THE LAST STAND: CUSTER, SITTING BULL, AND THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN
By Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking, $30, 496 pages
@$:Maneuver warfare remains at the core of American ground-combat doctrine. It calls for our Army and Marines to reject a linear and attrition-oriented approach to combat, relying instead on taking the initiative from the enemy and attacking where he is weak or exploiting gaps in his defenses. When it works well, as was the case in Operation Desert Storm or in the early stages of the current war in Iraq, it can go spectacularly well. However, when a gap turns out to be a trap, things can go very badly. Nathaniel Philbrick's latest book, "Last Stand," describes in great detail a tale of maneuver warfare gone very bad indeed.
The "Last Stand" of the title is the collision between the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment and a coalition of American Indian forces under Chief Sitting Bull and his fierce war-chief ally Crazy Horse along the Little Big Horn River on June 25, 1876; the battle occurred 10 days before the American republic's 100th birthday. In the ensuing fight, a large contingent of the regiment under the temporary command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was wiped out and the rest of the regiment was badly mauled. It was the worst military defeat American arms would suffer during all of the Indian Wars. Mr. Philbrick describes the battle in detail, dissecting it in well-documented historical detail without turning the book into something so academic as to turn off the general audience.
The real story of the book is not Custer's defeat, but how Sitting Bull was able to forge and hold together an alliance of notoriously unruly Plains Indians into a fighting force with enough discipline to stand up to and defeat an entire regiment of regular cavalry. Mr. Philbrick has done this as well as, if not better than, the numerous authors who have detailed Custer's last battle.
Sitting Bull proved to be not only a superb operational planner and a steady leader in combat, but a savvy statesman and a master of what we now would call information operations. Using all of these skills, he welded together a coalition that resisted the notorious Indian habit of fighting as individuals and got his men to agree to a common strategy as well as a coherent tactical approach to resist white encroachment in a war that was as sordid in its origins as any in American history.
Custer, a Civil War general who had reverted to peacetime rank, was one of America's best-known warriors, with a great deal of experience fighting Indians, but his command was riddled with dissension; his two senior subordinates despised him and had tried at various times to have him removed from command. He had proved himself to be a master of maneuver warfare against both the Confederates and Indians, but his thirst for glory at the expense of both superiors and subordinates had made him many enemies, including the president of the United States; his immediate superior officer, Gen. Alfred Howe Terry; and key members of his command.
A true battlefield disaster, like almost any major horrific accident, usually is made up of a combination of several minor factors, any of which might not be fatal itself, but the combination of which can lead to trouble. The author lays out the circumstances and then shows how they came together in a volatile mix that exploded into debacle. Through long experience, Custer thought he knew how the Indians would react to his actions. Sitting Bull's maneuvers changed Indian behavior in a thoroughly unexpected way; against any other foe on another day, the Indians might have run at the sight of any determined attack, even by a smaller force.
In addition, Custer divided his force, against common military wisdom. Several great commanders had done this and won by disorienting and panicking superior forces with attacks from multiple directions. The Indians, however, did not panic on the Little Big Horn. Custer exacerbated this sudden problem by failing to convey his intent to his divided force. Finally, good maneuver warfare calls for skilled use of reconnaissance. Custer either ignored his scouts or listened only selectively to their conflicting reports.
Mr. Philbrick is an experienced author, and he uses a combination of historical forensics and good storytelling to make the tragic events of the day come alive. Custer became an American legend, although not the way he would have wanted, but the sad end of Sitting Bull is the story's real tragedy.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Officer who teaches at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. He recently finished an advisory tour in Iraq with the State Department.
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