August 19 – Stacie continued her therapy program in the morning (although she was drinking tea instead) while Dave holed himself up in the business lounge (a closet with phone lines) and downloaded numerous updates from Microsoft to patch the hole that the lovsan virus was exploiting. We also located a Ford dealer about an hour away and made arrangements for an oil change. We left the Resort and drove to Big Timber where the truck was serviced. When the truck was done we looked around the town and enjoyed lunch in a historic hotel. Our original plan was to arrive at Devils Tower today, but it was becoming evident that we wouldn’t make it. While zipping along the highway we saw a sign that made reference to the Little Bighorn battlefield. A quick check of the map confirmed that we were going to drive right by it (since we couldn’t use the east entrance from Yellowstone our routing had changed significantly). We couldn’t pass up a chance to see the battlefield which was less than a mile from the highway and once again our treasured National Parks Pass got us in for free.
We arrived just in time to catch a ranger talk on the equipment that the soldiers involved in the battle were carrying. The majority of their equipment was left over from the Civil War and due for replacement. Believe it or not they were wearing wool clothing in June. Immediately after the equipment talk there was a battle talk. This talk was fascinating for two reasons. Our talk was given by a ranger of Crow descent and her explanation of why the battle occurred was quite different than what history has taught us. While it’s always been said that Custer’s actions were part of a campaign to return rebelling Indians to their reservations, all of the broken promises and broken treaties aren’t mentioned. The Indians had good reason to stay off the reservations as the government had promised to provide them with housing and food but rarely delivered. Additionally, the ultimatum for all Indians to return to the reservations was issued in the middle of winter (when snow prevented messengers from getting through) and the Indians were only given one month to return (again travel wasn’t possible in the winter). The other revelation was that the story from our school days that Custer was attacked and all of his men were killed isn’t accurate. Custer had been sent to meet up with two other Army units and “use his discretion” on any Indians he encountered (the ultimatum had decreed that any Indian not on a reservation by the deadline would be considered hostile). In the days before the battle one of the units he was to meet up with had a skirmish and was forced to return to a fort. Custer’s scouts (who were Indian) located a large Indian camp, but warned him that it was a large camp and that he couldn’t defeat them. Custer ignored the warning and ran his men and horses double time through the night to get to the camp. In the process he had to cross a swampy area. This area, while hard to cross, had fresh water, something the men and animals hadn’t seen for a few days. The mules that were carrying all of the supplies (including extra ammunition) refused to leave the swamp until they had enough water. Custer left one of his regiments with the mules and pressed on with only the supplies that each man carried with him. Custer split his forces into three groups and tried to surround the Indians. Some of the forces met up with the other Army unit that Custer was to meet. This unit was retreating because they had tried to attack some Indians and had been outnumbered. The commander of that unit ordered Custer’s men to stay with him and dig in to repel the attack. This action took more than half of Custer’s men out of the battle and denied Custer the ability to surround the Indians. Custer’s remaining men fought the Indians and were forced to retreat to a hilltop. In the end, Custer and the 200 men with him were killed. The men who had dug in successfully defended themselves until the Indians moved out a day later upon noticing a large group of reinforcements in the distance.
After the battle the entrenched men surveyed the battle field and buried all of the dead soldiers where they had fallen and marked the graves. A few years later another Calvary unit returned to the area and removed the remains of the commanders to be buried on the East Coast. The remains of all the soldiers were moved to the top of the hill where the last stand occurred. Temporary markers were placed where each soldier had fallen. A few years later stone markers replaced the temporary ones and a large monument was placed on top of the hill to mark the mass grave. In a desperate attempt to save his forces Custer had ordered that all of the horses be arranged in a circle and then killed, creating a wall of bodies that the men could hide behind. The Calvary unit that relocated the men’s bodies had a great respect for the horses and buried the horse remains near the mass grave.
In June of 2003 a memorial to the Indians who fought in the battle was dedicated. This memorial is a circular earthen work and inside is a stone wall with the names of Indians who perished in the battle and some information on their tribes. A small portion of the wall has water trickling down it, a symbolic “weeping wall”. There is also a sculpture of Indians on horseback.
Our stop at the Little Bighorn was an excellent experience, but it put us even further behind. We decided to drive until dark and then we found a small hotel in a small town along the highway for the night. Not having to set up and take down camp saved us time (and rested Stacie’s ankle).