Well, another day…another shaking up of the Jello in our travel plans but more on that later.
Tuesday and Wednesday (Sep 8-9) were devoted to transiting from Great Falls MT over to Devil’s Tower WY. Our original plan was to stop overnight at the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area…but as is common in the west our plans were faulty. The recreation area has two entrances…south and north…but they’re about 200 miles driving apart despite being only 30 or so miles apart as the crow flies. Naturally…our planned route was near the northern entrance…and just as naturally all the really cool stuff was down at the southern entrance. So…after looking at the miles and days we decided to skip this area for this trip and looked for other alternatives. Turns out that the Little Big Horn National Monument (of George Armstrong Custer last stand fame) was almost half way between Great Falls and Devil’s Tower so that seemed to be a good stopping point. We had previously stopped over at Hardin MT just a few miles north of the battlefield…but Connie wasn’t up to a trip to the monument that evening so despite being in the area we had not seen the park. Sounded like a decision to us…after a bit of research we decided that a couple of hours at the battlefield was enough of a stop so we set off early Tuesday morning with plans to stop by the battlefield, watch the movie, tour what we could, and then head on another 10 miles to a planned stopping point at the Seventh Ranch RV Park in Garryowen MT.
We had to backtrack about 5 miles west from Malmstrom AFB fam camp to get fuel, DEF, and propane…then head 5 miles back east past Malmstrom before heading east and south to the Little Big Horn Area.
We arrived at the monument, got parked, and headed into the visitor center. Turned out that the 25 minute movie was starting in 8 minutes and the last Ranger Talk of the day was after that so we lucked into a perfect setup as far as hearing the history of the battle. After a pretty decent movie and a truly outstanding talk by Brett our park ranger on the how/why/what/where of the battle we set out to get a few pictures of the monument.
Ok…a short digression into what happened in the battle. After a treaty with the Indians in 1868 a large area between the Black Hills in SD and the Rockies was legally “unceded Indian Territory”…which meant it belonged to the Indians. Large numbers of Lakota Sioux and allied tribes moved into this area rather than onto the reservation to continue their Indian way of life…they established a village on the Little Big Horn River which ended up having in excess of 8,000 Indians living in it…far in excess of most villages that the US was familiar with. In 1876, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of SD so the US ended up issuing an edict that said the Indians had to move onto the reservation by the end of January 1877 or else be considered hostile…which meant that the US Army would enforce moving them onto the reservation. Naturally…the Indians at the village in the Unceded Indian Territory ignored this edict…which meant that the Army set up a campaign to force them to comply…this campaign consisted of a three pronged attack on the village (which was at an unknown location to the Army at the time) from the west, south, and east.
Colonel George Custer and his 5 companies of the 7th Cavalry were part of the eastern arm of the campaign and all went well for awhile. The three prongs of the campaign all had Indian scouts to help them locate the enemy.
Unfortunately the first column to find the enemy was the one coming up from the south…which encountered heavy resistance including Indian armies which decided to stand and fight. There were several issue with this. First…this was the first time that the Indians engaged in an actual battle with US forces…previously they had only conducted guerrilla attacks then run away to fight another day. The Indians that encountered the southern column forced them to turn back so they had no further action in the campaign. Unfortunately the commander of the southern column (a) failed to tell the other two columns that he was turning back and (b) failed to tell the other two columns that the Indians in this case were standing to fight instead of scattering.
Meanwhile…the east column which was comprised of the Custer’s 7th Cavalry units continued west and eventually came upon the village at the Little Big Horn…their scouts informed Custer that the village was large (about 80,000 Indians with 20,000 ponies) and that Custer’s 600 or so troops were outnumbered and outgunned.
Unfortunately this point was not gotten across to Custer’s command council…and he ended up splitting his forces twice…once to have about 1/2 of them cross the Little Big Horn south of the village to block the Indians as they tried to scatter as usual. Second…he dispatched about half of the remaining forces to cross the river and attack the village to be supported by Custer and the remaining 150 or so troops.
During the attack…things went terribly wrong…the 1/2 that crossed the river to block the scatter were driven back by heavy opposition and eventually got on the bluffs about 3 miles south of Custer’s Last Stand position…this force of about 350 troopers were able to establish a defensive perimeter and hold on until the relief column (which turned out to be the column approaching from the west) got there 2 days later.
Col Custer and his 150 remaining troopers were opposed by about 1,800 Indian warriors and retreated to what became known later as Last Stand Hill…most of the troopers were cut off and overrun individually while Custer and 41 troops made it to the top of the hill. They formed a semicircular line of defense facing westward toward the river…but were unaware that another 1,000 or so braves were in their rear immediately over the ridge. When those braves attacked from the rear the outcome was no longer in doubt and Custer’s small group was wiped out.
So…what happened? Essentially the Indian failed to act as they had in the past, Custer pressed the attack in the face of forces that outnumbered him, those forces outnumbered him more than he thought they did.
Anyway…the movie and Brett’s talk were really good and bought the entire why/how of the battle to a clarity that none of us really had beforehand. Much like the docent rangers at the Civil War battlefields back in the east that we’ve seen…being on the ground, looking at the terrain, and understanding what happened and why made it a lot clearer to us than reading about it in a dull history text.
Ok, on to the pictures…the entire battle took place over an area about 5 miles by 2 miles so it wasn’t as much a single pitched battle as a series of small skirmishes and the Indians were lucky enough to mass overwhelming numbers at each point of the day long engagement.
Looking north fro the visitor center toward Last Stand Hill…this is where Custer and his 41 troopers bodies were found.
Looking 90 degrees to the right from the above shot…the tree line is where the Little Big Horn River is located…the large village was across the river and to the right of this shot.
The memorial at the top of Last Stand Hill…the remains of the dead troopers are all buried underneath this memorial and there are headstones around the whole battlefield where each was actually found.
Looking west from the top of Last Stand Hill toward the river…treelike in the background. The visitor center where the first two photos were taken from is just out of sight to the right of the frame. The black headstone just left of center is where Custer’s body was found. Strangely enough…although almost all the other bodies were mutilated beyond recognition Custer’s was left alone out of respect for his bravery. Galt, the Indian who led the attack on this position later described Custer and his troops on top as the bravest warriors he had ever fought and that he respected them deeply for their courage in fighting to the last man.
Looking toward the ridge where the 350 survivors were entrenched…just left of center frame.
Sculpture at the Indian Memorial that was added many years after the establishment of the monument to honor the 60 Indian dead during the battle. As for the cavalry troops…headstones are scattered throughout the battlefield where each fell.
With our day at the monument done…we headed off to the campground. This was a really great campground…nicely terraced, great views, and friendly folks. We could easily have stayed here a couple of days and just chilled out.
Our site A-26.
Looking the other way towards the Little Big Horn which essentially parallels the freeway here.
Wednesday morning we got up and headed out the remaining 230 miles to Devil’s Tower. This is a look over the valley and the Big Horn Mountains to the west once we crossed into Wyoming from Montana.
And here’s where the Jello got shaken up. On our arrival at Devil’s Tower we headed into the no hookups boon docking campground on the National Monument…and quickly found out that while there was 1 campsite we would fit in we would not have been able to unhitch…so we gave up on the idea of spending 3 full days chilling out and headed over about 2 miles away to the Devil’s Tower KOA campground…which as you can see from this photo has even better views of the tower than from the campground on the monument.
We stayed here 1 extra night so that we could go over and see the monument…details to follow in the next post…then we’ll head east 2 days to Omaha NE on Friday morning and spend the weekend there before pressing on to Indianapolis for a Wednesday arrival.