I spent most of the first 38 years of my life living in southern California.
It was a wonderful place to grow up. There was anything and everything to do 24 hours a day.
When I graduated from college in 1985, my friends and I flew back east for a vacation. We were amazed by the difference in people in large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C.
That “Trip of the 80s” - as we labeled it - sparked something in me. I always had a sense of adventure, but until the adventure out east I never realized that there was still so much in this country that I had never seen.
I made a list - and checked it more than twice - of the places I wanted to visit. Among them were Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, Mt. Rushmore and “Custer’s Last Stand,” aka “The Battle of Little Bighorn” in Montana.
I moved to Colorado in September 2001. I soon realized that Mt. Rushmore and those other places on my list were not very far away. In fact, a loop to visit those destinations could be done in less than a week with plenty of time to soak in the surroundings.
My son, Garrison, and I made the trek in 2002. He was just eight years old at the time and very much an adventurer.
We arrived at Little Big Horn late one summer afternoon. It was pretty shocking to realize that one of the most important battles in American history took place on the ground we were walking.
The Battle of Little Bighorn was fought June 25-26, 1876. The popular version is that American General George Armstrong Custer put up a valiant fight against the combined forces of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes, led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall.
The reality is that the U.S. 7th Cavalry, including the Custer Battalion - a force of 700 men - suffered a severe defeat. Five of the 7th Cavalry’s 12 companies were annihilated. Custer was killed, as were two of his brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law. The total U.S. casualty count, including scouts, was 268 dead and 55 injured.
The precise details of “Custer’s Last Stand” are largely conjectural since none of his men (the five companies under his immediate command) survived the battle. The accounts of surviving Indians are conflicting and unclear.
Custer was found with shots to the left chest and left temple. He appeared to have bled from only the chest wound, meaning his head wound may have been delivered post-mortem. He also suffered a wound to the arm.
Some Lakota oral histories assert that Custer committed suicide to avoid capture and subsequent torture, though this is usually discounted since the wounds were inconsistent with his known right-handedness.
Custer’s body was found near the top of “Custer Hill,” which also came to be known as “Last Stand Hill.” There the United States erected a tall memorial obelisk inscribed with the names of the 7th Cavalry’s casualties. From the bottom of the hill you can see a white marking where Custer fell.
You can say what you want about Custer’s poor judgment at Little Bighorn, but he was brave. He is often criticized by historians who are quick to point out that he graduated last in his class at West Point. But he attain the rank of general
Regardless of how the events unfolded during those two days of fighting at Little Bighorn, one thing is for sure; Custer’s Last Stand has stood the test of time.
In 1896, Anheuser-Busch commissioned from Otto Becker a lithographed, modified version of Cassily Adams’ painting “”Custer’s Last Fight,” which was distributed as a print to saloons all over America. It is reputed to still be in some bars today.
Edward Samuel Paxson completed his painting “Custer’s Last Stand” in 1899.
Noted artist Charles Marion Russell painted “The Custer Fight” in 1903, concentrating on the Indians.
The first Hollywood movie about the battle was released in 1912. There have been dozens made since.
Hundreds of books have been written on the battle. Probably the best is “Son of the Morning Star” by Evan S. Connell. A copy was given to me by a good friend in 1992.
The scene is a living archeological site.
If you have never been to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument I would put it on your “to-do” list. If you have already visited the grounds, you may want to return to it one day. You will be amazed.