Saturday, July 19, 2014

History writ big on a hillside

In 1966 I became a temporary Virginian when my father moved the family east for three months so he could attend a National Guard NCO school near Washington, D.C. On weekends, we would tour the myriad museums historical sites in the area -- especially Civil War battlefields.

My dad loved seeing the ground over which great military minds plotted strategy. One of my favorite memories is watching him standing in his khaki uniform, gazing from the Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, where Union artillery snuffed out Pickett's Charge.

"The fool. The damned fool," he almost shouted, pointing to the large treeless field over which Maj. Gen. George Pickett marched a whole brigade of Confederates to their deaths. The Old Soldier could see the whole  battle before him and the absurdity of the charge.

Not me.  I could see a big field of grass and some old cannons with National Park Service signs. Battlefields look an awful lot like farms to me. Except for the one we visited today: Little Big Horn.

Better known as "Custer's Last Stand," this National Monument is where Sioux and Cheyenne arrows did to Lt. Col. George Custer what the Union canons did to Pickett.

Last Stand monument, from the Indian Warrior monumen
Custer was also on Dad's list as another "damned fool." Custer wouldn't wait for reinforcements, left his big guns in camp and told the supply train with ammunition to wait behind the hills.

The Montana battlefield itself makes it quite clear why the Old Soldier disliked Custer. To my knowledge, this is the only battlefield that marks the place where each soldier fell.

There is a big cluster of white markers on a small hill where Custer and a small band of soldiers made their famous last stand against a tidal wave of warriors. But the heart-rending story of futility is written in the dozens of other markers scattered across the scrubby hillsides.

When my son and I stopped here on a 2001 trip, the battlefield held Garrett in awe.  That's saying something: Garrett was 16. You go try to impress a 16-year-old guy (Hot cars and pretty girls excepted).

Scattered white stones mark where 7th Cavalry troopers fell retreating up the hillside

But the analytical mind that in time led Garrett to be a successful engineer clicked into action.  I saw in his eyes that same vision of the past that my dad glimpsed that day at Gettysburg.

Today it was Cecile's turn to be introduced to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  The sagebrush was higher this time and the markers of the fallen harder to see.  Still, you could easily sense the desperation of the few hundred 7th Cavalry troopers pushed by an impatient Custer toward thousands of Indians. Indians he was trying to force onto a reservation. You can see where soldiers were picked off one by one as they retreated up a hill, or where four or five troopers were surrounded and slaughtered.

It's a stunning lesson that the land tells better than any movie or book.

The markers of the dead today look down from Last Stand hill
(Side note: I was surprised to find that the Sioux, like the whites, were interlopers at the Little Big Horn.  The battlefield is today on a Crow reservation and the Crow scouts fought with Custer.  A ranger explained that the Sioux was a big, aggressive tribe that had decided to push the Crow off of their hunting grounds. It's hard to find good guys in war.)

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