Thursday, September 16, 2010
Custer's Last Stand
One of the places that has been on my list to see since I was a very young lad is the battlefield on the Little Big Horn River, otherwise known as Custer’s Last Stand. I became interested in this battle largely due to an odd set of circumstances. When I was young and living on a farm in upstate New York, our family would travel several hours regularly to Buffalo to visit my grandmother. It became a tradition that we would stop at the same restaurant for a hot dog on every trip. It happened that in the main dining room there was a huge painting of Custer’s last stand battle. So I ate quite a few hot dogs under that painting and asked my father a lot of questions about it. Ever since, I have wanted to visit the site.
Leaving Cody, WY, we headed north on WY 120 into Montana and then headed to Hardin, WY as our stop over to visit the battlefield. I have read many books about Custer’s role in the Civil War and his years on the plains. The best insight into the man was thru his own book called “My life on the plains”. He made a reputation during the Civil War as an aggressive and successful leader and was promoted literally overnight from the rank of Captain to Brigadier General. He was brash, fearless and willing to take sometimes risky actions. Until June 25, 1876, those decisions had always led to successful outcomes. This history, his arrogance and lack of understanding of the situation he was entering was to end his career and life in a spectacular way.
When we arrived at the battlefield, my first surprise was the large number of people there. I had somehow expected this to be a less visited site. We had been told by several people that the ranger talk was not to be missed. So we waited for that to start. We were lucky and got a great presentation from a retired history teacher and battlefield enthusiast, who really set the stage for the visit. The site cannot be really appreciated unless you know what happened and why. Unlike Gettysburg, where there are many monuments and guided routes and many guides to the events, this is still open range with just a few dozen markers on the hills.
Once you understand what happened on the Little Big Horn, it is a moving experience to visit the major sections of the battle. There are details of the battle in the referenced web sites. There are many myths about what happened here, the biggest being that Custer charged out there against orders and led his cavalry to a pointless death. The truth is that he was following his orders and was attempting to meet the objectives set for him. It was the expectations of the army leadership that the native tribes were likely going to flee rather than fight. The army wanted to engage the tribes, defeat them and force them back onto the reservations.
It is not known for sure why Custer decided to split up his force , but it was likely that he wanted to prevent them from fleeing. He also clearly did not understand just how large the group he encountered was. There are varying estimates of warriors involved in the battle, but there can be no doubt that Custer’s force was overwhelmingly outnumbered. This was only enhanced by the decision to split his force into three groups.
The monument details the several battles leading up to Custer and approximately 210 of his original force of over 600 being pushed onto the hill that now is referred to as Custer’s Last Stand. On this site all of the company was killed in a period of just one hour or so by a superior force directed by Sitting Bull.
When the remaining forces and relief column arrived the next morning, they found the entire troop dead and mutilated.
The native tribes won a huge victory over a famous leader. But like so many things in life, it did not have the expected result. As the ranger noted in his talk, in its day, this event was not unlike the Sept 11th attack on the twin towers. The response was swift and unmerciful. The tribes were all quickly subdued and their way of life was gone forever.
While not as physically impressive as many of our preserved battlefields, it is an important part of our history of western expansion and our less than glorious treatment of the people who occupied the land before us. It is a must see place.
While this is already much longer than my usual post, I want to mention that on site is the Custer National Cemetery. Like all such places, it holds the remains of unknown soldiers and some of the heroes of their day. It was started for those in the battles for the west and continued to be used through WWII and beyond. I have included a few of their markers, as well; less we forget all those who have served.