The Sound of Battle

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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.

Me as a frontier army laundress at Fort Lincoln.

Me as a frontier army laundress at Fort Lincoln.

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.

Steve Alexander portraying General Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln

Steve Alexander portraying General Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Last Stand Hill was thick with white stones. Squarely in their midst stood one highlighted with black. Here fell General George Armstrong Custer.

Last Stand Hill

Last Stand Hill

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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.

Memorial to the Native Peoples who died at the battle

Memorial to the Native Peoples who died at the battle

“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

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Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield

The Day I Drove an Ambulance

Well, my most popular post so far, The Day I Drove a Patrol Car, is almost up to 100 views. And I’m ashamed to say how long it took me to remember another driving opportunity I had with emergency services. Yep. The day I drove an ambulance.

Almost 140 years ago.

It was at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and the year was 1875. Or so a number of people running around in blue wool uniforms and calico dresses seemed to think, and since several of these people were carrying firearms and others were in possession of a cannon, I recommend you agree with whatever they tell ya.

As I’ve mentioned, I do living history at Fort Lincoln State Park, and every summer, several frontier military re-enactment groups get together and bring the place to life with an encampment and demonstrations of all kinds. Cavalry …

7th Cavalry

7th Cavalry

Infantry …

17th Infantry

17th Infantry

Artillery. (I did mention the cannon, right?)

The Cannon

The Cannon

And lots of open-fire cooking and washboard laundry-doing. (And banjo playing. That would be me. Banjoist.)

Then there’s the ambulance. Did you ever stop to wonder what a nineteenth-century ambulance looks like? It looks like a wagon. (Sorry I don’t have a picture. Trust me, it looks just like a wagon. And no, it doesn’t have a light bar or a siren.)

But it does have the best suspension you’ll find anywhere. Which, on rough prairie sod, means you’ll get your backside bruised as bad as if that ambulance had no suspension at all. I’m always baffled when I remember that this was one of the most comfortable forms of transportation in the West.

The ambulance we use at Ft. Lincoln is mighty special. She saw service in the Civil War. That’s right. A real piece of history, bumping and swaying over our Parade Ground and giving rides to tourists. Heck, it’s an honor just to ride in it.

But I drove it.

Never mind I didn’t have a clue how to drive a team of horses. A pair of black and white Belgian/Percheron crosses named Muffin and Darby.

But Private Redding, the driver, had an annoying habit, and maybe he owed me. He always gave free rides to everyone–except me. As soon as I got in the wagon, he’d turn around in the driver’s seat and ask, “You gonna play that banjo?”

“If you want,” I’d say.

“The horses don’t start ’til the music starts,” he’d retort.

In effect, I was the sole individual who had to pay for the privilege of riding the ambulance wagon. Maybe I had a bug under my bonnet (literally).

We were sitting in the wagon, just Private Redding and me and another private, waiting for something to do. Private Redding had gotten off on another one of his long-winded tirades about something he couldn’t change (so he resorted to cussing it out, whatever it was).

I was bored.

And when my mind is bored, it comes up with stupid ideas.

And what the heck. Surely he owed me for all that banjo music.

“Hey,” I said, cutting in as soon as he took a breath. “Could you teach me how to drive the wagon?”

Silence. He stared skyward, chewing his thick black mustache. I envisioned his mouth on the verge of forming the word, “No.”

Finally he patted the wagon bench beside him. “Git up here.”


He showed me how and where to hold the reins and told me to plant my feet good and hard on the iron bar running in front of me. Despite the warning to hang on tight, the horses nearly dragged me right off the bench the moment they started. I thought the pulling action was supposed to go through the trace lines, not me!?

I did all right, so long as I drove in a straight line. For some reason, turning gave me grief. I’d go all wrong, and when I tried to correct it, I’d go even worse. Fortunately, we were in the middle of the wide-open Parade Grounds and not on a road. But I never knew it was possible to almost run over one of your own horses if you took a corner too tight.

Muffin looked over her shoulder, her expression as good as words: “WHO’S DRIVING THIS THING!!!”

Sorry, Muffin.

Private Redding finally took the reins back from me.

Sheepishly, I folded my hands in my lap. “What was I doing wrong?”

The private chewed his mustache again. Finally, he looked at me and replied with Old-West honesty. “I don’t know.”

First Sergeant Johnson caught up with us later. “Hey,” he said, beaming at me,” I saw you driving the wagon! How’d she do?” he asked Private Redding.

“A snake woulda broke its back tryin’ to follow her trail.”

More Old-West honesty.

To my surprise, the next day Private Redding asked if I was going to drive again.

“After how bad I did yesterday?”

He shook his head. “I never said you had to quit.”

I got in the driver’s seat.

This time, Private Redding studied me closely. “You ain’t turnin’ soon enough, that’s what it is. Turn when I say. … Now turn!”

I finally got it right.

That’s not to say I remembered any of his lessons the next summer. Or any summer after that. Don’t get me talking about the fancy black barouche.

The Black Barouche

The Black Barouche

Or the side saddle.

The Side Saddle

The Side Saddle

Different stories for different times. But I can say that I drove a genuine Civil War ambulance wagon.

What experience am I still missing? Hmm. Anybody know where I can find a fire engine?

Great Grandfather’s Portrait

by Danielle Hanna

Living history

My friends and I have our portrait done

I’ve been doing living history for twelve years, starting out in braids and a blue prairie dress. Someone even called me Laura Ingalls once. Appropriate, because my interest in history started with Little House on the Prairie, the TV show. I used to watch Mary and Laura run around in their calico dresses and white petticoats, and I just knew one day I’d have calico dresses and white petticoats, too.

Didn’t know what the heck I’d do with such a get-up. I just wanted one.

Then came my banjo, then came Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which was looking for a musician, and the rest is … well, history.

When I became a re-enactor, history suddenly leapt off the pages of my textbooks. I could feel a hard wooden yoke dig into my shoulders. I could lather up a bar of lye soap–slippery and frothy like modern soap, but smelling for all the world like some concoction made of fat and ashes. When I took off my dress at the end of the day, it exuded the aroma of sweat and dust and horse smell and campfire smoke.

I’m pretty sure the history text books have a conspiracy going to convince kids that the past is as dry as a bleached bone. Living history shattered that lie. Long lists of names became real people. Dates became lifestyles. Historical events became life-altering circumstances. For a day, a weekend, a summer, I had gone back in time, and I realized that my own ancestors actually lived like this.

Fast forward to a day last summer. I was asked to play at a dance at the Former Governor’s Mansion State Historic Site — a classic Victorian residence trimmed in shades of green. I arrived dressed as a young lady from turn-of-the-century frontier Bismarck.

After the dance, there was a scavenger hunt for the kids. A group of little girls scattered all over the house in search of a dog-shaped coat hanger and a sketch of an Indian under a cupboard. They had so much fun, they started inventing their own games. Their favorite was counting the number of portraits in the house. They did it several times over to make sure they had the correct number. Then they took me on a round so I could verify it.

We searched the house from top to bottom and came up with twenty. One for each governor who had been in residence at the mansion. When we had tallied the last portrait, we proceeded downstairs to assure the adults that the count was indeed accurate. The little girls tumbled down the stairs, and I followed at a more lady-like pace, as suited my long dress and stiff corset.

North Dakota Governor L. B. Hanna

North Dakota Governor L. B. Hanna

At the landing half-way down, I stopped to look at one of the portraits, a stern-looking fellow in round glasses attempting a sort of smile, which was worn down after too many years spent as a politician. I had a connection to this portrait. Governor L. B. Hanna. My great-grandfather.

On a whim, I called the girls back. I remembered being their age and running around the house. All full of roped-off bedrooms and glass-cased pipes and top hats. At their age, I had never been able to wrap my mind around the fact that this house had ever been anything but a museum. That my own great-grandfather lived here, and it was his pipe and top hat in the glass case.

“Do you see that man?” I asked the girls. They obediently looked up at the portrait.

I also remembered being their age and staring at black-and-white photos of politicians in suits. The epitome of boring. Much more fun to look at the sketch of the Indian under the cupboard.

“He was my great-grandfather,” I told them, “and he lived here a hundred years ago.” Exactly a hundred years ago. He was in office from 1913 to 1917.

I didn’t expect my revelation to have any impact on the kids. When you’re that young, you understand what you can see and hear and explore with your hands. Not abstract concepts about people who died a million years ago. I don’t even know why I told them. I guess I hoped they’d make the connection. The gray-and-white guy in the suit was a real person.

The girls stared at the portrait. Then they stared at me. Then they thundered down the stairs.

“Mama! Mama! You know what? That lady — her great-grandfather lived here a hundred years ago!”

Well, that took me by surprise. Their enthusiasm. The fact that what I was saying clicked at all. I think I underestimated the fact that I was the thing they could see and hear and touch. It was as if I’d handed them a fossilized dinosaur egg and said, “See? They were real.”

That was a big moment for me as a re-enactor. My goal is to make history real to people. Kids especially. I want kids to fall in love with history, just like I did watching Little House on the Prairie. I want them to discover that history’s about more than memorizing dates and names.

When I showed those girls my great-grandfather’s portrait, I saw the light dawn in their eyes. Real people lived real lives a hundred years ago, in old houses with wood floors and stained glass windows. Real people slept in those beds and wore those top hats and smoked those pipes. A real child, much like them, drew the sketch of the Indian under the cupboard.

That was pretty much the culmination of twelve years re-enacting. Mission accomplished.

Pawnote from Juliean

Juliean on bookshelf

Do you like reading? My human just added a new feature here at the blog. Now you can subscribe! Just go to the homepage and click the link at the upper right. Then you’ll get an email letting you know every time a new story goes live.

Go on. Do it. You know better than to argue with a cat.


It Took Me 138 Years to Get to the Christmas Party

The reconstructed Custer House at Fort Abraham Lincoln

The reconstructed Custer House at Fort Abraham Lincoln




No, literally.

At Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, the year is 1875. Soldiers in historic uniforms still drill on the parade grounds and army laundresses still hang the wash out to dry in the prairie wind. The reconstructed frontier fort commemorates the last home of General George A. Custer. Montana may go down in history as the place where Custer died, but North Dakota is the place where Custer lived.

I’ve been doing living history re-enactments at this site for the past twelve seasons. (I call your attention to the above-mentioned laundresses.) And when Molly came into my life … why, she signed right up.

Molly at the Fort Abraham Lincoln recruiting station, 1875

Molly signing up at the Fort Abraham Lincoln recruiting station

Fort Lincoln grows quiet when the snows come in. But it wakes up again for one weekend in December. My favorite Christmas event–anywhere–is Custer Christmas. The Custer House is decorated for a frontier Victorian Christmas, visitors are welcome to string popcorn and frost cookies, the kids can build all sorts of old-fashioned crafts, and the house is full of caroling musicians–such as yours truly. Did I ever mention I play a banjo?

Tumbleweed Christmas Tree

The rare tumbleweed Christmas tree. True story: A detachment of soldiers sent out to find a Christmas tree discovered that evergreens don’t grown in northern Dakota Territory. So they came back with tumbleweeds.

It’s been some pretty blue Christmases the past few years because Custer Christmas was canceled. Attendance had been scanty, and it seemed pretty certain the event was retired for good. But at the tail-end of November this year, I heard Custer Christmas was back on. It was the best present ever.

The morning of the event, it was a frigid ten below zero. I rolled out of bed, grabbed my already-packed period attire and the banjo, threw everything into the car, and turned the key.

Click! Gri-i-i-i-i-ind.

Something told me an extension cord for my block heater would have made a lot of difference. I’d just moved to a new apartment in a small town, and an extension cord was one of the things I didn’t have yet.

There was an auto parts store a few blocks away. I pulled on my heavy gloves and jogged down the ice-covered streets. Bought an extension cord. Ran home. Wouldn’t you know? The cord was barely too short. Jogged back to the auto store. Bought a longer cord. Ran home again. Did I mention it was ten below?

I spent the next two hours trying to coax my engine to life. Two, long, torturous hours, while I knew all my friends were down at the Fort, caroling and telling stories and laughing.

I texted my friend Nancy. Everybody needs a friend you can text when you’re having a pound-head-on-wall day. “Car won’t start,” I said. “MAD!!!”

She came back with her brand of half motherly, half weird advice: “Look for redneck in pickup. Stand by car with hood open.”

In that temperature, in a small town this quiet, I would have frozen before anybody drove by. So I tried a different tactic. I decided to knock door-to-door in my apartment building until I found somebody with a jumper cable.

You’d never guess. Turns out two rednecks with a pickup live right across the hall from me. In a matter of five minutes, they jumped my car. How does Nancy know these things?

Finally I was on my way to Custer Christmas. I arrived about four hours late, but I made it! (My eternal gratitude to Nancy and my new redneck neighbors.) The rest of the afternoon and the next day were filled with music, dancing, and Christmas spirit. But in the back of my mind I did find myself asking, What possessed me to work so hard for this?

General Custer's parlor, decorated for Christmas

General Custer’s parlor, decorated for Christmas

Nineteenth century entertainment

Nineteenth century entertainment: music and popcorn strings

First Sergeant and Buffalo Trophy

First Sergeant Johnson, highly decorated for 20 years military service, poses in front of the buffalo that ran through the wall. (Or so the story goes.)

Officer's lady at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, Custer Christmas 2014

For the first time in twelve seasons of living history, I came as a member of the officer’s class, the upper crust of frontier military society. Photo credit: Naomi Fuehrer

General Custer and First Sergeant Johnson

Our Christmas celebration wouldn’t be complete without our host, General Custer.

I’ll be the first to admit–that was a lot of work to get to an event. Why couldn’t I just let it go? My usual stubborn determination to achieve a goal certainly played in. But I think First Sergeant Johnson said it best while we were shivering outside eating sausage fresh off the campfire.

Sausage cooked on the campfire

Steaming-hot sausage on a frigid day. Mmmm.

He looked across the parade ground. The Fort was so quiet, buried in snow. The smoke from the campfires smelled warm and reminded me of summer camping. But the spicy steam from the sausages almost froze as it curled through the air. Down on the banks of the Missouri, flocks of Canada geese came in for a landing. The geese talking was the only sound.

“Doesn’t this just recharge you?” the First Sergeant asked.

I smiled and nodded.

It seems none of us can escape a certain level of monotony in life. But we can take a weekend to pursue something meaningful. Enjoying the silence of a winterscape. Experiencing the simple pleasures of a by-gone era. Freezing your fingers eating sausage with a friend at ten below zero.

“It seems every time I come out here,” General Custer said later, “I make new memories.”

Another good reason to fight every obstacle to make it to Fort Lincoln. Custer Christmas 1875 (it’s always 1875) was the year the General danced the Virginia Reel with a group of re-enactors and tourists. I strummed at my banjo till the strings almost ripped, and First Sergeant Johnson jumped in with his fiddle. I died and went to Fezziwig’s, it was that much fun.

This is the kind of stuff that recharges me. These are the moments I live for and will always remember. Yes, it was worth all the work.

Sunset near Fort Lincoln State Park

The perfect end to a perfect day.

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