About an hour’s drive from Billings, in Southeastern Montana, lies a memorial to one of America’s most ominous battles with the Native Americans, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The site is one of the more famous of these battles because it was a resounding victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne. The site is often referred to by it’s more famous name- Custer’s Last Stand.
After years of debate, the history of the event seems to have settled more or less with the blame for the military debacle resting squarely on the shoulders of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, a man with a spotty military career, whose most mentioned accomplishment was finishing last in his graduating class at West Point. It was Custer’s decision to attack the Indians at this point. His intelligence gathering had misinformed him as to the makeup of the group camped out next to the Bighorn River on June 25th, 1876. He believed he was attacking a mostly unarmed group of women, children and the elderly.
|American Military Cemetery at Little Bighorn|
The intelligence was, of course, wrong, as there was also a large war party attached to the group that was nearby. The end result of this misjudgement was the complete decimation of five of the seven companies under Custer’s command. If not for the heroics of some of his junior officers, who had disagreed with Custer’s decision from the beginning, it is possible that all seven companies would have been wiped out that day. The resulting government investigation failed to outright blame Custer, but subsequent investigations have shed light on his negligence in following protocol as a reason for the massacre. Either way, the whole incident highlights a dark time in American military policy, the using of force to displace a group of people who had occupied these lands for thousands of years. The visitor’s center at the site does a nice job attempting to tell the story from both perspectives.
There were a number of things about the presentation that made me uncomfortable about the site. Too often many of the explanations of the battle seemed to attempt to justify the behavior of the United States Army during this period. An example of that is seen in the memorial above. I have no problem with a memorial to the fallen soldiers. They were enlisted men who had taken a vow to follow the orders given, even if those orders were distasteful and given by superiors of low character like Custer. My issue is with the above memorial is the reference to ‘hostile’ Indians. The phrase ‘hostile Indians’ fails to acknowledge that the Indians had a right to be hostile based on the fact that their land was being taken away from them.
|Little Bighorn River Valley|
The NPS has done it’s usual solid job of marking out an easy to follow auto route, complete with numbered stops that have detailed signposts to explain how the battle developed and then unfolded. Brochures are available in the visitor’s center to help navigate the tour.
|Markers where two Cheyenne warriors fell|
|Marker for an US Army casualty|
Throughout the battlefields, there are stone tombstones marking that point at which both United States Army soldiers and Lakota & Arapaho warriors fell. It is good to see that the National Park Service is recognizing the casualties on both sides.
|Custer’s marker on “Last Stand Hill”|
Custer’s marker sits on “Last Stand Hill”, surrounded by a fence, with many other white markers surrounding him. This hill marks the point of where the remnants of Custer’s platoon were overwhelmed. One of the Native American volunteers I met told me that the fence around these markers was constructed partially because Custer’s marker kept being defaced. I never verified this with a NPS ranger, but I wouldn’t doubt it at all.
|Monument to the fallen horses of the battle|
One of the most striking memorials on the field is the monument to the horses that were killed during the battle. It is good to see respect being paid to these casulties, few battlefields I have been to remarked on this unfortunate loss.
The final lasting image from Little Bighorn I took away from my 2009 visit was the vast expanse of Montana sky. I took a picture with my phone and posted it on my blog with the caption “This is the answer to why they call Montana “Big Sky Country”. The horizon that day seemed to go on forever.
While certainly not the proudest moment in American history, the preservation of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument can be an example to all visitors of what can happen when an arrogant army commander combined with an unfortunate military doctrine to result in a disastrous outcome.