The Battle Of The Little Bighorn

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Rocky had been in contact with Peter Thompson’s descendants, and with his help I was given permission to consult an unpublished manuscript written by Thompson’s daughter, Susan, in the 1970s, in which she quotes extensively from her father’s original notebook as well as from an, early draft of his narrative. Most exciting of all, Susan, who was seven years old when her father wrote the final version of his narrative, recounted the stories her father had told her about the battle, several of which never made it into his narrative.

As Susan makes clear, Thompson the writer had an unfortunate tendency to mimic the overheated prose style of the dime-store novels he had read as a child. He also insisted (against the objections of his wife, whom he consulted while working on the final draft) on including some of the undoubtedly apocryphal incidents he’d heard from other soldiers, thus introducing the obvious absurdities and issues of tone that have caused many readers to reject the narrative out of hand. Susan’s manuscript convinced me that Thompson was an honest, if stubborn, man who had done his best in his necessarily imperfect and human way to tell what he thought had happened at the Little Bighorn.

More has been written about the Little Bighorn, it’s been said, than any other battle fought on American soil. All of that analysis is ultimately dependent on the testimony of the participants, people like Peter Thompson, who were there , in the midst of a hopelessly confusing event, and yet never stopped trying to understand what they had witnessed. Just as important are the researchers, people like Rocky Boyd, who have proven just as single-minded and indefatigable in their pursuit of the past. Together, these people make the practice of history possible.

Nathaniel Philbrick