The expression that there are two sides to every story is never truer than at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the site of Custer’s famous Last Stand. Even the site has had two names; it was originally named after the vanquished George Armstrong Custer. In 1991, recognizing modern sensibilities, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the name change to its current one: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Custer’s rash decisions that day cost the lives of all 209 men (including two of his brothers and a nephew) under his immediate command. It didn’t really make sense for him to be honored for his actions.
I’m surprised that such an overwhelming defeat hadn’t happened to Custer sooner. He had been a risk taking soldier earlier in his career in both the Civil War and the Indian Wars. His prior actions in battle led to a few close calls. His continued success despite long odds led to a sense of hubris and destiny on his part.
He also had political aspirations and hoped that further success on the battlefield would be a springboard to a successful candidacy. In typical audacious Custer fashion, he had designs on being president someday. His father was almost a century ahead of Joe Kennedy in pushing for one of his boys to occupy the White House.
Last Stand Hill
I spent two days touring the battlefield. Dominating the area is Last Stand Hill. The headstones of Custer’s men are scattered about like a boxer’s broken teeth and enclosed by a Victorian wrought iron fence. The rest of the battlefield looks much as it would have looked on June 25th, 1876; basically a vast windswept prairie. However the devil is in the details. The tours give you the opportunity to listen to the story of the battle from the vantage point of both the winners and the losers.
On the first day I attended a talk by a Park Ranger about the battle. He gave such a vivid presentation that with the presence of a few war whoops and rifle shots you would have thought you were there during the fight. He spoke of how the Indians had been repeatedly pushed off their lands as American expansion led increasingly further west. How they had finally settled in the Black Hills area of eastern Wyoming. Here they were granted a permanent reservation by the government in 1868.
Unfortunately for the natives, gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874. This was all fine and dandy except that the location of the gold strike was also in the middle of the newly formed reservation. Initially the army tried to keep out the hordes of gold fevered settlers but it was just too much. The Indians left their reservation and started raiding the interlopers. In 1876 the Indian Wars resumed in full.
I was at Little Bighorn at the start of the annual motorcycle rally in nearby Sturgis, South Dakota so there were many bikers at the ranger talk. Hearing this tale of constant betrayal by the American government, one biker turned to another and said, “You can only kick a dog so many times before it jumps up and bites you.”
Not to compare the Indians to dogs of course, but to point out the obvious. You bully someone enough and they come back to bite. The evidence of those teeth marks lies all around the battlefield in the form of stone monuments to fallen soldiers.
The next day I returned for a different tour. Native American guides who are students at nearby Little Big Horn College take visitors on a one hour tour of the battlefield. After boarding the van our guide Brian said, “There are many versions of what happened here that day. Today you are going to hear my version.” As the van drove slowly through the battlefield Brian used an arrow (minus the sharp tip) to point out various sites along the way.
This tour was told more from the Indian’s point-of-view. Brian recounted from the oral legend of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho veterans of the battle. Things I learned the day before from the Park Ranger were placed in a different context.
The Park Ranger recounted how the bodies of Custer and his men were mutilated, Custer having an arrow shoved into his private parts. From my readings I knew that this was a delicate way of saying that he had an arrow thrust into his penis.
He also had two knitting needles pushed into his ears. Legend has it that this was done by Indian women because Custer had refused to listen. Pretty gruesome stuff. Without any background it further paints the warriors as savages; lending further credence to the belief that they were a foe who deserved their eventual fate at the hands of the US government.
During the tour the next day Brian addressed this issue and pointed out why the soldiers had been mutilated. The Indians believed that the afterlife would be pretty similar to one’s life on earth. Therefore they needed their body to continue their same lifestyle. They cut off the soldier’s trigger fingers so they would not be able to fire a gun and hunt in the afterlife. The mutilation of his penis was so Custer would be even further hobbled and not be able to create offspring. Okay, it’s still gruesome but at least now I understand it in context.
As famous as the legend of the battle has become to American school children, the main part of it was over in about 45 minutes. Even when it ended, the rest of the American army that was dug in on a nearby hill didn’t know of Custer’s fate until the next day, after the smoke had cleared.
As heartbreaking as the sight of Last Stand Hill is, even more so is the trail leading down to the Deep Ravine. Here 28 soldiers of Company E broke away from the group on the hill. A Lakota Sioux named Respects Nothing stated “The soldiers at Custer Hill were all killed before those down along the ravine.”
The soldiers made a mad dash for the perceived safety of a ravine by the Little Bighorn River. It was a desperate move made by desperate men. At this point in the battle their fate was already sealed.
Another Indian veteran stated that it was like a buffalo hunt as the soldiers frantically ran down the hill, only to be cut down by the Indians circling them on horseback. There was to be no escaping the ferocious onslaught. I think they probably knew that but gave one last valiant effort to save their lives.
Looking up at Last Stand Hill from Deep Ravine Trail
Little Bighorn is one of the few battlefield sites in the world where the headstones are placed where the soldiers bodies were found, not lined up in neat rows. At the top of Last Stand Hill the soldiers’ headstones are clustered relatively close together. On the Deep Ravine Trail there was no such modest comfort of dying among your comrades in arms. On the trail the headstones are scattered in ones and twos along a half mile stretch; a literal monument to the killing frenzy leading to the deaths of the soldiers of Company E.
Even when touring such bloody battlefields as Normandy, Verdun and Gettysburg, where men died by the thousands, I haven’t been as touched as I was while walking along the Deep Ravine Trail. As I reached the bottom of the trail I saw a grown man in tears as he looked out over the ravine. I was starting to puddle up myself. He gave me a knowing nod and moved on.
While the tribes won the battle, they realized that in the long run they would lose the war. A year later one of the battle’s heroes, Crazy Horse, was dead; the night he turned himself in to military custody he was killed by an army guard.