Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Custer Battlefield National Monument - Day 23

I left Cody and drove west across the Big Horn Basin.  Its 47miles of nothing but rolling scrub land interrupted by gullies that sits between the Abrasoka Range and the Big Horn Mountain Range.  I saw some prong horns along the way but that was about it. I stopped at a historic maker for the Bridger Trail.  Jim Bridger led wagon trains north to Montana in the 1864 time frame.  He took the route through the Big Horn Basin as an alternative to the  more easterly Bozeman Trail.  His trail wasn’t used that much due to lack of reliable water.  But today, almost 150 yrs later, you can still see the ruts left by the wagon wheels.

I stopped in Sheridan as a lay over so I could do a day trip north to Montana to visit the Custer Battlefield National Monument.  It was about 73 miles north one way to the battlefield.  The Battlefield is right off  I-90 on the Crow Indian Reservation.  I spent 2 ½ hours at the site.  The Battlefield sits up on a ridge that overlooks the Little Bighorn River.  The ridge stretches for well over 4 miles.  The Battlefield is essentially a big grave site for the soldiers, civilains, and Indians who died at the battle.  The site also encompassed a large military cemetery for armed service members and their families.

Last Stand Hill

Markers where soldiers fell.  Custer's has the black face.
What made the visit worth while was the 25 minute video that the park service has put together on the background of the battle.  The park rangers also give about a 60 minute very detailed talk all about the circumstance that lead up to the battle, why the Indians were there, what the Army was trying to do, and a very detailed description of how the battle unfolded.  The talk was excellent.  It was very balanced and I’d highly recommend sitting thru it.

Markers for Cheyenne Warriors

A few new things that I learned.  In 1868, the Sioux, which entailed about 20,000  people, had been granted a reservation that encompassed the whole southwestern quarter of South Dakota.  The land west of that, in Wyoming and Montana, was called the unceded territory and the treaty allowed the Sioux to hunt there but not to live there.  The Sioux were hunter gatherers and went where the buffalo went, which were quickly diminishing in numbers.  The US government wanted them to stay on the reservation to be farmers.  The Sioux said no way, so they just ignored the government.  In 1875, the government ordered the Sioux back to the reservation (so they could renegotiate the 1868 treaty to take back the Black Hills) or else they would be treated as “hostile” (i.e, the government could wage war on them).  The Sioux ignored the order, so the government went after them. 

They sent three groups of soldiers to find the Sioux and “deal” with them.  Their orders were very vague as to what the commanders were to do when they found them.  One group came from the southern Wyoming under command of General Crook.  Another came from the western Montana under command of General Gibbon.  And another came east from the Dakota’s under command of General Terry.  Terry was a lawyer by trade and didn’t like going on the plains, so he delegated much of his task to Lt. Col. George Custer.  Custer lead the 7th Cavalry, which comprised about 600 men.  In total, there were about 3,000 soldiers going after about 8,000 Indians.

The Indians (which were comprised about 8,000 Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes) were encamped in a valley along the Little Big Horn River.  The Sioux found out that the Army was coming after them.  Eight days before the battle at the Little Big Horn, the Indians, under the leadership of Crazy Horse and Gall, intercepted General Crook’s troops and fought the Battle of the Rosebud, which is about 30 miles from the Little Big Horn.  The Indians routed General Crook’s troops and he retreated back south.  The Indians were pretty jubilant from their victory.  When Custer detected their camp along the Little Big Horn seven days later, little did he know that he was about to run into a “hornets nest” of pumped up and very confident Indians.

On June 25, 1876, Custer split up his troops into three groups of about 200 soldiers each.  One group under Major Reno, attacked the Indian camp from the south along the river valley.  Another group under Capt. Benteen was to scout further south to see if there were more Indians.  Custer took the remaining men north along the ridge and tried to swing around from the north to catch the fleeing Indians from Reno’s attack.  The best laid plans. Custer didn’t know the size of what he was dealing with and he thought he‘s be dealing with fleeing woman and children.  The Indians quickly repulsed Reno’s attack and he withdrew back along the ridge and dug in.  Benteen never fully engaged, and when the Indians saw Custer’s group they went after it with all they had.  Custer had to retreat up the slope and the Indians quickly flanked him from both sides and on his rear.  He was doomed.  Two hundred and sixty three soldiers died along with about sixty Indians.

Lt. Thomas Custer
Among the dead was Custer's younger brother Thomas, who was a two time Medal of Honor recipient.  Chief Gall said that the battle lasted “about as long as it takes for a man to eat his meal”.  Many of Reno’s and Benteen men who had retreated survived and buried Custer and his men about two days later. The Indians, fearing that more soldiers were coming, broke their camp and left the next day. 

Sioux War Chief Gall

It took two weeks for news of the battle to reach Washington and it was received much like the news when 9/11 occurred.  The Army went after the Sioux with everything they had and by the end of 1876, the Sioux capitulated and the great Sioux uprising was pretty much over.  The Sioux had fought to try and preserve their way of life.  By 1890, only about 500 buffalo still existed and the Sioux’s way of life was over.

After being in Wyoming for 12 days, I headed east into the Black Hills of South Dakota.  I enjoyed Wyoming with its varied terrain, wide open vistas, and simple towns.  So different from New England.

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