Incisive account breathes life into last stand

 

FERGUS MULLIGANreviews The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little BighornBy Nathaniel Philbrick The Bodley Head pp490, £20

CUSTER’S LAST stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 is legendary. He was a brilliant Civil War cavalry commander, a brigadier general at the age of 23 and his actions at Gettysburg arguably turned the tide of that decisive battle.

General Sheridan later gave Custer’s wife the table on which General Robert E Lee signed the Confederate surrender. Custer’s main Indian opponent, Sitting Bull, was equally fearless, a spiritual man and a clear thinker whose military strategy was rather more sophisticated than the army’s.

Few troopers had seen battle, the peacetime cavalry being a police force. They were poorly trained and led, wretchedly equipped (many suffered from malnutrition) and the pay was so miserable only men close to destitution would enlist. The army’s single-shot carbine kicked like a mule and often jammed, whereas the Indians’ Winchesters fired 16 rounds before reloading.

Reporter James O’Kelly remarked that the army sent out raw recruits on young unbroken horses to face the best horsemen in the world. Even the geography at the Little Bighorn was against the cavalry with undulating gullies and long-grass ravines which the Indians used effectively to creep up to the beleaguered troopers.

Many soldiers were immigrants and the Irish were there in force: one in six of the 1,200 men in the 7th Cavalry was born in Ireland, by far the largest ethnic group and the regimental song was Garryowen. Along with Pte Thomas O’Neill, Dublin, and Sgt Thomas Harrison, Sligo, names like Rooney, McVeigh, O’Neill, O’Hara and Flanagan abound.

One of Custer’s officers was Capt Myles Keogh from Leighlinbridge. Custer was jealous of this handsome Irishman who was too friendly with his wife and looked even better on a horse than he did. After the battle Keogh’s body was the only one the Indians did not mutilate, possibly because his Lamb of God medallion was considered sacred. His horse, Comanche, was badly wounded but survived to become the pampered regimental mascot.

There were many rifts between the officers and Maj Marcus Reno was unfairly blamed for not coming to Custer’s rescue. The mercurial Capt Frederick Benteen loathed Custer while he was alive and even more after his death. He believed Custer had abandoned his friend Maj Joel Elliott to a grisly death at the hands of the Cheyenne at the Battle of Washita. Benteen wrote newspaper articles blaming Custer for the Little Bighorn and senior commanders secretly concurred.

The shot that killed Custer was to the head, possibly self-administered; no trooper wanted to be taken alive and the irony of his last stand is that it gave Custer immortality but it was the last gasp for the victors. Within a few years most tribes had surrendered and settled for grim survival on the reservation.

A great strength of this book is its use of eye-witness accounts of that chaotic day – particularly those of the Indians who saw the battle as a great victory – although the sequence does jump back and forth somewhat confusingly at times.

This is a really good read, the photographs and maps are excellent and the book throws a fresh, sometimes harsh light on an iconic episode in US history.


Fergus Mulligan is the author of Trinity College Dublin: A Walking Guideto be published this month by Trinity College Library