The Battle of the Little Bighorn
"Miss Sandoz has taken the theme of Custer's last stand and given it new dimension and understanding through knowledge gained in a lifetime of research."-Library Journal. "Probably the best account of the battle ever written."-New York Times Book Review.
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That the University of Nebraska Press chose to publish this book, Mari Sandoz's final and posthumously-published work, can only be attributed to her status as a well-known author of considerable acclaim and the fact that she is a native daughter of the state. For "The Battle of the Little Bighorn" is simply a bad book replete with errors of both fact and judgement and reads as a very inconsistent, perhaps unfinished, work.
There are a few fundamental flaws. Most egregiously in a volume that purports to be historical non-fiction, she includes quoted dialogue galore between members of the 7th Cavalry, as if there had been a CNN news crew along to document the campaign and capture their verbatim discussions and verbal orders for posterity. (While a few survivors wrote books and magazine articles after the fact, none included quoted dialogue.) She furthers this lapse in good historical writing by embellishing her depiction of the battle, the days leading up to it and its aftermath with detailed descriptions of the thoughts of various dramatis personae, the actions of various wild animals, and other such things that are nothing more than baseless conjecture added to make her text more colorful. It certainly does this, but it also renders the book historical fiction.
Her work is sorely lacking in measured, objective assessment. A central theme of her treatment of Custer is his supposed quest for the presidency, a theory debunked by his own writings expressing disdain for politicians and government and the work of countless other historians who have examined the notion. Yet it reigns pervasively throughout this text as the primary justification for assigning complete and total culpability for the disaster on the Little Bighorn to a commander driven purely by notions of taking not just the Sioux and Cheyenne, but the White House as well in the process. The facts be damned as Sandoz brings this focus to the work literally from the very beginning of the book about a dozen times up through its final paragraph.
In juxtaposition to this Sandoz embraces Major Marcus Reno, the campaign's second in command and a battle survivor, painting him as perhaps the bravest and most soldierly U.S. Cavalry officer on the field for those three days of combat and aftermath, abandoned by Custer in his callous bid for glory. This despite considerable, if not downright overwhelming, evidence of Reno's poor battlefield judgement and leadership during the events, wherein: he cut off his charge at the beginning of the battle, mounted and dismounted his men 3 times in rapid succession, initiated a scattered, disorganized retreat by simply starting to ride away from his skirmish point without setting up covering fire and abandoning his wounded, and drank copious amounts of whiskey throughout the encounter's two full days. After the debacle of the first day and Custer's demise Reno is painted as leading a valiant defensive stand against the wildly disproportionate numbers of highly motivated Indians while facing the pressing need to conserve scarce ammunition--mentioned several times and ignoring the fact that the pack train that accompanied the expedition and that was now with Reno's command included 25,000 rounds of both rifle and pistol cartridges.
The more-than-worthy opponents of the 7th Cavalry are depicted in a similarly ludicrous fashion. Warriors in combat universally and always ride horses not seated atop but on their sides, clenching their manes and wrapping their legs around to hold firm whilst shooting their guns or bows from underneath the horse's head. Indian leaders signal battlefield commands as precisely as Field Marshall Erwin Rommel to his German Afrika Corps. It is not the sheer volume of Indian gunfire and arrows that devastates the 7th, but that literally every Sioux or Cheyenne is a deadly accurate "sharpshooter."
In short, Custer bad, Reno good, Sioux and Cheyenne magnificent. It goes far beyond this, but my sense is that I've already devoted more time than