The Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1876; also known as “Custer’s Last Stand”
This is my favorite battlefield to visit in the whole world. No matter the reason for your visit (understanding the events, capturing the feel of the fight by the young soldiers or learning lessons from the battle to better understand today’s business/organizational challenges), this location has it all. The battlefield also has its own mystique; we know what happened, but for the portion of the fight involving George Custer (about 50% of the battle), we do not know exactly how it transpired. That is because history records that no cavalryman in the five cavalry companies with Custer survived. But many of the soldiers that accompanied Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen lived and later provided a rich story of the biggest fight on the American Western Frontier.
Here are a few tips to remember as you plan your trip. The Little Bighorn was a summer battle that was fought June 25-26. It was almost 100°. You want to visit between mid-May and mid-September. Montana is brutal in the winter (and winter generally is long) and seeing the battlefield with snow on the ground is not getting the true feeling. There are actually three pieces of the battlefield you need to visit to get the entire picture. Plan to see: the Little Bighorn valley fight, the warrior siege of “Reno Hill” and Custer’s fight along the east side of the Little Bighorn – culminating in “Last Stand Hill.”
The valley fight occurred on the western side of the Little Bighorn River. The land is not part of the National Monument; much is private land, but you can see a great deal from the various county roads down there. If you have a copy of Custer’s Best, the photos show you exactly where to go to see the various positions in the valley. The actual battle started there. About an hour after the first shot, Major Reno ordered the three cavalry companies to retreat from their defense in a wood line (it’s still there) across the Little Bighorn. They did, and ended up on a small elevation on top of the bluffs that later would be called “Reno Hill.”
Your second stop should be “Reno Hill.” However, because of the road layout on the battlefield, you enter Battlefield Park at the last phase of the battle and actually drive backward in events several miles to “Reno Hill.” So, first stop at the museum and bookstore. Listen to the presentations by the park rangers, browse through the books, get a guide to the battlefield and then drive all the way through, without stopping, to the end of the battlefield road at “Reno Hill.”
Start at “Reno Hill” and work your way back to “Last Stand Hill.” After you depart “Reno Hill,” you are on the battlefield, where George Custer deployed his forces. There are numerous large roadside plaques describing the various events – be sure and carefully read them. You will also see several hundred white stone markers indicating where soldiers later found remains of the troopers. Most markers have no names, although some for officers do have a name. At “Last Stand Hill,” don’t forget to walk down the trail toward the river, where it is believed many cavalrymen made their own individual last stands.
The Little Bighorn is probably far away from where you live, so feel free to drive back to Reno Hill and then back to “Last Stand Hill” as many times as you wish. Stay on the trails and roads though. You may also want to consider contacting Ken Real Bird to set up a horse ride tour of part of the battlefield between “Reno Hill” and “Calhoun Hill.” We did that the day before I retired from the Army and it was superb. Each year, the reenactment of the Battle of the Little Big Horn takes place at the Real Bird Ranch located right at the historic Medicine Tail Coulee. Ken’s horse ranch is exactly where part of the Lakota village was in 1876.
A handy little book is Traveler’s Guide to the Great Sioux War by Paul L. Hedren.
If we go together, as a life member of the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee, I can show you the hundreds of acres of the battlefield that are not part of the National Monument. This includes the timber line in the valley, and where Lonesome Charley Reynolds was killed, as well as Lieutenant McIntosh.
If you can be near “Last Stand Hill” shortly before dusk, it has a special feeling.