The Little Bighorn


A lot of tourists sitting along benches on the veranda seem distracted: they load cameras, consult maps, stare off across the dappled zigzag of the river below—but a few are plainly transfixed by Rybolt’s vivid exposition, and when he is done, and the others file up the hill to the monument or return to their cars, they fall behind to ask him questions—“So nobody really knows what happened to Custer?” “You mean he might have got shot at the river?” After a while I can see a new light flaring in their eyes, the idée fixe of the incipient buff glinting from their sunburned faces.

Every June the middle-aged fancies of a variety of American males lightly turn to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Going it alone or dragging their families behind them, Custer buffs, collectors, enthusiasts, historians, and assorted obsessives arrive from all over the country to attend the Last Stand reenactment at the Crow Agency down the road and sign up for the symposium and tours arranged by the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association, which administers the battlefield museum, library, and bookshop.

Pent up with their obsession for 360 days of the year, they arrive at the Little Bighorn bursting with stuff no one but a fellow aficionado can appreciate: a cavalry button from a yard sale, a letter from a survivor’s relative, a new theory about the marker stones, a 7th Cavalry memorial belt buckle, a set of prints, a Custer calendar, a resin bust of the general.


The trouble is that they all burst with this stuff at once, and the required response to the blurted revelations of one’s fellows is to appear monumentally unimpressed. I watch as a buff in a Stetson listens distractedly to an elderly man’s boyhood recollection of meeting a veteran of the battle named Shaughnessy. (The last white survivor of the siege on Reno Hill, a trooper named Charles Windolph, died in 1950 at the age of ninety-eight.) Fidgeting in his pockets, feigning attention with a forbearance that seems to cause him almost physical pain, the buff finally breaks in during one of the old man’s inhalations. He withdraws a succession of captioned and laminated snapshots he has taken of one of Ouster’s campsites in the Black Hills, where, in 1874, the general’s extravagant reports of gold “among the grass roots” let loose a deluge of prospectors onto the Sioux’s sacrosanct hunting grounds. During the Stetsoned buff’s exposition the elderly man hums to himself and gives each cherished snapshot a perfunctory glance.

Very little about the Last Stand is certain, but listening to these generally conservative and quasi-military men—many of whom believe that Custer represents certain endangered manly virtues—you would think that “you can bet your life” on a lot of what they tell you, and “that’s for damn sure.”

And so a certain truculence greets the speakers of the Fifth Annual Little Big Horn Symposium at the Hardin Middle School on Friday, where the papers include “Gall: Sioux Gladiator or White Man’s Pawn?,” “The Cartridge Case Evidence on Custer Field,” and “An Examination of the Similarities Between the Battle of Isandhlwana and the Little Bighorn.”

A plucky, bespectacled lawyer from Maryland named Joe Sills, Jr., gives a solid defense of the testimony of the Crow Scouts who were wise enough to part company with Custer just before he attacked the Sioux. But after a couple of ornery questions from the floor, he mutters, “I don’t know why I do these things,” and walks away from the microphone.

A San Franciscan buff gives a slide show on the later years of a Custer lieutenant named Varnum who was the first trooper to sight the Sioux’s encampment. Varnum’s subsequent career seems notable mainly for his having ordered that a fellow officer’s unfaithful wife be held down and beaten with barrel staves.

“O.K. Next slide,” says the buff, craning around toward the screen in his full-dress cavalry jacket. “Now, O.K. This is Varnum’s house, O.K.? Next slide. O.K. O.K. Now, this is the street he walked down on the way to his club, O.K.? He would walk right down this very street, O.K.? O.K. Next slide...”

Out in the lobby, as buffs peruse Custer T-shirts, videos, and books, an angry wife asks her husband why he comes to these things.

“You don’t even stay awake,” she tells him.

The landscape around the Little Bighorn is complicated and deceptive.

“Do too,” replies her husband, sheepishly scanning the crowd from under the bill of his cap.

“You fell asleep.”

“I did not,” he whispers sharply.

Friday night the buffs convene in downtown Hardin at Little Big Men Pizza, where the atmosphere is mock V.F.W. and the subject is The Name Change.