“You know, Dad, since the nephew/beloved grandchild is here, we should take him up to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. He hasn’t been there, and what is a trip up to see your grandparents without some long, hot, historical event that you won’t appreciate until later in life?” I said. Dad looked at me and laughed, nodding his head in agreement, and that is how mum, dad, and I made plans to pack the nephew/beloved grandchild off to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, sometimes more famously known as Custer’s Last Stand, later that hot week in late July.
If you grow up in Montana, you will study the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It’s a bit like Texan school children studying the Alamo or Pennsylvania children studying Gettysburg in great detail: you do deep dives on what you have. Here are the basic facts:
- On June 25-26, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led his 7th Cavalry against factions of the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapahoe tribes near the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana.
- Custer and his 7th Cavalry numbered about 650 men. The Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapahoe, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, amongst others, numbered 1,500-2,500 braves.
- The battle was a rout, being over in about an hour. None of Custer’s men, namely the five companies under his immediate command (275-odd men), survived the battle. The Indians lost 31 braves in the fight.
My grandfather was a general surgeon in Miles City, Montana. Dad said that when he tagged along with him on house calls, Grandpa Barney would often drop him off at the battlefield to spend the day. Dad remembers wandering the hills, marking out different military maneuvers, denoting which officer had what position. As the site is both a national cemetery and national monument, little if anything has changed since he was a boy. Some 60 years later, Dad could still tell us more than the recorded guides about how the battle took place.
There is hot, there is Africa hot, and there is scorching-in-late-July-on-the-plains hot. The sky blazed above us, the grass burned underfoot. Mum, Dad, the nephew/beloved grandson, and I spent that hot afternoon walking the battlefield, peering at monuments, cemeteries, and grave markers, watching interpretive films. Seeing all of that open space, it was hard to imagine it in June of 1876, a powder keg of hostility and anger and death, of huge Indian villages and Gatling guns that had been drug halfway across the continent. But that is what it was.
For a fictionalized yet brings-it-to-life image, I give you Edgar Paxson’s “Custer’s Last Stand.” This painting–and it is quite famous–is in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum in Cody, Wyoming. Should you find yourself in Cody, I highly recommend stopping in the museum. It is a nice, small museum with some lovely Native American artifacts, historical guns, and photography and art exhibitions.
After the battlefield, we walked over to the Indian Memorial while keeping a sharp eye for rattlesnakes. (It’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for snakes in the summertime or any other time, for that matter.) It was grey granite, shaded and cool and beautiful, horses galloping across the prairie.
While viewing the Indian Memorial, I was reminded of the Bayeux Tapestry. Joel and I first visited Bayeux in 2010 on our whirlwind, around-all-of-France-in-two-weeks trip. We used Bayeux as a base for a few days as we went up to the Normandy beaches, but we couldn’t help but love Bayeux as well. Miraculously, it survived World War II with its cathedrals and buildings mostly intact, and did the 1,000-year-old tapestry. Created using dyed, woolen yarn on linen, the tapestry tells the pictographic story of the Norman Conquest and Battle of Hastings.
Looking at the Indian Monument and the Bayeux Tapestry, now do you see why the one reminded me of the other?
I’m not yet certain if the nephew/beloved grandchild appreciated that day on the battlefield, but I did. I got to watch my dad remember being the age of his grandson, to listen to him talk about something that had fascinated him once upon a time. These battles, almost 850 years apart and on different continents, had much in common, or at least the artistic rendering of them does. I think seeing the tapestry and the memorial gave me a deeper appreciation for both.
While I generally have a suggested reading list for most everything, I do not for William the Conqueror, the Battle of Hasting, the Norman Conquest, G.A. Custer, or the Battle of the Little Bighorn. If you have a favorite book, please suggest it and I’ll add it to my bedside list of things to read.
Fun fact: the opening credits to 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” show the Bayeux tapestry. (If you don’t believe me, you can see it here.)