The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull And The Battle Of The Little Big Horn - Nathaniel Philbrick

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The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull And The Battle Of The Little Big Horn - Nathaniel Philbrick

Non-fiction - ISBN: 0099521245

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Review of "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull And The Battle Of The Little Big Horn - Nathaniel Philbrick"

published 02/09/2017 | 2mennycds
Member since : 28/08/2015
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Best wishes to all, and thanks for your kind rates and comments, have been half-expecting the latest announcement for at least the last year. Have thoroughly enjoyed being a member over the last couple of years or so.
Pro Detailed, gripping, insightful, empathetic, photos, maps, not just military history
Cons May be a little too detailed for some
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Would you read it again?

"A tale of TWO last stands"

The last stand - book (and board game!)

The last stand - book (and board game!)

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Please note: the author of this book refers to the native Americans throughout by the term “Indians”; for consistency I shall do the same in this review.
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It’s the stuff of fact, myth and Hollywood half-truth. A dashing and brave man, heavily outnumbered, fought to the last, and – mysteriously, and in truth – when his body was found on the battlefield, his face bore a smile.

I think this book would appeal to many even with little interest in military history. It ISN’T peppered with blood-and-guts detail of the battle.

Its premise and theme are that the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn (named after a tributary river of the Bighorn River) marked not one last stand, but two.

As well as the last stand of Custer and his troops, the author argues that it also marked the last stand of the Sioux leader, Sitting Bull – and of his people. Whilst Sitting Bull survived the Battle, his days were numbered, his fate effectively sealed by the Battle’s outcome.

I found it a fascinating tale of men brave, foolish, impetuous, cowardly – and of one man who was plagued with guilt to his dying day for not having died with Custer on that day, and who took his own life many years later. It’s also a story of inter-personal jealousies and rivalries, of character assassination and vendettas.

It’s also a tale – well told – of the failed hope of Sitting Bull and his people that they could negotiate for the preservation of their land and their livelihood. It’s a tale of promises broken, and of government treachery – and of unannounced attacks.

Greed and exploitation are interwoven. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills of Dakota, (rich in resources for the Sioux and also sacred ground) made conflict inevitable. Despite the land legally belonging to the Sioux, and despite the government’s initial attempts to limit the number of prospectors, the ultimate outcome was inevitable. It was, he says, easier to wage war on the Indians than the prospectors who were US citizens. And, after all, the government had driven the surveying of the land for gold!

As a child of the 1950s I grew up with the idea that the cowboys and cavalry were the good guys and the Indians were brave but savage primitives. Westerns were commonplace, and I even had – and still have – a board game of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a kind of simple wargame with plastic figures!


I have the paperback edition, which has 312 pages of text “proper”, plus two appendices and lengthy “notes” on each chapter. To be truthful, I don’t normally bother with such, but I’ve dipped into these, and they provide extra information and insight, and aren’t just lists of sources.

The 16 chapters are fairly lengthy, but of variable length from between about 10 to 30 pages. Having said that, the chapter breaks are logical, and there are sub-breaks within each chapter that enables breaking off and resuming reading at a logical point.


The book covers the history of the conflict, from several years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and goes through to the ultimate outcome for Sitting Bull and his people years later. There is also a thoughtful and perceptive epilogue.


The book contains 40 pages of photographs. These are a combination of monochrome archive and contemporary colour photographs, on glossy paper, which optimises the definition. They present images of the leading characters, which I think really brings them to life. It also contains colour photographs of the location, of pictograms painted later by some of the Indian warriors. It also contains – which I greatly appreciated – a photograph of the written order from Custer for the hasty despatch of the supply column.

There are also many maps that portray routes and scenes of activity at various stages of the Battle.


I enjoyed the style of this book. It is easy to read and grammatically accurate – provided that you accept that the spellings and grammar are in the American language, not the English language!

The author has researched extensively, even painstakingly, and the book is from the pen of a scholar, but as I say I found the style easy to read. He also has some very pithy and poignant or thought-provoking sentences.

I found the style captivating and gripping, even though I knew the bare facts of the story. I really enjoyed the author’s empathy with the Sioux and Cheyenne.

Changes of scene

It can’t be easy to write a book – fact or fiction – where action takes place simultaneously in different locations and by different key players. It certainly isn’t always to read such books without losing the thread! I feel that the author managed this well.

One way to write a book covering a lengthy time period is to do so chronologically, starting at the beginning of the events and ending with their end. Sometimes I find this distracting. Too much detail in the early parts can frustrate me – I want to get my teeth into the main subject. It’s quite easy to skip or skim through introductory chapters to achieve this. The down side is that I might miss information or insights that are actually quite important to the later chapters!

A harder way to do this successfully is to start the tale part-way through, to arrest the reader’s attention, and to try to bring in earlier events little by little, interweaving them into the narrative.

This is Philbrick’s method. I find that this makes it harder to locate these accounts to refer back to them if necessary when reading later chapters. A couple of occasions, I felt that there was some repetition of material. On the whole, though, I feel that the author has done a fine job of adopting this approach, and rescued me from the dangers of my own impatience!


Essentially the story of Custer and Sitting Bull, many other characters – from both opposing sides – are described in considerable detail. I found these both interesting in themselves, but also for understanding the way that some of the events unfurled.

I found the descriptions of Custer perceptive and multi-faceted: hungry for glory and the thrill of battle, intuitive as battle unfolded, yet capable of folly and rashness, eager to assassinate the character of other officers (sometimes with a measure of justification), brave yet capable of restraint at times, at others condoning the desecration of Indian graves and holy ground. He was devoted to his wife, bur serially unfaithful.

Sitting Bull particularly fascinated me – driven to conflict that he did not want, capable of restraint and of uniting diverse people in a common cause, and incredibly level-headed ad brave. On one occasion – I suspect he was astute enough to know the accurate range of soldiers’ firearms – he sat on the ground between his own warriors and government soldiers, purposefully smoking a pipe as bullets thudded into the ground near him. After a while, others of his band came to join him. Then they departed.

Concluding comments

I rate this 5 stars, and, as mentioned above, this book has wider appeal than to those who like military history or biography.

Suffice to say that, having looked for supplier details, I’m tempted to try some of Philbrick’s other books – “In The Heart Of The Sea” sounds particularly intriguing.

“The Last Stand” is full of insights into American history – and of human nature. It contains some thought-provoking sentences not only about this famous battle, but also about human nature and the human condition generally. It provides fascinating glimpses into the culture and lifestyle of native Americans and portrays the onset of the almost inevitable outcome movingly. Apart from wanting to turn the Indians off their home lands and into reservations, the coming of the railroads brought the decimation (and near-extinction) of the buffalo, and with it the destruction of the plains Indians’ livelihood (they even relied on dried buffalo dung for their fuel).

It’s currently available from Foyles and from Waterstones for £12.99, Amazon £12.08, Kindle edition £9.49

I think it would be a sad day if local bookshops faced a “last stand”; from a purely selfish point of view, how can we adequately browse of have covers or titles catch our eye any other way? For this reason, I’m happy to spend a little more to help to keep them in business!

© 2mennycds September 2017

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Comments on this review

  • Pointress published 01/10/2017
  • jb0077 published 08/09/2017
    E from me
  • sophie_mcenteggart published 06/09/2017
    very interesting. good review
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Product Information : The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull And The Battle Of The Little Big Horn - Nathaniel Philbrick

Manufacturer's product description

Non-fiction - ISBN: 0099521245

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780099521242

Type: Non-fiction

Title: The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull And The Battle Of The Little Big Horn

Author: Nathaniel Philbrick

ISBN: 0099521245


Listed on Ciao since: 14/09/2011