There’s a lot to the story of Custer’s last stand. Which is how it’s always been taught to me for so many years up through childhood. It’s almost a bit strange, to here where it actually occurred. And I’m glad even the place is better about discussing the Native American impact of it.
About Little Bighorn National Battlefield
June 25, 1876
Tensions between Federal Troops and Indians continued to escalate. Several of them no longer wanted to be on reservations and were considered “uncooperative”.
Tensions of various groups had risen since gold was discovered in the Black Hills in present day South Dakota. So even though the Lakota were given this land, they were still being pushed further off. This also led to tensions between groups of Lakota, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes. Which also led to cooperation of some of these tribes with American troops.
More than 10,000 Native Americans had gathered in the current area known as Little Bighorn in defiance of orders to return to their reservations..
The US troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer were ordered to confront the Indians. The tribes, led by leaders Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, among many hours were camped in the the river bed area.
On June 24th, afraid that encounters with earlier scouts may have given away their plans and positions, Custer ordered his troops to prepare to attack on the following morning (in broad daylight). Based on bad intel and the belief that the Indians only number 800, he divided his troops to attack different areas of the Indian bands and villages.
Mid-day the Custer and his portion of troops that numbered roughly 200 met the Indians at the hill that would be known for his “last stand”. Thousands of Indian warriors would be there charging to meet them. There was no hope for Custer and his troops. Nearly all were killed during the battle. Some known to have died by self inflicted wounds from fear of what the Native Americans would do to them.
In the end, Custer’s troops would see nearly 50% casually with the tribes seeing far fewer killed in action. The battle would come to be known as the Battle of Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand, or Battle of Greasy-Grass which was the tribes’ name for the battle.
The battle while a stunning victory for the native warriors, was actually also the last major battle in the great Indian wars. Following this many of the Indians, short on food and other things, would return to reservations. Sitting Bull and his followers fled to Canada before returning due to lack of food. Crazy Horse surrendered May of the following year to troops. US Troops continue to move into the region and congress increased the number of troops and cavalry deployed.
So in some ways it was the last stand of those people as well. Sadly, forced finally into reservations. Sitting Bull would become known years later as touring with Buffalo Bill Cody’s troupe.
Places to Visit
There are quite a few locations to explore and visit within the battlefield. It is broken up into two sections connected by a road. You can see most of the sites in the main area near the visitor center. The other area is ok to visit if you have time. However, it is mostly fields and information plaques if you choose to skip it.
One of the loveliest part of the tour is the memorial dedicated to native warriors who fell during this battle. The earliest preservation of this battlefield only focused on US Army troops. The current memorial started to take shape in 1996 when the National Park Service with help of Indian tribes, artisans, historians began to plan a memorial. From 1999 – 2013 the various aspects of the site were constructed, with the granite panels erected in 2013.
The beautiful interpretations of the Native People, depictions of warriors, and such pay tribute to the losses of the the Indian Warriors in these battles.
7th Cavalry Memorial
In 1877 a memorial was placed to the men of the 7th Calvary who lost their lives in the battle that day in what would be known as Custer’s Last Stand. Men from the battle were buried several days later on the hill here by survivors from the battle who were tasked with burying the dead.
Custer National Cemetery
Dedicated in 1879, the battlefield of the area became dedicated as a National Cemetery. However, most of the bodies at the time were already buried in the area, as was often the tradition during battles. Many of the bodies were buried either by other troops during the battle, or afterwards by those who returned.
It after that time an appropriate location was dedicated for the site of the cemetery. This required the alignment of tombstones, and reburial of many of the folks of the battle into the cemetery. One of the aspects I like was the burial of men of any rank near one another. In death people were treated equally and aspects of rank left away.
There’s an auto tour you can take that will take you past many of the various memorials and important locations along the battlefield. Actually you’ll need a car (or motorcycle) here, as part of the site is actually separate from the main area where the visitor center and memorials are.
The Reno-Benteen Battlefield is also part of the National Monument, however to access this you’ll need to drive “tour road” which cuts through private land. You just need to take care and caution as to not disturb those areas. Also you may see loose livestock as well. I saw quite a few horses on this part of the road.
Deep Ravine Trail
The self guided 1/2 mile (round trip) trail takes through an area of fierce battles during the fight. Charge of Indian warriors against some of the troops of a Company C or E occurred in this ravine. Many of the Native warriors even went on “suicide” runs into the troops knowing that they would likely not return from the attack. Along the trail markers can be seen of US and now Natives who had fallen during this battle.
Reno-Benteen Defense Site
Located on the other end of the Tour Road, the Reno-Benteen Defense Site focuses on the areas of Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick W. Benteen troops and defense of the area. Major Reno’s troops suffered a devastating defeat in the area after a disastrous attack and retreated and met with Benteen’s troops and set up a defensive position. This battlefield highlights some of the areas of that battle, retreat, and other areas of the attacks between US troops and Native warriors.
Visiting Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
It is a surreal experience being in places that you only know of from history books. Getting to see the actual fields and areas of where these battles and warriors lived and died helps bring a connection to the history and the land.
I am glad to know they’ve done a lot of work in terms of improving information as well as incorporating memorials to Native warriors who fell in this area. In the early days of the memorial it was only about Custer, his troops, and the US Army’s history. This is also what I learned in school as well. I never knew the term “Greasy-Grass” to describe the battle until I was here.
Few of the Native Warriors would make US history. Names like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull are names most American youth do know, but overall their history, lives, and such are unknown. I appreciate that the visitor center and more provide information that helps bridge that gap.
Not to say we shouldn’t learn about the US Army, but there’s tons of information there, that’s not something that has been lacking. So I’m just glad that the other information helps improve that. Also that they eventually put up stone markers for fallen Indians like they had for US Troops. In earlier days local tribes would put up stone cairns to mark these deaths and later NPS erected small stone markers too.
Address: 756 Battlefield Tour Road Crow Agency, MT 59022
The Visitor Center is the main first stop for visitors to the site. The center includes a small museum, bookstore, and information on the site. As well as an introductory movie to the site and history of little bighorn.
During the summer rangers also hold talks on the patio area of the visitor center.
Hours: 8:00 am – 6:00 pm Summer (Memorial Day – Labor Day) ; 8:00 am – 4:30 pm other times
The park is open year-round and on some holidays. However, it does have different hours based on the season as well.
Summer: Memorial Day through Labor Day
Generally most things are open 8:00 am – 6:00 pm
However, the Driving Tour Road and Deep Ravine Walking Trail close at 5:30 pm
Fall – Spring: Labor Day through Memorial Day
Entrance Gate and most sites: 8:00 am – 4:30 pm
Driving Tour Road and Deep Ravine Walking Trail close at 4:00 pm
- Private Vehicle: $25.00
- Motorcycle: $20.00
- Individual (foot/bike): $15.00
The park also accepts the Annual National Park “America the Beautiful” Pass. These passes range from free to $80.00 depending on your situation. We recommend them if you are visiting multiple National Parks in the same year.
National Park Passport Stamp
There is a national park passport (cancellation) stamp available at the Visitor Center for Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
Website: Official NPS Site
Getting to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Little Bighorn Battlefield is located in Southeastern Montana about 63 miles southeast of Billings. The battlefield is locate close to I-90 in the Crow Reservation.
From Billings, take I-90 towards Sheridan (WY) and take exit 510 towards Little bighorn battlefield. Follow signs for the battlefield which is about 2.5 miles off US-212.
The closet commercial airport to Little Bighorn Battle is 1 hour away in Billings, Montana. The Billings-Logan (BIL) International Airport has service from Alaskan, Delta, United, American, and Allegiant.