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custer’s last stand

Airstream road trip: Little Bighorn Battlefield, Montana


We visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument—a vast area 60 miles from Billings, Montana—on the day after it took place 134 years ago. Ralph “The Master of History” narrated the story of the clash between Custer, his two subordinates (Benteen and Reno) and the 600 men of the 7th Cavalry, and thousands of well prepared Native American warriors as we drove the length of the battlefield and back. 

“What happened was this,” Ralph began patiently. “Custer divided his command into three, well, really three and a half parts,” (already this account is getting complicated.) “Benteen was sent down to scout the bluffs to the south, and Custer and Reno headed to the valley. See that wooded area? That’s where the main Indian camp was. Reno was supposed to attack the camp and drive them into a panic up this way and then Custer would attack them. But the Indians didn’t panic. There were thousands of them camped all along this drawdown.”


The command was divided again somehow—seriously, I couldn’t follow the confusing details. Suffice it to say, it was a classic military CF. “Reno and Benteen never knew that Custer was in trouble until a messenger showed up with a note that said ‘come quick and bring packs’; ammunition packs. They couldn’t hear the gunfire because of some atmospheric distortion and over where they were they just couldn’t see. So they had no real awareness that Custer had run into this huge number of Indians. Reno and Benteen were in trouble themselves; they had to dig shallow trenches and they were stuck for the entire day under fire by Indians.”  


Custer was caught with his pants down that fateful day because the Indians had never concentrated before. “They always fought in small groups, and the key was to attack them in their encampments and surprise them, Ralph explained. "They were shitty at security.” But in the Little Bighorn Valley they were amassed to defend themselves against the US soldiers and settlers. They didn’t know Custer was on his way, or the direction soldiers might be coming from…but they were encamped and at the ready. “It was a complete surprise.”


When historians look back on this event, what do we learn from it? “Nothing,” Ralph surprised me by saying. “We don’t learn anything. Custer completely f’ed up and underestimated what he was running into; he was stupid. BUT, the tactics he used had been successful before.” After the last stand, though, the campaign against the Indians stopped. “The US just said f it, we’ve got to regroup,” said Ralph. “They were toast.”


What kind of a guy was George Custer? “He was an asshole,” said Ralph unhesitatingly. “He became a general very young and was overconfident. He thought that he was like Napoleon. He was a national celebrity and socialite; a dashing general in the Civil War and a famous Indian fighter.”


I never grokked the conflict between settlers and Native Americans. In school it was either glossed over by revisionist texts or more likely, I simply tuned out the boring battles and their fundamental causes. When I asked Ralph to explain, of course it’s about greed and money and anger and 19th Century ideology. (For the historically impaired, here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version: “The cavalry wanted to clean out the Lakota and Cheyenne from this part of Montana and they mounted a big campaign with several different units. Custer was only one part of it. They wanted to drive these guys out of here because they were threatening the miners in the Black Hills during the big gold rush. They were going to sweep through and push all the Native Americans out.”)


The actual Last Stand, (“the over-romanticized famous thing” that in paintings usually depicts Custer as the last soldier up but it’s believed that he fell early) is a tiny grassy place, smaller than a half city block on a rise nearest the visitor center. “So, help me again,” I prodded Ralph. “Which way were they going? Where did the Indians come from?” Now losing patience (this is how he must feel teaching history to his dim high school students): “[heavy sigh] Custer’s men were OVER THERE, remember? Then they came down HERE. Then they ran back up on HERE and there were some guys stuck down THERE. So they were all over there, they got pushed over here and they ran up on this hill. And then they were surrounded.” (Uh…got it.)


The Battle of Little Bighorn is like the parable of the blind man and the elephant; each participant saw or heard something different, based on where they were situated. Everyone tells a different tale, then and today, and it remains a touchy subject. I asked about the dissenting views; was the truth presented at the visitor center? “They present what they believe is the best accounting of what happened, keeping in mind who their audience is: people who aren’t particularly attuned to nuance,” said Ralph. “They want the story in thirty minutes, something comprehensible with some highlights and color they’ll remember.”


The length of the battlefield is dotted with markers where bodies fell; identical white headstones that replaced the wood grave markers put there by soldiers who removed the dead. Some have names (including Custer’s own brother, Austin, a civilian), but most are anonymous. “U.S. Soldier 7th Cavalry fell here, June 25, 1876” read the stones of the cavalrymen. The Native American graves are marked, “A Cheyenne warrior fell here while defending the Cheyenne way of life.”


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