- Historic Sites
The Battle Of The Little Bighorn
Fate brought Custer and Sitting Bull together one bloody June evening at the Little Bighorn—and marked the end of the Wild West
Spring 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 1
Many of the places associated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, on the other hand, proved remarkably unchanged, providing a fascinating opportunity to see what Custer and Sitting Bull had seen 134 years ago. I rode across the irregular hills of the battlefield with Crow tribal member Charlie Real Bird as my guide, and I ventured to the Black Hills in South Dakota, where I had lunch with Ernie LaPointe, the great-grandson of Sitting Bull. I traveled by boat up the Bighorn River to its confluence with the Little Bighorn, where, just a few days after the battle, the 190-foot riverboat Far West had been loaded with 50 wounded soldiers and a horse named Comanche before traveling more than 500 miles to Bismarck, North Dakota, to deliver the first word of the disaster. Only a few miles south of Bismarck is Fort Lincoln, the former home of Custer’s 7th Cavalry. In the summer of 2007, after spending several days at the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Sitting Bull’s final home, I embarked on a four-day road trip as I followed Custer’s route more than 300 miles west to Last Stand Hill in south central Montana.
Two years later, during the summer of 2009, I had what I’ve since realized was my most instructive visit to the battlefield. By that time I’d completed a first draft of my book and was as familiar with the written sources as I was ever going to get. One of those sources, a 26,000-word first- person narrative that raised as many questions as it answered, had made it imperative that I return to the scene of the battle.
The question of evidence is central to any work of history, but it is especially important to understanding the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Even before the fighting was over, many of the 7th Cavalry’s survivors had begun to calculate how to cast their actions in the best possible light. A subsequent court of inquiry only compounded the prevarications, and in the following decades the controversial nature of the battle inevitably influenced the way it was remembered.
Problems of evidence also plagued native accounts. In the years after the battle, many warriors were concerned that they might suffer some form of retribution if they didn’t tell their white inquisitors what they wanted to hear. Then there were the problems associated with the interpreters, many of whom had their own agendas.
From the beginning of my research, I found myself intrigued and perplexed by an account written by Peter Thompson, a 22-year-old private who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the battle. Thompson should have died with Custer. Luckily for him, his horse gave out, and he was forced to follow after his leader on foot. Thompson eventually managed to join up with Reno’s battalion and as a consequence lived to tell about his experiences along the Little Bighorn.
Thirty-eight years later, Thompson published his own account of the battle, in which he insisted that, while wandering along the river in search of his battalion, he had come across none other than George Armstrong Custer, on his horse Vic, just an hour or so before his death. At the time of its publication, many readers found it difficult to believe Thompson’s account. In addition to the claim of having seen Custer all alone by the river, the narrative described several other seemingly improbable occurrences.
In the decades since its appearance, most scholars have chosen to ignore, if not dismiss, Thompson’s account. From the first time I read it, however, I was struck by how Thompson conveyed an authentic sense of the disorientation and randomness of battle. I also began to notice that in the last decade or so there had been several instances in which notable Little Bighorn scholars, including the archaeologist Richard Fox and historian Richard Hardorff, had looked to Thompson’s narrative for corroboration of other accounts. After years of neglect, Thompson seemed to be making a comeback. Then I read evidence from a 2004 conference suggesting that Thompson had begun assembling notes for his narrative soon after the battle. Instead of the hazy recollections of an old man looking back, Thompson’s narrative was apparently based on memories that had been recorded within months of the fighting.
It wasn’t until early last summer, soon after completing the first draft of The Last Stand , that I managed to track down one of the presenters at that conference, a resident of Rapid City, South Dakota, named Rocky Boyd. Rocky had spent years researching Peter Thompson, and after several phone calls and a lengthy e-mail exchange, we made plans to meet at the battlefield in early July.
Rocky arrived with his daughter, Kelly, and his seven-year-old grandson, Andrew. For my part, I was accompanied by Mike Hill, my friend and researcher. We secured permits from the park rangers to go “off road” in search of Thompson’s trail. The plan was for Rocky and Andrew to remain on the bluffs, where Rocky would direct Mike, Kelly, and me (all of us sporting ranger-provided orange vests) by cell phone as we tramped over the dusty, sun-baked banks of the Little Bighorn.
It proved to be an extraordinary afternoon. After three and a half years of research, I began to see the ravines, coulees, and bluffs along the Little Bighorn in an entirely different way. Instead of a stretch of terrain to be analyzed and evaluated, this was now a living landscape of fear, exhilaration, and suffering.