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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
Where Custer Fell
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Where Custer Fell
By Dr. James Brust, Brian Pohanka, and Sandy Barnard
All photos courtesy Dr.James Brust
Book Review by Bob Reece, October 2005
“The abundant photographic record of the Little Bighorn Battlefield chronicles the timeless face of that historic landscape and the changes wrought by our ongoing endeavor to memorialize, interpret, and comprehend what transpired there. These images cannot solve the mystery; but they do elaborate upon it, and perhaps they can guide us a little closer to the unknowable truth.”
Where Custer Fell
Where Custer Fell: Photographs of the Little Bighorn Battlefield Then and Now does guide us much closer to the truth than the authors give themselves credit. The project that sent three historians trudging across every acre of Custer Battlefield and beyond is finally complete – for now. Where Custer Fell is a testament to the teamwork, fellow admiration, and knowledge of Dr. James Brust, the late Brian Pohanka, and Sandy Barnard.
The concept behind “Where Custer Fell” is something I’ve wanted to see ever since I found the book Yellow Ore, Yellow Hair, Yellow Pine: A Photographic Study of a Century of Forest Ecology during my first trip to the Black Hills in 1978. The spiral book by Donald R. Progulske and Richard H. Sowell is a study of the 1874 Black Hills expedition led by George A. Custer told in before and after photographs. Photographer Sowell researched historic photos of Custer’s camps including the long lines of wagons, livestock, and soldiers beside mountains, forest, and streams. Sowell then hiked throughout the Black Hills to locate the exact spot from which the historic photos were shot – there he set up the camera and snapped a contemporary photo. The before and after photos included in Yellow Ore give the reader an opportunity to look at and wonder how much the landscape has changed due to man and nature.
Brust had similar ideas, however his subject would be the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The task he found himself under far outweighed the requirements Sowell encountered – Sowell was looking at one set of historic photos. Brust’s monumental mission involved one of the most photographed battlefields of the Indian Wars -- photographers have been active there since 1877!
Brust soon realized that he couldn’t do it alone. Coming on board next to help with the project was Brian Pohanka followed not long afterwards by Barnard. Together they would spend many seasons walking over the battlefield – over a decade. Imagine how long it would’ve taken Brust to do it alone.
Brust, Barnard, and Pohanka -- On Their Way To Work
Where Custer Fell is richly researched and elegantly written. The three authors have provided us an invaluable resource regarding the changing faces of Custer Battlefield; it’s quite surprising to discover just how little the face has changed.
The story of Custer’s Last Stand has been told in countless books, so why another – what can this book offer that others do not? I have to admit that I don’t read every single book regarding this subject because many are just not worth the cost or time required, especially when they are fraught with redundancy or biased viewpoints. We are fortunate that Brust, Pohanka, and Barnard have provided a book that is indeed very much worth its inexpensive price and our time spent studying it.
Where Custer Fell is not a rehash of the same old stuff, albeit some of it may be well known to the average Custer buff. However, I dare any buff, after completely reading the book, to walk away without an extensive body of new and refreshing historical material.
We are not forced to waddle through the causes and aftermath of the Sioux War – instead, the authors start their story as Custer divides his forces the afternoon of June 25, 1876. The narrative is the most all-embracing and satisfying telling of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in decades – even for the expert. Sharing in this adventure are the wonderful historic and comparison photos. As I turned each page the excitement of what the next photo might reveal was masterful.
Last Stand Hill by H. R. Locke 1894
Comparison photo by Dr. James Brust 1995
The authors provide many interpretations from different historians, however they set their own course; analyze the facts, and draw their own unique conclusions. The narrative does not burden us with finger pointing or blaming of individual battle participants. The story is told, as all books on this subject should be, in a completely objective manner. And, in doing so, the narrative does not fall into a common trap when telling this story – the authors do not speculate or pretend to know what a battle participant may have been thinking just to fill any unknowns or gaps. Where Custer Fell is history written at its best.
What are some questions the authors help answer?
That just touches the surface of what is covered in this book – there is so much more.
Chiefs fording the Little Bighorn by Joseph Dixon 1909
Comparison photo by Dr. James Brust 1997
The authors save their most extensive coverage for Last Stand Hill. A worthwhile map is included which locates each marker, within the fence, and its respective number along with identification of each officer’s marker. Included is an impressive full-page photo – the first taken of Last Stand Hill in 1877 by John Fouch. And, as the books' title promises, the authors put to rest the debate as to where Custer actually fell with clear and persuasive evidence.
Predominantly, the complete photographic study delivers a most gratifying finish -- assurance that efforts by the NPS and countless individuals have achieved a remarkable accomplishment with maintaining the battlefield and surrounding environs in pristine condition. When we visit the Custer Battlefield we see pretty much what Custer, Reno, Benteen, and hundreds of the soldiers and Indians saw on June 25-26, 1876.
I cannot speak lightly regarding the significance of Where Custer Fell. Its legacy will live on for decades much like Edgar Stewart’s Custer’s Luck and John Gray’s Custer’s Last Battle.
Note: Each chapter includes a topographical map pinpointing the location of each photo presented – a simple but valuable tool that makes following the storyline easy.
Other Areas Of Interest Featuring Photographs
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022