We first visited Hardin, Montana in June of 2004 to take in the reenactment of the famous battle that cost Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer his life, the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Before attending the reenactment (which was not held on the actual battlefield), we visited Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument – and I forgot my camera!
We both found the battlefield monument strikingly interesting so, since we were passing so close by on our way to Yellowstone National Park, we decided it was time for another visit. We checked into Grandview Campground (click here to read our review and see photos) after our repairs were completed on Wednesday, looking forward to a trip to the battlefield on Thursday.
The battlefield at Little Bighorn is heartbreakingly poignant. One of the last armed conflicts between the Indians of the northern plains and the U. S. Army, 260 soldiers and 60-100 Indians died here during a two-day battle in June of 1876. After the battle ended, Cheyenne and Lakota families removed the bodies of their dead to be treated in accordance with their customs. The following day, Army soldiers buried the bodies of Custer and his soldiers in shallow graves where they had fallen.
The following year, the remains of 11 officers and two civilians were moved to cemeteries in the east (Custer’s remains to West Point). Five years later, in 1881, the remains of the rest of the command were reburied in a mass grave around the current large memorial marker. Nine years after that (and 110 years ago), in 1890, the Army erected 249 markers across the battlefield in the positions where Army soldiers had fallen and died – and for me, those markers provide the emotional impact of the battlefield today. A century later, in 1999, the National Park Service began erecting red granite markers at known Cheyenne and Lakota warrior casualty sites.
Now, amidst golden, rolling hills, white “headstones” and the occasional red granite memorial ignite the imagination. On “Last Stand Hill”, the markers for Custer and his command are grouped tightly together, where they fought and died behind the bodies of their dead horses, overlooking the Indian encampment in the Little Bighorn Valley. Looking down the deep ravine from Last Stand Hill, a straggling line of white markers dramatize the futility of escape. In the distance, small groupings of headstones where soldiers died.. back to back? Running in a group? There’s a group of two, side by side… friends? And sometimes a lone marker, silhouetted on a slight rise, or hidden in a narrow gulch, isolated and alone.
I couldn’t help but think of Gettysburg, another battleground story so eloquently depicted by the memorials. There, the somber memorials are often grand and ornate. Here, they are so simple, so humble, so illuminating. The battle at Little Bighorn came 13 years after Gettysburg, 11 years after the end of the Civil War. In that decade, westward movement and settlement put continual pressure on the nomadic Indians of the plains; the victory of the Indian tribes at Little Bighorn was one of their last. Most of the Lakota and Cheyenne surrendered within the next few years, their way of life no longer sustainable.
An isolated headstone marks the passing of a U.S. Army soldier.
Markers of two Cheyenne warriors, “Died while defending the Cheyenne way of life.”
During our visit, the deep blue sky was half-filled with puffy white clouds and a constant breeze rustled the tall, dry grasses. As usual, walking even a short distance from the road (on paved walkways) took us away from the crowds near the Visitor Center, parking lots and turnouts. Standing near an isolated headstone, overlooking the Little Bighorn River, it was easy to imagine the heat, the dust, the noise of gunshots and war whoops, of frightened horses and soldiers. Now it is all quiet, peaceful, somber, sacred.
Worth a visit, if you have a chance.