Driving from Pennsylvania to Banff … Stop Four: The Custer Battlefield at the Little Bighorn River

Before setting out on this roadtrip, I checked the map to see if we were driving through Billings, Montana. Billings is best known as a gateway for the entrance from Montana into Yellowstone National Park. But it is also about 25 miles from the battle site on the Little Bighorn River between George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry and the combined Indians of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyanne, and Arapaho tribes. Custer’s command of about 700 troopers was a part of a three-pronged troop maneuver which aimed to return these tribes to their existing reservations. These three commands set out from posts to the south, east, and west, with general plans to meet up and encircle the resisting tribes.

The photo above shows the headstones of the soldiers who died with Custer. A prairie fire burnt off all the grassland a couple decades ago, and historians were actually able to recreate much of the battles by finding rifle casings and other evidence. This was really fortunate because, since there were no survivors in Custer’s immediate command, the only retelling of the events had been collected from later interviews with Indian warriors and soldiers who were attached to periphery commands.

At the top of the photo ( but actually downhill from this ridge) are groves of trees along the banks of the Little Bighorn River. This was the location of the Indian village. From a ridge four miles to the left( out of the picture), Custer was informed of the village location and given estimates of the size of the inhabitants. However, these numbers were much smaller than the actual numbers. His Indian scouts attempted to tell Custer that the village was immense. In fact, his lead Crow scout told Custer that if he attacked the village, ”we will be riding home on a road that neither of us know.”

Custer’s main interest was capturing the village rather than attacking the warriors. The ranger who reviewed the battles during our visit mentioned that Indian villages were very hard to locate. And Custer was afraid that the Indians would scatter if the soldiers were discovered … He wanted to swoop in, capture the noncombatants, and force the warriors to return to the reservations with their hostage families. To accomplish this, Custer divided his force into three parts. While he traversed the high ground above the village with about 200 troopers, the rest of the command attacked the village through gullies and tree-lined ground near the river ( below and to the left in the photo).

The warriors had been psyched up for this fight. Sitting Bull, the Lakota chief, had a vision at a ghost dance … He had seen a multitude of slaughtered soldiers missing their ears. Ghost dances called for the spirit of their ancestors to aid in the upcoming fights.

When the portion of Custer’s command approached the village, they were immediately assaulted by a vastly superior force … They retreated, and more importantly, were never able to provide Custer with logistic support. Crazy Horse, the Lakota war chief, was able to leave this first battle, move secretly up the ridge, destroy the one company Custer had positioned to protect his flank, and attack Custer from even higher ground.

Custer was surrounded. The soldiers killed their horses in order to provide themselves some cover … But it didn’t matter. Custer was killed on the ridge with a number of his soldiers. The last survivors ran down the ridge, hoping to get to the woods by the river … None made it.

The memorial to the dead of the Seventh Cavalry is shown in the top photo. Initially their remains were buried two days after the battle where they were found. The soldiers had multiple mutilations that matched Sitting Bull’s vision. Later, Custer’s remains were exhumed and reburied at West Point. I guess the reputation and lore, along with a sterling Civil War record, gets you a fancy burial and headstone at the U.S. Military Academy.

The Indians removed their dead and wounded from the battlefield very quickly … So no one really knows how many fatalities they endured. The second pic is the Indian memorial about 150 yards off the ridge.

Mrs Bear and I walked down the slope toward the river. The pic above shows her walking back up toward the Visitor’s Center. The dead were scattered on the field as they tried to escape after Custer’s death.

The final pic shows us walking up the hill toward the monument and Last Stand. Imagine Custer’s men facing hundreds of warriors who came up from the village, and Crazy Horse encircling behind him on the high ground. They knew that reinforcements weren’t coming and there was no chance of survival. Indian accounts say that the battle lasted about an hour and was fought with great intensity.

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