Little Bighorn Battlefield
Learn about one of the most famous battles in history
On the hills above the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana, one of the most epochal clashes of American history took place, the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This is one of the West’s most haunted landscapes: on these slopes the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry, led by General George A. Custer, met the forces of the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in battle on June 25, 1876.
The lives and cultures that collided at this battlefield are complex, fascinating and filled with enigma. Ohio-born Custer graduated last in his class at West Point, at 23 became the youngest general in the Union Army’s history and, though court-martialled for being absent without leave after the Civil War, found himself a commanding officer at the Dakota frontier’s Fort Abraham Lincoln when the orders came to force the nomadic Sioux and Cheyenne back on to their Great Sioux Reservation. A growing number of them—perhaps as many as 7,000—had left the reservation in the early summer of 1876 and migrated into Wyoming and Montana territory to live their old way of life.
The Grant administration sent three military columns to campaign against them. Custer and the Seventh Cavalry discovered the Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn, and without waiting for the other units, he divided his 647 men into thirds and took the offensive against one of the largest Indian forces ever gathered, up to 2,000 warriors. In the ensuing battle, 263 men from the Seventh Cavalry were killed, including Custer and his brother, and at least 60 Indian warriors died as well.
What actually happened during the short but decisive battle—most of the fighting was over in three hours on June 25 (although another 350 cavalrymen were held under siege for another day and a half)—is far from certain, and the monument’s excellent Visitor Centre provides compelling exhibits and background. Just up the hill from the Visitor Centre is Last Stand Hill Monument, where the last of the Seventh Cavalry died. Grave markers stand where the bodies of soldiers were found (Custer himself is buried at West Point). To look down the grassy hillside at the markers, some standing alone, others huddled together, many clumped around the swale where Custer’s own body was found, is to vividly experience the full horror of the battle. In 2003, the National Park Service unveiled the Little Bighorn Battlefield Indian Memorial, dedicated to Indian perspectives on the conflict and consisting in part of bronze statues of ‘Spirit Warriors’ representing the warriors and native women involved in the battle.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located on the Crow Indian Reservation; at 2.2 million acres of rolling prairie and rugged foothills, it is Montana’s largest reservation.
In late August, thousands of tribe members and visitors rendezvous to celebrate the Crow Fair, one of the largest American Indian gatherings, with dance contests, a daily parade, an all-Indian rodeo and wild horse racing. This temporary encampment is known as the ‘Tepee Capital of the World’, and you’ll probably never again see this many tepees in one place anywhere else.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.