25 June 1876. Just a few days short of the first centennial of the United States. It took several days for the news to spread to the east coast. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer (Bvt. Major General) and many of his 7th Cavalry had been annihilated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. George Custer – the ‘poster boy’ of the US Army, hero of the Civil War, renowned Indian fighter – defeated? How had this come about? Who should be the scapegoats, if any?
The Great Plains Indian Wars of the 1860s and 70s (and beyond) were, to a certain extent, a consequence of Custer’s own ego and sense of destiny. He had led an expedition into the Black Hills and discovered gold, which led to a massive influx of miners and settlers in contravention of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Up against Custer on that fateful June day were the combined forces of the Sioux nation – Lakota, Oglala, Minniconjou, and Hunkpapa, as well as Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Arapaho and other allies.
And chief among the Indian war leaders were Hunkpapa holy man, Sitting Bull, and Oglala war leader Crazy Horse (for whom there is no known image).
We visited the battlefield site on 6 June this year. We had set out from Sheridan further south in northeast Wyoming in driving rain, low clouds hugging to tops of the undulating hills that characterize the Great Plains in these parts. The day certainly did not promise much. But our expected route (I90) took us right past the battlefield, and being an aficionado of all things ‘western’, I included this in our itinerary when planning our vacation trip earlier in the year.
By the time we reached Garryowen, the site of Sitting Bull’s camp south of the battlefield, the rain had dropped in intensity, but it was still rather dank and dismal, and there was quite a breeze. Would the clouds ever lift so we could actually make an appreciation of this famous landscape?
Well luck was with us, mostly. For about half an hour the clouds did lift, and we were able to walk around Last Stand Hill, view the various memorials, and take in the harshness and emotive quality of this site. You can’t fail to be moved by all the markers – white for soldiers, brown for Indian warriors – that are dotted all over the battlefield site, but obviously with a concentration at Last Stand Hill.
Some years after the battle, the bodies of the soldiers were exhumed and placed together in a mass grave, over which was erected a plinth. The marker stones indicate where all combatants fell. There is even a horse cemetery.
For me however, and much more emotive is the fairly recently constructed Native American memorial. It is beautiful in its simplicity. After all, they died just for trying to defend their way of life. It’s therefore ironic that both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse met ignominious deaths some years later not on the battlefield, but while essentially in ‘custody’ at the hands of their own peoples.
Since visiting the Little Bighorn I’ve read two books that have made quite an impression upon me, and certainly provide better balanced accounts of the Indian wars. I can recommend Stephen E. Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer that was first published in 1975. And during my recent trip to the Philippines, I saw a copy of a book I knew of but had never read. As an indictment of the perfidy of the late 19th century United States government and its various agencies and Army, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the Indian Wars from a Native American perspective.
Another fascinating account, Nothing Like It in the World (also by Stephen Ambrose) describes the construction of the transcontinental railway beginning in the 1860s, and also contributing to the tensions and hostilities between US and Native American nations.