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Published: April 15th 2013
Why visit Custer's Battlefield? I know. I keep asking myself the same question. It's not exactly on the beaten track. Even today the event is the subject of endless revisionist histories.
Was it really Custer's fault? Was Reno drunk that day? Did Benteen's failure to act on Custer's orders to bring up the requested packs cause the final debacle?
Every American history buff has a mutt in this infamous fight. It has always fascinated me. Between the Errol Flynn movie and 'Little Big Man' and my reading of 'Son of the Morningstar'
and that Godawful color print my Grandmother had hanging in a dark corner of her basement showing Indians scalping soldiers while horses, reared, wide-eyed with fright; I've
quite simply always had a yen to see the place.
The battlefield park is less than 2 miles square. The surrounding area is privately owned. The site of the Indian village is now covered by farm fields and buildings. The park itself is
located in the middle of a Crow Indian reservation. There's a small monolith engraved with the names of the troopers, markers showing where the bodies of the soldiers were found, a memorial to the fallen Indians and
a grave site bearing the troopers' horses. And just to confuse matters there's also another cemetery populated with US Cavalry troopers who were not connected with Custer.
The park is reached via I-90. Just outside the park is a replica of an old western fort built of logs. Inside there is a gift shop and an eatery. There were very few people in the park when we arrived. The staff consisted of 3 Rangers. One at the entrance to collect the $5 entry fee. There was a sign on the ticket booth announcing that due to the 'Sequester' the park had to close at 4:30 PM. I asked the Ranger what time the park normally closed and she told me 5 PM so I guess the 'Sequester' wasn't having much effect. One Ranger in the gift shop/ museum. The shop sells books about Custer or the battle or both. So many books. Outside the shop is a Crow Indian Ranger who is posted there to answer any questions you might have. While we were there, his time was being monopolized by some woman who was researching a book she claimed to be writing. She was an odd character. She
The supposed sites where individual 7th Cavalry troops fell. The black colored marker is Custer's.
looked like the paramour who shot Robert Redford in 'The Natural' before jumping out of a hotel window. The Crow Ranger looked as if he wished that this woman would do the same but she wasn't going anywhere.
Inside the gift shop is a small museum with some artifacts taken from the archaeological studies that were done in the 1980's. There are also some of Custer's personal items and a theater that was supposed to be showing a 25-minute film about the park on a medium-sized flat screen TV set up in front of a bunch of empty chairs. When we arrived there was a note on the TV telling you to ask the Ranger in the gift shop if you wanted to see the film but the Ranger seemed so engrossed in the newspaper she was reading that we decided not to bother her.
The setting: The Black Hills and the surrounding area are one of the strangest sights I have ever seen. Wide, shallow, grass-covered hills spreading out as far as the eye can see. This is 'Big Sky' country and indeed you feel as if you are under an indigo-blue bed sheet pulled down tight
Point to Which Reno Retreated
The farm beyond the tree-line is where the 7,000 strong Indian village lay.
at the corners. Between the hills are steep gullies and washes. I wondered how Custer even began a search of such a vast area holding so many hiding places. The boundaries of the park encompass only the site of Custer's demise. The beginnings of the battle actually occurred nearly 6 miles away where Reno made his retreat and joined forces with Benteen. I would advise anyone visiting the park to start their tour there. This area is accessed via a meandering roadway which follows the ridge-line that overlooked the Indian encampment. Start there and follow the signage back to the park. Once I had done so, the mechanics of the struggle became
crystal clear to me and in the end I was amazed that any of the soldiers involved in this fight survived at all. In addition to the road signs there is also a recorded description of the goings
on that you can access via your cell phones. A really neat and helpful invention.
When we departed I found that I had learned a great deal about this chapter of American history above and beyond what I had gleaned from historians. It's one of those cases where; You
just have to be there.
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