Trip of a Lifetime

By Gordon Richard

On 9 June 2006 my brother Selwyn and I took off from Gatwick Airport on a visit to the United States. It was the beginning of a three week experience, covering over 4,100 miles of driving plus three internal flights, which I will never forget.

We flew into Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Texas and, after picking up our rental car around 3.00 p.m., drove to Ardmore, Oklahoma. The next day we reached the outskirts of Cheyenne to see the site of the Battle of the Washita. A viewing platform there gives a superb panorama of the battle area and the surrounding hills, so it is easy to understand the positions that the 7th U.S. Cavalry originally held and what terrain the various troop detachments had to cover to get on station. It was more difficult though, being there on a blisteringly hot day with nothing but a wide expanse of dry grass and red earth and the flow, of the Washita River down to a mere trickle, to imagine the original snow-covered winter scene.

 

Gordon Richard at the Washita.

The next 10 days were spent driving through the south-western states of New Mexico and Arizona, where we met up with our brother, Tony, at Scottsdale, and spent some time with him at the Grand Canyon, before flying north from Phoenix to Billings, Montana, via Salt Lake City, Utah. Finally, a two and a half-day round trip to Yellowstone Park, Wyoming; Madison, Idaho and Bozeman, Montana, brought us back to Billings.

So, at 7.30 a.m. on day 15, the twenty-third of June, we began the first of three glorious days at the Little Bighorn Battlefield and surrounding area. That first day we were picked up by Jim Court, an ex-superintendent of the Battlefield. Jim took us through Hardin, then along dirt roads to the Wolf Mountains just below the headwaters of the Rosebud, to the area leading to Davis and Thompson Creeks. The landowner’s fence meant we could not get through to the Crow’s Nest so a detour took us to Walter Camp’s Divide Marker, to view through binoculars the routes taken by Custer and Reno down Reno (then Ash) Creek.

Our next stop was on the benchland where the Indians’ pony herd was seen from the Crow’s Nest. This vantage point gave us a good view of the area where the village was located, where Reno halted his charge and where he fell back to before entering the timber. After lunch we visited Ford D, where Colonel John Gibbon crossed the Little Bighorn to visit the Custer Battlefield and saw the body of Mark Kellogg, which lay not far from the river.

Swinging over to the eastern side of the river, we drove slowly along the eastern slopes of Custer and Calhoun Ridges, trying to visualise the warriors creeping up those slopes to attack I, L and C Troops. Oddly enough, this is where the marker for Mark Kellogg has been sited. We tracked the full length of Medicine Tail Coulee by veering into the battlefield area, where later we viewed the village location from both Weir Point and Reno Hill.

June 24 saw us reach Hardin by 7.30 a.m. to link up with the Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association (CBHMA) Trip that was to cover the parts played by Major Reno and Captain Benteen, after he joined Reno. This trip was covered in great detail in the CBHMA Battlefield Dispatch, Summer 2006, Volume 25, No.3, so I will not duplicate it here, but I must mention that the moving memorial services at both the Reno/Benteen Defense Site and the 7th Cavalry Monument on Last Stand Hill, were made even more poignant by Craig Fischer’s playing of Taps at the conclusion of each ceremony. Thank you CBHMA.

On Day 17, 25 June, the 130th Anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, we got to the battlefield at about 2.45 p.m. just in time to see the Northern Cheyenne Runners arriving. Our first port of call was the Indian Memorial where, near its entrance, a pretty, enthusiastic young lady offered to answer any questions we might haven about the Memorial as her university thesis had been on that very subject. Both before and after our visit to the Memorial we did pose some questions to her, but unknown to us they were unfortunately outside the scope of her thesis! Yes, it was Megan Reece, and my brother and I were the ‘two nice men from the UK’ she mentions in her article in the Autumn/Winter 2006 issue of The Crow’s Nest. Since her article appeared I managed to contact Megan and we have established ‘Peace Through Unity’ across the Atlantic.

We were lucky that our visit coincided with the address given by the Northern Cheyenne leader Donlin Many Horses, which was followed by a prayer for peace chanted in the Cheyenne language by his father. The Memorial is imposing and cleverly designed, with an uncanny reverent ambience, but I came away somewhat puzzled that there was no direct reference to the strong spiritual beliefs held by the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who had fought against Custer.

From the Indian Memorial we made our way to Deep Ravine. As we looked down into it we tried to envisage its original depth and what a death trap it would have been to the 7th Cavalry soldiers who fled there seeking some sanctuary. We almost literally bumped into Chuck Merkel, an associate member of the CAGB and current Chairman of the Little Big Horn Associates’ (LBHA) Board of Directors, who was interpreting at that site. A little later on we met Chuck’s wife, Diane, another associate member, who was at that time the editor of the LBHA’s Newsletter. They are a great couple who do so much for the various organisations whose interest is Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn. It was a pleasure to meet them in person and put faces to the names on the emails they send me.

 

Gordon, Diane and Selwyn outside the Visitor Center

Sadly, as it was now late afternoon, we had to say our goodbyes and move on to visit the Rosebud Battlefield before our next overnight stop. The Rosebud site is a beautiful, natural amphitheatre and looking at the green bluffs gently rolling down to river valley, it is moving to realise that this was a scene of five to six hours of fierce fighting. Fading light made it necessary for us to leave this fascinating place and head off to our hotel in Sheridan, Wyoming.

 

The Rosebud Battlefield

Day 19 brought us to the partially reconstructed Fort Phil Kearny (State Historic Site), which is situated between Sheridan and Buffalo. The site of the original stockade around the 400-foot square of the main fort has been laid out, giving a very good idea of its surprisingly large size. It is set in yet another area of outstanding natural beauty between Big Piney and Little Piney Creeks in benchland surrounded by high, mostly heavily wooded ground, with the Big Horn Mountains to the north. Five miles northeast from the fort is part of the Bozeman Trail, site of the Fetterman Fight on 21 December 1866. It is little wonder that Fetterman was ordered not to pursue the Indians over Lodge Trail Ridge. I have taken in the views from either side of that Ridge and as soon as the descent down its northern slopes is started, the fort goes out of sight. We walked around parts of the battlefield and fully appreciated why the terrain was perfect for an ambush and how the warriors took full advantage of the distance that had developed between the infantry and cavalry groups.

Four to five miles to the northwest of the fort is the site of the Wagon Box Fight of 2 August 1867, where 52 men under the command of Capt. James Powell, many whom were armed with second Allin conversion, breech-loading, centre-fire Springfield rifles, held off about a thousand Lakota, under Crazy Horse and High-Back Bone, who suffered many casualties. From there we drove east, via Gillette, to reach Rapid City, South Dakota.

Late morning on 27 June we drove through the stunning beauty of the Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore National Memorial. We noticed that from a distance the canopy of dark green pine trees that cover the surrounding bluffs looked almost black and made us understand how the area got its name. The granite sculptures of the four presidents are very impressive, as are the staggering statistics that go with them, but we both felt that the modern facilities sprawled below the mountain detracts from them.

A relatively short drive south brought us to the Crazy Horse Memorial where the granite sculpture of the Oglala warrior is nowhere near complete, even though it was started in 1948. The sculpture is only part of the whole Memorial and the buildings, such as the Native American Cultural Center, are much more tastefully constructed than those at Mount Rushmore. We spent over two hours exploring the entire complex, with its many artefacts and the huge 16-ton model of what the finished carving will be like.

Day 20, 28 June 28, we called first at Bear Butte, a lone mountain near Sturgis at the northern edge of the Black Hills. This place has been sacred to the Lakota and Cheyenne people for centuries as the many prayer cloths and tobacco ties we saw hanging from trees and bushes confirm. The 1874 expedition to the Black Hills led by George Custer camped near here and the famous butte served as a landmark to the prospectors who followed in his wake.

We moved on to see the Military Museum at Old Fort Meade, one mile east of Sturgis. Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis, the actual commander of the 7th Cavalry, was the first permanent post commander at the fort, where yet another indiscretion by Major Marcus. A. Reno resulted in the end of his military career and where Capt. Keogh’s horse, Comanche, was retired to with military honours. The Fort’s close ties with the 7th Cavalry go back to August 1878 when Troops E and M began sawing the lumber for its construction and in June 1879 when Headquarters, Band and Troops A, C, G and H made it their station.

Private Abram Brant, Co. D, a member of the water party at the Little Big Horn River fight and posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor, who died at Camp Ruhlen (the original name for Fort Meade) in October 1878 from a self-inflicted accidental gunshot wound, is buried in the Post Cemetery. There are also strong links between Scots-born 7th Cavalry troopers and the fort. Sergeant Alexander Brown, Co. G, from Aberdeen, who was with the pack train escort and in the hilltop fight, died here in 1884 from complications brought on by syphilis. The unfortunate Private David McWilliams, Co. H, from Edinburgh, who missed the battle because he accidentally shot himself in the leg while out hunting on 6 June 1876 on the march from Fort Abraham Lincoln, then killed himself with an overdose of laudanum in December 1881, is buried here. Perhaps the best known however is the controversial Private Peter Thompson, Co. C, from Markinch, Fife, another member of the water party and Medal of Honor recipient, who made a number of extravagant claims about his role in the battle. He was discharged at Fort Meade on 20 September 1880 at the expiration of his service.

Being so close to Deadwood we went to see this notorious place. The original town was destroyed by fire back in the 1880s and what is there now is somewhat disappointing. On what is claimed as the original site, there is a mock-up of the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was killed by Jack McCall on 2 August 1876. This is a rather shabby memorial to such a dynamic character who was so admired by Libbie Custer.

Day 21, 29 June, we set out for the Badlands National Park and Wounded Knee. We headed to the Badlands Wall, the point at which Big Foot and his band entered the area on Christmas Eve 1890, then through the Pinnacles Entrance into the Park itself. As we drove slowly along the Badlands Loop Road, roughly duplicating the 1890 trek, we were amazed by the bleakness of the extraordinary landscape. What it must have been like travelling in rickety wagons or on foot in the depths of a freezing winter can only be imagined.

As it was not possible to follow the actual route taken in 1890 to Medicine Root Creek and beyond, we took the road south to the Wounded Knee Massacre site. I was not prepared for what I saw when we arrived. Without exception, every other battlefield site we had visited was meticulously kept, with explanatory markers at strategic points. The Wounded Knee site is certainly not easy to find and is a sad, lonely, unkempt place, with no wayside markers to explain what happened there. However, there were some rough wooden trestle tables manned by three or four Lakota people, who let you look at a folder of newspaper cuttings written at the time of the battle, giving the ‘white version’ of events. Though far from accurate, the cuttings describe a horror scene that in my opinion is made even worse by the knowledge that some of the soldiers from the 7th Cavalry, were awarded the Medal of Honor.

We paid our respects by leaving offerings of tobacco at the memorial erected by the Lakota to honour those of their people killed in the tragic events of 29 December 1890. I left Wounded Knee with two examples of beautifully crafted Lakota leather work and indelible images of Big Foot’s people struggling through those inhospitable Badlands.

 

A view at Wounded Knee

On 30 June we flew from Rapid City Airport to Boston, via Minneapolis/St. Paul, for an overnight stay. The following day, our last in the United States, was spent leisurely waiting for our evening flight to Heathrow. We left Boston at 9.30 p.m., at the end of a memorable three weeks. It was indeed, the trip of a lifetime.

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