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Nathaniel Philbrick on Little Bighorn

Taking a fresh look at Custer, Sitting Bull, and Little Bighorn. We speak with historian and best-selling author Nathaniel Philbrick.

George Armstrong Custer (played by Tony Austin) stands with his flag surrounded by cavalry and warriors before his death Friday, June 26, 1998, during Custer's Last Stand Reenactment in Hardin, Mt. (AP)

July, 1876, the United States was deep in celebration of the century since its birth.

There were big Independence Day parades and glorious speeches.

And then, on July 7th, 1876 – shocking news from the Western frontier reached the public: America’s most famous Indian fighter, and all his men, had been defeated – slaughtered – at the Little Big Horn.

The Lakota Sioux’s Sitting Bull was the victor. George Armstrong Custer, the vanquished.

And Custer’s Last Stand became core American lore.

This Hour, On Point: historian Nathaniel Philbrick goes back to the Little Big Horn.

Nathaniel Philbrick, author of “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.” You can read an excerpt here.  Also author of “Mayflower,” and “In the Heart of the Sea.”

Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of Sitting Bull.  Author of “Sitting Bull, his Life and Legacy.”  You can read an excerpt here.


Undated photo of Sitting Bull. (AP)

Gen. George A. Custer shown in an undated photo. (AP)

Sitting Bull (Photograph by D. F. Barry, 1885, Credit: Wikipedia, Library of Congress)

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  • Gary

    How about a book from the viewpoint of Custer’s and Sitting Bull’s horses. I bet that would be a fun read.

    Custer’s horse: “Should I just dump this guy in the middle of the battle? I think I’d like to see him run for his life for a change.”

    Sitting Bull’s horse: “Look how well fed those other horses are! I should dump this guy and get some good food. Are those saddles?”

  • Francesco

    I read Mr. Philbrick’s Mayflower and it was fantastic. It really gave me a new understanding of the Pilgrims, the Mayflower, and Plymouth Rock. I’m looking to reading this newest book.

  • Chuck

    I’ve lived in Utah and Idaho and have read of several men who allegedly survived.

    Are these tall tales? This was the roaring West, after all?

    Fort Walla Walla

  • Robert Jackson

    good morning.

    I’ve been interested in the LBH since a child (I’m 54 now), and have read many books about this battle, with as many different takes on said battle, including the events and participants leading up to the climax. For the most part, there isn’t any new information available, so why is this new book different?

  • bob smith

    according to David Humphrey Miller’s interview with Lakota survivors’ families Custer was shot at the ford of the Little Big Horn which demoralized the troops who picked up their fallen leader from teh river and retreated.

  • john D.

    The whole thing sounds very much like the plot to a popular movie; AVATAR, right down to the reasons the land was coveted, to the way in which Sitting Bull rallied the neighboring tribes and clans.

  • Joe Suszczynski

    I’ve read a book years ago, published in the early 1900′s, based upon interviews with Sioux participants in the battle – they described a chaotic situation where many of Custer’s troops killed each other in “friendly fire” or committed suicide before capture and torture. Also, is it accurate that Custer was considered by Indians as a ruthless butcher?

  • gloria from Vermont

    Has the author read “The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn?

    I am more inclined to believe the words of a Lakota than I am a white historian. Did you have conversation with Joseph Marshall about this tale you are telling? White authors are not suited for this writing as they lack the Spirit it takes to tell the truth from the native perspective.


  • Gary

    The Lakota and Cheyenne may have won the battle, but they lost the war … and everything else. Native America got screwed – fighting terrorism since 1492! What incredible cultures were lost, gone like puffs of smoke! Imperialism at its best.

  • John

    You go attempt to exterminate native Americans with the army you have not the army you might want.

  • Greg Camp

    It seems more likely that Custer carried a revolver with ivory grips, not pearl. But if he did have a pearl-handled pistol, that reminds us of what Patton had to say about such weapons.

  • http://www.jeremyseeger.com Jeremy Seeger

    Having worked with a number of indigenous people the view from the other side is that is to be white and “educated” means that we are free to rape, pillage and plunder with out being held accountable and that the victims have no recourse.

    The whole glorification of Custer and the military action he was part of was and is a disgrace. It was nothing less than geneside. (spelling?)


  • Valerie

    Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is considered in many academic and nonacademic circles to be a definitive work on LBH and the history of the white man with indigenous peoples.

  • Randall Perkins, boston

    after 7 unsuccessful calls [busy signal] over course of half hour, i am curious what Mr. Philbrick thinks about the significance of Crazy Horse. i recall he gathered a force of 1,200 Oglala and Cheyenne at his village and turned back General George Crook on June 17, 1876, as Crook tried to advance up Rosebud Creek toward Sitting Bull’s encampment on the Little Bighorn. After this victory, Crazy Horse joined forces with Sitting Bull and on June 25 led his band in the counterattack that destroyed Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, flanking the Americans from the north and west as Hunkpapa warriors led by chief Gall charged from the south and east.

    Following the Lakota victory at the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull and Gall retreated to Canada, but Crazy Horse remained to battle General Nelson Miles as he pursued the Lakota and their allies relentlessly throughout the winter of 1876-77.

    thank you.

  • Joseph Little

    I think the reason this story is still interesting to people is what I would liken to viking warrior tradition.There is something very primal about Custer.If there is a Valhalla Custer is drunk on meade.

  • Jeremy Baker

    Comment related to time (late 1800′s) and Indian culture but off topic.

    Julian Scott, Civil War painter from Vermont, supposedly traveled west later in his life to paint portraits of various Indians, earning trust of local people whose culture would soon disappear. If I remember correctly, Howard Coffin, Civil War scholar, notes that many of Julian’s paintings are unaccounted for or have been lost.

    Julian received the Civil War’s first Medal of Honor citation, later awarded, and because of injuries sustained from later combat, he became an artist drawing and painting portraits of the war, some images on display in the Vermont State House.

    As a child, Julian was taught games and how to fire a bow by the local VT Abenaki Indian boys, his mother cultured his early art skills; and after the war, a broken romantic family life, and unlucrative art career he traveled west into Indian country to paint portraits and scenes of the vanishing culture.

    Keep an eye out for these paintings. Few painters of his caliber actually traveled and painted Indians within their culture, a priceless pictorial history.

    I would not be too surprised if any found journal notes, from this time in Julian’s life, captured some elements of story about the battle of Little Big Horn, but I am unsure about the date of his adventures and if these documents exist.

    The American Civil War paintings made by Julian, deviated from the global history of war painting that overly emphasized the upper chain of command in conquest. He found images of individuals within the battle and life aside of it.

    If he traveled west after the battle of Little Big Horn, I bet he painted the portrait of somebody who that fought in it.

    Does anyone know Julian’s phase of Indian Paintings and where and when?

  • http://mrvexclusives.com John

    Tom. Another potentially great show, but the same let down in the end. You always have great topics and guests but never spend enough time on them to truly dig in and reveal new insights. I’d like to see you take on a single topic for the duration rather than splitting the show in two. For instance you had the chance to bring us into Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance, both of which you gave cursory mention to. These are huge topics deserving at least an entire show each. I know you have a specific format to follow, but maybe it’s time to readdress the format. As is it’s like peeling an orange and throwing out the fruit.

  • Rex Meader(Vermont)

    I have to agree with what Gloria writes in her comment, check out the book from Joeseph Marshall. He writes from the Lakota point of view, an awesome account! Also, Crazy horse was very much a part of this whole thing!

  • Mona Howard

    In the 60′s and 70′s when the American Indian Movement (AIM) was active there was a “Custer Had It Coming” bumpersticker available. It drove LBH re-enacters quite batty. How delicious! As a Montana native, but long Massachusetts resident, I was taught by my WASPy
    parents that Indians were good and only protecting their
    homes. My father’s family dated their roots to the very beginning of the MT Territory. Imagine my delight to actually own a “Custer” bumpersticker. Alas, when my beloved VW minibus died I was unable to remove the rather worn sticker and it is lost to history. Pity, my granddaughters would have loved it.

  • Downing Denison

    I grew up 60 miles from the “Battle of the Little BigHorn” and have driven through the existing reservation and battle site countless times. I was disappointed that Mr. Philbrock and Mr. Ashbrock failed to bring into the converstation the plight of the current Native American population. They both spent endless time asking why the story resonated with the American people, which I’m sure will help sell books; but the real story is the shameful treatment and blind eye the United States Government puts toward the current Native American people. As Mr. Ashbrock pointed out in the last 30 seconds of his show, our Native American people are the poorest and most unsupported people of any current American people. That is the responsible new story. If Mr. Philbrock spent any time doing onsite research in Montana and Wyoming, I would think he would feel obligated to point that out to the greater population. Speaking from a local idealogy, there nothing “dandy” or romantic about Custer. He was self-important fool and his arrogance led his men into a battle that was done before it was finished. Custer reminds me of a certain narcissistic past-president( sounds like tush) and his political persuasion. I ask you, Mr. Ashbrock, to be a stand-up guy and bring the real story of neglect, of the Native American people, to the greater nation. In the least, drive through the Crow Reservation to see the Little BigHorn site, and then make your own conclusions to what the real emphasis of your story should have been today.

  • Terry

    “Son of the Morningstar” by Evan S. Connell is the best I have read. It gives fair account for Indian and American views. However, it was written before many archaelogical discoveries were made on the battlefield most notably in 1986, so his book released in 1984 may have some inaccuracies but it is one of the best books I have ever read.

  • M Munn

    To the first comment – there was a single Calvary horse that survived and someone did write a book about it

  • gina

    I disagree with those who believe that current interest in this story reflects a wish to “glorify” Custer, or to elevate him to an American Valhalla as a “warrior”. This is a tale of hubris and militaristic egotism, set in the greater context of the tragic vanquishing of native peoples and animals and lands of the West. I am grateful to Philbrick for reminding us again of this enormous national mistake. I hope that historians continue to bring this story to new audiences.

  • Alan Lewis

    I had read quite some time ago that the Northern Cheyenne did most of the fighting at Little Big Horn, but the Sioux got most of the credit for winning the battle. Any truth to that?

  • Peter

    Aside from NOT trying excuse LBH as extending “democracy” to the Plains Indians (in this case), how is this Imperialist incursion any different from our efforts in the Middle East, to obtain Liquid Gold, etc.? Americans are conquistadors and terrorists and there will be hell to pay yet. As “the crude” advances upon our shores..we’ll die choking on our greed and rapacity!

  • Geno

    Revisionist history and the glorification of First Americans ( coupled with the demonization of European-Americans) leaves zero credibility when finished. Alas, everyone wants their side sanitized..and in the meantime, real history suffers.

  • Laura Temple

    The one U.S. Batallion survivor was the horse, Comanche, mount of Sgt. Keogh. A book by Margaret Leighton, Comanche, tells his story with some fictionalized insertions and from a 1950′s perspective of U.S. Cavalry vs Native Americans. I read the book as a child in the 50′s and have always remembered it.

  • Frank Graves

    I very much enjoyed the show, but I was a bit surprised to hear the shallow characterization by Philbrick at the end of the hour as to why this story has so much grip on American imagination. He answered that it is a mythic story involving someone going out in a blaze of glory. I have never heard any one in any conversation of this ridiculous and embarrassing moment in history call it an example of heroism or glory. It was not any kind of act of vision, courage, or selflessness. To the contrary, it was just venal stupidity serving the shallow purposes of Custer’s ego. What makes it mythic is the fact that this pathetic figure was so completely, justifiably, and ignominiously defeated by the native Americans, in one of their few moments of military glory.

  • Thomas H. Southern

    I’d like to point out that one, the author’s contention that the white soldiers were outgunned by the Lakota and Cheyenne is not shared by a great number of other authors and scholars, nor by the testimony of many native warriors who fought that day.

    Too, Sitting Bull did not actually lead any of the fighting at the battle. It was Crazy Horse, Gall, Two Moons, Crow King among others, who did. It was probably Crazy Horse’s sweeping and surrounding tactic, attacking Custer from the north, cutting off Custer’s attempt to capture the escaping women and children that sealed Custer’s fate.

    Sitting Bull led the effort to protect the women and children retreating to the hills on the other side of the Little Bighorn river from where the battle was being fought.

    • Sathanauman

      There is evidence that Amerindians had Henry and Winchester rifles traded at Trading Posts. Many were found later with studs in the wood rifle butts. Each firearm could fire 8 shots before reloading. Two hundred of them times 8 is 1600 shots. I am sure they kit a a lot of soldiers. Custer’s men had rifles which jammed with inferior bullets. I agree that Crazy Horse probably was death nill of Custer. Custer did what was typical battle tactics when fighting plains Indians in the 19th century. Divide one’s command and surround the ‘hostiles’, preventing them from splintering and scattering. Custer did the right maneuver that day. I feel Capt. Benteen and the weaker officer, Major Reno did not follow orders to reinforce Custer. 
      I agree that oral history of the battle by Amerindians may be more real, but Custer is not the culprit he is blamed to be. Sheridan, Sherman and President Grant’s Indian policy are to blame. Custer died along with his family and men bravely. That is it! If he died in a battle of the Civil War, would we be having this discussion? Do we call JEB Stuart a coward or stupid for standing his ground against Yankee cavalry in May of 1865? No, we say he was brave. One of Custer’s men killed him but we don’t degrade his service. In my opinion, we are full of ‘white-man’s guilt’. Ironically the victory of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, Two Moons, and so forth was the beginning of the end for them. 

  • joshua

    funny that–Americans always hold genocidal maniacs up as heroes on pedestals. Custard, Billy the Kid, Columbus, Pilgrims…Grant, Pike, Nixon, Kissinger, Reagen, Bush, Cheny, Bush…

  • joshua

    gina–a national mistake, you say? A national mistake–what a pleasant way of saying genocide and mass murder–a continuous theme in American history.

  • Tom Campbell

    The only survivor(s) of Custers command was the young bugler form the 7th Cavalry that took the note from Custer to Benteen to hurry and bring up the packs and extra ammunition when he saw how many Native American Indians were there. The horse Comanche was the only actual survivor of the the command where Custer died. He was ridden by Captain Keough an Irishman. Keough was the only man not touched by the warriors. He had a Leprechaun(spelling?) on a rawhide string around his neck. The Indians thought it bad medicine and evil to touch him and or his clothing. He was the only man in Custers command left untouched except for the bullets that killed him. Comanche was retired by the 7th Cav. until his death and is in the museum where he still stands saddled to this day.

    • Sathanauman

      There were closed to 600 in the 7th Cavalry in pursuit of Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho in June of 1876. In the “Battle of LBH”, about 265 were killed, including 5 companies with Custer. More than 1/2 of the Regiment survived, including Sgt. Felix Vinitieri, the Regimental Band leader. Gen. Sheridan ordered Lt. Col. Custer to not bring his band into any engaged battle with “hostiles”. Sgt. Vinitieri’s great-grand-son, Adam would be born in N. Dakota and would sign a contract with the New England Patriots, kicking a field goal in 3 Super Bowls, winning the Patriots championships all total. So the ‘Bugler’ (Martini) was a survivor of those five companies of Custer’s command, along with Commanche (the horse). Just to be clear, the entire regiment was under Custer’s command so I wanted to be specific.

  • Paul Rogers

    Living overseas I didn’t actually see the Philbrick program but, judging by the comments already posted, there’s a truly frightening amount of ignorance and mis-placed prejudice out there about Custer and the Plains Indian Wars in general.

  • Ric Haynes

    It would be wonderful to have a program of the native view of the subject. Rarely is it understood that there were many survivors of the battle, they just happen to be the Natives and non native. Their ancestors hold the story to this day. Tribal Historians of the warriors , scouts of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara would make a fantastic and vivid program.

  • Sathanuman Singh Khalsa

    Lt. Colonel (7th US Cavalry) George A. Custer (Maj. General USA)only was engaged in 3 battles with native peoples on the plaines of the US up to the fourth and last engagement in June 1876. First, incorrectly the author says the Battle of Washita was in Kansas in 1868. It was in Oklahoma. It took place in November of 1868. Custer ordered that non-combatants be taken prisoner per his Commander Gen. Phil Sheridan. He saved over 52 women and children. Lt. Col. G A C was ordered to attack. This battle was not the massacre of Sand Creek in Colorado (1964) by Col. Chivington, a Bible carrying fanatic preacher who thought Indians savages. Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle was also in that battle but survived with his wife. Black Kettle was also at Washita (OK).
    In 1864 Brigadier General George A. Custer was fighting Confederate Rebels in the western Virginia valley. He would be victorious at Cedar Creek, Virginia and thereby be promoted to Major General (age 24), the youngest Major General in US military history. Layfayette was also 24 as a Major General during the American Revolution but not born in the U.S. as Custer was.
    The reason for the battle field being originally named Custer National Battlefield was because he was a famous Civil War Union hero. The most famous during that four year period.
    I wish Mr. Philbrick would focus on the Civil War more than the one day which little is known.
    While I appreciate any author writing the truth, not the myth of Custer (or Sitting Bull), the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War begins next year (2011-2015).
    Errol Flynn played the Boy General for WWII propaganda to get our national patriotic spirit awakened, whereas Little Big Man was a propaganda film which showed how racist the Viet Nam War was. The American Indian movement of that same period challenged the name of the battle field.
    He had strawberry-blond hair which he wore during the Civil War, but not out west.
    He was awarded the rank of Major General of the US Army in 1865, not only breveted. He was paid the sum of $8,000 per year and when the US Army downsized the army he didn’t have the seniority so he was given the rank of Lt. Colonel which was second in command of the newly formed 7th US Cavalry. He was also offered the rank of one the newly formed African-American regiments (9th US Cavalry- one of the “Buffalo Soldiers”.

    I am ashamed of the intelligence of US callers saying Custer as a derranged maniac. Custer was NOT what is depicted in Little Big Man. That movie doesn’t even follow the book.

    The battle of LBH lasted about one hour which involved his five companies.

    The terrain was a factor but the 200 Winchester and Henry rifles were a major factor which the natives have. His men are outgunned.

    What about Gen. Crook who was defeated the week before at the Rosebud by Crazy Horse. He was the southern wing which didn’t even finish its roll.
    This is the same General who would capture in lose Geronimo years later.

    Lots of stuff come up with this discussion.
    Focus on the Civil War and you’ll discover the “Custer that American forgot” (Greg Urwin-Custer Victorious)

    S. Khalsa

  • Sat Hanuman S. Khalsa

    Why wasn’t Brice Custer, living grand-nephew of Gen. Custer included in this dialogue. It would have been fair to have both sides since Sitting Bulls grand-son was able to tell the native oral history.
    Very disappointed in this discussion.
    Custer Died for the sins of white European Americans for the spreading of their Christian religion from Columbus to now. This book was written by an American Indian (Custer Died For Your Sins)

    At least Sitting Bull’s grandson told the story of Rosebud when Lakota defeated Crook on June 17th, 1876.
    What if Gen. Custer had taken the 2 Gatlin Guns to hunt and kill the Lakota and Cheyenne? What would white guilt- ridden Americans say then?

  • myrna

    I listened with breath held to the power, fury and pain expressed in the brief recording of the “war” dance. Would replay the entire show just to hear that sound again.

  • Michelle Branson

    Discussing historical events from various perspectives isn’t revisionist history – nor does it cause “real” history to suffer. Real history only begins to be told when an event or time period can be seen and understood from multiple viewpoints. Until fairly recently, history was only told from the educated male perspective – mainly a white man Christian viewpoint – but there are other participants in history and they deserve a voice. This isn’t to assign blame or glorify one viewpoint over another – this is a way to better understand what actually happened.

  • JPK

    August Finckle, second sergeant of C Company, actually escaped from the early stages of the encirclement: CF “Custer Survivor” by John Koster (which contains documents and handwriting samples) or “Sole Survivor” by Doug Ellison or the Old Army Press book by Dr. Charles Kuhlman, also available in typescript from the University of North Dakota. The authors disagree on whether Finkle enlisted under the name “August Finckle” or “Frank Hall” but he was pretty obviously a survivor.

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