A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1777
August 10, 2015

CUSTER’S LAST BATTLE

CROW INDIAN RESERVATION, MONTANA – State Route 313 runs south up the valley of the Bighorn River across almost utterly flat land, relieved only by the incised valleys of the streams. It’s irrigated land; canals also cut across it here and there, studded with gates that can be opened or shut to water the fields. Verdant crops of sugar beets wave beside the highway, and here and there a cross decorated with plastic flowers marks the passing of an unlucky motorist. It’s the Crow Indian Reservation, but my friend tells me it’s largely leased by the Crows to white farmers. Herds of grazing Angus cattle dot the pastures. Some farmers have been burning their stubble fields. There are patches of trees in the valleys, but nothing like the solid green hillsides of New England.

An old friend of mine from Texas took a trip East by car about fifty years ago. He’d planned to spend a couple of weeks car-camping in the Adirondacks around Lake George, but lasted only three days. “There were too many trees!” he complained. “Couldn’t see anything; I felt shut in.”

We’re different, all right, in size, climate, and attitude. I felt a slight twinge of delight when I saw again the Montana state motto, Oro y Plata – Silver and Gold, and remember the flap in Vermont this spring when a freshman at Lyndon Institute, Angela Kubicke, asked her state senator to introduce a bill designating a secondary state motto, in Latin. It was to be Stella quarta decime fulgeat – May the fourteenth star shine bright – referring to Vermont’s status as the fourteenth state to join the Union. Immediately the Internet lit up, with even presumably savvy legislators inveighing against any motto pandering to the Hispanics among us too lazy to learn English.

It’s impossible to be here in the Bighorn Valley without remembering the somber events of 1876, when a detachment of the United States Army’s Seventh Cavalry was wiped out by a vastly superior force of Indians under Chief Sitting Bull. The battlefield is now a national monument, its name changed, at the insistence of Native Americans, from Custer to Little Bighorn Battlefield. My friend and I have been here before, but its lure is, to me, irresistible.

It’s not as if we don’t have plenty of battlefield and massacre sites here in New England. But I doubt if very many of us know very much about King William’s War, King Philips War, and the Deerfield Massacre. Probably few Connecticut Valley inhabitants ever think of the prisoners of the Deerfield raid being marched up the frozen river to captivity in Quebec. But somehow everybody has a pretty good memory of the flamboyant, long-haired cavalry colonel who poked one too many hornets’ nests and paid for it with the lives of his entire direct command, including himself.

The native Americans had for over 200 years been pushed farther and farther from their ancestral lands by the ever-growing advance of settlers, miners, and adventurers. Cherokee, Choctaw, Menomonee, Seminole – every tribe had been either extirpated or displaced and settled on reservations. But “reservation” had proved a meaningless word when, for example, an army party under Custer reported gold on the Sioux Reservation in the Black Hills. Miners had swarmed in.

The Plains Indians were the toughest nuts to crack. Accustomed to a nomadic life on the plains of the buffalo, they were not inclined to be cooped up and become dependent on the federal dole. As Sitting Bull said some years later to those who accepted terms, “You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hardtack, and a little sugar and coffee.” Still, the settlers were slaughtering the buffalo and the tribes’ lives were disappearing already. President Grant and General Sheridan deplored the lack of order on the plains that threatened the nation’s westward expansion, and in 1876 sent expeditions to persuade the tribes to move to the reservations. If the tribes resisted, they were to be moved by force.

It may seem amazing to us today, but the Army actually shipped soldiers well out onto the plains by riverboat steamer. The transcontinental railroad was also seven years old by then. But the plains tribes fought the tide as well as they could.

The combined tribes, about 1000 lodges and probably 2000 warriors convened by Lakota chief Sitting Bull, were camped together along the Little Bighorn River when Custer’s scouts found them. Custer knew that infantry marching from the Yellowstone River was due soon, but apparently feared he’d been detected and was in danger of being attacked. He had once reportedly stated that there weren’t enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry, and wasn’t in a receptive mood when Half Yellow Face, one of his Crow scouts, allegedly warned him that “You and I are going home today, and by a trail that is strange to us both.” He divided his command into three battalions and started a pincers movement: what he called “a hammer-and-anvil” attack. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Some hammer! Some anvil! Its wisdom is still being debated today.

The cavalrymen were simply stunned, stopped, surrounded, shot up, and overwhelmed by far superior numbers of fast-riding Northern Cheyenne, Blackfoot, and Oglala Sioux. One battalion retreated in a rout, with warriors riding among them, cutting them down as they ran; another joined them, and they entrenched defensively – successfully, too, as it turned out; they were spared when the expected infantry arrived next day and the Indians disengaged. Nobody knows for sure where Custer’s brigades went during the melee, except that they eventually retreated under heavy fire to the spot now known as Last Stand Hill, where the scattered headstones mark where they all fell at last. It’s the sombrest of places, especially when you look down at what they must have seen, and consider, as one of the Park docents remarked last time we were here, “What was it all for?”

Photo by Willem lange