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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Custer & Me -- Chapter 2

Webmaster's Note: We present a portion of Chapter 2 for your enjoyment.

Custer and Me --  copyright by the author and U. O. Press.

The momentous bus trip occurred in August 1946. I had saved enough money clerking at Widmer's to buy a bus ticket back to the West, especially to the hill where Custer and his troopers died. The National Park Service also had jurisdiction over Custer Battle­field National Monument, Montana. I wrote to the superintendent asking how to get there. His reply intimated that there was really no good way unless one had an auto; but he promised if I took the morning train down to Crow Agency from Billings, he would meet me on his mail run and drive me to the battlefield, three and one-half miles distant. My bus ticket projected a grand tour of the West by way of Chicago, Minneapolis, Butte, Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City, and St. Louis. I took the superintendent up on his offer and arranged for the side trip from Billings to Custer Battlefield.

Late on that consequential August morning, the Burlington's southbound passenger train puffed to a stop at the Crow Agency station. On the platform as I stepped down stood a man in the gray and green uniform of the National Park Service. He was tall and blocky, with a long red face and hawk nose shaded by the flat brim of his "Montana Peak" Stetson. His shirt pocket bore the round gold badge of a park superintendent, but what imme­diately caught my eye was a watch chain looped over his right trousers pocket, from which hung the blue and gold regimental crest of the Seventh Cavalry. He introduced himself in a parade ground voice with a pronounced Boston accent. He was Captain Edward S. Luce, superintendent of Custer Battlefield National Monument.

We climbed into the cab of a black prewar Chevrolet pickup bearing a white U.S. government shield on each door…We drove south on Highway 87 across the Little Bighorn River, then turned to ascend a winding road to the high, treeless ridges overlooking the valley. Before leaving the valley, we passed a small cabin and gas pumps bearing signs identifying it as a souvenir shop. This was run by Mary Jane Williams, Luce said, whose family he tossed off contemptuously as beneath notice. "Prairie Mary," he called her, pronounced in his Boston tongue "Prayrie Mayrie."

We passed through a black steel gate holding an arch that silhouetted black metal letters spelling "Custer Battlefield." Beyond, a neatly trimmed hedge partly obscured a small stone dwelling and stone bandbox. Within lay the immaculately maintained green carpet of Custer Battlefield National Cemetery. A narrow roadway lined with pine trees ended at a tall white flag pole flying the national colors. Ranks of white grave stones aligned with military precision marched outward from the flag pole.

The little stone house had been built in 1894 as the cemetery custodian's home and office. A covered passage connected its rear with a shop, above which were quarters for the maintenance chief. Behind them stood a stone garage.

The stone house still served the purpose for which it was built. The small front room, entered from a roofed porch, contained the superintendent's desk, a table for the visitor register, and a few exhibits. Above the table hung an oil painting of General Cus­ter. Beneath it were crossed cavalry carbines, in the angle of which hung a framed collection of portraits of officers who had died at the Little Bighorn. In one corner an exhibit case displayed a fringed buckskin jacket and breeches that had belonged to Custer. I do not recall any artifacts representing the Indians.

Mrs. Luce -- Evelyn, or as he called her in jest, "Mrs. McGilli­cuddy" -- turned out to be the big blustery man's opposite. Younger than he by perhaps a dozen years, quiet, courteous, kindly, thought­ful, self-effacing though clearly a vital figure in managing the park, she welcomed me with a ham sandwich and a coke.

Afterward, Luce drove me to the hilltop where Custer and the last of his men perished. A granite monument rose from the mass grave of the dead troopers. It bore the name of each, with an inscription on the base recording its purpose:


In Memory of

The Officers and Soldiers Who Fell near This Place

Fighting with the 7th United States Cavalry

Against Sioux Indians On the 25th and 26th of June

A.D. 1876


The hill capped by the monument marked the northern tip of "Battle Ridge." On its western slope, just below the monument, clustered about fifty white marble headstones, official U.S. govern­ment issue. A few bore names, including those of George A. Custer and his brother Thomas W., but most recorded simply "Unknown Soldier, 7th U.S. Cavalry, fell here June 25, 1876." Each marked where a trooper had fallen in battle and been buried until removed to the mass grave. Below in a deep coulee, and south on both sides of Battle Ridge, gravestones glistened white amid the brown late-summer grass. Seemingly scattered at random, they too marked where soldiers had fallen.

"Custer Hill," as it came to be called, commanded a sweeping view. Below, the Little Bighorn River, its course traced by cotton­wood trees, snaked down a valley two to three miles wide, the locale of the Sioux and Cheyenne village that Custer sought to attack. Benchlands rose beyond, extending to a horizon etched by the Bighorn Mountains. In the foreground, a hundred yards or so below the bunched markers of Custer Hill, the five-acre national cemetery lay in brilliant green contrast to the dry plains grass dappled with blue-gray clumps of sagebrush.

The monument, the gravestones tracing ragged battle lines and the final stand, the wrinkled brown landscape, and the vista embracing a hundred miles of plains and mountains combine in a powerful evocation of one of history's most compelling tragedies. It stirred me deeply on first sight, as it has ever since. Rare is the visitor not similarly affected.

Cap Luce's running commentary competed with the emotions evoked by the scene's grandeur. He drove me along Battle Ridge to Calhoun Hill; through a gate and down to the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee, opening on the cool, shaded waters of the Little Big­horn; up a winding trace to Weir Point; and on to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield. Here, atop ravine-scored bluffs rising steeply from the river, Major Marcus A. Reno and Captain Frederick W. Benteen formed a perimeter defense and fought off the warriors who had wiped out Custer. Luce guided me among the positions and pointed out, in the valley below, where Reno had first attacked the Indian village, where he had withdrawn to a timbered river bend, and where in bloody panic he and his men had fled over the open valley and the river to gain the bluff tops.

Back at the Custer Battlefield, Luce let me wander. I roamed among the markers, climbed ridges and descended ravines, and jumped wildly every time buzzing grasshoppers reminded me of the captain's warning about rattlesnakes. As the late-afternoon sun cast shadows that threw the rugged landscape into bold relief, I walked in the cemetery, reading names that recorded history from the Indian wars to World War II. The cemeteries of frontier forts had been moved here as the garrisons marched away. Luce joined me for the evening ritual of lowering and folding the flag.

Mrs. Luce had me take supper with them. Together they drove me to Crow Agency and saw me aboard the evening bus back to Billings. What a powerful set of impressions I took with me. What an enduring set of memories I had acquired. And in the Luces I had found adults to respect, admire, and I hoped, be my friends beyond this day. I still marvel that these dedicated public servants took under their care a sixteen-year-old kid, an utter stranger, who had bought a bus ticket from Indiana to Custer Battlefield. On that day, unknown to all of us, they set my life on a new course.

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