Walking in Custer’s Footsteps at Little Bighorn Battlefield

This week I’m in Montana on some family business — along with a great adventure with Ford, but more to come about that in a few days! — and while I was driving past, I saw the signs for what used to be called the Custer Battlefield, but now goes by the more balanced Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and while I was one of the few under-60 folk there, I was really glad I stopped and checked it out.

For those of you that don’t know, Little Bighorn was the scene of a major battle pitting the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians against the United States Army. The Indian forces were led by Sitting Bull, while General George Custer was the leader of the ill-fated Army troops. President Ulysses S. Grant had ordered the tribes relocated to the Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas and Custer was sent to make sure it happened.

Custer and 262 other soldiers met their death at Little Bighorn, outmanned and outmaneuvered by the savvy Indian warriors. As History.com’s account relates:

Late in 1875, the U.S. Army ordered all the “hostile” Indians in Montana to return to their reservations or risk being attacked. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse ignored the order and sent messengers out to urge other Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Indians to unite with them to meet the white threat. By the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Indians had gathered in a massive camp along a river in southern Montana called the Little Big Horn. “We must stand together or they will kill us separately,” Sitting Bull told them. “These soldiers have come shooting; they want war. All right, we’ll give it to them.”

A grim and bloody war, it was the worst defeat that the US Army suffered during the entire Plains Indian War and was likely a pointless fiasco from the first. Still, it’s quite something to walk the trails and see the markers that memorialize the battlefield, as you can see in my photos:

deep ravine trail, little bighorn battlefield

This first photo is of Deep Ravine path and the little white markers you can see along the trail are headstones memorializing the soldiers who died at each spot. Clearly, a bloody retreat as they tried to head down to the Little Bighorn river (in the wooded area).

This next picture is of the great memorial at the top of the hill where Custer’s “last stand” took place. Usually having the high ground is advantageous strategically, but in this case it was insufficient to save him and his men:

main memorial obilisk, custer battlefield montana

There weren’t too many people visiting the national park when I was there, even though it was a holiday. I expect that during a typical workday it’s even quieter…

little bighorn river

This particular bend in the Little Bighorn River, shown above, is notable that it’s where Custer’s highest ranking officer, Marcus Reno, began his doomed attempt to cut off the Indian attack. His tactics were so bad, in fact, that people still talk about whether a different approach could have made a significant difference in the outcome that day or not.

One of the things that made the park really come to life was a splendid audio tour that I accessed via my cellphone, tagged to specific locations in the park:

little bighorn audio cellphone tour

You can enjoy a sample of this yourself: bring up the audio at this page, click play, then look at the photo below:

little bighorn sign with audio tour info

I was hugely impressed with the audio tour. Really, really well done!

There was also a fascinating Indian memorial too, including this striking sculpture:

indian memorial sculpture, little bighorn montana

And, finally, in case your family doesn’t quite get the point of what happened, you can always buy your child a US Cavalry hat. Really:

us cavalry hats, gift shop

Gift shop aside, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was time very well spent and if you’re in Montana, I strongly encourage you to check it out.

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