The Little Bighorn

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But now I also can see how even the most conscientious accounts by survivors—troopers, scouts, and Sioux alike—could be garbled by the ambiguous terrain. As Neil marches on, five of us can’t agree on which of the seemingly interchangeable bumps in the landscape he means, and pretty soon we’re debating among ourselves.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but Custer divided his forces in the first place.

“He means that one with the little dip in it,” says one.

“Balls,” says another. “It’s that one next to it with the worn spot.”

We all pause for a picnic lunch at the battlefield’s penultimate ridge, from whose promontory Custer’s acolyte, Capt. Thomas Weir, may well have witnessed Custer’s final moments. All Weir could see from three miles away were a lot of antic figures in a rising cloud of dust and smoke, shooting into the ground on Last Stand Hill; all I can see as I eat my ham sandwich is a storm retreating and another storm advancing and between them a billowed grassland sea.

After lunch we follow Neil hither and yon and begin to reach the first stone markers that make the Little Bighorn a uniquely narrative battlefield. The stone markers were installed in 1890 wherever dead troopers had been found, and from their pattern it’s hard not to envision the disposition of Custer’s troopers as they met their fate. Here on Last Stand Hill they bunch up like frightened children around Custer himself, there below they scatter to the edge of Deep Ravine, and all across the landscape stray stones suggest troopers cut off from their retreating buddies: desperate, dismounted, chased by Indians on horseback, and dispatched with bullets, arrows, lances, war clubs.

Passing on the battlefield road that runs along Battle Ridge for some reason I find myself transfixed by the set of stones that represent Lieutenant Keogh’s company. Custer deployed his ferocious Irishman between himself and Lieutenant Calhoun’s southern skirmish line, and now I have something approaching a vision of Keogh and his men as I follow the pattern of those fifty-two markers toward Last Stand Hill. I see Keogh’s desperate troopers scrambling northward, most of them on foot, trying to join Custer while the bobbing Indians picked them off and ran in to count coup on the troopers’ fallen comrades.

Of course, where troopers’ bodies were found isn’t necessarily where troopers actually fell. Nonetheless, my intuitive image of Keogh’s company begins to calcify into an unshakable conviction, and I am therefore indignant when my friend Charlie says that it is his belief that when those same troopers died, they were crazily retreating south to find Reno. Charlie and I debate the matter with increasing vehemence as we stagger back to the visitors’ center.

A historian who has observed me among the buffs takes me aside to confide that though some of them struggle to stay objective, “a lot of these guys stick with the images they grew up with. They get rigid about it, which is O.K., I guess,” he says, keeping his voice low. “It’s just that when new evidence comes in, they’ll reject it if it doesn’t fit. So a lot of these guys miss out on one of the great aspects of this battle, which is that it’s still unfolding.”

Everywhere stray stones suggest desperate troopers cut off from their buddies.
 

The battlefield at the Little Bighorn has been picked over for more than a century, first by the victorious Indians, then by soldiers, buzzards, wolves, coyotes, burial details, ranchers, and souvenir hunters, until just about everybody figured that nothing was left.

But as I discovered when I dropped my pen into a snarl of buffalo grass, the plains can swallow things up in a twinkling, and so perhaps it’s no wonder that when a fire swept the battlefield in 1983, the first rangers to walk the charred ground came upon bones and artifacts protruding from the blackened clay.

The fire set in motion an archeological dig that eventually brought to bear on over twenty-two hundred artifacts and three hundred human bones all the forensic technology of the twentieth century. Shells found in one part of the battlefield were ballistically matched with slugs found in another, establishing various lines of fire. Indian rifle cartridges demonstrated the great number and variety of their weapons. Troopers’ knicked bones and shattered skulls provided sure evidence of mutilation.

According to Richard Fox, an archeologist who worked at the Little Bighorn under the sponsorship of the Custer Battlefield and Museum Association, the results corroborate much of the more downbeat Indian testimony that Custer partisans have either ignored or bitterly rejected.