Monday, June 22, 2015

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument: Greasy Grass Victory

As with Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Little Bighorn Battlefield has long been on my Life Goal List. Getting there turned out to be interesting. A long day of meandering across Montana along Scenic Highway 2 provided a close up study of a segment of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The day's mission changed from Glacier National Park, near the west end of Route 2, to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument after I learned that eleven miles of the Road to the Sun over the top of Glacier were still snow covered. My quest to ride in national parks included a ride over and back on that road. I also planned to hike out to quickly disappearing remnants of the park's namesake glaciers in that upper section of the park.

The change in plans resulted in a late arrival at the Little Bighorn Battlefield on the Crow Agency land. A few hours of restless napping preceded a wait in a long line of visitors at the gate to the property. My visit lasted almost four hours as I took part in every facet of the experience: listening to ranger presentations, watching films, touring the museum, visiting the battlefields, and reading the separate military and native monuments.

This emotional visit was the culmination of many readings about the battle. Lee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee awakened me to the "other" perspective of the battle. Brown's version, representing both U.S. Military and Native American "first hand" accounts, created in me an interest that kept me looking for information for over thirty years. Listening to an energetic and thought provoking ranger presentation and then standing, watery eyed, on that hallowed ground took me back to those chaotic and vicious minutes in 1876.

That ranger talk, which included powerful exclamations and well timed pauses, followed my visit to the visitor center bookstore where I read pages from dozens of new to me books on the battle. Years of study created numerous questions. Reading from those books and listening to the talk answered some of those questions while creating new questions.

We have a foundation or outline of what occurred on June 25-26, 1876. General Custer searched for the "hostile" and nonconforming Lakota Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne indians (most know of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse) who were trying to maintain their traditional plains lifestyle. When he realized that his troops had been detected, Custer immediately split his troops and attacked an encampment of roughly 8,000 natives.

Custer ordered Major Reno's 140 troops to cross the Little Bighorn River to attack the encampment almost two miles southwest of the camp with assurance that Reno would be fully supported. Custer ordered Captain Bentene's 125 troops to move further left of the camp to stop dispersed and fleeing natives. Meanwhile, Custer moved to the northeast or right of the camp. All of these movements took place in valleys behind hills and out of sight of the indian encampment.

It is believed that Custer expected the women and children to flee Reno's attack while the warriors fought Reno. As in previous battles, Custer expected to capture women and children to force the warriors to lay down their arms. In a sense, Custer expected to route the warriors by outsmarting them and taking advantage of their honor to their families. It did not work out as he planned.

Reno retreated again and again as hundreds of warriors unleashed a steady flow of deadly bullets and arrows. He received no back up. Bentene stayed several miles away from the encampment, supposedly waiting to meet up with the fourth division, the supply train, of the Custer force.

That left Custer and his 210 men alone and moving fast through a valley on the northeast side of the encampment. Custer was miles away from the hill that Reno would hold until the next day when the warriors moved south and backup arrived. The dust storm created by the "last stand" was seen from that hill and from another hill further away where Bentene was.

Custer and his 210 men were met with the fury of hundreds of warriors. Greatly outnumbered, Custer ordered retreat to high ground just as Reno had. It was reported by surviving indians that those 7th Calvary soldiers eventually shot their horses in order to hide behind them. A barrage of arrows and bullets made that effort futile as the warriors eventually moved in and killed every soldier. Custer took two bullets, one of them to the temple.

There is an incredible amount of hearsay and legend about this battle. Did the warriors recognize Custer, a well known enemy even though he had cut his hair just before the battle? Did Custer and other soldiers use their last bullets on themselves instead of meeting brutal battlefield deaths? Did Bentene stay out of the fight due to a known disagreement he had with Custer? These and many other unanswerable questions keep the interest high. There are so many discordant accounts of the battle that we will never know all of the details.

We do know these facts. Custer and his 210 men were killed and mutilated. (Mutilation was carried out to impact future life) Four of General Custer's family members died with him at the Little Bighorn. Bentene went to trial, was found innocent, and then saw his life go to hell. Within a decade of the battle the bison were slaughtered almost to extinction. As in Sitting Bull's vision, the mutilation of the troops was followed by the demise of the American Indian. The indian victory at the stream the Lakota Sioux called the Greasy Grass created a powerful response by the U.S. military that brought an end to the traditional life of the American Indian.

Graves from soldiers from the many battles were moved to Little Bighorn
The Last Stand Battlefield 
Native Monument Sculpture
Entrance to Native Monument
Markers where they died - Custer's in the black one.
Closer view of the Last Stand soldier graves
All warrior death sites also marked throughout the grounds
Museum display
Corresponding museum display
7th Calvary Monument - Horses buried across the road
Native Monument - informative and beautiful
Looking down the Last Stand ridge to the Visitor Center

Is this how it ended?

Now do you understand the photograph at the end of the last post?

Life is short and the roads are many and long.  ST

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