Discover Montana's National Parks through the lens of Brian D’Ambrosio, guest writer
The Indians are in the grass in the low ground; the cavalrymen are trying to form a line where the hill starts to rise. The guns sound like cap pistols. The Indians steadily advance as the soldiers retreat and the army horses lose their riders and scatter in panic . . .
Every American elementary school student recognizes the story of Custer’s Last Stand or, as the Indians know it, the Battle of Greasy Grass Creek. Led by Sitting Bull, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne beset Custer and his troops, killing 268 in a battle that stirred up the Anglos against the Indians.
The death of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his troopers 140 years ago in the Battle of the Little Bighorn began an American myth that continues to flourish. So persistent are the collective myths about Custer and his “last stand” at the Little Bighorn that perhaps only a trip to the source can set the record straight.
Custer, more than a century after his death, remains as contentious a figure as he was in his own time. Enormously popular with the public, he was lionized by the Eastern press as a courageous frontier hero even while his troops despised him as a martinet and his military superiors disparaged him as a publicity-seeking showoff. His glowing public persona fueled his dreams of the presidency and inspired his war against the Indians.
If the actual battle was dramatic—Sioux and Cheyenne forces under Crazy Horse and Gall overwhelmed Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers on a hot June day in 1876—the folklore arising from the event has been just as dramatic. “Custer’s Last Stand” has been reproduced in thousands of paintings and illustrations as well as dozens of Hollywood films and thousands of advertisements.
Much of the true history of the battle, however, is told through diaries, journals, and letters of people who lived in the region during the time of the battle. The romance of the “colorful Indian wars” dissolves in repeated encounters with the facts of what happened to human bodies succumbing to bullets and knives, as well as what happened to human minds in direct contact with a brutal reality.
Custer was, at 23, the youngest general in the Union Army. Different from many other generals, he insisted on guiding his men into battle. The 7th Cavalry scouts discovered Sitting Bull’s encampment in the valley of the Little Bighorn River near dawn on June 25, 1876. There were more than 1,000 lodges in several large circles. Several of Custer’s Indian scouts warned against an attack.
On the hills of Greasy Grass Ridge, Custer’s men were wiped out. The 7th Cavalry lost five companies, more than 250 men, all under Custer’s command. There were no survivors.
Following the battle, Custer was found near the crown of the ridge. His body had been unclothed by the Indians, and he was shot in the left breast and the left temple. Brass casings fired from his Remington rifle littered the ground around him.
No journey through Montana is complete without a visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield or immersion in the Indian culture that remains today. That experience richly comes to life on the Warrior Trail through the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations in the south-central part of the state.
Every year thousands of people watch Lt. Col. Custer die on the edge of an alfalfa field west of Hardin. The cast of 300 Indians and cavalrymen present the Battle of the Little Bighorn reenactment to an audience that includes tourists from all over the United States, local residents, and members of the national and international media. The actors rehearse for the show for two and a half weeks, including four full-cast rehearsals.
While attending the reenactment, it is possible to see the Indian perspective on the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, so named after it was changed from Custer Battlefield National Monument in 1991. Still, the most poignant away to experience the scene is to walk in the midst of the markers where Custer, his 7th Cavalry soldiers and scouts, and the Indians fell.
Most people are content to experience just the Little Bighorn, but approximately 4.5 miles to the southeast of the main battlefield on a paved road is the Reno-Benteen Battlefield Memorial, part of the 765-acre Little Bighorn Battlefield complex. The Reno-Benteen site is a tribute to the soldiers who tried—and failed—to arrive in time to assist Custer.