Out of nowhere, a noise filled my head like a rushing wind: Pounding hooves. Shouts. War cries. The report of rifles.
When these sounds crashed in on me, I was staring at a display of artifacts in the museum at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. It was as if these relics were whispering the story. As if all I had to do was pull back a curtain and suddenly find myself in the middle of the battle. These artifacts had been there the day Custer and every man in five companies of the 7th Cavalry died, as well as an unknown number of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.
My brother and I (with Molly) made a trip to Billings last week. While we were in the area, we decided to see the battlefield. My brother had been there before, but this was the first time for me. I’d been told that many people found the battlefield to be a moving experience. They were right. Maybe because the day I was there was June 24th — just one day before the 138th anniversary of the battle.
Or perhaps because it had taken me twelve years to get there.
Twelve years ago, I first started participating in living history at Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck, North Dakota. Fort Lincoln was General Custer’s last command–and home, and has in many ways become my home.
I didn’t join the laundress corps of the frontier army all those years ago because I was a die-hard Custer buff. I hardly knew anything about him. They just needed a couple of musicians, and my brother and I played fiddle and banjo. In between jigs and reels–and many encores of the General’s favorite, “Garryowen”–I gradually learned the Custer story. Montana claims fame as the place where Custer died, but North Dakota was the place where Custer lived.
It’s become almost strange to me to realize that most people remember Custer for his death. At Fort Lincoln, the year we portray is 1875. It’s always the summer before the Little Bighorn, and Custer is always there for our big events, portrayed by his modern-day twin Steve Alexander. Every December 31st, Fort Lincoln resets the clock to 1875, and Custer cheats the battle once again.
Maybe it was all those years knowing the living Custer–and all the living soldiers of the 7th Cavalry, like Captain Tom Custer, the most eligible bachelor in the 7th; and Captain Keogh the Irishman; and Captain Calhoun, whose wife played the harp–maybe knowing them almost personally for so many years is what made the Little Bighorn more than just a historic landmark for me.
Who’s horse, I wondered, had lost that shoe? Was the rider thrown? Another soldier had lost his own shoe–a leather brogan shrunken and crumpled with age. Did he lose it retreating up the bluffs, away from the Little Bighorn?
Most eloquent of all was a simple metal band. The plaque merely said “Wedding ring.”
More than 130 years ago, a woman gave that ring to a man as a token of their love. Lost on a battlefield in the midst of a tragedy, it became a token of a woman’s broken heart. Now lover and beloved are both gone, and their ring sits in a museum, silently telling a story as moving as any Romeo and Juliet.
My brother and Molly and I drove the four-and-a-half-mile road along the length of the battlefield. Contrary to popular belief, the entire 7th wasn’t annihilated. Custer divided his troops and attacked the Sioux and Cheyenne village on two fronts. Seven companies suffered great loss. But the other five that went with Custer were cut down to the last man.
Here was the hill where Captain Calhoun died. And there was the hill where Captain Keogh died–his horse Comanche the only living thing that survived the Last Stand. At the end of the road was the hill where Major Reno and Captain Benteen and the surviving seven companies withstood a siege for two days.
The entire battlefield was covered in stone markers, memorializing the very spot where every soldier died. A few newer markers commemorated the places where known Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell.
Last Stand Hill was thick with white stones. Squarely in their midst stood one highlighted with black. Here fell General George Armstrong Custer.
I don’t remember Custer for being a great Civil War hero. Nor as the controversial leader of men. I remember that he loved onions–and would eat them raw like apples. And I remember that he was never without one of his dogs at his side. And I remember that he and his wife used to slide down the banister instead of taking the stairs.
I don’t dwell on the logistics of the battle, the blame-shoving, or even if one side was good and the other evil. All I see is a great tragedy in the Human Story. I hear the voices of children crying. I find women reaching for their lovers in the middle of the night and finding an empty bed. I hear a haunting Native wail for lost sons and brothers.
“From that time the life went out of the hearts of the ‘women who weep,’ and God asked them to walk on alone and in the shadow.” ~Libby Custer