Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Little Big Horn Battlefield

I've always been interested in the Custer saga; from the time I was a kid and watched "They Died With Their Boots On", the historically-flawed but entertaining Errol Flynn movie. My interest was renewed after recently reading the book "A Terrible Glory", a book that brings together all of the other research done on Custer and the battle into one comprehensive and enlightening read. I won't attempt to tell the story of events leading up to the battle, you can read more about it here. And since we'd recently visited the Custer house at Fort Abraham Lincoln and were heading for the general area, we decided to spend a day touring the Little Big Horn National Battlefield, just off I-90 in southern Montana. The park was very busy; the parking lots, not all that large, were choked by a variety of cars and RVs, and the visitor center was wall-to-wall people. After watching a short movie on the history of the battle, we entered the tour route and drove first to the Reno-Benteen battlefield area. It was near this point that Custer again divided his command, having left Captain Benteen and three companies on a lateral scouting mission, and now ordering Major Reno to take three troops, cross the river, and attack the Indian encampment to the North. At this point Custer was only concerned that the Indians might escape, not having seen the size of the encampment or believing his Indian scouts that had. Custer, who had often stated that no amount of Indians could ever defeat the US 7th Calvary, then continued North, apparently to attack the encampment. Historians now believe that the encampment held close to 10,000 Sioux and Cheyenne, with 1500-1800 warriors. On the drive South to the Reno/Benteen battlefield, you can look to the West and across the river to the area where the Indian encampment was:

Looking at what is now an area of farms and ranchland, it's difficult to imagine the hundreds of tepees that were here on June 25, 1876. At the Reno site, you can look down the coulee where he and his men crossed the river and turned to attack the village. He quickly understood the overwhelmingly large force he was facing, and retreated into the woods before finally continuing his retreat back across the river to the high ground. From here, Reno and his command, later joined by Major Benteen and his men, dug in to make a stand. Surrounding the hill in the distance is another ridge where Indians poured rifle fire into his command, now known as "Sharpshooters Ridge". You can see the northern end of the ridge in this picture:

Reno, who was later scrutinized for his conduct at the battle and eventually discharged due to alcoholism, died in poverty in 1889 in Washington. His body is interred in the cemetary adjacent to the visitor center.
Custer's movements as he headed North are not known for sure, but as we drove along the ridge we came across small groups of markers where fallen troops had been found. In the distance, "Last Stand Hill" looms, noticably the highest point in the area. Approaching the hill and looking to the East, a number of markers depict the location of Lt Calhoun and his men, again an example of where troopers apparently banded together against the overwhelming attacking force. At Last Stand Hill, a memorial marker, erected in 1881, lists the names of the 263 troopers, civilians, and scouts killed in the battle. Looking down the hill, the markers of Custer and his men, with the river and area of the Indian encampment behind, help visitors visualize what it must have been like on that horrible day. The story of the Little Big Horn and George Armstrong Custer will always be one that intrigues people - flamboyant hero or vain incompetent, his life was a fascinating example of politics and Army life in the late 1800s.
Some trivia about Custer and the battle:
- Custer is depicted in paintings and movies as having shoulder-length golden hair. In fact, he wore his hair short during the campaign due to the heat and dust.
- Custer's brother Tom, who accompanied him and was killed, is the only two-time Medal of Honor recipient.
- Indian women and boys mutilated the bodies of Custer's command, usually by dismemberment. This was done because they believed that if left intact, they would have to fight them again in the next world.
- One reason Custer may have been so recklessly aggressive is that during this period the US Army only promoted one, sometimes two Lieutenant Colonels a year. It's possible that along with the popular stories he wrote about himself for Eastern newspapers, he felt that a huge victory would assure him a promotion.

We're off to the Ennis Valley and another historical area of the West - come back and see where we've been!

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