Friday, August 4, 2017

Little Bighorn National Monument: Battlefield to National Park

My dentist stops for a moment and rubs his chin. "What is it about the battle of Little Bighorn that intrigues us?"
I make some kind of strange noise and wave my hands in what I hope signals agreement. I have a bunch of stuff going in and out of my mouth. I have no idea what is going on in there, and I'm so shot full of Novocaine I can't feel my face.
"Is it the allure of the lost cause?"
Ah huh ugh  (waving both arms in the air). I'm really trying here because I'm excited to find someone who wants to talk about the subject with me.
"Custer made so many tactical errors."
Now I'm putting my legs into action, swiveling my ankles and wiggling my toes as he continues to go.
This is so frustrating. I should have told him about my upcoming trip to Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument National Park after he finished working on my teeth.


The Battle of the Little Bighorn, A.K.A. Custer's last stand, or as it's called by Native Americans the Battle of the Greasy Grass is one of the most analyzed, mythologized, and reinterpreted battles in American history. This pivotal event happened the year Americans were celebrating the Centennial. News of Custer's defeat at the hands of Indians shocked a nation who had been busy glorying in its own progress.

One of the depictions of the battle made by Native Americans who were there. The above is the work of Kicking Bear, a Lakota Sioux and cousin of Crazy Horse. 

I live near Mustard's Last Stand. Coincidence?
So this is going to be a big year for me: this fall I'm going to finally see the Little Bighorn Battlefield! I've been trying to steer family vacations here for years without success. But this year I'll be standing on the very spot I've read so much about.

My husband and I are going out west in September/October. We sat down and plotted out a route starting at the Badlands, going to Deadwood, then on to Little Bighorn, and from there back down to Cody, and finally to Jackson Hole to tour Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

My husband looked at the hours involved going to and from the park, which is a bit out of our way. "Have you looked at the website? There's not much there except a big field with a white marker on it."


I will not be deterred. I don't know what it is about the place that's had a hold of me since since I was a youngster.

Is it,as my DDS says, because it was a lost cause? Is it the image of the 200 plus soldiers under General Custer's command coming over a ridge and finding thousands of warriors bearing down on them? What a chilling moment that must have been, facing certain death and knowing things were going to get ugly. Does the battle interest me because, despite their victory, it would mark the beginning of the end for the Plains Indians' way of life? Is it because I live within shouting distance of an Evanston landmark, Mustard's Last Stand? (Really it is a landmark. People here frequently reference this hot dog stand when giving directions. "Keep heading west until you see Mustard's Last Stand, then hang a Louie.") The feeling this historical event evokes in me is so strong I sometimes wonder if it's a past life thing.

I know what it looks like. I've seen the the Little Bighorn Battlefield countless times in books and on screen. Sometimes a landscape speaks for itself. The magnitude of the human drama and anguish absorbed into the ground and resting quietly beneath serene skies is spectacle enough.

The Battle:

The event that led to this showdown between the army and the Plains Indians was the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. In fact it was Custer who discovered it. When the Sioux refused to sell their sacred land, they were forced onto reservations to get them out of the way.

Sitting Bull urged the tribes to resist, and bands of Indians began to leave the reservations to join their people still living a traditional lifestyle.

I'm not going to attempt to give a detailed account of the battle. There's still much controversy about what happened anyway.

But the basic facts are that in June of 1876 some 600 soldiers in the 7th Calvary rode into a camp comprised of the combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho nations. I've seen different numbers thrown around, but let's say there were 6,0000 to 7,000 Indians encamped on the flats beside the Big Horn River. (I've seen larger figures and smaller, but this is the head count estimated on the Smithsonian website.)

Custer's Crow scouts warned him there was perhaps the largest Indian camp they'd ever seen. He made the fateful decision to not wait for reinforcements and attack the Indians anyway before they scattered, thus making them harder to track down.

But, he wasn't prepared for the number of Indians gathered together under the leadership of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall.

At the time about twenty percent of the 7th Calvary were green recruits who'd enlisted only seven months earlier. Many were immigrants from Ireland, England, and Germany with little experience of the frontier. Archaeological evidence indicates they were malnourished and in poor physical condition.

The whole 7th Calvary wasn't wiped out, by the way. Custer split his forces, giving Reno and Benteen command over some men while he took companies C, E, F, and I into battle with him. It was the companies under Custer who were wiped out to a man.

Reno came down on the Sioux part of the camp, which was unfortunate for him as he encountered the "Suicide Boys."  These were a group of warriors who had vowed to die fighting, having gone through a ritual called "the Dying Dance." This initial wave was aggressive and deadly, giving the next wave of warriors the chance to overrun the soldiers before they had a chance to regroup.

Benteen came to Reno's defense. They could hear a battle in progress about four miles away but had to retreat with their surviving men and run for their lives, leaving Custer to fend for himself.

Custer's plan was to ride into the camp and go after the women and children, a tacit he'd used before, but his men were beaten back by the advancing warriors.

Unable to cross the river to the Indian encampment, Custer's men were forced to take a defensive position on a hill using their dead horses as breastworks. It was said afterwards by Cheyenne chief, Two Moons, the battle was over in "about as long as it takes for a hungry man to eat his dinner." There were survivors at Little Bighorn: thousands of Native Americans. Much of what we know comes down from their stories, some of which is conflicting, as eyewitness accounts can be. And then what they said was mainly ignored for about fifty years. But, one thing all seem to agree on is that the soldiers who died there that day fought hard.

The Making of a U.S. National Park:

Three days after the battle, U.S. soldiers found the bodies. Fearing further attack they hastily buried or covered the dead where they lay. The bodies were ritually mutilated and in a terrible state after days exposed to the elements, but attempts were made to identify the remains before burying them in shallow graves marked with stakes. When an identification could be made the name was written down on a scrap of paper, put inside an empty shell casing, and then driven into the stake.

Horse bones littering the battlefield and a stake marking the grave of an unknown solider. Photo by Stanley Morrow--Little Bighorn National Monument

During the five years following the battle there were repeated attempts to bury the dead, but the field remained littered with both horse and human bones that had been washed to the surface during storms or dug up by animals. As you can imagine the families of the deceased put pressure on the government to put their loved ones to rest. In 1881 the monument was erected on Custer Hill and bodies were moved there to receive proper burial (though human bones continued to be found for decades and decades afterwards). Wooden stakes continued to dot the landscape, marking where men had fallen.

In 1879 the site was preserved as a U.S. National cemetery. In 1886 the spot was proclaimed National Cemetery of Custer's Battlefield Preservation, which is a cumbersome title, and I'm glad they changed that. Interestingly, Custer himself is not resting here. His body was re-interred at West Point. The cemetery continued to be used for veterans of our nation's wars, women and children who died in isolated frontier posts, Indian scouts, and Medal of Honor recipients.

U.S. Army Memorial on Last Stand Hill

  In 1890 marble markers replaced wooden crosses. Meanwhile, the Indians had not forgotten their dead heroes and built stone cairns over the spots where they fell. We'll come back to that later.

Wooden stakes marking where men fell were replaced with marble markers

In 1940 the site was transferred from the U.S. Department of War to the National Park Service, and in 1946 it was re-designated Custer Battlefield National Monument. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

Then something interesting happened in 1983. A wildfire destroyed the ground cover, offering up an archaeologist's dream come true. Digging went on until 1984 and it seemed the park coughed up more of its secrets. For one thing the pattern of discarded shell casings allowed modern forensic teams to graph out the movements of both soldiers and Indians, attesting to the chaos. This find also yielded the information that the Indians not only outnumbered the army, but they had them outgunned as well. Unbelievably the soldiers went to battle armed with single-shot Springfield rifles. Imagine. You have thousands of warriors bearing down on you and you have to reload after each shot! The Indians, on the other hand had at least 60 repeating Henry, Winchester, and Spencer rifles in addition to their usual arsenal of weapons. (Custer declined the use of Gatling guns, thinking they'd be too cumbersome.)

In a move I heartily agree with, George H.W. Bush renamed the park Little Bighorn National Park, because what happened there is bigger than General George Armstrong Custer. At the same time he renamed the park, Bush ordered that the stone cairns marking where warriors fell be replaced with red granite markers.

The evolution of the park reflects our shifting attitude. With name changes and new memorials the focus has gone from Custer's Last Stand to a place acknowledging a duel identity--which it always had anyway. This place is hallowed ground for the Indians as well, as it was their last stand.

Closed Hand was one of the "Suicide Boys," warriors who vowed to fight to the death.

In 1997 a memorial was erected to commemorate the efforts and sacrifice of the Native Americans who fought to maintain their way of life. Oglala Sioux artist, Colleen Cutschall, won a competition to create such a monument. 

A sculpture at the Indian Memorial. Photo attributed to N.P.S.

"If this memorial is to serve its total purpose, it must not only be a tribute to the dead; it must contain a message for the living...power through unity..."
Enos Poor Bear, Sr., Oglala Lakota Elder

"Forty Years ago I fought Custer till all were dead. I was then the enemy of the Whitemen. Now I am the friend and brother, living in peace together under the flag of our country." Two Moons, Northern Cheyenne

For anyone interested in this subject I'd recommend the site Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield: The Next Generation in the Study of Custer's Last Stand.


Andrea Downing said...

Great piece, Patti--I think you'll probably be in tears when you finally get there. And you know Bob is wrong--it's not just a big field with a marker. As you drive or walk around(nearly 5 miles), there are stops, each telling you what would be seen from there, what happened at that spot, and you get such a feeling for the magnitude of it all--after all, it wasn't one side here, one side there. I'll look forward to hearing about your reactions after you've been.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Andi. I'm sure I will be in tears! I'm tearing up now in fact! I'll always remember seeing the site of the battle of Culloden in Scotland which has a similar vibe, I imagine. I found it very moving with the simple stones with the clan names on them. (getting teary again). I can't wait to see Little Bighorn and looking forward to meeting up with you in WY!