Little Bighorn 07
By June of 2007 I had read what I thought was enough about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a.k.a. Custer's Last Stand to understand what I was looking at if I were to visit the site. So I took Sami in the truck and headed east on Interstate 90 with a stopover in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Most of the first leg of the trip was in pouring rain, especially east of the Cascades. We stayed in the Best Western Hotel in Coeur d'Alene, and Sami made lots of new friends there, as he usually does. Next day (Sunday) was a full day of driving, ending at the Best Western in Billings, Montana. Again, Sami made some new friends. Monday morning I left Sami off at a vet in Billings for the day and headed for the Little Bighorn, about 60 miles away.
So much has been written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the battle was so sweeping and complex that summarizing it in a couple paragraphs is a most daunting task. I will attempt to describe it here within the context of my own readings and from what I saw in my visit there in June 2007 with as much brevity as the story allows and as fully as it demands.
I should note here that the battleground at the time of the battle was open territory, claimed by the several Indian tribes and disputed by the US Government. It later became owned by the Army, who turned it over to the National Park Service. The Park Service operates the property and maintains the roads, informational signs and trails throughout the Park, and runs the Visitor Center located near the foot of Custer Hill. Although the Park encompasses the final portions of the battlefield, much of the area is privately owned.
The Little Bighorn battle was a part of the US Government's effort to force all the Plains Indian tribes into reservations. Treaties between the Government and the tribes in 1851 and 1868 guaranteed the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota would remain in Indian hands in perpetuity, and also established reservations for all the Indians. By 1874 the Sioux had gone to the reservations, but some who became disenchanted with reservation life and the backtracking by the government on the size of the reservation, wandered off and returned to their traditional ways. At about that time news of gold deposits in the Black Hills spread, drawing large numbers of white prospectors. This caused the government to retrench on its guarantee to the Indians about the Black Hills, and to send the Army to herd the wandering Indians back to the reservations as well as to provide protection for the settlers moving into the area. In the spring of 1876 the Army sent two columns to the Dakota Territory, one commanded by Gen. Alfred Terry. The Seventh Cavalry regiment under Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer was part of Gen. Terry's command. (Custer had been given the temporary appointment as a Major General, designated "Brevet" during the Civil War, but that appointment had expired by the time of the Little Bighorn engagement.)
On June 17, 1876, exactly a week before Custer's battle, Gen. George Crook engaged the Cheyenne and Sioux at Rosebud Creek, about 36 miles southeast of the Little Bighorn. This battle was essentially a stalemate, but it was an indicator of the Indians' willingness to fight for their lands. Following the Rosebud engagement, Terry sent Custer north to search out bands of Indians. This was the beginning of Custer's journey into destiny.
Custer's column moved into present-day southeastern Montana following the Yellowstone River and approached the Little Bighorn in a westerly direction. As they passed a high point known as the Crow's Nest his scouts informed him of a large Indian encampment about 12 miles to the west, near the Little Bighorn. At this time Custer divided his command, sending three companies consisting of 130 men under Major Marcus Reno into the valley toward the encampment. Without realizing how seriously he had underestimated the number of his enemy, Custer ordered Reno to attack the encampment. Custer himself would follow and reinforce Reno's detachment later. Whether he intended to follow in Reno's path or changed his mind and took the high ground to the northwest is still the subject of debate. While Reno moved up the valley toward the village, Custer took the higher ground to the north and west, then descended toward the river along a broad ravine known as Medicine Tail Coulee. As Reno moved west along the river he began to encounter resistance, and ordered his troops to dismount and form a skirmish line. When the Indians soon flanked his position, he moved his unit left into a line of trees. For reasons still unknown he abandoned the treeline and returned to the valley, where pressure from the Indians scattered his command. They retreated across the river and up a ravine toward the high ground with the loss of about 40 men. Indians began to skirmish with Custer's battalion as they moved down Medicine Tail Coulee, and Custer moved northward toward Custer Hill. As they moved, Indian pressure increased until they reached Custer Hill, where the final battle took place.
This narrative is an extremely simplified account of what happened on June 25, 1876 and in the weeks preceding. There has been a great deal of debate about not only the facts but also about the motivations of the various commanders and subordinates over the nearly century and a half since the battle. First was the court-martial of Major Reno, undertaken at his own request. Following that were several inquiries by Army investigators, then a number of historians, all of whom interviewed survivors of the battle, both Army and Indian. Because he did not survive, most of Custer's last movements and some of the reasoning behind his earlier decisions are the subject of conjecture. The battle in the end was a stunning tactical victory for the Indians but in the end it was the cause of a massive retaliation by the Army that ended their way of life forever. Sitting Bull, one of the Lakota Sioux leaders, fled into Canada to avoid being forced into a reservation, but only a few years later surrendered.
Below are some of the photos from my visit to the battlefield in June 2007.
|Here is the Visitors' Center, situated just below Custer Hill, which can partially be seen in the background.|
|This is the scene most people think of when they think of "Custer's Last Stand". It's the hill where Custer himself and five companies consisting of 214 men were wiped out on June 25, 1876 by elements of the Lakota and Blackfoot Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho who were encamped about a mile away. The Indians numbered about 7,000 including non-combatants; Custer's entire Seventh Cavalry totaled about 600. That's a ratio of nearly 12:1. Excluding non-combatants, the ratio was still about 4:1. From a tactical standpoint, the action on this hill was only a portion relative to the broader scope of the battle.|
|Here is the view of the visitors' center from atop Custer Hill. The quotation from Black Elk is on the north wall of the visitors' center.|
|Driving up the hill from the highway and into the parking lot, this is the first scene that greets the visitor. This is the National Cemetery, originally for fallen soldiers in the Little Bighorn campaign. It was later opened to other military in the way of other national cemeteries. It is now almost completely full, and new burials are highly restricted.|
Visible at the top of the hill in the first picture above is this monument. After the battle on June 25, 1876 a contingent of survivors led by Custer's second-in-command, Major Marcus Reno, buried what they could of the dead. Because the ground was mostly hard-pan clay and a combination of lack of adequate tools for digging, the searing heat of around 100° and the unbearable stench of the decomposing corpses, it was a job not very well done. At best they were able to scratch out shallow graves and throw some dirt over them. The Army sent re-burial details in the weeks and months later, and over time erected headstones where the soldiers fell. Now there are very few soldiers actually buried at the Little Bighorn; most have been re-buried in cemeteries elsewhere around the country. Custer was ultimately buried at the Military Academy at West Point, New York. One exception is the mass grave beneath this monument for some unidentified soldiers. The monument itself was placed here in 1890.
|Lt. S.G. Sturgis who is memorialized with this marker was known for his outlandish beard. When he was found at this site he had been scalped, not for his hair but for his beard.|
|There are many markers such as these dotting the hillsides all around the Park. The one on the right is the standard marker used for enlisted men. Where they could be identified, officers' markers bear their names. The markers on the left are for Indian scouts who were often employed by the Army to gather intelligence on Indian movements and to advise commanders about the terrain. All the scouts were killed in the battle with one notable exception, a fellow named Curly, a Crow Indian, who was ordered by Custer to leave the scene before the final battle began. His testimony at the court-martial of Major Marcus Reno after the battle shed some light on what occurred, but because there were many conflicts in his account his credibility has been seriously questioned.|
|Custer took his contingent down Medicine Tail Coulee, depicted here on his way to what he intended to be a link-up with Reno. While he proceeded down this draw, Reno was busy engaging the Indians in the valley below. As he reached the mouth of the Coulee he encountered some pressure from the Indians which forced him toward the high ground of what is now known as Custer Hill.|
Essential to an understanding of the battle as a whole is the understanding of the terrain on which it took place. Therefore, maps and photos of the area are most important. These provide a background for the reasons for tactical movements preceding and during the fight. The Park Service has provided us with many visual aids including the paintings placed along the roads and paths that crisscross the park. Maps and charts published in the many books and papers are also a great help. Above, the ravine that runs from an area about 1/4 mile below Custer Hill down to the valley of the Little Bighorn has become known as "Deep Ravine", so named because it is deeper and its sides steeper than similar features in the area. It was in this ravine that the last of one of Custer's companies, E Troop, was wiped out. During the last stages of the fight on Custer Hill, members of E Troop ran down the hill toward the river. Many of them were killed in a line reaching from Custer Hill to the head of Deep Ravine; this action has become known as the South Skirmish Line. Those who survived the fight at the South Skirmish Line continued into Deep Ravine, where the last 28 were killed. There has been a great deal of controversy about the number and location of bodies that I will not delve into here because the issue is extremely complex. The photos above of the Park Service painting and of the Ravine from the foot of the visitors' path will help form an image of the area.
|In my narrative I described how Major Reno's battalion scattered and fled across the river and up this ravine toward high ground. The two photos above depict the ravine and the section of the Little Bighorn where this crossing occurred. Following their escape from the valley, Reno's men set up a defensive perimeter on the high ground. They held this perimeter through the night of June 25 and into the next day when the Indians broke off their attack upon learning of the approach of General Terry's units. The plaque on the right describes some of the action.|
|The photo on the left of the tomb of an unknown soldier from Major Reno's command was taken in the front of the Custer Battlefield Museum, which is on privately owned land just below the National Monument property which can be seen in the background in the photo on the right. The flatland in the middle ground is the site of the camp where some 7000 Indians were encamped. Note the bust of Sitting Bull at the upper left. This museum contains a number of interesting artifacts, including what they claim to be the only known original photo of Crazy Horse.|
is the pet resort in Laurel, MT, a few miles west of Billings where
Sami stayed on the second day. They had a large fenced area,
probably more than an acre, where the dogs were let out to run. Sami
made friends with a Keeshond, and the staff told me they played all day
outside. The weather was perfect, about 80 and sunny all day.
I highly recommend this facility for boarding pets. Here's their website:
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