Granite memorial erected by the War Department on Last Stand Hill in 1881

Sunday, May 22, 2018

We left Devils Tower yesterday and arrived at the 7th Ranch RV Park in Garryowen, Montana, later that afternoon. The 7th Ranch is the closest campground to Little Bighorn National Monument. The campground is very nice, but the half-mile gravel washboard road you have to drive on to reach the park is horrible. For that matter alone, we would never stay there again.

It rained most of the night, but this morning dawned sunny and clear. It promised to be a hot day, so we set off early to visit Little Bighorn. The Monument was created on January 29, 1879, to preserve the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, near Crow Agency, Montana.

On July 25, 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, along with 262 men of the 7th U.S. Calvary, including Indian scouts and civilians, were killed while engaging with the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians along the Little Bighorn River. Custer and his entire battalion, consisting of five companies—were wiped out, purportedly in less than an hour. The majority of the other six companies, three detailed to Major Marcus Reno, and three detailed to Captain Frederick Benteen, survived the conflict.

Initially, the dead were buried in shallow graves where they fell, their burial plots marked with wooden tipi poles collected from the abandoned Indian village. In 1877, the remains of Custer and many of the officers were reinterred at various locations in the eastern United States. Custer’s remains were reinterred at West Point, New York. In 1881, the War Department erected a granite memorial on Last Stand Hill. The remains of soldiers and attached personnel were reinterred in a mass grave around the base of the monument. In 1890, Army personnel erected white marble markers at each soldier’s original gravesite.

There are numerous headstones on Last Stand Hill. Custer’s tombstone stands out from the others because it has a black background shield. Both his brevetted rank of Major General and his permanent rank of Lieutenant Colonel are listed on the headstone. Although Custer was not allowed to wear the insignia of his brevetted rank, his men still referred to him as General.

So who is to blame for this tragedy? Custer, who failed to wait for reinforcements, and for dividing his battalion into three columns instead of keeping all of his men together? General Alfred Terry, for telling Custer to depart from his orders if Custer saw sufficient reason, and then subsequently blaming Custer for failing to adhere to his plan? The government, for stating in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that the Great Sioux Reservation included the Black Hills, and then later reneging on the treaty after gold was discovered in the region in 1874?

Personally, I think all three parties were at fault. Custer was known for his rashness; Terry’s plan was weak: the village’s exact location was not known, thus precluding a coordinated attack; and the government wanted the gold to help stimulate the precarious economy. The only problem with the latter was the Indians had a signed treaty stating the Black Hills belonged to them. Some people in the government considered buying the Black Hills from from the Lakota Sioux, but the Indians did not want to sell. Ultimately, Red Cloud, one of the most important leaders of the Oglala Lakota, and Spotted Tail, the Brulé Lakota chief, believing they had no other choice, since the whites would take what they wanted anyway, agreed to sell the Black Hills to the United States for $70 million. The United States refused. To make a long story short, negotiations broke down, and the government decided to maintain that the Indians had invalidated the treaty and devised a plan to drive them off their land.

When all was said and done, and the official reports were written, Custer was made the scapegoat. Why not blame the dead man, who was not there to defend himself? But regardless of who was responsible for the lives that were lost that hot, dusty Sunday afternoon in late June, the fact remains that 262 men died, and six others later subcommand to their wounds. So instead of pointing fingers, I think we should pay homage to those men who paid the ultimate price that horrific day.

Note: I have decided to discontinue my reviews of campgrounds due to the amount of time it takes to write both the blog post and the campground review for each place we visit. However, if anyone is interested in information on any of the campgrounds where we stayed, just enter a comment and I will be happy to provide you with details.



Headstones on Last Stand Hill. The headstone directly in front of Custer’s is his brother, Tom’s
Headstone of Custer’s brother, Boston, a civilian
Some of the horses were killed and used for breastworks during the battle
Grave of Captain James Sturgis, son of Lt. Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis, for whom Sturgis, South Dakota was named

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