told from multiple different perspectives. Blessed with a set of extreme and conflicting personalities, Philbrick’s approach works well. From the “charismatic, quirky, and fearless’’ Custer to the alcoholic Major Marcus Reno and the seething rage of Captain Frederick Benteen, the fighting men of the Seventh Cavalry were a soap opera unto themselves.

The Indians were even more interesting. Sitting Bull, the hero of Philbrick’s story, “was much more than a brave warrior,’’ Philbrick writes. “He was a wicasa wakan: a holy man with an unusual relationship with the Great Mystery that the Lakota called Wakan Tanka. He could see into the ungraspable essence of life.’’ Philbrick deftly sketches the history of the Sioux in the 100 or so years leading up to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, during which time the Sioux drove the Arikara, the Kiowa, and the Crow Indians from their homes along the Missouri River and claimed the land as their own. As the great Oglala Chief Black Hawk explained: “These lands once belonged to [other tribes] but we whipped those nations out of them and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of Indians.’’

This contextualization proves essential to understanding the Indian feuds and alliances that contributed to the scene at the Little Bighorn that day. A large band of Crow and Arikara Indians accompanied Custer’s regiment; eager to avenge the losses they had suffered at the hands of the Sioux.

Drawing on eyewitness accounts of the warriors and soldiers as well as the latest archeological findings from the battlefield, Philbrick devotes much of the book to detailed accounts of the many intense skirmishes that made up the larger battle. The rippling hills of the Little Bighorn Valley isolated individual Army regiments, who had little grasp of how badly they were outnumbered. The experience of Captain Thomas French’s M Company was typical: There were so many more Indians than soldiers that “most of the Indians were reduced to being spectators,’’ with not enough fighting to go around. “The Indians kept coming like an increasing flood,’’ the Sioux War Chief Red Hawk recalled, describing his engagement with Custer’s C Company. “[T]he soldiers were swept off their feet . . . the Indians were overwhelming.’’

The tragedy of the Seventh Cavalry galvanized American support for the frontier army, and within five years all the biggest Indian tribes were forced onto reservations — including Sitting Bull’s. But soon, Philbrick writes, “America, a nation that had spent the previous hundred years subduing its own interior, had nowhere left to go.’’ The Indians, for their part, did not vanish. Their population continues to grow, and their battle to regain their land — a battle now fought in the courtroom — goes on. “I did not come on your land to scare you,’’ Sitting Bull once said. “If you had not come on my land, you would not have been scared, either.’’

Buzzy Jackson is a research associate at the Center of the American West at University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of the forthcoming book, “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist.’’

THE LAST STAND: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn By Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking, 466 pp., illustrated, $30