Compass

Interview

1. You’re known for books about the ocean and seafaring—why the departure?

Long before I moved to Nantucket Island and began to write about the sea, I was a teenager in landlocked Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was fascinated by Custer and the West. It was the movie “Little Big Man” that really did it for me, and from the moment I saw that film as a high school freshman, I was hooked. After finishing Mayflower in 2006, which ends with the horrifying Native-English conflict of King Philip’s War, I decided it was finally time to tackle the battle I’d been thinking about for more than thirty-five years. And besides, I was curious to compare the watery wilderness of the sea with that other wilderness, the West. After four years of research and writing, I’ve been struck by the remarkable continuities between our country’s expansion across the continent and the process by which American sailing vessels ventured out across the oceans of the world. The method by which the Nantucketers of In the Heart of the Sea hunted sperm whales was amazingly similar to how the Plains Indians hunted the buffalo; the clashes that occurred between the U.S. Navy’s Exploring Expedition of 1838-42 and the Native peoples of Fiji, which I chronicled in Sea of Glory, followed pretty much the same pattern as what unfolded between the Seventh Cavalry and Sitting Bull’s village of Lakota and Cheyenne. Instead of a departure, this book has felt more like a culmination.

And as it turns out, there is a boat in this most inland of stories: the Far West, a 190-foot riverboat that was hired by the U.S. Army to provide Custer’s soldiers with provisions and ammunition. After the fighting was over, the Far West was loaded with 50 wounded soldiers and a wounded horse named Comanche before it departed on a 500-mile voyage down the Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Missouri rivers to Bismarck, North Dakota, where the first word of the disaster was sent to the East Coast via telegraph. A final Pittsburgh connection: as a kid I used to attend birthday parties on a riverboat replica called the Good Ship Lollipop, and during my research for The Last Stand it was a great source of pride to learn that not only was the Far West built in my native city, her captain Grant Marsh was a Pittsburgher.

2. What did you enjoy the most about the research for The Last Stand?

In every one of my books I like to get out of the archives and explore, as best I can, the actual places where the history unfolded. Usually when you venture to a historic site, it’s a bit of a letdown. A shopping mall or a gift shop has been built across the street. Not in this instance. The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (LBHBNM) in south central Montana is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and spiritual places I’ve ever been to. After four visits, which included riding a horse across the battlefield with the Crow tribal member Charlie Real-Bird as my guide, I continue to be in awe of the LBHBNM, which extends for approximately six miles along the Little Bighorn River. I’ve also visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, and the drive out to the site of Sitting Bull’s cabin beside a remote stretch of the Grand River is another trip I’ll never forget. The Black Hills—especially Sylvan Lake, where Sitting Bull had a vision of his destiny as his people’s leader—was another amazing place. And then there was the week I spent following the path of the Seventh Cavalry during its march from Fort Lincoln near Bismarck, North Dakota, to the site of the battle. It was a more than 300-mile road trip across grasslands, badlands, mountains, and rivers. After that trip, I knew the terrain had to be a major part of the story.

3. What surprised you the most as you did your research?

When I began this book I thought of the battle as an event from a long ago past. I now know that nothing ended at the Little Bighorn. In fact, it sometimes seemed as though the battle was still being fought. When I was doing research at West Point, where Custer finished last in his class just as the Civil War was getting underway, I met with Lieutenant Colonel Peter Kilner at the Center for Company-Level Leaders, who responded to my questions about Custer and the Seventh Cavalry by alluding to what’s happening today in Iraq and Afghanastan. When I was in the Black Hills I had lunch with Sitting Bull’s great grandson, Ernie LaPointe, a wounded Viet Nam vet who spoke of the stories he’d learned about his great-grandfather as a child growing up on the Pine Ridge Agency near Wounded Knee. I’ve been in contact with the family of Peter Thompson, a soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honor during the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Thompson’s granddaughter allowed me to consult an unpublished manuscript written by her mother in which she reveals that Thompson began recording his experiences soon after the battle. This meant that Thompson’s narrative, which was published 38 years after the fighting and has sparked more than its share of controversy, was based on memories that had been put down on paper within months of the fighting. The manuscript convinced me that instead of being dismissed as the hazy recollections of an old man looking back, Thompson’s account, in which he claims to have seen Custer on his horse Vic just a half hour or so before his death, must be taken seriously.

4. Is there an ultimate hero in your book? Why or why not?

Heroes are hard to come by in my books. Even the greatest among us is ultimately a human being, and what interests me are the ways in which that humanity expresses itself in times of extraordinary duress. What surprised me in writing The Last Stand were the remarkable similarities between Custer and Sitting Bull. They both achieved amazing levels of success, but they also had trouble adapting to the conflicting demands of an ever-changing world.

There is no denying that in the context of the Civil War, Custer was one of the best, if not the best cavalry officers in the Union army. When it came to the Indian wars of the West, however, he had a harder time of it, but so did virtually every army officer. As the military discovered in Vietnam, there is no way to feel good about a conflict in which burning villages of noncombatants is seen as necessary to achieve victory. In leading the attack on Sitting Bull’s village, Custer was doing what his superiors expected of him.

For his part, Sitting Bull was in his element during the tense months prior to and during the battle. His charisma, spirituality, and judgment were perfectly suited to the extraordinary challenges faced by his people at that time. However, once the Lakota were confined to the reservations a new dynamic began to take hold, and Sitting Bull’s conviction that he and he alone knew what was best for his people began to rub many of his former followers the wrong way. The reservation’s white superintendent did his best to exploit this growing resentment, and in 1890 Sitting Bull was gunned down by the reservation’s native police. At one time or another both Custer and Sitting Bull were heroes, but both were also real and vulnerable people for whom the Last Stand was as much a tragedy as a vehicle to eternal fame.

5. Talk a little bit about the media manipulation that both sides engaged in.

From the first, Custer had a talent for using the media to his advantage. During the Civil War he was handsome, dashing, and young, and being the “boy general” made for excellent newspaper copy. He was also a surprisingly talented writer, and his accounts of his activities in the West did much to recreate his image as America’s foremost Indian fighter. But it was Custer’s wife Libbie who proved to be the ultimate spin doctor. After her husband’s death, she devoted the rest of her long life (she didn’t die until the 1930s) making sure her beloved “Autie” was remembered as a Great American Hero.

For his part, Sitting Bull also proved quite adept at using the media to his advantage. After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he spent several years in Canada, where he gave several newspaper interviews. This was the first tangible information the American people learned about the already famous Lakota chief, and Sitting Bull was careful to emphasize his role as a spiritual leader of his people. During two subsequent tours across the country, one of which was with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he attracted large crowds everywhere he went. Like Custer, he also had relatives who carefully guarded his legacy after his death. Although the reservation agent at Standing Rock had done his best to denigrate Sitting Bull, his two nephews, One Bull and White Bull, later gave a series of interviews to the writer Stanley Vestal, whose biography, published in the 1930s, portrayed Sitting Bull as a strong and fair-minded leader.

6. Custer seems like a flamboyant blowhard. Are there any redeeming qualities?

There is no denying that he was an extremely strong personality. People either loved him or they hated him; there was no middle ground. Most of his officers were in the former category but there were two notable exceptions: Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, who both despised Custer. How this hatred expressed itself during the battle was fascinating to document, and it could be argued that if both Reno and Benteen had followed Custer’s orders, the battle would have turned out very differently. Today we tend to think of Custer as this larger-than-life personality who did exactly as he pleased, but that simply was not the case. Instead of a caricature, Custer was a surprisingly complex individual (for example, he was surprisingly well read and his best friend was the Shakespearean actor Lawrence Barrett), and I found him to be endlessly fascinating.

7. Was the Last Stand avoidable?

Absolutely. Although Sitting Bull is often depicted as stubbornly steadfast in his resistance to the American military, he hoped to avoid a conflict at the Little Bighorn. Several Lakota witnesses later insisted that when Reno’s battalion first attacked, Sitting Bull instructed his warriors to hold their fire in hopes that the soldiers might be willing to negotiate. When that didn’t prove to be the case, the warriors attacked and ultimately defeated the divided portions of the Seventh Cavalry piecemeal.

Over the years, many Americans have looked to the myth of Custer’s Last Stand as a kind of inspirational example of how a small band of soldiers fought bravely against a force of overwhelming strength and by fighting to the last man won eternal fame. I would argue that a far better example of leadership in this modern age is provided by Sitting Bull. Instead of recklessly attacking a force of unknown size in hopes that the “shock and awe” of a cavalry charge will achieve victory, it is wiser to do as the Lakota and Cheyenne did at the Little Bighorn: Patiently gather your forces together and, only after every avenue of diplomacy has been exhausted, attack the enemy with everything you’ve got.

8. June 25, 2010, marks the 134 anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. What’s the significance of remembering that battle and what will you be doing for it?

Every year we quite rightly celebrate the Fourth of July. But on June 25, 1876, just as this nation was preparing to celebrate the centennial of its birth, there was the Battle of the Bighorn: an event which demonstrated that even a country with the best of intentions didn’t always do the right thing. By remembering the battle, I think we maintain an important perspective on the sometimes troubling reality of America’s march across the West.

I’ll be spending the 134 anniversary in Hardin, Montana, only a few miles from the battlefield, where I’ll be attending a conference about the Battle of the Little Bighorn and its legacy. I’ve made a lot of good friends during the last four years, and I look forward to seeing many of them in Hardin.