Little Bighorn gives us close-up look at plains Indian Wars

Little Bighorn
Memorial to the 7th Cavalry soldiers who fought and died at Little Bighorn

I will say upfront that this was a difficult post for me to write. I always strive for balance when I share items related to war, politics, etc. I strive to be respectful. This visit was very personal to me. To some people, George Armstrong Custer was a hero. He wasn’t. He ordered and participated in the killings of the elderly, women and children. Nothing heroic there. As a youth, I once looked at him as a hero for a school paper I wrote. I was wrong. As I became more aware of Indian Pride as a preteen, I looked at Crazy Horse as a hero. Both men fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Little Bighorn marked Custer’s biggest defeat as a military officer. It also led to his death, as well as most of the men who served under him.

Little Bighorn National Battlefield Monument is located at the Crow Agency in southeast Montana. At one time, it was called the Custer National Battlefield, and the stories were told from the Army’s perspective. The Native Americans were seen as the enemy. I sort of recall stopping there as a kid when we traveled to Montana to visit relatives.

When you first arrive, a series of neatly arranged grave markers are seen. This is actually a veterans cemetery and isn’t related to the battle.

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National cemetery near the battlefield

Inside the visitors center, you can check out a small museum display featuring items that could have been used or worn by both soldiers and Native Americans.

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Seventh Cavalry model

We strongly recommend that you either watch the short video about the battle or take in a park ranger’s presentation. Both are presented about as objectively as can be. They discuss the battle from both sides.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush approved a bill to change the monument name to Little Bighorn and to include telling the events’ stories from both perspectives – Native American and the Army. Still today, I’ve read that there are some people unhappy with this approach, as it doesn’t tell the complete stories from all parties involved. However, I think the basis for both perspectives is there for people to gain an understanding of the cause of the battle.

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Native American exhibit at visitors center

The Native Americans who gathered along the Little Bighorn River – Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe – sought to continue their nomadic way of life, rather than be restricted to reservations. The Native Americans – about 2,000 – were led by chiefs and warriors, such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. At the time of the battle, the area was outside of any reservation.

The Army – led by Custer and his 7th Cavalry – was dispatched to get control of the situation and drive the Natives back to reservation life. The military was to use a three-prong approach, with Custer leading the way. General George Crook – a famous Indian fighter and supporter (go figure that one out) was to lead a second approach. The third maneuver was to be handled Col. John Gibbon.

Crook’s 3rd Cavalry was engaged at the Battle of Rosebud. Despite winning the fight, Crook stayed back to regroup and seek reinforcements for his casualties. That left two units for the Little Bighorn campaign.

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Cavalry soldiers died at these spots

As we walked and later drove around the monument’s grounds, we saw several gravestones. They marked the spot where bodies were found. There are more white markers representing soldiers than red ones denoting Natives because most of the Native American dead were taken away by other Natives after the battle.

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One of the few markers identifying Native American warriors during the battle

You have to wonder what went through some of the soldiers’ minds as they were about to die. The markers show that some died alone far from others. Did they get separated? Did they try to run? Did they die early on, and others managed to gain ground uphill?

Most of the bodies were buried in a mass grave following the battle. Those who could be identified (primarily officers) were transported home for burial. Custer is buried in New York.

The Little Bighorn Battle in a nutshell went like this: Custer divided his troops. He dispatched Major Reno to attack toward the northwest. In the meantime, Native scouts had seen the soldiers, so people in the village along the Little Bighorn River took action. Women, children and elders headed into the trees and brush to hide. The warriors took off from the village. So, when Reno’s men approached the village, it looked empty.

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Native American village was likely located along the river near this spot

Reno noticed the width of the village and feared it was a trap. He ordered his soldiers to dismount and prepare for fighting. The soldiers fired into the village, allegedly killing some women and children still there. However, warriors flowed out of the area on horseback prepared for battle. The soldiers basically set themselves up for a bad ending.

As fighting ensued, several soldiers were killed, many while fleeing from the site. We read on some of the site markers that some warriors rode up on the soldiers and knocked them off their horses. One Arapahoe reportedly described it like being on a great buffalo hunt. Reno and his men seemed disorganized and confused.

The Army survivors managed to escape to a series of bluffs overlooking the river and village. They had a second encounter with the Native Americans later, but held them off.

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Monument recognizing Major Reno’s location

In the meantime, Custer and his men supposedly rode along a deep ravine toward what would become known as “Last Stand Hill.” Freed after running off Reno and friends, the Native Americans were set to take on Custer.

The Battle of Little Bighorn actually took two days, June 25-26, 1876. Reno and his men were found by General Terry (Custer’s boss) on the 27th.

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Markers denote spots where soldiers’ bodies were found after the battle

“Last Stand Hill” has a monument erected for the men and scouts of the 7th Cavalry who died during the battle. A fenced-in area notes the spot where several soldiers perished. Almost in the middle of the group is a specially marked stone – Custer’s spot.

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Spot where Custer died

A few feet from the military monument is a memorial to the horses of the 7th Caavalry. Several soldiers killed their horses to use them as barricades against the Natives Americans. This seemed to note their final act of desperation for survival, we read.

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7th Cavalry horse memorial

On an ironic note, the memorial for the horses was in place long before one to honor the Native Americans. The Native American memorial – a circular monument – was built in 2003, following the renaming of the park to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. This was part of President Bush’s authorization.

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Native American monument has been at the site since 2003

The memorial has an art piece featuring three warriors on horseback, with a woman running alongside the last rider handing him a shield.

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Sculpture at the Native American memorial

Inside the circle are carvings and quotations from Indian leaders, warriors and Custer himself. One carving displays a conversation between Custer and Cheyenne leader Stone Forehead. Custer promised he’d never kill another Cheyenne. Stone Forehead responded that if he did, he basically promised Custer and his men would perish.

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Chiefs who led the battle for the different tribes

The drive through the monument (about 4.5 miles one way) is worth it. You’ll see locations critical to the battle, such as where the village was located near the river. Reno’s defense strategy can come into focus when you look at the land beneath the bluffs. You’ll see the bluffs where Reno and other survivors retreated.

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Ravine where about 80 soldiers were killed. Their bodies were supposedly never found

Along the drive, we noticed an old, dead tree standing by itself. I thought the setting would make for an interesting photo with the open plains behind it. It turned out that the ravine behind it was likely Custer’s route to his final battle site. So, the lonely, dead tree seems a telling tale.

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Lone tree near ravine Custer likely followed to the final battle site

In the end, 263 soldiers – including Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer – lost their lives. We don’t truly know the number of Native casualties.

Afterward, the Native Americans broke up into groups and moved on. Some returned to reservation life. Sitting Bull and some followers went to Canada, eventually to return to the United States and reservation life. In the end, about 600 Indians remained at large. Crazy Horse eventually surrendered in 1877 at Fort Robinson (northwest Nebraska). He was later killed while in custody. That’s a story for another day.

The final battle in the “Great Sioux War” ended in May 1877, with a Cavalry victory.

As I mentioned in the introduction, this post was difficult to write, as I have both Native and Caucasian heritage. I always have mixed feelings when I visit sites involving the Indian Wars or Native history. You can only hope that when you hear the story told, it’s treated with respect and objectivity. I believe we encountered that at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

We encourage people to visit this national monument. The history there is amazing. The fact that we stood where one of the greatest battles of the Indian Wars took place gives me a special feeling.

For more information about the national monument, please visit: