September 20, 2020
Most of us have heard of the Battle of Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand. If one is ever in the vicinity of Little Bighorn National Monument don’t hesitate to visit this remarkable place. Our stop in Hardin, MT was to do precisely that. The monument is located on the Crow Indian Reservation, Garryowen, MT. Since our last visit it seems that the Crow Agency has seen fit to take advantage of the park’s visitors by erecting a couple of trading posts, a casino and hotel near the entrance. Heck, why not?
On June 25, 1876, Native American forces led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull defeat the U.S. Army troops of General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn near southern Montana’s Little Bighorn River.
Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, leaders of the Sioux tribe on the Great Plains, strongly resisted the mid-19th-century 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–which they called the Greasy Grass–in defiance of a U.S. War Department order to return to their reservations or risk being attacked.
In mid-June, three columns of U.S. soldiers lined up against the camp and prepared to march. A force of 1,200 Native Americans turned back the first column on June 17. Five days later, General Alfred Terry ordered Custer’s 7th Cavalry to scout ahead for enemy troops. On the morning of June 25, Custer drew near the camp and decided to press on ahead rather than wait for reinforcements.
At mid-day, Custer’s 600 men entered the Little Bighorn Valley. Among the Native Americans, word quickly spread of the impending attack. The older Sitting Bull rallied the warriors and saw to the safety of the women and children, while Crazy Horse set off with a large force to meet the attackers head on. Despite Custer’s desperate attempts to regroup his men, they were quickly overwhelmed. Custer and some 200 men in his battalion were attacked by as many as 3,000 Native Americans; within an hour, Custer and every last one of his soldiers were dead.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn—also called Custer’s Last Stand—marked the most decisive Native American victory and the worst U.S. Army defeat in the long Plains Indian War. The gruesome fate of Custer and his men outraged many white Americans and confirmed their image of the Native Americans as “wild.” Meanwhile, the U.S. government increased its efforts to subdue the tribes. Within five years, almost all of the Sioux and Cheyenne would be confined to reservations.
The total US casualty county included 268 dead and 55 severely wounded. Six later died of their wounds including four Crow Indian Scouts and at least two Arikara Indian scouts. The dead at the Battle of the Little Big Horn were given a quick burial where they fell by the first soldiers who arrived at the scene. Custer was later disinterred and reburied at West Point. Other troops were also disinterred for private burials. In 1881, a memorial was erected in honor of those who lost their lives.
Indian fatalities at the Battle of Greasy Grass (winner’s term) are a little more difficult to determine. Figuring out the Indian casualties has been complicated by inconsistencies in their accounts and pictorial depictions, largely because Indians often bore more than one name and some of the deaths may have been duplicated. Accounts vary between 26 warriors killed According to One Bull, a Cheyenn who lived near the Little Bighorn battlefield listed 26 warriors killed while Major Marcus Reno said he saw 18 dead Indian warriors on the battlefield.
It seems that most people bypass the drive in favor of the visitor’s center and the large monuments nearby. The Custer National Cemetery is also located within the grounds. If one visits be prepared to drive 4.5 miles through the monument. Not making the drive is a mistake. The road follows ridge lines where information plaques explain how to battle unfolded, points of interest and other narratives. Standing on the ridges looking down at all those grave stones is a humbling experience.
We walk the National Cemetery and pay our respects to all who have served or given their all for our great country. We discover that veterans are not the only residents here but wives and children of veterans. We’ve seen wives buried with their husbands but never children nor an unknown Chippewa Indian woman.
Above are a few scenes outside of the Monument on the Crow Rez. Below is a monument constructed at a privately owned museum just down the road.
Next we are off to Cody Wyoming. See you there!
And a little whimsey to end with.