What you see in eastern Montana is grass, oceans of it, from horizon to horizon.
It was on this sea of grass that many of the plains tribes of Native Americans navigated in their search for herds of buffalo, and it was on this sea that the most famous battle of the Indian Wars was fought.
You can walk through the history and try to reconstruct the events at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument on the Crow Reservation south of Billings. On these grassy hills on June 25, 1876, George Custer died with more than 260 of his soldiers.
Over the years, “Custer’s Last Stand” has been the source of a great deal of mythologizing, on both sides of the battle. You have only to look at such Hollywood histories as They Died With Their Boots On to see a heroic Errol Flynn, fighting to the last with his brave men as they are inundated by hordes of screaming Sioux and Cheyenne. A famous chromolithograph, from a painting by St. Louis artist Cassilly Adams, hung in almost every saloon from 1896 to up till the Korean War. It was called Custer’s Last Fight, but almost everyone remembers it as “Custer’s Last Stand.”
In the heroic versions, Custer and his men are unundated by a sea of Indans and go down fighting to the last man.
An alternate version has taken hold since then, in which Custer is an egomaniacal buffoon who sees genocide as his ticket to the White House, and was personified by Richard Mulligan in Little Big Man.
Despite the hundreds of books and movies about Custer, none has ever resolved the contradictions of his character. Certainly, in the years just after his death, he was canonized — partly due to the propagandizing of his wife — and served as a rallying cry for those who wanted to end the “Indian problem” once and for all.
But Custer himself isn’t the only myth of the battle.
How often have you heard that there were no white survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn? As you drive through the battlefield, you learn the complexity of the fight and that fewer than half of Custer’s men were killed. Granted, that’s still a bloody battle, but it’s not quite the same thing as the legend.
On finding the Indian encampment, Custer divided his troops into three groups and intended to attack the bivouacked Indians from both the North and the South. He took field command of one third of the forces and marched them north, along the hills above the Indian encampment.
The other two thirds of his forces, at the south end of the battle, took heavy casualties and eventually retreated to relative safety at the top of one of the bluffs on the eastern side of the river. Custer’s third of the force — about 225 men — was wiped out.
Yet, 328 men survived to tell the story, which they did to official inquiries.
Another myth is that it is the only battle the Indians ever won. That is wrong on both ends of the deal, since there were many battles won by Indians, but the Little Bighorn cannot really be counted as one of them.
The purpose of Custer’s foray into Montana was to oust the Sioux and Cheyenne from the Crow Reservation, where they were not particularly welcome, and nudge them back to their own reservations.
The battle ended when word of the approach of General Terry’s troops from the north came and the Indians decamped. Most of them wandered back to their own reservations. In other words, while the battle is remembered as a defeat for Custer, its military objectives were largely met, though such a victory is truly Pyrrhic.
You can read about the battle in any number of books, but you can’t really get the feel of it without visiting the site.
It is a quiet place, with the hiss of wind in the grass and the buzzing of grasshoppers. The road through the park continues for about five miles, past the congested visitor’s center and along the high ridge of bluffs and coulees over the river bottom to the location where Custer’s subordinates, Reno and Benteen, held off the Indian siege for two days.
Most people hang around the monument on Battle Ridge, where small white crosses mark the places where Custer and his men fell. But if you drive to the end of the pavement, you can walk out in the grass, which curls in the breeze like white horses on the sea swell, and hear the phoebe’s song among the seedheads, and watch the approach of an afternoon thunderstorm with its dark clouds and flickering glow of lightning.
And you can get a much deeper sense of what this part of Montana was like 119 years ago, before the roads and visitor’s center, before the white crosses and shallow graves.