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Little Bighorn Battlefield

We are parked approximately three miles from where Sitting Bull’s encampment was during the Battle of Little Bighorn. Visiting the battlefield has been on my bucket list since I planned this year’s travels.

Upon entering the park, the first this you see is the Custer National Cemetery. It was established in 1886, whereas the Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought a full decade earlier.

And the Indian Memorial

The Indian Memorial commemorates the sacrifice of the Arikara, Apsaalooke, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Oyate tribes in the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they fought to protect their diverse values and traditional way of life.

Here’s a history lesson of the battle compliments of the National Park Service, Little Bighorn Battlefield brochure:

The army’s campaign against the Lakota and Cheyenne called for three separate expeditions – one under General George Cook with around 1,000 calvary and infantry from Fort Fettermen in Wyoming Territory, another under Col. John Gibbon a 450-man force of combined cavalry and infantry from Fort Ellis in Montana Territory, and the third under Gen. Alfred H Terry with 879 men from Fort Abraham in Dakota Territory.   

It was expected that any one of these three forces would be able to deal with the 800-1,500 warriors they likely were to encounter.

Crook’s troopers were knocked out of the campaign around June 17th when they clashed with a large Lakota – Cheyenne force along the Rosebud River and were forced to withdraw. The Indians, full of confidence at having thrown back on of the army’s columns, moved toward the Little Bighorn River. 

Terry ordered Custer and the 7th Calvary to approach Little Bighorn from the South, while Terry and Gibbon’s forces would approach from the north.

The 7th Calvary, numbering around 600 men, located the Indian camp of approximately 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, including 1,500 to 2,000 warriors, led by Sitting Bull, on June 25th.

Area of Indian Encampment

Custer, probably underestimating the size and fighting power of the Lakota and Cheyenne, divided his regiment into three battalions.  Custer retained five companies (210 men) and assigned three companies each to Maj. Marcus Reno (140 men), and Capt. Frederick W. Benteen (125 men). The fourth segment was assigned to guard the slow-moving pack train with ammunition and supplies.

Benteen was ordered to scout the bluffs to the south, while Custer and Reno headed toward the Indian camp in the valley of the Little Bighorn. When near the river, Custer turned north toward the lower end of the encampment. Reno was ordered to cross the river and attack the upper end of the camp. A large force of Lakota warriors rode out from the southern edge of the encampment to intercept him. Forming his men into a line of battle, Reno attempted to make a stand, but there were just too many Indians. And he was forced to retreat in disorder to the river and take up defensive positions on the bluffs beyond.

No one knew precisely where Custer and his command had gone, but heavy gunfire to the north indicated that he too had come under attack. As soon as the ammunition could be dispersed, Reno and Benteen moved northward. An advance company under Capt. Thomas B Weir marched about a mile to a high hill (afterwards named Weir Point) from which the area now known as the Custer battlefield was visible. By now the firing had stopped and nothing could be seen of Custer and his men. When the rest of the soldiers arrived on the hill, they were attacked by a large force of Indians. Here the seven companies entrenched and held their defenses throughout that day and the next. The siege ended when the Indians withdrew upon learning of the approach of the columns under Terry and Gibbons.

Reno-Benteen Monument

In the battle, the 7th Cavalry lost the five companies under Custer, 210 men. Of the other companies, under Reno and Benteen, 53 men were killed and 52 were wounded. The Indians had no more than 100 killed.  

On June 28, 1876, three days after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, survivors of the 7th U.S. Cavalry under the command of Major Marcus A. Reno began the painful task of burying Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s command. The men were buried where they fell in shallow graves, marked with wooden tipi poles collected from the abandoned Indian village. In 1877, the partial remains of Lt. Col. Custer and many of the officers were re-interred at various location in the eastern U.S., Custer’s remains were re-interred at West Point, New York. In 1881, a granite memorial was erected on Last Stand Hill by the War Department. The remains of soldiers and attached personal buried on the field were collected and re-interred in a mass grave around the base of the granite memorial on Last Stand Hill

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument lies within the Crow Indian Reservation in southeast Montana, one mile west of I-90. Crow Agency is two miles north. Billings Montana is 65 miles northwest, and Sheridan Wyoming is 70 miles to the South.

If you’re in the area, plan a visit, you won’t be disappointed.

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