Custer and The Little Bighorn Battlefield, A Lifelong Dream – Part II
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On a hot, July day, we drove the final miles of northern Wyoming and onto the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. I could barely contain my excitement. It quickly became obvious why Montana is called Big Sky Country. Massive cerulean skies reached down to embrace undulating high prairie and distant mountains. The scenery was spectacular, but also made me feel somewhat lost and insignificant in its immensity.
Setting Up Camp
As we rolled into the battlefield area at Garryowen, Montana, I realized the location of the large Native American encampment, and adjacent battlefield was a sprawling area measured in miles, rather than acres. In a nod to modern day life, a federal interstate highway and busy Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line slice right through the middle of what had been the Indian camp.
In the center of the shallow valley, a tree and brush-lined river winds lazily back and forth through fields of sunbaked prairie grass. I had one of my answers: the now serene Little Bighorn River is, in fact, little as rivers go.
We had made reservations at the only RV park serving the monument–a fantastic park called 7th Ranch RV Camp–no more than two miles from the battlefield. After quickly settling in, we headed out to explore.
The Native American Perspective
Our first stop was the Native American-run Custer Battlefield Museum. We watched a dramatic film depicting the battle, learned of the Northern Plains Indian way of life, and viewed period artifacts, including what is claimed to be General Custer’s beaded buffalo hide gauntlets (battle gloves). They had been in the hands of Native Americans since the battle until being donated to the museum in 2012, under the condition they always remain outside the control of the U.S. government.
During our travels, we have visited several Native American areas, including the Navajo Nation, primarily in Arizona; the Jemez and Acoma Pueblos in New Mexico; and the Eastern Cherokee Land Trust in North Carolina. I have learned much more about the Native American experience, and now have a greater appreciation for their cultures and perspectives.
During our visit to the battlefield, it was heartening to see a more balanced view being taken by the U.S. government. In 1991, a federal law signed by President George H. W. Bush changed the monument’s name from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
An additional monument honoring Native American participants alongside the 7th Cavalry dead was also authorized in the legislation. This circular monument titled “Peace Through Unity” was completed and dedicated on the 127th anniversary of the battle in 2003. Finally, alongside existing white memorials commemorating U.S. Cavalry dead, red granite markers have been added for Native American warriors who died while defending their homeland and way of life.
On The Little Bighorn Battlefield
After visiting the privately-run museum on the day of our arrival, we were more than primed for our full day visit to the monument the next day. Filled with anticipation, I had trouble falling asleep as I envisioned my walk on hallowed grounds.
After touring the visitor center and listening to an informative ranger-led presentation, we were ready to tour the expansive battlefield. Even though Last Stand Hill sits just above the visitor center, I wanted to save that experience for last.
We drove 3.5 miles along rounded ridgetops to Reno-Benteen Hill at the southern edge of the monument. There, we completed a walking tour overlooking where the battle began on June 25, 1876.
One of the causes of the defeat of the 7th Cavalry and its 600 men was General Custer’s underestimation of Indian forces (approximately 2,000 warriors), and his decision to split his troops into several groups.
After marching 15 miles from the first sighting of the Indian encampment at daybreak, Major Marcus Reno, second in command, was ordered to start the attack from the south at around 3pm. He led a charge of 150 mounted soldiers into the Indian settlement.
Captain Frederick Benteen was assigned a similar number of troops and ordered to loop around to the west to prevent an Indian escape. Custer and his forces numbering 210 men, galloped north along the high ground. The mule train carrying the soldiers’ supplies and ammunition lagged miles behind, a result of Custer’s haste to attack.
I tried to imagine the terror of the Native American women and children as the feared Wasichu soldiers beared down on their village. Protection of their families and way of life was the Indian warrior’s highest priority.
Perhaps the two most well-known Native Americans at the Battle of the Little Bighorn were Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Sitting Bull was 45 years old at the time of the battle–no longer of fighting age. He was now a spiritual and political leader for the Hunkpapa Lakota people. Earlier in his life, he was a great warrior, battling U.S. forces from 1863-1868. He refused to sign a peace agreement, The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which granted the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Lakota, and continued fighting through 1873.
He was successful in persuading large numbers of Native Americans to leave newly established reservations to join free Native Americans (or “Hostiles” as declared by the U.S. Government) at the encampment in 1876.
Merely three weeks before the battle, Sitting Bull had a vision of a great victory over U.S. forces at the Indian camp. To inspire his people, he performed a Sun Dance a week before the fight where he fasted and sacrificed over 100 pieces of flesh from his arms.
Crazy Horse was a legendary Oglala Lakota warrior and leader. He participated in many battles with enemy Native American tribes, as well as U.S. forces. By 1865, he had been named a war leader by his tribe at the age of 25.
He led the Native American forces at the crucial Battle of the Rosebud, only one week before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. While the Rosebud skirmish ended in a draw, it forced General George Crook’s troops to return to their fort in Wyoming to resupply, rather than joining up with Custer’s regiment at Little Bighorn.
Accounts vary regarding his involvement at Little Bighorn, but many say he led a flanking assault that forced Custer to retreat to Last Stand Hill. Many Native American accounts attest to his bravery and leadership that day.
Major Reno’s charge was quickly met with resistance. After about 20 minutes of long-distance rifle warfare, hundreds of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors streamed out of the camp. They quickly overwhelmed the soldiers’ exposed flanks.
Reno ordered a desperate retreat with his forces either taking cover in trees along the river, or fording the waterway and scampering up an exposed hill. They formed a circular, defensive perimeter at its top. If they had not been joined shortly thereafter by Benteen’s companies, the remains of Reno’s forces would likely have been routed.
Many people do not know the Battle of the Little Bighorn lasted for two days in this location. We stood on Reno-Benteen Hill, where undermanned Army forces were under constant siege, trying to imagine the terror these weary soldiers felt surrounded by fierce warriors. The shallow trenches they dug were insufficient to protect them from Indian rifles and arrows. They were losing a battle of attrition.
A Second Front
Something drew the Indians’ attention away from the hilltop battle. Custer was attempting an attack of the Indian camp from the northeast. A successful strategy that Custer had previously used was taking Indian women and children hostage and forcing the fighting men into surrender. Most of the warriors dashed off nearly four miles to save their families.
We drove back along the ridgelines to the rounded shoulders of Last Stand Hill. After being beaten back at a river crossing into the village, a surprised Custer deployed some of his forces along the ridge. The grassy hillside was dotted with white granite memorials where soldiers from Captain Miles Keough and Sargent James Calhoun’s companies bravely fought and died. There were no signs of panic as the soldiers seemed to follow orders and maintain their positions. They were simply overwhelmed by greater forces.
The Last Stand
Finally, we visited the small knoll known famously as Last Stand Hill. A stately white granite memorial at the top of the hill contains the remains of nearly 250 U.S. Cavalrymen who died throughout the battlefield. It was now late afternoon–around the same time Custer and his men fought their last desperate battle.
Cut off from his supplies and nearly two-thirds of his regiment, I imagined Custer realizing his underestimation of Indian forces. He wrote a desperate note and sent it with his bugler, Giovanni Martini…
“Benteen. Come on, Big Village, Be quick, Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.”
Now surrounded by hundreds of warriors, Custer and his last 40 remaining cavalrymen shot their horses and arranged their carcasses in a defensive perimeter. The battle here is thought to have lasted about an hour. They fired several coordinated rifle volleys–a signal of their need for reinforcements. After exhausting their supply of rifle ammunition under a constant and withering attack, Custer’s dwindling forces pulled their service revolvers and fought at close quarters for their lives.
By this time, Major Reno and Captain Benteen were aware of Custer’s needed support. However, they were too exhausted or unwilling to search out Custer’s whereabouts. Despite hearing the gunfire volleys to the north, they ordered the troops to maintain their defensive position on the hilltop.
One brave officer, Captain Thomas Weir, defied orders and attempted to reach Custer with about 50 men. Less than one-third of the way to Last Stand Hill, he encountered overwhelming Indian forces, and made a harrowing retreat, barely making it back to Reno-Benteen Hill.
On and around Last Stand Hill, it was a complete annihilation. Receiving no troop reinforcements or resupply, not a single member of the five companies riding with Custer (save for Martini, the messenger) lived to recount what happened.
As the sun began to dip, I walked the fence around the perimeter of the knoll. As the prairie grasses swayed in a gentle breeze, the area was calm. Clusters of white granite markers stood silently. It has hard to imagine the chaos and fear of that day 141 years ago. I closed my eyes and tried to picture one of the U.S. Army’s greatest defeats in the Indian Wars.
Talking with Custer
In the orange-gold hues of late afternoon, I suddenly realized I was the only visitor left on The Hill. I was now standing alone with Custer and his men!
Clustered around Custer were his two brothers, Boston and Thomas, and his nephew Thomas Reed. It was hard to tell who was protecting who. All we know is they fought and died as a family.
There are many reports of the battlefield being haunted. And very much wanting to believe in the presence of souls, I struck up a calm and respectful conversation in hopes of stirring the spirits at Little Bighorn. I complimented the men on their courage and service, and acknowledged their desperation and fears. And to General Custer, I said, “You were a great man. A great leader of men. I thank you for helping save our Union. And I forgive your hubris as you paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Curiously, the winds picked up following my conversation, but I cannot be certain I was heard. However, I felt at peace on the battlefield, having fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting the Little Bighorn.
After defeating Custer, the Native American warriors returned to Reno-Benteen Hill and engaged the remaining troops of the 7th Cavalry overnight and into the next day. They broke off the fight, packed up their camp, and scattered in several directions hours before Army reinforcements arrived on June 27th.
Days away from celebrating the country’s Centennial, the news of Custer’s defeat and death reached a shocked nation. As a result, more attention and resources were applied to the “Indian Problem.” Under the command of General Nelson Miles, Native American resistance and their cherished way of life was largely extinguished in the following years.
Less than a year after the victory at Little Bighorn, the great spiritual leader, Sitting Bull, fled with his people to the safety of Canada in May, 1877. Hunger and desperation forced him to return to the U.S. and surrender in 1881. Sadly, he was killed by Indian agency police attempting to arrest him in 1890 on fears he would participate in the Ghost Dance movement at the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota.
Legendary war leader, Crazy Horse, was also forced into submission within one year of the great Indian victory–surrendering to U.S. forces in May, 1877. Shockingly, he was killed months later by an Army guard during a disturbance at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. He died at age 36–ironically, the same age as George Armstrong Custer.
The Boy General and the Indian heroes had gone to history. And the Indian way of life, and the nation as a whole, were changed forever.
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