Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Sorrowful Place

Little Bighorn River Valley
This benign and peaceful, lovely piece of Montana is a place with a horrific history. The river valley is where a huge encampment of Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapaho Indians was attacked by U.S. Cavalry troops. The hills and bluffs around the valley are where the troops fled as the Indian warriors responded in numbers far exceeding those of the cavalry.

On our way home from Billings yesterday, my daughter, Anne Marie, and I stopped for a short tour of the battlefield where the tragic events popularly known as "Custer's Last Stand" took place. I am no fan of Col. Custer's. My sympathies tend to lie with the Indians on this one. That makes the events of June 25, 1876, no less tragic--for both sides. The battle victory went to the Indians. But the victory was followed by a lot of tragedy for the Indians, and they ended up on reservations anyway. I'm not going to try to retell that story; it's been done by others much better and with more complete information. I just want to reflect on my reaction to visiting this place.

First we toured the museum section of the Visitor's Center. It was a fascinating, sobering, and busy place. One tiny lady, who appeared to me to be American Indian, was wiping tears from her eyes as she looked at the exhibits, many of which were of the Indian people involved.

Then we took the drive through the battlefield. My first surprise was the extent of the area where the battles took place. The fighting spread over a three-to-five-mile stretch of hills and valleys. From things I had read in the past, I had a mental picture of the Custer attack and the fight involving the Reno/Benteen troops as being widely separate. At the site, it was clear that it was all part of one event. Custer made the mistake of ignoring the advice of his Indian scouts, who advised against attacking such  a huge encampment, then he divided his troops. I suppose he thought he was going to attack from several directions. This did not work well for the small cavalry contingent. It worked great for the Indians, who had the numbers to surround the soldiers.

As we drove down the road, stopping at the numerous information stations, looking up from the illustrations to the actual hills and valleys, seeing the markers where combatants fell, a heavy lump of sorrow grew in my stomach. On a June day much like the one we were enjoying, these hills were full of the noise of battle, the smoke from the rifles clouded the air, men and horses screamed their battle cries, their pain, their fear, their death rattles. Blood soaked the hills.

And no good came from any of it. What a waste of lives, on both sides.

I was surprised by the strong emotional reaction I had to being there. It is a sorrowful place.

One of the battlefield markers. The cavalry markers are white, the Indian markers are red granite.
Cavalry markers are scattered from the Reno site (which had survivors) across to the Custer site
(no survivors).  Some are single, some in small groups, others in large groups, as at the place where
Custer and those with him died.
(American Indian losses reported by Sitting Bull's account were 36 killed and 168 wounded, while Red Horse made the count as 136 killed and 160 wounded. Custer, 15 of his officers, ten civilian scouts and 242 cavalry troopers lost their lives and another 55 were wounded.


  1. We have stopped there quite a few times and it always sobers me.

  2. Like my mom said we've visited the site many times over my life. I don't think I fully comprehended the experience until I was an adult with a history degree. I am so thankful that such a reminder exists.