Custer Battlefield

We couldn’t wait two weeks for Billings AirStream to get the parts to fix our heat pump, so we drove on. Little Big Horn Battlefield is only 65 miles southeast of Billings, so we went.

Like at Gettysburg, seeing the terrain helps understand the battle, the decisions made by key commanders, and how unlikely some of those actions were to succeed. If you’ve seen Gettysburg, you know that an attack on Cemetery Ridge could only succeed with modern day body armor, and accurate artillery support. After seeing the land around Last Stand Hill, you know only a madman would have split his troops to attack a force five times larger than his own.

Custer’s Last Stand galvanized American sentiment against the remaining hostile Indians. It was as big a shock to our nation as was Sputnik in 1957, or Pearl Harbor. My dad, born in 1918, had a theory on Custer’s failure: “he should not have dismounted.” Before this week I had thought he should have kept his 700 guys together, rather than splitting them into three groups (so the Indians couldn’t all get away.) But after seeing the battleground – the visibility is incredibly good in summer – and after hearing the advice given to Custer by his three most trusted scouts, I now realize there was no way for him to win, other than to follow his orders. Those orders were “Find the Sioux and Cheyenne, and attack when reinforcements arrive.”

Custer had three trusted Crow scouts (ancient enemies of the Sioux and Cheyenne). One said “You don’t have enough ammo to kill all those Indians”. Another said “We’re here to kill Sioux, and there they are. Let’s get ‘em.” The third, his favorite scout, said “General, if we attack that camp today, you and I will go home tonight, but not by the path we came. We will meet our ancestors on a route we know not.”

The general had always been successful because of his audacity and aggressiveness. On that day the numbers were weighted too heavily against him. The battle went wrong from the start, and company by company, his troops were annihilated by the Indians. At the end Custer, his two brothers, and a brother in law died near the top of the highest hill on the battlefield. It was a good defensive position, but too late with way too few defenders.

Battlefield Cemetery
Battlefield Cemetery
Last Stand Hill from the West
Last Stand Hill from the West

 

Last Stand Hill from the Top
Last Stand Hill from the Top
Mass Grave Marker
Mass Grave Marker

Graves Explanation

 

Horse Cemetery

Red Granite Stones for Fallen Red Men
Red Granite Stones for Fallen Red Men
Artwork in the Indian Memorial
Artwork in the Indian Memorial

The Park Service has done a fine job with the park, for both sides, I think. It’s worth a visit.

2 thoughts on “Custer Battlefield

  1. apparently all the Custers men died at LittleBig Horn , .. Tom was probably as crazy as George and the youngest was probably just stupid. During the 1876 Little Bighorn campaign of the Black Hills War, he served as aide-de-camp to Lt. Col. George A. Custer and died with his brother. Lt. Henry Harrington actually led Company C during the battle. Younger brother Boston Custer also died in the fighting, as did other Custer relatives and friends. It was widely rumored that Rain-in-the-Face, who had escaped from captivity and was a participant at the Little Bighorn, cut out Tom Custer’s heart after the battle; though the chief later denied it during an interview. Custer’s remains were identified by a recognizable tattoo of his initials on his arm

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    1. Tom was crazy in the way all Medal of Honor winners are – he either felt bulletproof or just didn’t care in battle – and he was awarded TWO MoH in Civil War action. He is also likely the source of the second bullet in George, who had one under his heart and another through the temple. Tom is also thought the last to die on Custer Hill, killed in hand to hand combat after clicking his pistol onto a spent casing at Yellow Nose, the Cheyenne who then killed him with an old sabre.

      It is worth noting that never before in any of the Western Indian wars had a single company of US Cavalry been routed in combat against Sioux, Cheyenne, or any of the others. Custer had ten companies. Boston and the others figured it was an easy chance at glory with little risk. They were wrong, and it must have been like watching a big tornado approach, except for knowing that unlike a tornado, these guys will come back for you if they miss you the first time.

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