The Little Bighorn


When I ask Fox if he has any notion of when Custer was shot, he sighs impatiently. “I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. “I suppose the disintegration might support the theory that he was killed early. So maybe the general got shot early, and they just fell apart.

“But then maybe he didn’t, and they fell apart anyway,” he says with another shrug. “What difference does it make? The point is there was no fight here. The troopers put up no substantial resistance. It was a complete rout.”

Fox says with fierce emphasis, “There was no gallant defense on Custer Hill.”

And the reports of suicides?

“We didn’t find any forensic evidence that the troopers shot themselves. The skulls we found were crushed with hatchets and war clubs or shot at close range by the Sioux while the troopers lay dead or wounded.

“Of course,” Fox says, shrugging again, “we only examined a few skulls, so I’m not saying it didn’t happen. The troopers heard a lot about what the Sioux did to wounded enemies. We know troopers shot themselves in the Fetterman massacre, for instance, and from the evidence of mutilation we uncovered I wouldn’t blame any man who might have done the same thing here.”

The British exalted the massacre of their countrymen during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 as the “Epic of the Race” and worshiped the memory of Gordon, the martyr of Khartoum; the Boers glorified the commandos who fell in the slaughter at Umgungundhlovu; the Texans canonized the doomed defenders of the Alamo. Whenever a tide of nonwhites consumed outnumbered whites, a kind of imperial iconography arose.

Concocting a moral basis for the American appropriation of native lands has been almost as difficult and divisive as defending slavery. Just as slavery divided North and South, so the Indian wars of the nineteenth century divided East and West. But an occasional massacre—indeed, any unfortunate skirmish that might be passed off as a massacre—could at least temporarily unify Americans in their essential contempt for the moral condition of native peoples, buttress their belief in their own cultural superiority, and obscure their own atrocities with the fire and brimstone of their vengeance.

But I think that as a small boy I stared at those images of Custer’s Last Stand because it was my first intimation of the inevitability of death. None of my fictional Western idols—Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid—was mortal. But on Last Stand Hill death was pitilessly oblivious of the chivalric virtues and glamorous trappings of George Armstrong Custer. And if death could catch up with a man as fleet as General Custer, it would surely catch up with me.

But as I walk the battlefield at the Little Bighorn, an image even more terrible displaces my boyhood dread. Custer raises his saber no longer (the 7th Cavalry didn’t carry sabers into battle); his hair doesn’t flow in the hot wind (he had cut off his hair, and there was not even a breeze that day); nor is he clad all in buckskins (he had stripped off his jacket in the heat), nor is he standing (not if they shot him in the ribs by the river); nor do the Sioux race around him on their horses (most were dismounted); nor do they charge him with war clubs (most were sensibly shooting their bows and rifles from distant tangles of sage).

All around Custer, in the whisper and whine of arrows and slugs, his men are so disoriented, so paralyzed by fear and shock, that they crouch behind their fallen horses and do not take aim as they try to fire carbines jammed by alkali and heat.

Down the hill in Deep Ravine, I think I glimpse in the tangled brush a last trooper raising his pistol to his temple to spare himself a few more seconds’ pandemonium. And in the wind that whispers along my hat brim I hear the ghosts of the warriors of the Great Plains singing one last victorious song.

Since Andrew Ward’s visit the battle site has indeed been renamed. On December 9 the President’s signature made it the “Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.” A second fire has also scorched the battlefield, but so far no new bones have been recovered from the burnt-over ground.