Nathaniel Philbrick grew up in the 1960s and '70s, fascinated by, among other topics, the Old West. The historian even traces to those days the spark that became his acclaimed 2010 book, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Big Horn (Penguin).
Philbrick saw Arthur Penn's 1970 film Little Big Man as a freshman at Taylor Allderdice High School. The revisionist Western depicted Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer as a "deranged maniac," Philbrick says, and framed the U.S. Army's Indian campaign in terms of the Vietnam War.
The Custer of Little Big Man was hardly his parents' Custer -- Erroll Flynn in full heroic charge in 1941's They Died With Their Boots On -- but young Philbrick loved it.
The author of the bestselling popular history Mayflower, who now lives on Nantucket Island, shares what he learned researching Last Stand at the Writers Live series on May 10.
Last Stand explodes plenty of myths. Custer's Seventh Cavalry, for instance, didn't invade what's now central Montana in 1876 to protect settlers (there weren't any), but simply to evict Natives from the Black Hills, where Custer himself had discovered gold.
Nor was the Seventh all seasoned Indian fighters; 40 percent were born outside the U.S. "We think of them as Marlboro men, but these were largely Germans and Irish guys," says Philbrick, by phone from Seattle. "This for them was a job."
At Little Big Horn, Custer didn't even have his trademark long blonde locks. At 36, he was going bald and had shorn them.
After the deadly battle, Custer's personal myth was subsequently nurtured by his wife, Libbie, and only began to crumble after she died, in the 1930s. It's continued evolving with history -- and with the realization that even Custer, for all his fame, was just a career soldier himself.
"With the Iraq War and Afghanistan and 9/11, we no longer hold our military to task for the political decisions of leaders," says Philbrick. "There's just a different attitude toward the military now than when I was a teen-ager worried about the draft in the '70s in Pittsburgh."
Nonetheless, says Philbrick, "We still are living on the mythology of the West, that Custer stuff. The reality of it is nothing to be proud of. But man, those myths are powerful."
Writers Live hosts NATHANIEL PHILBRICK 6 p.m. Tue., May 10. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. Free. Register at 412-622-8866
- Photo courtesy of Mike Hill
- Nathaniel Philbrick