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Saturday, July 4, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Land Of The Last Stand Custer Battlefield Is Haunting Reminder Of The Land-Grabbing Government Policies That Led To The Deaths Of White Soldiers And The Native American Culture

Dan Leeth Special To Travel

The big sky extends serenely outward, capping a vast landscape of rolling hills, soft bluffs and plunging ravines. The treeless knolls lie naked, their grassy slopes interrupted only by headstone-like monuments that mark where soldiers perished.

I stand atop Battle Ridge. Nearby, tall grasses sway, stirred by a quiet breeze that wafts sweetly fragrant. A bee buzzes from flower to flower sampling multicolored blossoms. The day is calm and peaceful, so unlike that summer afternoon in 1876 when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer stood for the last time on this hillside.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s Last Stand, endures as one of the most famous clashes fought on American soil. At Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southern Montana, the National Park Service has preserved the major skirmish sites. The monument sits in two small sections surrounded by the Crow Reservation.

“The Crow hated the Teton Sioux and Northern Cheyenne who attacked Custer,” says National Park ranger-interpreter Neal Perry. “A century earlier, the Sioux had usurped Crow territory after being driven from their Minnesota homelands by the Chippewas. Now, the invaders were being displaced by whites.”

Perry stands before a group assembled on the Visitor Center patio. His 25-minute talk, “Road to Little Bighorn,” outlines events that led to the battle.

He explains that the Great Sioux Reservation once encompassed all of present South Dakota west of the Missouri River. Beyond, an unceded territory stretched to the crest of the Big Horn Mountains. While most of the natives reposed on the reservation, some - including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse - remained in the open lands. They hunted buffalo and violently repelled intruders.

When prospectors discovered gold in the reservation’s Black Hills, the government pressured chiefs to sell the mineral-rich mountains. The Sioux, who had seized the land from the Kiowas a century before, refused.

To end hostilities and hopefully to force transfer of the Black Hills, the government ordered all natives to leave the unceded territory.

“When they ignored the edict,” says Perry, “the Army, including Custer’s 7th Cavalry, rode in.”

Custer was only 36 years old at the time. He graduated last in his class at West Point and entered the Civil War. Fearless in battle, by conflict’s end he had been promoted to brevet major general, the Army’s youngest at age 25.

After the war, his rank reverted to lieutenant colonel, and he traveled west to fight Indians. His favored tactic was to charge.

“It was an effective strategy,” says interpreter Jeffrey Helmer in his follow-up talk about the U.S. Cavalry. “Most of the time, the Indians scattered. Preventing escape was the overriding concern.”

To appreciate the battle, I follow Helmer’s suggestion and drive the 4-mile paved route to the outlying Reno-Benteen Battlefield. Parking at road’s end, I look down on the meandering Little Bighorn River, its course shielded by a dense canopy of cottonwood.

For a brief time, its banks hosted what some believe was the largest concentration of Native Americans ever assembled on the Northern Plains. Led by Sitting Bull, the three-mile-long village embraced about 7,000 residents with perhaps 2,000 warriors.

Through a sighting tube, I locate the Crows Nest, a hilltop lookout 15 miles to the southeast. From there, Custer’s scouts spotted the encampment. They reported its immensity, but Custer, relying on military intelligence, insisted the population could not exceed 800 warriors.

Custer’s men rode at night toward the Little Bighorn. When the soldiers stopped for breakfast, two bands of Sioux spotted them. Afraid the Indians would flee, Custer decided to strike immediately.

A streak of green vegetation outlines what’s now called Reno Creek. The 7th Cavalry rode down this drainage until shortly after noon when Custer divided his troops. Capt. Frederick Benteen took 125 men to scout ridges to the south. The rest continued downstream.

Custer’s group soon encountered a band of warriors who bolted toward the Little Bighorn. The commander ordered Maj. Marcus Reno and his 140 men to pursue and attack.

I look down toward where Reno’s troops forded the river to engage an overwhelming force. Badly mauled, they retreated to the bluffs where I stand. Soon joined by Benteen’s forces, the soldiers took shelter in a saucer-shaped depression. They dug in using anything available to enhance their tenuous refuge. I walk around the entrenchment site, admiring their dire bravery.

Returning to my car, I follow Custer’s path back toward the visitor’s center. Evidence suggests he followed the ridges, perhaps to attack from the north. A sign marks where he was last seen.

The roadway dips across Medicine Tail Coulee. Historians say Custer sent part of his command down this wooded draw. Confronting heavy fire, they regrouped at the southern end of Battle Ridge on a knob defended by Lt. James Calhoun.

I park in the pullout on Calhoun Hill. White marble markers lie scattered on both sides of the road. A few identify officers, but most simply read: “U.S. Soldier 7th Cavalry Fell Here June 25, 1876.”

Troopers attempted to fight their way down nearby Deep Ravine, but Cheyenne leader Lame White Man charged, driving them back to Calhoun Hill. Soldiers later dispatched the Indian. I pass a marker in his honor, the only one showing where a warrior fell.

On the other end of the ridge, at what is now called Custer Hill, desperate troopers shot their horses for breastworks. The soldiers fought bravely, but their plight proved hopeless. From a distance, warriors rained a hail of bullets and arrows onto the open hillside. Then they moved in for the finale. According to Cheyenne Chief Two Moon, the entire battle “took about as long as it takes for a hungry man to eat his dinner.”

Custer and the 225 soldiers who followed him lay dead. Reno and Benteen lost another 47. Native American losses totaled less than 100.

The defeat outraged a nation celebrating its centennial. The military ultimately forced the natives onto reservations, and an angry government coerced the Sioux into selling the Black Hills.

Crazy Horse died a year later, bayoneted by a prison guard. Sitting Bull escaped to Canada, returned to surrender in 1881 and was murdered nine years later.

Ironically, Custer and his men accomplished the goals set for their military operation.

Survivors under Reno and Benteen’s commands had hastily buried Custer’s dead. Later, the remains were exhumed, with most of the officers reinterred elsewhere.

The enlisted were reburied in a mass grave beneath a granite obelisk on the summit of Custer Hill. I stand beside it and look out.

A wrought-iron picket fence surrounds marble markers clustered below me. The hill falls steeply away to the Little Big Horn. Beyond, high plains stretch outward. Once teeming with buffalo, this land provided sustenance for nomadic tribes.

As I linger alone on the knoll, a park service truck pulls up. “We’ll be closing in 15 minutes,” the ranger says.

I take one last look at the pastoral hillsides, their white markers glistening in the creeping, late-day sun. Nearby, a meadowlark warbles a fluty farewell. An owl softly coos in the distance.

The battlefield whispers a final message - Custer’s Last Stand was also the last stand of the Plains Indian.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go When to go Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is open year-round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Throughout the year, the park offers a fiber-optic map and documentary films at the Visitor Center, and audio stations provide commentary at various sites in the monument. Outdoor interpretive programs are held from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Park entry fee is $4 per private vehicle.

Getting there The battlefield lies in southern Montana near the junction of Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 212, 65 miles southeast of Billings.

Accommodations Nearby Harden offers several motels, including the American Inn (1-800-341-8000), Cottonwood Creek Super 8 (1-800-800-8000) and Lariat Motel (406-665-2683). Rates vary by season, with the higher summer prices running about $40-60 for two people. Both Billings and Sheridan feature numerous motel and hotel options, including most major chains.

Camping The monument does not have a campground. The nearest commercial campgrounds are located one mile away in Crow Agency (Little Big Horn Camp, 406-638-2232) or in Harden at Big Horn Valley KOA (406-665-1635) or Grandview Campground (406-665-2489).

National Cemetery Custer National Cemetery lies on the monument grounds near the Visitor Center. Among its 4,300 burials are several survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, including Maj. Marcus A. Reno and scouts Curly and White-Man-Runs-Him.

Tours During summer months, the park service offers concessionaire-led bus tours from the Visitor Center to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield site. The park, as well as numerous area merchants, sell audio tapes for those who prefer to guide themselves.

Access The Visitor Center, National Cemetery, Custer Hill and Reno-Benteen Entrenchment Trail are wheelchair accessible.

Special Events On the weekend closest to June 25, Harden hosts its annual Little Bighorn Days, which feature a re-enactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This year’s event takes place June 21-23. The program is held in the hills six miles west of town, not on the monument itself. Cost is $10 for adults. Contact the Harden Area Chamber of Commerce (406) 665-1672 for tickets and information. The Crow Fair Celebration and Rodeo, which occurs on the third weekend in August every year, transforms Crow Agency, Montana, into the “Teepee Capital of the World.” This year’s celebration will be August 15-19. Contact the Crow Tribe Public Relations Office (406-638-2601) for details. For additional information Contact Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (406-638-2621) or the Montana Travel Bureau (1-800-541-1447). -Dan Leeth

This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go When to go Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is open year-round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Throughout the year, the park offers a fiber-optic map and documentary films at the Visitor Center, and audio stations provide commentary at various sites in the monument. Outdoor interpretive programs are held from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Park entry fee is $4 per private vehicle.

Getting there The battlefield lies in southern Montana near the junction of Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 212, 65 miles southeast of Billings.

Accommodations Nearby Harden offers several motels, including the American Inn (1-800-341-8000), Cottonwood Creek Super 8 (1-800-800-8000) and Lariat Motel (406-665-2683). Rates vary by season, with the higher summer prices running about $40-60 for two people. Both Billings and Sheridan feature numerous motel and hotel options, including most major chains.

Camping The monument does not have a campground. The nearest commercial campgrounds are located one mile away in Crow Agency (Little Big Horn Camp, 406-638-2232) or in Harden at Big Horn Valley KOA (406-665-1635) or Grandview Campground (406-665-2489).

National Cemetery Custer National Cemetery lies on the monument grounds near the Visitor Center. Among its 4,300 burials are several survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, including Maj. Marcus A. Reno and scouts Curly and White-Man-Runs-Him.

Tours During summer months, the park service offers concessionaire-led bus tours from the Visitor Center to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield site. The park, as well as numerous area merchants, sell audio tapes for those who prefer to guide themselves.

Access The Visitor Center, National Cemetery, Custer Hill and Reno-Benteen Entrenchment Trail are wheelchair accessible.

Special Events On the weekend closest to June 25, Harden hosts its annual Little Bighorn Days, which feature a re-enactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This year’s event takes place June 21-23. The program is held in the hills six miles west of town, not on the monument itself. Cost is $10 for adults. Contact the Harden Area Chamber of Commerce (406) 665-1672 for tickets and information. The Crow Fair Celebration and Rodeo, which occurs on the third weekend in August every year, transforms Crow Agency, Montana, into the “Teepee Capital of the World.” This year’s celebration will be August 15-19. Contact the Crow Tribe Public Relations Office (406-638-2601) for details. For additional information Contact Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (406-638-2621) or the Montana Travel Bureau (1-800-541-1447). -Dan Leeth

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