As we planned our route to Michigan I noticed that we would be driving near the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I didn’t want to bypass this site of American history so we planned it as a stop. After a long drive from Missoula, we spent the night at Grandview Campground and RV Park. The next morning we got an early start to avoid the hottest part of the day.
The Ranger staff at the Monument have a full schedule of Ranger-led activities available. We started the day with the Battlefield Talk that described the history of the western expansion and how it drove the Native American tribes out of their ancestral lands and onto reservations. He described the various treaties that had been made with the tribes and how officials in Washington were willing to break them when they were no longer convenient. Eventually Washington decided to move all tribes on to reservations and sent the U.S. Army to enforce this decision.
He then described how Custer, with a force of about 600 cavalry troopers attacked a Lakota and Cheyenne encampment on the Little Bighorn River. He sent one force under the command of Major Reno to attack the camp. Meanwhile he led the remainder of his regiment around the flank to cut off the fleeing wives and children so he could hold them hostage and force the warriors to surrender. Reno’s force of 225 troopers was counterattacked by close to a thousand warriors and was forced to retreat to nearby high ground. When Custer attacked from the flank the Indians turned their attention on him. Custer found himself facing between 1,500 and 2,000 warriors and was forced to retreat to Last Stand Hill where his entire force was destroyed. By the end of the battle the 7th Cavalry had lost the five companies under Custer, about 210 men and another 106 killed or wounded in the force led by Major Reno. The Indians lost no more than 100 killed. I, for one, could see the battle played out on the hills we could see in front of us. I could envision the Cavalry and the Indians as they maneuvered against each other.
After this talk we purchased a DVD for a driving tour of the area. I found this to be a great way to experience the battlefield. As we drove we were treated to a narration that described the battle and how archeologists reconstructed the events from artifacts found on the battlefield.
Initially no memorial was created to honor the Native Americans who struggled to preserve and defend their homeland and traditional way of life. Their struggle was never formally recognized until 1991 when the President George Bush changed the name of the battlefield and ordered the construction of an Indian Memorial. The memorial expresses the theme – “Peace Through Unity.” It provides a place where American Indians can celebrate and honor the memory of their relatives – and the women, children, and men who took part in the battle.
Much has been written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and a lot of it is not very accurate. However, it is obvious that Custer led his Seventh Cavalry into a battle where they were totally outnumbered and out fought by the combined Lakota and Cheyenne force. For the Indians this was a case of winning the battle and losing the war. The Lakota and Cheyenne won the battle, but it was the last battle they ever won. They fled north into Canada, but ended up returning to the United States and onto various Indian reservations.
For a good book that seems to be more accurate than most, I suggest you read “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn” by Nathaniel Philbrick.