The battle both sides lost

Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn. It’s such a part of our history and the American vocabulary that it’s rather difficult to actually be there.

Little Bighorn Battlefield – now an exit on the interstate.  That’s kind of strange to see. And then you cross over the Little Bighorn River and on up to the Visitors’ Center. Maybe it seems strange because something so iconic is now so institutionalized.

And of course we had another beautiful day, just for total contrast to the battlefield.

We were still in Montana, on the Crow Reservation, on which – fittingly – the battlefield lies. We started with a tour of the museum, with many amazing artifacts and visualizations, and then heard talk by a park ranger, a Crow Indian, who dramatically told the story of the battle and the forces leading up to it. And that story has been rewritten these days to present a very balanced view of the struggle between the US government and the Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne Indian tribes who fought here.

For example, the site used to be called Custer Battlefield, and it is now known as Little Bighorn Battlefield. And when they talk about the battle, we hear a different story of what happened on that field on June 25 and 26, 1876, than you might have learned in school.

Several tribes who refused to move onto reservations after a gold rush in the Black Hills violated their existing treaty and invaded their sacred ground were camped out near the LB river.  At the same time, Grant had had enough of those recalcitrant natives and sent the Army to move them forcibly.

The story of the actual battle and George Armstrong Custer’s role in the debacle for the US Army’s Seventh Cavalry has been often told.  His trademark arrogance and brashness – not to mention poor leadership and battlecraft – led to a slaughter of his men on the hill famously known as Custer’s Last Stand.

Once you see the land and understand the positions each side held, you realize that Custer refused good intelligence from his scouts, misled his commanders about the support they could expect from him, and underestimated the violence with which the Indians would fight to defend the camp which held all their families. They had everything to lose, and he had a reputation to gain.

White marble markers indicate where soldiers fell on the hill. There is a marker for Custer and we also saw those of his two brothers, Tom and Boston, as well as that of his brother-in-law, James Calhoun.  In recent times, red granite stones have been added honoring those Indians who fell. The soldiers were hastily buried where they fell, but now most of them are buried under the monument at the top of the hill.  Custer himself was ultimately reburied at West Point.

And a monument to the Indians was added in 2003, honoring those who fought bravely for their way of life. It is built into the ground in a circular shape, with plaques lining the wall and expressing the Indian point of view.

We have come a long way.

But while the Indians won the day, they certainly lost the war.  Once the shock of Custer’s death and that of his troops reached the East, that was the end of an Indian resistance. With the sole exception of the massacre at Wounded Knee, the Indian Wars were over and done.  Large armies moved the last tribes onto reservations, and those exiled in Canada returned within the next five years to take their place on the wasteland they had been banished to in Oklahoma and various other states. There was to be no more discussion.  George Custer was a martyr and that was that.

I’m glad we waited to come here.  We also took a bus tour with a Crow guide, and I doubt that would have been available 20 years ago.  We are one week away from the anniversary, and next week, as every year in recent memory, there will be a reenactment, with the local Crows playing all the Indian roles, representing the many tribes who fought here. Ironically, the Crow were supporting Custer as guides, because they wanted nothing more than to get Sioux (the Lakota) and other tribes off their lands.  Regarding the reenactment, our guide chuckled and said, “We love to see Custer die three times a day!”  Crow humor – and we certainly understand it, but I doubt it would have gone over well in the latter part of the last century.

There is a national cemetery here for American veterans of all wars.  Several of the Little Bighorn soldiers are buried here.

So we left here rooting for the Indians and in awe of this historic site.  Never thought we would see it, but we will never forget it. This land is so beautiful and the day so fair.

Our next destination was Sheridan, Wyoming.  This town has that authentic Western flavor, and some interesting buildings along Main Street, including the Morgan Stanley office. We are probably the only ones not in jeans, but they just had to put up with us Yankees, while eating our steaks.





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