Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Little Bighorn

by Robison Wells

For the past two weeks I have written complainy posts wherein I have whined a lot. As much as I would love to continue the tradition, things are generally okay now. I managed to sprain my back, but it only hurts when I sit, stand up, or lay down. So, no big deal.

Today's blog is going to be about my visit to Little Bighorn National Monument, the last noteworthy place I stopped before my car died (as I described last week). I have to say, this was the strangest National Monument I have ever visited. I didn't know what to feel about it, and it was quite clear that no one else--including the visitors, rangers, and docents--knew what to feel about it, either. (That picture, by the way, is the best I could do taking a picture of myself. It's not particularly attractive, but neither am I.)

Here's the gist of it: Little Bighorn is the location of Custer's Last Stand. He and about 210 United States cavalrymen where killed on the dry grasslands of Montana, back in June of 1876. The slaughter was merciless. It was the first major battle in which Crazy Horse led the Sioux, and he had an entirely new strategy; effectively, he did to the US Army what the Revolutionaries did to the British--he made it impossible for them to operate in rank, attacking swiftly from the sides and then disappearing.

In the picture below you can see the white gravestones of the fallen soldiers--they were originally buried where they fell, and the anonymous markers were placed there several years later. Few of the stones have names (most just say "U.S. Soldier, 7th Cavalry"), but one is specific: it's for a the battallion surgeon. He didn't actually die there--no one ever found his body, but his clothes and tools were later found in the Indian camp. When his mother came to visit the battlefield, several years later, the army put up a gravestone for him so that she wouldn't have to learn that her boy likely survived the battle and was executed as a prisoner.

The picture below is of the monument and mass grave marking Custer's Last Stand. On this hilltop the soldiers shot their horses and used them as desperate barricades--something to hide behind while the fighting raged.

So it all makes sense, right? It was a terrible tragedy--a major loss for the U.S. military, and a massacre of American soldiers.

But it's not that simple. For years and years, this was called the General Custer National Monument, and it was only in 1991 that it was changed to Little Bighorn National Monument. There were many reasons for the switch, and debate raged on both sides. But the question boiled down to this: what are we honoring? Was Custer a great war hero, cut down by savage enemies?

General Custer's hands weren't exactly clean. In one infamous battle, he attacked a Cheyenne village in the middle of the night. He had orders to kill the warriors and capture the others. But (according to the account in Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee):

"To kill or hang all the warriors meant separating them from the old men, women, and children. This work was much too slow and dangerous for the cavalrymen; they found it much more efficient and safe to kill indiscriminately. They killed 103 Cheyenne, but only eleven of them were warriors."

In fact, just because the U.S. soldiers were slaughtered at Little Bighorn doesn't mean that they were ambushed or otherwise decieved by the Indians. The battle (which was part of an ongoing war) began when Custer and his cavalry directly assaulted an Indian camp. The problem was that he had vastly underestimated the size of the camp--his battallion was charging into three to four thousand warriors (the camp itself was well over ten thousand people). Again from Bury My Heart:

"Kill Eagle, a Blackfoot Sioux chief, later said that the movement of Indians toward Custer's column was 'like a bees swarming out of a hive'."

So, who was right? It certainly wasn't Custer, who had been attacking villages--women and children--all across the plains. And the war certainly wasn't justified (the Indian Bureau complained that the Cheyenne were well-fed and well-armed, and were "lofty and independent in attitude", and declared that troops should be sent "the sooner the better, to whip them into subjection." The Secretary of War was mostly concerned with protecting the white miners who were "strongly attracted [to the Black Hills] by reports of rich deposits of precious metal." The Black Hills had been previously granted to the Cheyenne in an 1868 treaty...)

But does that mean Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were right? Not exactly. They'd been reacting the to the encroachment into their land with increasing aggression, and had killed many white settlers--every bit as innocent as the Sioux women who'd been shot by Custer. Granted, the white people may have started the fight (by moving into Indian territory as though it was theirs for the taking), but no one stayed innocent very long.

And Little Bighorn National Monument doesn't seem to know what to do about that. Neither side really seems to admit much wrongdoing. Take a look at the picture below, where two Cheyenne headstones proclaim proudly that their warriors fell "defending the Cheyenne way of life".

And look at the gravestone of General Custer. Someone has gone in and honored him with an American flag and a bundle of flowers.

I'm told that the memorial in Japan to those killed in Hiroshima has a comparable feel: a lot of people died, and we honor them. But who is to blame? What is to be learned from all this? The Hiroshima memorial, I understand, lays the blame on no one--the feeling is almost "Something (it doesn't matter what) fell from the sky and many people died."

While I was looking for meaning in all of this, I cam across this quote, hung on the side of the visitor's center.

I think that's as good a moral of the story as we're going to get out of this, but I still feel something is lacking. Despite what those words say, this is not a memorial describing the futility of war. This is a memorial that people don't understand, and where even now--well over a century later--neither side really wants to take the blame; on the contrary, both sides still seem to have proud supporters. Sure, everyone will say peace is great, but will they also say that their side should have backed down? If solutions were that easy then we probably ought to write down Black Elk's quote and mail it to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Then again, maybe this blog is the point. We might not ever be able to say "Custer=bad, Sitting Bull=good" (or vice-versa) but maybe if we talk about these things we can prevent another Battle of Little Bighorn. Maybe we can prevent the entire war.


At 8/27/2008 1:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up just down the road an hour or so from there (Colstrip, east ward). We went out to visit the battlefield all the time, school field trips or family trips to Billings. We would stop because I would ask to. I liked visiting because it was a place of grim gory history, that I could walk those hills where men died and imagine what it was like. To a kid of eight or nine it was awesome to think about, to be somewhere something happened rather than a boring coal mining town. Back then they were all heroes, both sides in their own way. It wasn't until I was older that I started to contemplate the real reasons and consequences of the battle. In principal I'm much more on the side of the Lamanites. But then again it is BoM prophecy that they would get the smackdown so. . .

David West

At 8/27/2008 8:56 AM, Blogger Sandra said...

There was one member of the 7th Calvary that survived this battle. His name was Comanche and he was the horse of Captain Myles Keogh. He was a war horse and "fought" in many battles. He sustained many wounds during this battle and wasn't found for 2 days after it ended. He did recover from his wounds, but was retired and never riden again.

At 8/27/2008 11:20 AM, Blogger Keith Fisher said...

Good blog.

I love to go to historical sites and remember the good and bad of points of the events that happened there. There is a saying that History is always written by the victorious. Its good to dig and find the facts. If only to get a better picture. at the very least it often gives voice to the defeated. but your last paragraph says it all. good job

At 8/27/2008 4:06 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

Very thought-provoking, Rob. For myself I'm of the opinion that they were both wrong. But I haven't done an in-depth study and appreciate the information you've shared here.

At 8/27/2008 6:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Battle of the Little Bighorn is even more complex. The entire area that surronds the battlefield has belonged to the Crow tribe since the 1500's, and was acknowledged so via the Treaies of 1851 and 1868. The Crow were with Custer that day to kick the foreigners (Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho) off Crow land. To this day the relationship between the Crow and the Cheyenne is about like that between devout Palestinian Muslims and Orthodox Israeli Jews. :-) Many Crow take issue with any Lakota symbols being used at the battlefield that honors their agression; for, they are Dakota
tribes that had no business being in Montana trying to steal Crow
property. BTW, I'm a member of the Crow tribe.

At 8/27/2008 9:38 PM, Blogger Liz Adair said...

My husband and I visited the battlefield last summer. We couldn't hike around because of our constant companion (arthritis), but we rode the bus and savored the fact that our tour guide was a Native American.

Before visiting, we watched a DVD about some forensic archaeology that has been done that has allowed scientists to plot the movements of individuals--both Indian and US Army--during the time leading up to and including Custer's battle. The DVD was fascinating and made visiting the site much more powerful.


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