The Little Bighorn Battlefield sits on top of a hill about a half mile to the east of Interstate 90 in southern Montana. As you approach it from the south, the first thing you may notice is the American flag on the pole rising from the cemetery. The first thing I noticed were the trees, also in the cemetery, because they seemed so out of place in this sprawling land of blue sky and grass.
I had been looking forward to this moment for hours, ever since leaving Cheyenne earlier in the morning. The scenery on the drive across Wyoming had been at times beautiful, and at other times mind-numbingly boring. I kept wondering how there could be so few people in such a seemingly limitless space. The land does not seem particularly hostile, especially not on a sunny day in late June, so it must have something to do with the availability of water, or jobs, or the brutal winter cold that comes plunging down from Canada, or maybe it is all of those things.
Southwest of the battlefield, Interstate 90 cuts a 21st century trail not far from the banks of the Little Bighorn River, and I didn’t know it until later, but as I approached my long-awaited exit, I was driving over ground where Sitting Bull’s encampment was located exactly 134 years and one day ago. Teepee’s, horses, dogs, children, squaws, old men and warriors filled this valley on June 25, 1876. They were estimated to be about 8000 strong, numbers that proved to be more than adequate for the challenge that would confront them on that fateful afternoon.
I turned off the interstate and drove past some tourist traps, no doubt well-stocked with Custer T-shirts, coffee mugs and a thousand other tacky trinkets. Through the park gates and up the drive there is a parking lot, not overly large, and today it was filled with cars, motorcycles and a couple of tour buses. I parked in an open spot behind the cemetery I had seen from the interstate. Major Marcus Reno, the battles most notorious survivor, is buried there. He was initially interred in a paupers grave back east but in 1967 the army decided to forgive him for his sins and they moved his remains to the battlefield cemetery and gave him a second funeral, this time with full military honors. I spied the Visitors Center at the far end of the parking lot, so I walked in that direction, bobbing and weaving through a crowd of senior citizens ambling back to their bus. I felt like a trout swimming upstream.
A short distance from the Visitors Center I saw a monument on a hilltop, so I decided to go straight there. I followed a walkway until I came to an iron fence that was long overdue for a rust treatment. Small groups of people stood outside the fence. Some of them were pointing and talking, some were taking pictures, some were just quietly looking. The fence enclosed an area about the size of a major-league infield, and inside, clustered among the yucca plants and partially obscured by knee-high grass, were forty-two white stone markers. Some had names on them, but most said only: “US Soldier – 7th Cavalry, Fell Here, June 25, 1876.” The markers represent the spots where forty-two soldiers fell and were initially buried, though later the bones of most were moved to a common grave under the monument on the top of the hill.
One of the markers was noticeably different from the rest. Behind its’ raised letters the background had been painted black, causing the name on this marker to stand out more prominently than the names on the others, and this name belonged to a man who prided himself on being the most prominent of all men, G.A. Custer, Brevet Major General, Lieutenant Colonel, 7th US Cavalry. Close to him was the marker of his brother, Tom Custer. Further down the hill was their kid brother, Boston.
From the top of what I now knew was Last Stand Hill, I looked southwest across the field of stone markers and yucca plants, down the grassy slopes to the trees that lined the river in the distance, where the Indians had their camp, and I tried to imagine what is was like here 134 years and one day ago. I tried to hear the roar of the gunfire, the officers shouting orders, the whooping warriors, the wails of the wounded, the screams of terrified horses. I tried to smell the smoke from the guns. I tried to feel the fear and the rage, the heat and the thirst. I wondered if I would have acted with courage or cowardice. I could see it all in my mind’s eye, aided by the memories of movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read. It was terrible or glorious, depending on your stake in the game.
There is a road that runs from Last Stand Hill to Reno Hill, about three miles to the southeast. The first stop along that road, just a short distance from where Custer fell, is the ridge where some of Captain Myles Keogh’s troops were overrun by Indians. They were chased down the back slope of the hill, where all of them were killed. Some historians think Capt. Keogh was the last man standing on Last Stand Hill, but there is no way to know that for sure. There are more white markers on and below the ridge, but unlike the tight pattern surrounding Custer, this group is utterly random. They are scattered as if they were a handful of seeds, suggesting these men were caught and slaughtered as they fled in panic. It was a powerful thing to contemplate.
From there the road meanders over Calhoun Hill before dropping down into the river valley, and there I saw, on the far bank of the Little Bighorn, two large tepee’s, and on my side of the river was a group of about twenty men on horseback, reenactors dressed in uniforms of the 7th Cavalry, complete with pistols and carbines. One of them had an American flag, and another carried the colors of the 7th Cavalry. It was quite a sight, the closest I have ever come to stepping back in time, and certainly the most authentic presentation put on by people who get their kicks out of doing such things that I have ever seen.
On the east bank of the river the road rises up into the hills again. This change in elevation would be problematic for Major Reno’s men in the early stages of the fight, but it may have also saved those who made it alive to the higher ground. I had to stop for three riderless horses that decided to cross the road in front of me. They were in no hurry, so I gave them a polite beep on the horn. One of them looked back at me like he was annoyed. Eventually he broke into a run and led the others down into a ravine, where they dropped out of sight, and the way to Reno Hill was clear.
The striking thing about Reno Hill is how small and exposed it is. Major Reno and Captain Benteen and their troopers spent a hellish day and a half there, dug in, fending off attacks from below and above, trying very hard not to die. Some of them did, but most lived to tell about it. I didn’t stay long because frankly there is not that much to see, but it did help me complete the picture, so that I could finally understand where these places were in relation to each other, and I could see how it all fit together. I could see the far away hills where, through his field-glasses, Custer saw the Indian village for the first time. I could see the river bank that Reno’s soldiers struggled to climb as they fled in panicked retreat, their attack on the village having failed spectacularly. I could see where Custer split his regiment and rode away with his doomed men, over the hills and out of sight, never to be seen alive again. It was one of those moments when the light bulb went on and I got it. That by itself was worth the trip.
During a lecture by a park ranger I learned that millions of people have visited this site from countries all over the world. They come for various reasons. There were thousands of participants in the events that happened here, but I am willing to wager that most people come because they are drawn by the legend of a single man – George Armstrong Custer. Worthy or not, he is one of the most celebrated figures in American history. Say the name Custer and everyone with at least a fifth grade education knows who you mean. In Son Of The Morning Star, author Evan S. Connell said, “His name reverberates like the clang of a sword.” It is one of the best lines I have ever read.
Was Custer an American hero or a mass murderer? Again, it depends on your stake in the game. It is amazing to me how this blustery, blundering enigma of a man still captures the imagination of so many people so many years later, but he does, and I include myself among them. I don’t admire him necessarily, but I am fascinated by him, and I just can’t seem to learn enough about him and his time, and all of the people, red and white, who fought the last great battle of the American Indian Wars, 134 years and one day ago.