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August 26, 2013
On a whim last Monday, we decided to cut up through Montana, instead of following our original plan of heading south from Gillette, in central Wyoming, where we had spent Sunday night. I had for many years wanted to see the battleground near the Little Big Horn. In reading accounts of what happened there in June 1876, I had never been able to visualize clearly how George Custer got himself into the situation that led to the deaths of himself and all his men. In this case, as in so many others, the land tells the tale in a way that neither books nor photographs can.
Out and About with Word and Image of Vermont
Custer's Last Stand
The biggest surprise for me was to see the elevation of the spot on which the slaughter took place. Custer perished on a hill from which virtually all the major features of the battle could be seen. It’s easy to imagine how he thought he could hold the top of the rise until reinforcements arrived from below, near the little river from which the battle takes its name. But in the event the reinforcements never arrived. Those units were having troubles of their own and either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fight their way through the fields swarming with Sioux warriors in order to rescue their commander. In the end, Custer and his more than two hundred men were overwhelmed by a foe whose numbers and fury he had grossly underestimated. Actually, he had written his own end earlier, when he divided the 7th Cavalry and sent two thirds of his force down to try to capture the Sioux village on the south bank of the river. He had it in mind that if he could capture the women and children the warriors would lose confidence and move away from the conflict. Instead, he simply increased their anger. They had it written in their hearts what U.S. Army units often did in attacks on Indian villages, and when they saw a chance for real revenge they weren’t about to miss it.
It’s a strange place now, bathed in sadness, haunted by the deaths of the people killed there on that day. It’s a spot in which you can feel the past more intensely than you can at most historical sites. That’s because it symbolizes a great deal about a near-genocidal struggle between people who wanted merely to be left alone to pursue the life they had lived for many generations and a rising force of conquest which was convinced it represented all progress and civilization. The Sioux, though they had their great victory there that day, and continue, in a way, to celebrate it right through till now, had no chance against the modern (for then) military machine the U.S. government could bring into action against them.
Their way of life could not exist alongside the lust for development and the maniacal slaughter of the great buffalo herds on which the traditional existence depended. The killing of those tens of millions of animals, mainly just for the fun of it, is, for me, one of the darkest chapters of American history. Some will say it had to happen. But to reduce a herd of probably fifty million animals down to a single thousand, over the course of a few decades, speaks to me of excess that can’t be excused.