- From Custer's Last Stand to Wounded Knee:A Review Essay
The clear-eyed vision of a Lakota warrior named He Dog puts these two books into perspective. In 1919, asked about Custer's last stand by an army officer who was there on behalf of the fallen cavalryman's myth-spinning widow, Libbie, He Dog shifted attention to the real story. If the officer "wanted to know the cause of that trouble, he would have to look in Washington … the place all those troubles started."
In Indian affairs, at the very least, nothing much good came out of Washington during the episodes recounted in these two volumes: the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 1876), and the Wounded Knee Massacre (December 1890). Indeed, much of the problem lay in the desire for glory in Washington. For example, in The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Nathaniel Philbrick reveals Custer's overweening ambition to achieve a quick and glorious victory. Custer dreamed of riding in triumph to the Democratic National Convention in July 1876. That fantasy led him to take some foolish risks that had once worked for him—at Gettysburg, and in the Battle of Washita—but led this time to his doom. Heather Cox Richardson's Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre details how the Republicans shamelessly rushed to statehood several thinly populated western territories in order to shore up the Grand Old Party's hopes in the 1892 elections. She also describes how Republicans established military bases by pandering to the desires of local populations for economic growth. As a result of these shortsighted policies, U.S. troops butchered 200 starving and cold Indian men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek.
Historians will be more naturally drawn to Richardson's work, while Philbrick's will doubtless reach a larger popular readership. But both books marry excellent analysis with fine storytelling. Academic historians will admire Richardson's expert interweaving of story and analysis, and may feel that for all its virtues, Philbrick's book values story sometimes at the expense of rigorous analysis. That is not likely to matter to general readers looking for a great yarn. They will be drawn in by Philbrick's skillfully served small plates of often fascinating details. My favorite: the jealousy among Sitting Bull's two wives, which forced him to sleep on his back so that he would not be facing one or the other in bed.
Both books cover ground trod by generations of historians, mythmakers, visionaries, political activists, and reenactors. This is most especially true of Philbrick's book. Custer's Last Stand is surely one of the most extensively studied—overstudied, really—topics in American history. Wounded Knee, too, appears in every textbook, usually in conjunction with a summary of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis. To their credit, though, both authors shed fresh light on their subjects (most especially Richardson).
These books complete a chronological narrative from one "last stand" in 1876 to another in 1890. Neither, of course, was a "last stand"; that's part of the mythology that the books deconstruct. The handoff point between the two volumes occurs when General Nelson Miles enters the picture late in Philbrick's account and takes over the military side of U.S. Indian affairs (including chasing and subduing the Indians who had defeated Custer). He then plays an instrumental role in Richardson's account of the origins of Wounded Knee. Memories of Little Bighorn played directly into the massacre at Wounded Knee. Veterans of Little Bighorn saw an opportunity to get their revenge at Wounded Knee. The killing of Sitting Bull, the political and spiritual leader of the Indian alliance that routed Custer at Little Bighorn, was an important part of the prelude to Wounded Knee. In both cases accounts of the battles were designed to serve political interests. Disinformation campaigns from army officers and political operatives...