The written stories of the heroes in American history, both real and alleged, consumed many of my childhood summers. Larger-than-life figures such as Lincoln, Davy Crockett, Custer and Babe Ruth left me with the gift of imagination.
I visited the battle site of the Little Bighorn on the eve of the 143rd anniversary of the battle that left more than 200 U.S. cavalrymen dead and an Indian culture doomed to extinction. A vast expanse of Montana countryside surrounds the bluff known as Last Stand Hill.
The vision I had as a child of what the site would look like was eerily accurate.
On June 25, 1876, at the Little Bighorn River, a force of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and nine other Native American nations annihilated George Armstrong Custer and his cavalry.
Custer’s 600 men had entered the Little Bighorn valley. Among the Native Americans, word quickly spread of an impending attack. Chief Sitting Bull rallied the warriors while Crazy Horse set off with a large force to meet the attackers. Custer and some 200 men in his battalion attacked 3,000 Native Americans; within an hour, Custer and every one of his soldiers were dead.
Markers for some 40 soldiers are buried on Last Stand Hill, including one for Custer, whose body now lies at West Point. Many other soldiers died trying to escape. A long-standing rumor has suggested that some soldiers kept a bullet for themselves to escape capture.
Custer remains a controversial legend. Few individuals in American history are as well-known and, yet, still unknown. More books have been written about Custer than any other American of the 19th century except Lincoln. He was a man of many talents and as many faults.
Beginning in 1873, Custer’s 7th Cavalry regiment was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory and was conducting reconnaissance and escorting geologists into the Black Hills when gold was discovered there.
Civilian miners and merchants flooded this Indian-owned land, which led to the Sioux wars of 1876-77. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull strongly resisted the efforts of the U.S. government to confine their people to reservations. In 1875, after gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills, the U.S. Army ignored previous treaty agreements and invaded the region. This betrayal led many Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen to leave their reservations and join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana.
By the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans had gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River in defiance of a U.S. War Department order to return to their reservations or risk being attacked.
On June 22, 1876, Custer and 655 men were sent out to locate a suspected large village of Sioux and Cheyenne and wait for the rest of the Army to arrive. Three days later, Custer divided his reduced troops into three parts to attack this unknown number of warriors.
Astonishingly, he attacked the village with his remaining 231 men. He had hastily estimated the number of braves in the village at about 800. More than 3,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors counterattacked, driving Custer back to the small bluff, designated today as Last Stand Hill. The Indians surrounded Custer’s men and killed everyone in uniform.
Jim Court, who served as the battlefield’s superintendent for eight years, noted, “An Indian who was in the fighting was quoted as saying after it was over, ‘The battle took as long as it takes a man to eat his dinner.’”
Who killed Custer is a mystery that has festered for more than a century. Several Indians attested that he had shot himself. When his body was found it had three bullet wounds, but no arrow wounds. While there were head wounds, no powder burns were present. Libby Custer outlived her husband by 50 years and spent her life defending him and preserving his legacy.
The Indian Memorial below Last Stand Hill is stunning. It is a somber, sacred place. On the inner walls sit panels for each tribe that fought in the battle (Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara). Each tribe lists their dead.
You look through a gap in the mound called the Weeping Wall, where water continually trickles down into a pool representing tears for the fallen warriors and soldiers. Centered perfectly within the Weeping Wall can be seen the 7th Cavalry Monument. This Spirit Gate welcomes the fallen soldiers to enter the memorial and join the fallen warriors in friendship; “peace through unity.”
Jack Topchik is a retired editor whose passions include Shakespeare, the Frederick Keys and films in which people talk in complete sentences. He writes from Frederick. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.