The Battle of Little Bighorn took place on 25-26 June, 1876 with the knoll and surrounding area where Custer and his men made their last stand being declared a US National Cemetery on 29 January 1879. This was to protect the remains of the approximately 220 Cavalry troopers who were buried there (in 1877 the officer's remains were removed to various National Cemeteries, with Custer's being taken to West Point).
On 7 December, 1886 the site was renamed National Cemetery of Custer's Battlefield Reservation and on 1 July, 1940 the site was transfered from the US Department of War to the National Parks Service. On 22 March 1946 the name was changed again to Custer Battlefield National Monument before finally settling on Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (10 December 1991) to recognize the fact that Native Americans had also lost many warriors during the battle.
The large granite marker has the names of all the fallen soldiers inscribed on its four sides, with Custer's name at the top of Side 1. There is also a smaller black marker which describes where the bodies of the officers, soldiers, scouts and civilians were finally buried.
For more than 100 years after the battle, the National Park marking the defeat of General Custer was slanted as a memorial to only the US Cavalry troops involved in the battle. There were no memorials or gravestones to mark the sites of the many American Indians who also perished in the fierce fighting along the Little Bighorn River. It was only in the 'flower power' years of the 1970s that the Indians themselves began pressing for more recognition. It took 115 years for the desired changes to be made, in 1991 when the first American Indian superintendent of the site achieved a name change from the "Custer Battlefield National Monument" to the "Little Bighorn National Monument". Along with this, a dedicated Indian Memorial was also selected and built to commemorate events from the American Indian point of view. The Ranger took us down and into this amazing structure that has a weeping wall with sculptures depicting the various tribes that were involved in both sides of the battle. Two of the main Chiefs on the Indian side were Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse (we really enjoyed the impressive privately-built mountainside monument to Crazy Horse while we explored the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in nearby South Dakota two years ago).
The Spirit Warriors Sculpture (2003) spans an opening in one wall of this Memorial, using thick black wire to depict three horseback warriors riding from their village to defend it against Cavalry attack. A woman figure is also included as she passes a shield up to the last of the warriors. The sculpture is the work of Colleen Cutschall, an Oglala-Sicangu Lakota. When viewed from the hilltop Memorial site (2nd photo), the Native American Memorial appears to be almost buried, except for the iron sculpture and a narrow 'Spirit Gate' opening that allows the soldiers spirits to enter and mix with those of the Native Americans.
This photo from where General Custer and his troops were killed shows the view down the Little Bighorn River (trees on the right) as well as a Park road that leads 5-miles to where the remainder of his force was also engaged in battle. We made the short drive along the road, passing many more white grave markers along the way.
Prior to General Custer taking his battalion along the ridge to surprise the Indians, he had ordered one of his other two battalions (led by Major Reno) to attack the Indian encampment on the other side of the Little Bighorn River. Neither officer realized just how many natives had congregated there in preparation for battle and Reno's attack on them was like stirring a hornet's nest. He was immediately counter-attacked by overwhelming numbers of Indians who drove him back to the river bank. After holding out for a while, Reno ordered his men to make a break to get across the river and get up on the high ground on the other side (2nd photo).
Although suffering losses, Reno's men made it to this defensive position and were soon joined by the third battalion under Captain Benteen, who Custer had summoned for help and ammunition. However, Benteen did not continue onward towards Custer, instead joining forces with Reno while they held-out for another day until the remaining 380 troops were rescued by a relieving force. Altogether, 53 soldiers had died in this battle and 52 were wounded. By then the Indians had dispersed and the Battle of Little Bighorn was over. A monument to this battle has also been erected (3rd photo).
That was the end of our expeditions along the Little Bighorn and by 3:30 PM we started out on I-90 for our next accommodations in Billings, MT.
This view from the hilltop Memorial shows the sloping hillside where Custer and his troops made their last stand. After determining that American Indians were not far away, Custer had taken approximately 220 of his soldiers and Indian scouts (about a third of his total force) ahead of his main force and along the hillside above the Little Bighorn River, to strike from a different direction. However, he had badly misjudged how many Indians had assembled below and soon found himself surrounded by their counterattack. Not only was he outnumbered, but when in a static defensive position, Cavalry practise was to have every fourth soldier hold the horse reins for three other soldiers who were dismounted and firing at the enemy, effectively taking 1/4 of the rifle firepower out of action. Despite shooting many of their horses to use as something to take cover behind, the troops soon ran short of ammunition and were wiped out to the last man after several hours of fighting.
These markers depict where their remains were later found when a relieving force arrived after the battle had ended. In 1881 the bones of the fallen soldiers and their horses were moved from these marker sites and buried in a mass grave below the 18-ton granite Memorial that now sits on the hilltop. It is only in recent years that red granite markers for American Indians have also been erected to show where warriors had fallen during the battle (2nd photo).
Our main objectives on this trip were Yellowstone/Grand Teton National Parks further west and south of Montana. We had pre-booked four nights accommodations inside/near these parks but decided to leave home two days earlier so we could do some exploring along the way. The main attraction I wanted to see was the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, thanks to the tips of other VT members I had read. As a result, we arrived there at about 2 PM on our second day of driving, a sunny and hot 34 C (90s F) afternoon with a good breeze blowing.
The site of the battle and it's Monument is very pretty, located on a small knoll in the rolling countryside of Montana, near Crow Agency on Interstate 90. Not having any park passes, we forked over our $10 at the entrance booth and proceeded to park our car in the area available. The center itself includes a museum displaying artifacts that have been found at various locations in the widespread battle area of June 25-26, 1876. It also provides good information on how the battle played out and is helpful to view before making the actual tour.
In 1879, a national cemetery was authorized here and it is located beside the Visitor Center. It holds the remains of soldiers from various Forts that were located in this part of the west as well as military soldiers and sailors killed in action or veterans and their spouses that served in the U.S. Military during the Indian Wars, Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam.
An outdoor seating area on the uphill side of the building was being used by one of the park rangers to provide details to a group of tourists who were taking it all in. As for us, we wanted to catch one of the last ranger-guided tours of the day so did not have time to linger. We did enjoy the displays of accommodations used by both the US Army and Native Americans that were set up just outside the building. Then, we were off on the short uphill walk to where the battlefield tour begins.
There are National Park Rangers available at the Little Bighorn Battle site to give presentations at the Visitor Center on various aspects of the historic battle that took place here or to take groups of tourists on guided walking tours of the actual battle site. Alternatively, you are also free to just explore the entire area yourself with the help of various signs that describe what you are looking at.
We had arrived near the time of the last guided walk of the day, so decided to take the approximately half-hour walk with him and his group. He mentioned that his speciality was in history, so he was able to provide us with a great deal of background information on why the battle took place. The tour starts part way up the pathway from the Visitor Center to the Monument on the hilltop, veering off onto the hillside before circling its way around the slope to the very top of the knoll.
The National Cemetery was originally established in 1879 to protect the graves of the Seventh Cavalrymen who fell in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Later, however, the role of the cemetery changed. In 1886 President Grover Cleveland set aside a larger area for the cemetery. As frontier forts in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas were abandoned, the remains of military personnel and others buried at the post cemeteries were moved to this location, and may be found in Sections A and B. Not just soldiers, but their families, and other frontier post personnel are buried here. Also in these sections you will find the graves of Indian scouts who served with the army. Other sections of the cemetery have the remains of veterans, both men and women, who served in the military from the Spanish-American War, to more recent wars, up to Viet Nam. A small booklet is available at the cemetery for $1.00. In this booklet you will find interesting stories about some of the people buried in sections A, B, and C of the cemetery. For example there is White Swan, who is buried in the A460 site. One of Custer’s scouts in the Reno valley fight, he had one hand almost shot completely away, yet he continued to fight. Later White Swan “expressed himself about the battle through ledger art.” Some of this art is hung in galleries around the country, including the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. White Swan died at the Crow Agency in 1904.
In this area Indians lead by Crazy Horse and White Bull charged the retreating solders of Companies C and I, led by Captain Myles Keogh, who were trying to join Custer on Last Stand Hill. All members of company C and I were killed. Later Captain Keogh’s horse, Commanche, was found badly injured, but still alive. Commanche was nursed back to health and became a regimental mascot. This horse was the only surviving animal that was discovered on the battlefield.
The accounts of Indian warriors reported that the soldiers from Company C charged into the coulee that you see at this location. The charge was intended to break up the warriors who were massed there. The Indians retaliated with heavy fire, forcing the soldiers back to the ridge, were most were killed. Lame White Man was a Southern Cheyenne, who led the Indians in this attack, and although he survived this charge, he was killed in battle a short time later. The photo shows three memorial headstone markers, marking the location where three of Company C’s men fell.
During the Campaign of June 1876, as the 7th Calvary converged on the Indians in the Little Bighorn River area, the army divided its regiments into various groups, each with a separate goal. At that time about 7,000 Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne families were camped along the Little Bighorn River. Led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other war chiefs, there were about 1500 to 2000 warriors within the encampment. These Indians had refused to live on their reservations, wanting instead to follow their traditional nomadic way on the lands of their ancestors. According to the stories handed down word of mouth by American Indians, the attacking cavalry had surprised the village. The Indians, however, were able to unite large numbers of warriors to ride against Reno’s regiment that had first attacked, and successfully force the advancing men away from the encampment. Joining with Captain Benteen, and 7 companies the soldier were able to unite together and make a defense, holding out for almost two days, until the Indians withdrew. About 380 members of the 7th Cavalry survived the battle because of this united defense. Custer and his 210 men, however, were all killed because they had moved into a position where the other surviving parts of the cavalry could not reach them and give them support. Altogether it is estimated that Reno and Benteen lost about 54 men, with 52 more wounded, all five companies under Custer were killed. The Indians lost no more than 100. Despite this great victory, when the encampment broke up, the tribes scattered, going in different directions. Due to continued pressure from the U.S. army, most of these Indians returned to the reservations and surrendered within the next few years.
Sharpshotoers Ridge, was originally occupied by Custer, who watched Reno’s attack of the Indian camp in the valley, before he moved further north. Later in the battle, this hill was occupied by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, giving them an advantage point from which to view Reno’s men. The warriors were armed with different types of weapons, including rifles, making it easy for them to fire on the U.S. army companies. A good defense could not be made until Reno and Benteens men joined together, and were able to retreat to a high bluff.
At the end of the park road, you will find a trail titled Reno-Benteen Entrenchment Trail. You can pick up a small booklet here for $1.00 that will explain the various numbered markers that you will see as you walk this trail. In this area, Major Marcus Reno’s three companies were joined by Captain Fredrick Benteens battalion of three companies, along with a pack train and the men escorting this pack team. Having earlier attacked the Indian encampment near the river, Reno had been forced to retreat by hundreds of Indian warriors, who counter attacked. For this reason these soldier were unable to join Custer as he made his last stand. As you walk this path, you will not only learn of this part of the battle, but also see the location of what had been a field hospital, as well as shallow trenches dug for protection. On my second photo, you will see a marker for an Indian Scout that fought on the side of the U.S. army.
Last Stand Hill, a memorial for the 7th Cavalry, is located near the Indian Memorial, and again can be walked to from the Visitor Center or included as part of the drive. It was on this hill that Custer and about 41 men shot their horses so they could hid behind them, and made their last stand, as the Indians charged around them. In 1881, this memorial was erected on the hill, over a mass grave of Seventh Cavalry soldiers, U.S. Indian Scouts, and other army personnel killed in the battle. This monument was constructed to only honor those that died on the side of the U.S. government. Memorial headstone markers, which show where various soldiers died, can be seen in the area. About 10 men can be seen nearby, including Custer, his brother Tom, and Lt. William Cooke. Other soldiers are found within the enclosed area below the hill as seen in my photo.
Most folks walk up to the Indian Memorial from the visitor’s center, but you can also include this as part of your drive. Along with the death of Custer and his men, at least 100 American Indians died while trying to preserve their traditional ways of life and their right to live on the land of their ancestors rather than on designated reservations. For years, however, this loss of Indian life was never formally recognized. In 1991, the U.S. Congress ordered the construction of a memorial in the memory of the Indians who had lost their lives. Then in 1996, the National Park Service, with help from a committee made up of members from the Indian nations involved in the battle, along with historians, artists and landscape architects, held a national design contest. The winning design was chosen in 1996, and can be seen in this photo. Information signs are located near the memorial.
After spending time at the Visitor Center, drive the park road, and take some or all of the walks. The 5-mile park tour road is a self-guiding drive. Using the park map that you will receive, you will follow the numbers on the map to various wayside signs along the road. At each stop, you will be able to observe and learn about the sites related to the battle. At some of the numbers on the map there will be walking trails for added information. Look for the red and white memorial headstone markers spread out in the grassy plains and hillsides as you make your drive. In my photo if you look carefully, you will see one dark colored marker. This is a red maker, telling you that an American Indian lost his life here. You may also want to visit the Custer National Cemetery. This is located next to the Visitor Center, and can be visited before or after you do the drive.
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