Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Little Bighorn

Period weaponry on display at the visitors center
On June 25, 1876, approximately 2000 Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors camped along the western side of the Little Bighorn River confronted about 700 members of the United States 7th Cavalry under the command of Lieut. Col. George Armstrong Custer. 36 hours later, 261 of Custer's company where dead including 3 civilians and all 220 under his immediate command.  The Native American contingent did not keep such records and estimates of their fatalities range from as few as 32 to as many as 300. In the days following the battle, the 7th cavalry survivors buried their dead in shallow graves where they fell. The bodies of the officers were recovered and sent East to be reinterred by their families. Five years after the battle, the remains of the common soldiers were dug up and reburied in a mass grave topped by a white marble obelisk listing the names of the dead. Where each body was recovered, they erected a small headstone type marker to show where each soldier had fallen. These dot the landscape along the course of the battle, giving a poignant  reference to the visitor's imagination as he tries to visualize the events of that day so long ago.

The Little Bighorn Memorial
The marble memorial is at the top of Last Stand Hill where Custer and his dwindling contingent fell as a group. It is the near to the visitor center and is the first place most visitors go when they visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. We chose instead to drive by this and begin our visit where the battle started, nearly 5 miles away. There is another memorial at that end of the battlefield where Major Reno made his failed assault down the bluffs overlooking the Indian encampment. This is where the little white markers start. Some of them have individual names on them, but most of them are anonymous soldiers of the 7th cavalry. In more recent years, similar markers made out of red granite have been placed to memorialize some of the Native American casualties as well but there are only a few of these. As you drive along the road marking the course of the battle, information placards tell the story, but the white markers in ones and twos and small groups give a human aspect to the information.  The Park Service also runs an informational program where you dial-up a phone number that plays little 1-2 minute spiels based on number codes posted along the road outlining the course of the battle as you follow its progress over the hills, along with readings from contemporaneous sources.

Markers for Crow scouts in Maj. Reno's unit

Little Bighorn River from Custer's Ridge
I had seen a documentary on the Battle of Little Bighorn only about 6-8 months ago and so knew the general outline of events, but being there gives a much better feeling for what it must have been like. The television screen doesn't really give you a feel for the terrain and the distances involved. The area is so hilly that two moderate sized groups could easily be invisible to each other from 50 yards apart. Today it seems quite beautiful and serene. Most of the battlefield is currently under private ownership and is used for cattle and horse grazing.  Horses wander the area freely and had recently foaled... we saw a few mares with their young colts from the road.

Horses graze on the battlefield
A lone pronghorn watches us from Sharpshooter's Ridge
The battle was clearly a tactical victory for the Indian nations, but strategically it was the beginning of the end for their resistance to US encroachment. The outrage it kicked up forced Congress to authorize more troops and money to end what most Americans saw as an irritating obstruction to our God ordained westward expansion. Within a couple of years nearly all of the Native American participants in the battle had been herded back onto the reservations and the era of the "Indian Wars" was over. Sitting Bull escaped north to Canada but five years later he finally surrendered and went on to tour with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

Markers on Last Stand Hill
 As we approached the visitors center again, I got out and surveyed Last Stand Hill. Just below the Monument there is a fenced area wherein I counted 52 of the small white headstone markers. Like all of the others that we had seen, these were pure white-- raised letters on a white marble background. Except for one, where the background had been painted black to make the letters stand out more starkly. This is it.

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