The Little Bighorn

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In the fall of 1960 a novelty-song about Custer’s Last Stand climbed its way inexplicably onto the Billboard charts. To the ominous beat of a tom-tom, an Andy Devine sound-alike named Larry Verne, portraying a trooper of the 7th Cavalry, implored, “Please, Mr. Custer. I don’t want to go,” in a cracking, hopeless chorus.

All through the sixties they kept replaying “Mr. Custer,” and I suppose it was meant to be funny. But every time Custer himself shouted, “Squad ho!” in the distance, and war whoops rose in an engulfing crescendo, a chill crawled up the spine of at least one American adolescent entertaining premonitions of the draft and Vietnam.

“Mr. Custer” was by no means my first exposure to the Custer legend. As far back as I can remember, I have watched the general make his stand in movies, comics, paintings—watched so intently that despite all the disabusing histories I read, George Armstrong Custer has stood tall in my imagination, battling alone among the gallant dead and dying of his doomed command, his long hair blowing in the dust and smoke, his saber upraised against the lurid horde, gloriously poised on eternity’s brink.

Perhaps the battle there is so strangely compelling because it isn’t over yet

Perhaps with a mind to put away such childish things, I fly to Montana to see what remains of the Custer myth and drive from Billings to the battlefield on a dazzling morning in June, a few days shy of the 115th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I suspect that the economically depressed Montana I am traversing is not the posterity Custer intended to bestow: a dead porcupine putrefying on the tarmac of Highway 90; miles of fence and high-tension wire and feed crops; a few dozing, rectangular cattle; a scattering of minimarts and modular houses; and a jet spurting vapor overhead—all of man’s works still dwarfed by the northern Great Plains themselves, an infinitude of grassy swells under a deep blue dome.

 

The Custer Battlefield lies on the Crow Agency off Interstate 90, about fifteen miles out of Hardin, Montana, and covers 765 acres of contested ground. Four and a half miles of ridgetop road connect two distinct portions: Last Stand Hill to the north, with its visitors’ center, museum, monument, and national cemetery, and the entrenchment to the south, where, under the erratic Maj. Marcus Albert Reno, more than half the 7th Cavalry, cut off from Custer, survived two days’ blistering siege.

Despite all the disabusing histories I read, Custer has stood tall in my imagination.

As I pull into the parking lot, I have to wonder how we plump, pale descendants of the pioneers, disembarking from our minivans and rental cars, sorting through our coolers, checking the batteries in our camcorders, could possibly understand the likes of General Custer, let alone the valiant nomads who finished him off.

American families in shorts, bickering and road-weary, climb and descend the macadam path to Last Stand Hill, the women stumping along with their aim-and-shoots, the children fidgeting with their Nintendo Gameboys, the men in caps explaining with the instant authority of sports fans—“Now listen to me, kids”—that the marble stones that punctuate the battlefield mark where the troopers are buried (they don’t exactly), that the fighting was hand to hand (it wasn’t), that the Sioux tricked Custer (they didn’t), that he is buried beneath the monument on Custer Hill (if he is, it’s inadvertent; he’s supposed to be buried at West Point, but some believe that in 1877 a burial detail may have shipped the wrong set of disinterred remains, in which case an enlisted man has been impersonating an officer for more than a century).

The battlefield interpreters provided by the National Park Service do their diplomatic best to free the tourists of their misapprehensions, lecturing to them in rotating shifts under the veranda of the visitors’ center. Robert Rybolt, a wide, bald, bearded man with a drawling Paul Harvey delivery, stands in his ranger outfit and tries to orient the crowd to the distant Wolf Mountains, from whose heights Custer—squinting perhaps through the retrieved binoculars that now stare out from a display case in the adjacent museum—failed to sight the largest encampment of Plains Indians in the history of the continent: a thousand Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho lodges stretched across three and a half miles of the western bank of the Little Bighorn River, perhaps ten thousand men, women, and children, and so many ponies that Ouster’s scouts saw them through the morning haze as a writhing of worms.