Custer’s Last Stand

Grant couldn’t quite believe the news. “Custer,” he would say, the end of his big cigar chewed into a messy nub, head shaking in disbelief. “Custer, how did you manage it? An hour, they’re saying. An hour!” The President’s pacing was briefly interrupted by a half-meant kick at a waste basket. It wouldn’t do to be kicking waste baskets in the Yellow Oval Room. He was the president now, Grant reminded himself. Now you don’t fight the wars. You just hear about poor fools losing them.

When he had given the go-ahead to engage the Lakota over the gold-rich Black Hills, Grant could never had imagined that this is how it would all end. And especially not Custer. Had he not cut men down like kindling at Bull Run? Were not his horses the best-disciplined in the Union army? Had he not proven himself at in the Appomattox campaign, and against Americans, no less! “And you mean to tell me,” he snarled under his close-cut mustache, “he fell to a bunch of recalcitrant… Indians?”

Six weeks earlier, at Wi-wanyang-wa-c’i-pi, Sitting Bull had a vision. These were times when Wi-wanyang-wa-c’i-pi had great power. Prompted by the sorrowful cries of the people, the spirits were eager to lend their aid. Wi-wanyang-wa-c’i-pi was a ceremony of healing. The invaders had called it “the Sun Dance,” which was more or less accurate, and they feared it. There were good reasons. All the elders knew healing was impossible without pain.

“Soldiers… falling into the camp, like grasshoppers, like a swarm of devouring locusts.” The old Lakota’s words sent chills down the spines of the assembled elders. It was not a surprise, of course. Ever since the men from the United States began to offer them land in other places to move and bullets if they didn’t, tensions had been red-hot. Few doubted the United States had the men and material to wipe out the combined forces of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Sioux. Some had heard that Custer had the United States send Gatling guns. Nonetheless, wasn’t losing the land being wiped out anyway?

The tribes heard what Sitting Bull saw. Over the next several weeks, they filled the little valley. One of Custer’s Crow scouts would tell the General it was the biggest native village he had ever seen.

This should have made Custer nervous, but he was a man of meticulous planning and unshakable confidence. He knew that, even if there were twice as many Indians as he thought there would be, he would undoubtedly triumph.

It turns out there were three times as many.

We’ve all heard of this story, but how many of us have walked in the footprints of Custer’s men or laid eyes on the same spectacular vistas that the Natives fought so valiantly to protect? Sometimes history seems too far away from our real lives to matter. At Dryhead Ranch, we know why Montana was worth fighting for. On one of our cattle drive vacations, you’ll see for yourself just what all the fuss was about.  

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