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