Once again, Nathaniel Philbrick lures me into American history with his most recent non-fiction work on the Battle of Bighorn. By bringing in new evidence and attempting to determine what was myth and what was fact, Philbrick recreates the battle scene and the characters involved from all sides in The Last Stand, and of course, the most iconic ones -- those of George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull.
Philbrick admits that he had been schooled like a lot of members of his generation by Hollywood's version of the story with Little Big Man -- a movie that presents "Custer [as] a deranged maniac -- and more of a cultural lightning rod than a historical figure."
In this work, Philbrick digs deep and shows me how little I knew of the many agendas that worked to create the disaster, tragedy, and ugliness that occurred on June 25, 1876.
One contributing factor alone was the state of the US Military, ten years after the Civil War. According to Philbrick, "the once mighty military had been reduced to a poorly paid and poorly trained police force. An army of only about five thousand soldiers was expected to patrol a territory of approximately a million square miles (representing a third of the continental United States) that was home to somewhere between two to three hundred thousand Indians."
Second, the men sent to deal with the "Indian problem" were not on the best of terms. Old disagreements among officers flared, recent encounters with the Indians had been brutal, and procedures and battle plans could not be solidified. Many of the officers involved in what went on those days slung blame around -- what happened was more than devastating -- since lack of communication and information sent 600 men up against 8,000 Indians - it was a national carbuncle. In fact, it's "too terrible to contemplate."
In the fall of 1907, photographer and ethnographer Edward Curtis visited the battlefield and interviewed Crow Indians who had helped Custer scout the area prior to the battle. Curtis, working on his twenty volume compilation of the Native American cultures in the United States, found thirty years later that what happened on that battlefield was of up-most important to the Indians of the Northern plains.
Curtis also noted that all three of the Crow Indians had different versions of what occurred that day --- and one told that Custer had purposely postponed his attack until he knew another battalion was defeated. Curtis, alarmed by this version of events, wrote Theodore Roosevelt and asked for advice. Had the one Crow's point of view been published -- Curtis knew it would have caused outrage from the American public, but he didn't wish "to conceal a truth simply because it did not meet the public's perception of an American hero was to perpetuate a blatant falsehood."
The differing opinions of the Crows caused Curtis to worry about this "new" information, and the two men discussed this back and forth in letters. They both found this version to be "highly improbable," and unlike the testimonies of the Native Americans interviewed at the time as well as other American soldiers.
Eventually what came to light was that the stories of the three Crows was influenced by a rivalry within the tribe. They too had their own agenda.
Curtis decided not to publish the results of his interviews with the three Crow scouts and wrote, "I am beginning to believe that nothing is quite so uncertain as facts."
As Philbrick concludes, "we interact with one another as individuals responding to a complex haze of factors; professional responsibilities, personal likes and dislikes, ambition, jealously, self-interest, and, in at least some instances, genuine altruism. Living in the here and now, we are awash with sensations of the present, memories of the past, and expectations and fears for the future. Our actions are not determined by any one cause, they are the fulfillment of who we are at that particular moment. After than moment passes, we continue to evolve, to change, and sour memories of the moment inevitably change with us as we live with the consequences of our past actions, consequences we were unaware of at the time."
Word, Philbrick, word.
In this work, Philbrick attempts to present fact, and as we all know "history" is "his story." No one really knows what exactly happened to Custer and the men who died with him, and perhaps that's just as well. I know that as I read about what was known, it still is out of the realm of my imagination that we humans can be that cruel to one another.
Philbrick's story of the Battle of Little Bighorn is compelling, interesting, and a dissection of human nature, both of the American army and those of the Northern Plain Indians.
But, it is a mostly a very, sad one. :(