Battle of the Little Big Horn

Today, dear reader, allow me to introduce to you three bright characters from the past whose stories have withstood the test of time and given them a small amount of fame in the history of America.  These characters are three men who shared some similarities; but it was their differences that brought their three paths together for a brief moment in history.  While the general outcome of their moment in history is well known by most Americans, the more singular facts of their meeting for so many of us have either never surfaced or have simply been forgotten.  Part of our purpose in travelling is to uncover these forgotten or never learned details for points of interest to us, and today, we are attracted by the merits of three brave and courageous leaders and their confrontation at the Little Big Horn.

Immediately, when we refer to the Little Big Horn, the most forthwith notions that come to mind are the differences and opposition of the players that day.  We can see an image of the Plains Indian War that was already raging and the battle lines seem to be clearly drawn.  We see the clash of two distinct cultures whose every thought and use of land itself is contrary, yet here they are on the same solid gorund.  What struck me during our visit to the Little Big Horn Battlefield was not the opposition of the rivals, but their comparative similarities.  At the battlefield, I found three men that shared courage and bravery, each with a sense of honor and duty that inspired the men around them.  Each of the three are believed to have been born in the 1830s.  All three were leaders of men, one as a spiritual leader and the other two as military leaders.  They were all well-respected in their cultures, two were raised as Lakota Sioux, while the other was raised in the United States.  While their similarities began to link the men in my mind, it was their differences that brought them together on June 25, 1876 near the Little Big Horn River.  They fought for different causes, but one would lose that day, and he would lose greatly:  his life, the lives of all of his men and his reputation of success in battle.

Now, the time comes for me to share more about these three characters and what took place at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in accordance with the information given at the battlefield national monument in Montana.

Tatanka-iyotanka (Sitting Bull)  Sitting Bull was born in to the Sioux Nation in the 1830s.  At first, he was considered not very adept in warrior ways, but at the age of 10, he killed his first buffalo.  He went on to establish himself as a great warrior and fought in several battles against the US Army.  He gained respect for skills and leadership and became chief of the Lakota Nation.  He embodied the Lakota virtues of bravery, generosity, wisdom and honesty.  At the Fort Laramie Treaty, the Sioux were given the Black Hills as part of their reservation land, but once gold was found there in the 1870s, the Black Hills were opened for settlement and the treaty was broken.  Sitting Bull defended his people’s land and openly despised the reservation lifestyle.  He clung to the Lakota way of life that he was raised in.  As a spiritual leader, he led bands of Sioux and Cheyenne against the US Army.  In 1876, he led the annual Sun Dance Ceremony where he cut fifty pieces of flesh from each arm and danced, which led to a vision in which he saw the defeat of the US Army.  He led his bands in to present-day Montana seeking open territory for them to live traditionally.  They were a party of around 7,000.  Two Moons stated, “We went over the divide and we camped in the valley of the Little Bighorn.  Everybody thought, now we are out of the white man’s country.  He can live there, we will live here.”

Tashunka Witco (Crazy Horse)  Crazy Horse was also born in to the Lakota Sioux nation, but he was of the Oglala tribe.  Like Sitting Bull, he was raised during the height of the Lakota Nation.  He was raised in the Lakota way of life, and he would choose to fight for that way of life as an adult when white settlers began to encroach more and more on Lakota land.  Crazy Horse was known to be uncompromising from the beginning and set apart from his people.  He had fairer skin and curly hair.  He killed his first buffalo by the age of 12, and excelled in the warrior skills so valued in his culture.  He had a vision in his youth of a warrior who could not be killed by bullets, which he believed for himself.  He was very humble and did not boast of his successes as other warriors did.  He even wore the plain dress he saw in his vision as opposed to decorating himself as extravagantly as the other warriors.  His legend grew when he rode in front of enemy lines without receiving a single bullet or arrow wound.  He quickly became a leader of warriors, and he was a main player in several battles with white men including the Fetterman Massacre.  He despised reservation life and refused to move to a reservation at the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty.  From the beginning, he set himself against the US Army to defend the Lakota way of life.  On his way to join Sitting Bull’s encampment on the Little Big Horn, he would defeat General George Crook and turn them back from advancing on Sitting Bull.

George Armstrong Custer  Custer was born in Ohio in 1839.  He was a cadet in the United States Military Academy at West Point from which he graduated in 1861 and pursued a career in the cavalry.  During the Civil War, he fought for the Union and was successful in the majority of his battles.  His legend grew when he had 11 horses shot from under him and only received one artillery shell wound.  He was said to have “Custer Luck”.  In 1864, he married Libbie.  He steadily rose in rank throughout the war and was renowned for consistently leading from the front of his troops and always the first to engage the enemy in battle.  His confidence and courage distinguished him among his men.  After the War, he was promoted to Lt. Colonel of the US 7th Cavalry Regiment.  He began to learn the fighting ways of the Indian Wars during the Kansas/Colorado Campaign.  Although he did not see a lot of action, following the campaign he found his reputation tarnished for the first time.  He was arrested and served one year suspension without pay after being convicted of absence without leave, prejudice of good order and military discipline and ordering deserters shot without trial and refusing them medical attention.  After being reinstated, he led his troops against the Cheyenne.  He also served in a campaign against the Indian raids along the Northern Pacific Railroad near Yellowstone.  Next, he led the military exploration of the Black Hills in 1874.  The Army had first wanted to establish a fort there to help protect Lakota land and end raids on homesteaders.  Instead, his expedition proved the rumors of gold in the Black Hills to be true which led to a Gold Rush, the diminishing of the Fort Laramie Treaty and the loss of the Black Hills for the Sioux.  In the Spring of 1876, President Grant ordered a military campaign against the non-reservation Lakota and Cheyenne to force them back to the Great Sioux Reservation.  The Army dispatched 3 columns, and Custer found himself leading the cavalry in the largest column leaving from Fort Abraham Lincoln.  His column’s commander was General Alfred Terry who ordered Custer ahead to be the striking force of what they knew to be a large Lakota force ahead of them.  In compliance with General Terry’s strategy, Custer led his men to the Little Big Horn where he found Sitting Bull’s large encampment.

The Battle  To inform you of the battle, I thought is would be easiest to see actual footage from the battlefield, so here is a video…

After the battle… One of the things I love about Custer is that he must have been a good husband.  While some of his decision as a military leader showed foolhardiness and even had him court martialed at one point, I think we can agree that what he did not display was cowardice.  His merits lay in his courage and willingness to lead from the front.  His wife’s unending devotion to her husband is clear.  Elizabeth Custer held a perfect picture of Custer in her mind and that is what she steadfastly shared with the world.  She held her husband up before the public honoring his memory through her writings and lectures.  She chose to remain a widow for 57 years before dying at the age of 92 in 1933.

While Sitting Bull was a victor at the Little Big Horn, his troubles did not end there.  After the battle, he led his people in to Canada, but the harsh conditions there brought starvation among his people.  Sitting Bull was forced to surrender to the Army and was taken to the Standing Rock Agency in the Dakota Territory in 1881.  From there, he actually joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show from 1885 to 1890.  I have often pondered this era and how strange to live in a time when the life a person grew up in became totally non-existent and yet became an amusement for thousands around the world.  And so, the great Lakota spiritual leader, Sitting Bull, became a part of the show and enjoyed a friendship with Annie Oakley.  In 1890, he returned to reservation life.  During the Ghost Dance movement, he was seen as a threat by the army and his arrest was ordered.  He refused and in the skirmish was shot and killed by the arresting officer (several other men were killed on both sides as well).  Only two weeks after his death, the Battle of Wounded Knee would end the Plains Indian War.

Unlike Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse chose to continue to fight the US Army after the battle.  But, as his people faced the harsh winter of 1877, they began to abandon him.  Crazy Horse surrendered at Fort Robinson in Nebraska recognizing that the buffalo were gone and the Lakota way of life could not be sustained without them.  He was instructed to stay on the reservation, but he broke these orders to take his sick wife to her parents and was arrested.  He was returned to Fort Robinson and killed there in a struggle with some officers.  He was bayoneted.

And as we leave the battlefield, so too we leave these three characters from American history behind.  But, not without taking with us a lesson from their courage, their perseverance and their uncompromising values.George & Libbie Custer. Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument

7th Cavalrymen. Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument

Little Big Horn National Monument. Little Big Horn National Monument.

Sitting Bull's Bow & Arrows. Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument

Visiting Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument is a great stop on your Montana travels! They do offer limited RV parking, but we found the site to be much more crowded than we anticipated, and the lot was full.  We ended up parking at the first pull off on the road and walking down to the visitor center.  There is an informative museum, a movie and we even caught a ranger talk about the battle there.  The ranger talk was excellent – he was very animated and his excitement poured in to the gathered crowd.  From there, we did the five mile road stopping at the viewpoints and traversing the trail at the end of the road that explains the beginning of the battle.  The road itself is narrow – it is passable in an RV but is tight with oncoming traffic.  There is also a national cemetery on the grounds.  Also, it was in the 90s the day of our visit in August 2016, so be prepared with plenty of water.       

About Jen

I love travel, which led me to become a fulltime RVer. I love wellness, which I can talk about 'til the cows come home. I love being self-employed, which means I get to dabble in what interests me from essential oils to RV planners. But most importantly, I love my husband and our life together on the road!

4 comments on “Battle of the Little Big Horn

  1. If I recall correctly, Custer was a union calvary leader during the battle of Gettysburg.

    • Yes, that is right! He did fight at Gettysburg, and it was one of the battles that bolstered his public image. Thanks, Josh, for the reminder!

  2. Have you visited the Rosebud battlefield? This is where Crazy Horse and Brigadier George Crook met and fought about a week before the Little Big Horn battle, The sites are about 50 miles apart.. Many of the same Sioux and Cheyenne warriors were there and used similar tactics as used on the Little Big Horn battle. Crook was lucky. He was able to disengage and retreat,.

    • Hi, Bill! Thanks for sharing this! We have not visited Rosebud, but I will add it to the list. We really enjoyed our time in Montana, and definitely want to go back. We did visit Fort Robinson in Nebraska, where Crazy Horse died.

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