Little Bighorn National Monument

What is the most documented battle in American history? If you thought about it long enough, you would probably figure it out. What war is embedded in the American psyche more than any other? The U.S. Civil War. And what was the pivotal battle of that war? Gettysburg. Ding, ding, ding…we have a winner!

The second most researched and documented battle is much less obvious. It is not Lexington and Concord, with the “shot heard around the world.” It is not D-Day, nor Iwo Jima, nor any of the battles of the “war to end all wars.” It did not involve the writing of our national anthem, nor a commander declaring “give me liberty or give me death.”

It was not a huge battle — a total of around 300 perished. It did not involve the defense of a town or a fort, nor was there any kind of siege. The leading US army commander was technically a colonel at the time, not a general.

The battle of Little Bighorn, the second most researched and documented single conflict in American history, took place on June 25 and 26, 1876, on a broad, rolling prairie in south central Montana. Officially, it became part of what is known as the “Indian wars.” It was also the last time that native Americans were victorious on any scale in that war.

Most of us grew up calling this “Custer’s Battlefield” or “Custer’s Last Stand.” Before I came here I thought it was a simple plot: American Indians (as I grew up calling them) didn’t want to stay on the reservation and were where they were not supposed to be. Arrogant army general plans to massacre them. He underestimates the enemy, and is surrounded and his unit totally destroyed by attacking natives in a single battle.

Every part of that narrative is either partially or completely false. The actual battlefield was Indian territory, but the government changed the rules after the fact. Custer was promoted to general during the Civil War, but reverted to his normal rank of colonel after the war. His strategy was apparently to capture the women and children in the camp and use them as hostages to get the superior size force to surrender and return to the reservation. There were multiple conflicts, in three major battle locations, separated by 5 miles. Some 220 military and perhaps 100 natives died, but a major portion of the soldiers (separated from Custer) survived the battle and were rescued. Natives did not plan the attack, but responded to the army attack and were defending their encampment.

Some things are true. All of the men with Custer at the end were surrounded by natives and died. At the end, they shot their horses and used them as protective shields, the ultimate act of desperation for cavalry troops.

This battlefield has a unique and deeply moving feature. The survivors buried every soldier exactly where he fell, and marked the spot. Stone grave markers were later added. Native bodies were removed, but their sites are marked by the locations where they families say the loved one died. So this is the only major battlefield where you can see exactly where everyone died, by name. It is a somber experience.

I recommend this battlefield for everyone. The bus tour, movie, ranger talks and memorial tell an eloquent story of the clashing of cultures and shifting promises. Hopefully these pictures will capture a small portion of this.

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