Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On the Road Again - Last Stand

August 26, 2009

I'm having a last stand of my own, although trying to mostly tell about the actual famous Last Stand. The day before our Vacation Bible School started in Plentywood, I because ill with a nasty respiratory disease. After almost 3 weeks of not improving, I finally sought medical attention and was diagnosed with a likely bacterial infection. The first round of antibiotics didn't finish the job, so now I'm on my second, stronger dose...trying and trying to get well enough for the next surgery, which is being put off till the hacking, coughing, and wheezing go away.

So I have lots of sympathy for Custer at his last stand, even though politically incorrect folks, many of them, believe Custer to have been stupid. "Stupid" is most definitely not PC, and may even qualify as a Disrespectful Judgment. But whether he was stupid, or simply tactically challenged, the whole operation was one bungle from start to bloody finish.

July 24, 2009

We awoke in a teepee at our campground close to the battlefield. We hardly even noticed the gravel stabbing holes in our spines. First chance I got, I slipped off with my camera and took the patriotic panorama found at the very end of today's blog. Somehow, I also managed to squeeze in cooking breakfast and making the kids wash dishes.

Now, carefully notice this first picture. What do you notice about it? It's not ugly, exactly, but far from my most beautiful landscape, either. But this innocent-looking, boring place was where the 2-day fight first began.

From a far-distant mountain, right at the tippy top of the point, Custer and his men came on the scene of a massive encampment of numerous tribes, gathering and camping alone the far side of the river. They were so distant, in fact, that the Native guides they had hired were the only ones who could make out the village, campfire smoke, and the many horses. From the battlefield you can just see the peak off in the distance, and it's incredible that anyone could see anything.

The scouts said most firmly that the Natives were too large a body to attack successfully, and wanted to go get reinforcements before engaging them. Well, Custer had received word that hostile Indians had discovered the presence of his men, and he had to decide whether to wait, or attack immediately. General George Armstrong Custer, ultimately in charge of his troops, made the fateful choice to press on, sure he would gain the victory.

We all know how that worked out for him. Ditto for his brother, nephew, and brother-in-law. Ditto lots of other people.

It wasn't even all his fault, if we're going to be fair. Keeping in mind that this was in the days with no radio, TV, or even internet, information was a bit slow getting around. The US government had told Custer that there were about 800 "hostiles", they called them, that he would be facing. And that was correct...until a few weeks earlier when thousands of Native Americans just up and walked off the reservation to join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Yes, thousands.

The agents on the reservations didn't bother to send emails letting people know that they were short a few Indians. Quite a few Indians. They didn't even Twitter. As a result, no one (except Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse) knew what a gargantuan force Custer would come up against. See that great big plain beyond the line of trees? That's where the village stood, and thousands of horses grazed that bright June morning.

Major Reno was the first to engage. He and his men crossed the river, sneaking along the tree-line by the river. The same trees and brush that hid them from the village, also hid the village from them. One can only imagine what they thought when they popped out of hiding and opened fire on what turned out to be a behemoth.

In short order the braves had Reno and his men pinned down in the brush, even setting fires in places to try and drive them out. Coming to his own conclusions about the better part of valor, Reno hollered that anyone who wanted to escape had better follow him, and quick!

They straggled and stumbled up the gorge toward what is now called Reno hill, in such disarray that the native warriors were still laughing about it decades later.

At the top of the hill, they must have been much cheered to have Captain Benteen and a whole bunch of soldier fellas join them right then. The whole batch of them fell to digging rifle pits, which you can still see today. Of the whole group of us, Devon and I were the only ones who saw them. He was being naughty (shhh, don't tell anyone), so he was my trail buddy. Lucky for me he was too young to realize his good fortune, and thought it was an awful punishment, walking with Mom up to Reno's Hill.

Typically in war, the elevated position is the most desirable. This certainly proved true with Reno. Though there were a few close calls, he and his men were able to hold off the warriors until help arrived. They had the additional advantage of guns up on nearby Sniper Hill, as well.

They could hear shooting off to the north, and in disobedience to their orders, some of the men left to try and reach Custer. They could see Indian warriors shooting...something...on the ground, but couldn't see what. Then the warriors from the encampment drove the soldiers back to Reno Hill, where they remained until the next day.

Custer and his men, once they made contact with their opponents, engaged in a running battle strung out across rolling hills, and through little gorges known as coulees, before becoming pinned down at Last Stand Hill. Captain Keogh and his men, apparently trying to join Custer, were taken on by Crazy Horse. At first the men tried to make a stand, and you can still see the sad little cluster of markers where they fought so desperately.

The last few survivors tried to make a run for it, and were picked off one by one, all in a row. The farthest made it perhaps a quarter of a mile from the main body.

Last Stand Hill hardly even qualifies for the name. It's more of a funny little bump in the ground. Though it technically qualifies as elevated ground, there wasn't much advantage to be found there. Not if you were with Custer.

As I stood on the hill and surveyed the landscape, I could see why it was such a hard place to defend. The wide, gently sloping sides grew just a bit steeper right before the top, so instead of sheltering the attackers-turned-defenders, it had a big blind area. If the warriors kept low, they wouldn't see them till they were right on top of their position.

Seeing the seriousness of their situation, the soldiers shot their horses to provide battlements. With the men running low on ammunition and all help either dead on the surrounding hillsides, or pinned down far out of sight, they had to know their chances of survival were slim to none. (None, as it turned out.) The siege couldn't last very long.

Finally, in one sweeping charge, the Native Americans swarmed over the hill, leaving no one alive. The slain from both groups dotted the hillsides over several square miles.

The Indians, for the most part, gathered their dead for burial elsewhere, though markers show the spots where some of them died, and a large memorial commemorates their bravery. The US troops were simply buried where they fell. Later the troops were reinterred atop Last Stand Hill, and the officers buried all over the place. General Custer took up a very permanent residency at West Point.

A large trench was dug for the mass burial of the horses. Later excavations showed they were still contained in the wooden-sided pit, and they even have their own special marker.

At first, Americans in general were terribly outraged by the massacre. In later generations, as the strong feelings became diluted by time, it became possible for most people to accept that this attack, while tragic, was not exactly unprovoked. The native peoples had certainly suffered their share of heartache, loss, and even starvation.

It is certainly not my intention to try and divide up the blame for something that happened back in 1876. It's hard enough to divide the blame amongst my own kids when they get in trouble. (Why sort it out? Consequences for everybody!) Suffice it to say that plenty of bad things happened to both sides, and in this worldwide famous Battle of Greasy Grass Creek, as the Native Americans call it, there was courage aplenty on both sides.

How inspiring it was to visit that quiet, somber place and think of all the brave men who gave their lives, fighting for what they believed in.

A national cemetery now spreads its way down the slope from Last Stand Hill. The brave and honored dead of many wars joined in with Custer's men for one last stand. Frozen in time, there they all wait...together.

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