We continue our exploration of history with a visit to the battlefield at Little Bighorn river, location of the most famous battle of the Great Sioux Wars (1876-77). The very short version of the story presents the battle as “the last major Indian victory”, but that’s of course a very short version of the story, and one that obviously doesn’t do justice to the event, its context, and the people involved.
A slightly longer version of the story goes like this. Under the leadership of Sitting Bull, groups of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne had combined forces to resist the US expansion and the reservation system. At the battle itself, which took place on June 25th-26th, 1876, a large number of them (estimates range from 1,000 to over 1,800) fought and defeated the 7th Cavalry Regiment led by Lieutenant Colonel Custer. Custer himself, and over 250 of his men were killed in the battle, and the battle is viewed as an important victory for the Sioux. It is unclear how many of the Lakota and Cheyenne were killed, but nowhere near as many.
Battlefields are always a bit odd as tourist attractions, and remind you that there is a difference between time and space after all. Still, a visitor center could of course help, but this visitor center has little to offer. The information available is not only superficial, it is irrelevant to the event for which this site is a memorial. It may be true, and perhaps interesting, which parts of the buffalo were used for what by the Indians, but what is really needed is a map (or several) and time-line for the battle.
Now, as it turns out, part of the problem is that the exact sequence of events, and in particular the movements of Custer’s party and their motives, as well as the number of people involved on the Indian side remain unclear. Still, it is only once we have a map in hand and make our way through the battlefield, that we begin to get a sense of the place and the event.
Once we stand on the actual hills and look into the valley that the Indians had camped in, the actuality of the day’s events starts to take shape. Custer and his troops were only able to see part of a large (as it turns out, 7,000 strong) Indian encampment. In his enthusiasm, Custer split his troops and rushed behind the hills to find the other end of the camp. At the Southern end of the battlefield is where the rest of Custer’s troops first engaged, then retreated from the encampment. After defending the circle of hills on which they fell back for 24 hours, the Indians finally retreated to the Bighorn mountains and the survivors were reinforced.
Meanwhile, Custer himself snuck behind the hills before charging the camp in his enthusiasm. The Indians, in both cases, rushed to meet their attackers. Although the encampment was 7,000 strong, only 1,800 or so were warriors, amongst these the legendary Crazy Horse.
The crucial Lakota leader Sitting Bull, instrumental in bringing together this unique combined force, was senior and did not actually participate in the military action. But this is part of the significance of the Battle of Little Big Horn – tribes which usually went their separate ways united against a common enemy and, consequently, triumphed.
Although the movements of Custer’s secondary divisions are well documented by survivors, the actions of Custer himself must be reconstructed from the accounts of Indian braves and the remains found on the battlefield itself. Two factors are absolutely crucial here. First, the hubris and ignorance of Custer and his 200+ men; second, line of site. Although the actions of June 25, 1876 take place over only a couple square miles, the dynamic is driven by which locations are visible from where. Custer’s lack of visual access to the full Indian encampment drives his ignorance about the extent of their forces.
Since Custer’s division was massacred completely, we have no first hand account of his side of these events. From verbal reports and the battlefield remains, it appears that Custer first charged through a valley, only to be met by Indian braves, fording the Little Bighorn river to meet him. After being overwhelmed, he fled over a series of hills, away from reinforcements and towards the Northern end of the Indian encampment. The stream of skeletons discovered by later archeologists charts this path.
The site of Custer’s famous “Last Stand” is indeed the highest hill at the end of this string of skirmishes. The Braves who fought Custer report that they split and flowed around his troops “like water” – Custer and his remaining troops were forced to kill their horses to form a crude barricade at the top of this hill, the highest in the immediate vicinity and the best hope of managing a defense. They were overwhelmed however by the superior numbers and spirit of the braves who surrounded them, and slaughtered to the last man.
It would be a mistake to view this as a mere case of victory by numerical superiority, however. One has to remember that, as the most recent affront in a string of broken promises and arbitrary commands, the US troops were hunting Indians in order to force them onto reservations against their will and against any reasonable conception of modern justice. Furthermore, although the Braves rode out to meet them, there is no question that it was Custer who initiated this Quixotic attack. Finally, the unique achievement of Sitting Bull, a unified force comprising members of several distinct tribes, was both unexpected and innovative. Historically, of course, although they won the battle, they lost the war, and any tragedies meted against Custer and his troops that day were repayed ten thousand fold and more by the expansionist US in the years before and after.
It’s difficult to come to terms with the Battle of Little Big Horn – should we feel outrage at the slaughter of Custer and his troops? Jubilation at the Indian victory? The fact of the matter is, the death toll was between three and four hundred, a pittance compared to the lives lost in many battles of the Civil War, or the World Wars of the twentieth century. But the Battle of Little Big Horn clearly represents a symbolic landmark, a demonstration that the lesser can band together against the mightier, that the tides of history can, for a moment, be made to ebb by sheer collaboration and willpower.
But the attempts to deal with these intellectual and emotional conflicts on the part of the park organizers are even more confusing. There appears to be a project in progress to place a gravestone at the exact death site of every single US cavalry officer and Indian Brave. Interesting though this may be from a historical standpoint, the exact motive is somewhat unclear – why lend this individual treatment here rather than Gettysburg, or Waterloo, or Normandy, for that matter? Is it just because the numbers are smaller, and thus the task is possible? Does any of this amend in any way the wrongs of American expansionism or cause the souls of our slaughtered cavalry to rest more easy?
A different problem is created by the fact that it was not simply a battle between Indians and US Americans. The Indians in question were the People of the Plains, whose nomadic lifestyle was under particular pressure from US expansion. On the US side, we find a diverse group of men, many of them foreign born, plus a number of Indian scouts. The latter were recruited from tribes and groups traditionally in rivalry with the Lakota and Cheyenne. One of the most disturbing features of the battlefield are a number of gravestones erected for individual scouts, proclaiming they had died “defending the …. way of life”, where the dots represent the particular tribe the particular scout belonged to. Given that these men were working for the US army under a command with the explicit task of reinforcing the reservation system, this claim is simply false (and emblazoning it on gravestones represents profound ignorance or (worse) cynicism). The best explanation seems to be a nervous political correctness, which permeates the entire site. But political correctness and history seldom go together.
[P.S. Sorry, no pictures for this post because they don’t capture much of anything. The subtly shifting lines of sight which create the dynamic of the battlefield must lie in the beholder, not the camera. If you are curious – visit it for yourself!]