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"One must have a mind of winter," Wallace Stevens wrote, "To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow." I must have a mind of autumn. When I think about GhostWest images, I regard golden aspen, a harvest moon, and wheat fields blanched by the sun. Ghosts I regard as autumnal, the last vestiges of a season's close. This intuition first came to me one September, when I experienced the oppressive melancholy of the Little Bighorn. There, in the long shadows of an afternoon, I apprehended the powerful connection between a battlefield and its stories crusted with memories. That day, the spirits were haunting.
I had gone to Montana to participate in a series of gatherings hosted by the Western Heritage Center in Billings. For a week of almost perfect Indian summer weather, Mary Clearman Blew and I crisscrossed eastern Montana, talked about our writing, and watched panoramic Big Sky scenery unfold. This prelude to winter was unconditionally beautiful. For a few free hours before an evening session at Crow Agency, we took time to explore the infamous Custer battlefield, renamed Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1991.
Our first stop was Custer Hill, where the general, his brother, and more than forty of their men met their deaths, and where an imposing marble obelisk marks the location. The area was nearly deserted. The sun, slanting through the iron fence, lined shades of gray up and down the column and across the smaller white marble stones. George Armstrong Custer'sown marker, painted black to stand out from the others, and dozens more all sprawled down the hillside. Dried grasses ruffled in a fading breeze. Only a handful of tourists wandered respectfully nearby, gaping at the spots where individual cavalrymen had fallen. Almost no one spoke.
Leaving the climactically fatal scene, we drove along the ridge line southeast to the Reno-Benteen battle site, where the troops who might have helped Custer were themselves trapped by Indian fire. The far parking lot was empty. No one else in our car seemed very interested in the walking tour, so I spent an hour by myself, strolling from one interpretive spot to another, learning about the difficulties faced by the rest of the Seventh Cavalry. Normally I'm impatient with guided walks, but the atmosphere of a dying season perfectly shadowed the entrenchment path.
A Park Service trail guide opens with a soldier's recollection that "everybody now lay down and spread himself out as thin as possible. After lying there a few minutes I was horrified to find myself wondering if a small sagebrush, about as thick as my finger, would turn a bullet." I wondered the same thing. The booklet describes shallow trenches dug by some of the men. "Only three or four shovels were available, and much of the digging was done with knives, hatchets and mess gear. Dead horses and mules were dragged up and laid on the parapet as added cover." Interpretive signs pointed to several niches hardly big enough to notice. Some "trenches" were L-shaped; others, more circular and womblike. National Monument regulations forbid stepping off the walkway or lying down in a trench, so I could only imagine myself curled into the grass—listening to the spin of bullets and arrows, smelling the putrid odor of dead flesh, crowding my face into the dirt—heedless of anything but the sheer terror of the moment.
"The sun beat down on us and we became so thirsty that it was almost impossible to swallow." Under sharpshooter protection, fifteen volunteers finally braved a way down to the river, filled kettles and canteens, then dashed back to the wounded. I eyed the distance between the site of the makeshift field hospital and the gently flowing water, measured the lack of cover, calculated the necessary bravery. Under those circumstances, how fast could a man run?
U.S. Soldier 7th Cav. Killed June 25 or 26, 1876
Although separate markers indicate where certain corpses were found, they offer few details. Occasionally a specific soldier might be identified—Pvt. Thomas E. Meador or Pvt. Julian D. Jones, for example—but most of them remain anonymous, some marked without even an exact date of death.
Since I couldn't quite imagine myself as a cavalryman, flattening my body into the prairie, or cowering behind my horse's carcass, or sprinting recklessly toward the river, I tried to picture how a woman might relate to the scene. A mother, a sister, a sweetheart, or wife would read the headlines—Custer's Cavalry Doomed—then wait for further news. If her loved one rode with Custer, that news would be grim. If her loved one had paused instead with Major Reno or Captain Benteen, he might have been spared, though certainly traumatized, even badly wounded. Meanwhile, the woman would be isolated, uncertain, fearful, wholly unable to conceive of her son or lover interred as:
U.S. Soldier 7th Cav. Fell Here June 25, 1876
Such markers, which now scatter more than four miles of landscape, knell a visual dirge of death.
I personally dislike war, and I am not in the habit of visiting battle sites. What I knew of Custer was less than impressive, and I had little sympathy with cavalry tactics during the Indian wars. Given my disinterest, this particular place should have affected me very little. Yet it chilled me both emotionally and intellectually. Perhaps the sound of the wind swaying the sun-bleached grasses, perhaps the long shadows of a September afternoon, perhaps the secret gullies and pockets of the rolling terrain, perhaps the random marble markers with their casual anonymity—whatever the causes, an entire cavalry of ghosts cantered through the Little Bighorn monument that day.
And the place has continued to haunt my imagination. To describe the scene of Custer's Last Stand, however, I needed more than romantic autumnal memories. I wanted to witness the landscape as the cavalrymen must have seen it that early summer day in 1876, in June, the hillsides not brown and dying but redolent with green grasses and flowers. I wondered if a place teeming with the energy and life of spring would still seem haunted by the ghosts of battle. Would morning, in fact, be less melancholy than afternoon? I also suspected that tourists crowding over Custer Hill might change my response, that incessant conversations about military strategy and the ensuing political machinations would shadow my initial, more visceral and vernal, reactions.
So one year I joined the June crowds, and entered a landscape more like a garden than a mausoleum. I tried to persuade myself that the prairie flowers were funereal, that the massive pink thistles, the white yarrow, the yellow mustard were appropriate remembrances for empty graves. Maybe the cluster of rosebuds growing against the wrought-iron fence looked as if a mourner had strategically placed wild rose bushes there? Maybe the sprays of color really belonged in a cemetery? My own argument was unconvincing. Because the monument has been closed to grazing for nearly a century, its wildflowers and native grasses grow more abundantly than in any of the surrounding coulees and draws. The springtime prairie feels more cheerful than depressing, more hopeful than hopeless.
Other writers have noted the resemblance between cavalry swords and the yellow yucca that everywhere thrusts above the grasses in late June. I thought the analogy ironic—the Seventh Cavalry didn't carry sabers—and disquieting, especially when I retraced my steps on the Reno-Benteen entrenchment walking tour. There the wildflowers were even more dominant, with orange globe mallow, yellow blazing star, and a five-petal blue blossom I'd never seen before. Next to the yellow yucca, more spiny-soft wild roses grew, as if a woman's shawl were gently wrapped around a scabbard. Strolling the paved pathway, I listened to the meadowlarks and I confess I opened my flower book more often than my battlefield brochure.
Artifacts from the 1876 encounter—bullets and bullet casings, arrowheads, buttons, scraps of leather, even undiscovered corpses—still lie buried throughout the monument. Archaeologists some day hope to examine other unexcavated areas, so most of the preserve's hillsides and coulees remain off-limits to the casual walker. Below Custer Hill, however, a short trail opens for summer visitors. The route down Deep Ravine, where Sgt. Daniel Kanipe later said he "counted 28 bodies in the gulch," literally folds into the prairie, as if the walker were entering a grassy tomb. From a distance this landscape may look deceivingly rounded, but closer inspection reveals pockets and depressions and undulations that might hide a cavalryman or an Indian warrior or a corpse.
"In 1983 visitors discovered a human skull fragment at markers 33 and 34. Formal archeological investigation in 1984 recovered a .50/ 70 bullet, bullet fragment, lead shot, rubber and mother of pearl buttons, cervical vertebra, wrist and hand bones and a coccyx," reports the trail guide. More white markers bury themselves among the grasses of Deep Ravine. Historians now reconstruct the battle's progress in a way that makes this particular cut the scene of some of the fiercest fighting. Once again I tried to imagine myself huddled in a curve of earth, with the clash of war all around me. Swallowed here in Deep Ravine, a soldier would have been unable to see the panorama playing on the hillsides above him. He would have fallen among the late spring flowers without knowing Custer's fate. And even today, he might still lie beneath the roots! As the monument brochure tantalizes: "a Rapid Geophysical Surveyor Investigation in this area indicated magnetic and metal detector anomalies scattered throughout the ravine, with target density higher in the upper two-thirds of the area. Future investigations may someday reveal the missing 28 soldiers."
No one knows exactly what happened to those men. One of the romantic—or grisly—qualities about the Battle of the Little Bighorn is the fact that no cavalryman survived the Last Stand. Only the bodies could attest to the soldiers' fates, and even their corpses provided sometimes misleading evidence. A certain amount of corporeal degradation took place, first from Indian clubs and knives and then from the excessive heat. By the time a burial party could attend to the remains, decomposition was so advanced that the ensuing burials were made as hastily as possible. Expedience superseded forensic science, and a certain amount of tact kept the observers from describing too many of the details.
One man wrote to his wife, "It was a horrible sight and one never to be forgotten." Trooper William C. Slaper, from M Company, remembered the repellent chore fifty years later:
Here, with a few spades, we were set to work to bury them. We had but a few implements of any sort. All that we could possibly do was to remove a little dirt in a low place, roll in a body and cover it with dirt. Some, I can well remember, were not altogether covered, but the stench was so strong from the disfigured, decaying bodies, which had been exposed to an extremely hot sun for two days, that it was impossible to make as decent a job of interring them as we could otherwise have done. There were also great numbers of dead horses lying about, which added to the horror of the situation.
Slaper notes, too, that most of the bodies had been stripped naked and robbed of their valuables. He says nothing, however, about the bodies' locations, and little about the battle's sequence of events.
Despite the initial paucity of information, and despite the acquisitiveness of early souvenir hunters, twentieth-century historians finally have managed to detail most of the battle tactics. No soldiers with Custer survived, but Indian participants could provide first-hand ac counts of what happened. Chief Two Moons reported, "The whole valley was filled with smoke and the bullets flew all about us, making a noise like bees. We could hardly hear anything for the noise of the guns. When the guns were firing, the Sioux and Cheyennes and soldiers, one falling one way and one falling another, together with the noise of the guns, I shall never forget." Thomas B. Marquis interviewed Kate Bighead exactly fifty years after the event. She remembered a startling sequence of events:
On all sides of this band of soldiers the Indians jumped up. There were hundreds of warriors, many more than one might have thought could hide themselves in those small gullies. I think there were about twenty Indians to every soldier there. The soldier horses got scared, and all of them broke loose and ran away toward the river. Then I saw a soldier shoot himself by holding his revolver at his head. Then another one did the same, and another. Right away, all of them began shooting themselves or shooting each other. I saw several different pairs of them fire their guns at the same time and shoot one another in the breast. For a short time the Indians just stayed where they were and looked. Then they rushed forward. But not many of them got to strike coup blows on living enemies. Before they could get to them, all of the white men were dead.
Avid Custerphiles thoroughly discount her recollection, but it may well be accurate.
Archaeological findings have been the most helpful in pinpointing the actual course of the fighting. When fires swept the monument hillsides in 1983 and again in 1991, previously undiscovered artifacts were revealed. Now computers can examine the field patterns of bullets found and trace the firearms used, following the progress of a single rifle or revolver up and down the coulees. Osteobiographies have been developed, too. The body found at sites 33 and 34 in Deep Ravine, for example, turned out to be that of Mitch Boyer, the trail guide explains. "Analysis indicate[d] a male individual 35-45 years of age, who suffered massive blunt trauma to the head, and was of mixed racial parentage, part white and part Indian, and a pipe smoker (commensurate with teeth wear)." Boyer, a pipe smoker whose father was French Canadian and mother Santee Sioux, fit the description exactly. Further computer modelings have helped assess Custer's decisions and movements during the battle. Whereas earlier tacticians assumed the general stayed on the ridges, scholars now understand his troops dropped toward the river two or three times before withdrawing to Last Stand Hill.
A visitor to the monument learns the tactics in excruciating detail. Just as the countless Custer battle books endlessly reexamine every option, so the rangers, the brochures, and the marked sites themselves focus on who was where and why. At the Reno-Benteen site, for example, I could walk from one fixed post to another, and spot Major Reno's exact movements—at ten- and thirty-minute intervals—on June 25, 1876. The overall dynamics, I must admit, became almost mechanical to me, like those of a computer game both violent and oddly impersonal. As described, the precise tactics were much less terrifying than the shallow simulated foxholes and the bemused question about a sagebrush's ability to turn a bullet.
Back on the self-guiding tour road, I passed Calhoun Hill and the Keogh Sector, where Companies I, C, and L met their demise, then continued on to Last Stand Hill, where the rest of the soldiers died. How many cavalrymen rode down to the Medicine Tail Ford and back? How many scouted down to the river beyond the present-day national cemetery? How many penetrated Deep Ravine? Altogether, two hundred and sixty-three soldiers died on these hillsides. Where, exactly, were they? And why? Some historians have spent their careers calculating the answers. Some regard such shrines as this as sacred space.
When I took at a landscape, I tend to see it pictorially. My father, an amateur photographer whose heroes were Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, taught me to see scenery framed. So did college art classes. But a visitor simply cannot experience the Little Bighorn terrain that way. This is a narrative landscape, a place where the story dictates the vision of the land.
Excerpted from GhostWest by Ann Ronald. Copyright © 2002 by University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction: Shadowed Places||3|
|1||Montana: Battle Stations||11|
|2||Kansas: Buffalo Grounds||27|
|3||Texas: Cowboy Country||33|
|4||Wyoming: A Rendezvous||53|
|5||Colorado: Savage Basins||59|
|6||Oregon: Sand and Sea||81|
|7||North Dakota: Train Time||87|
|8||Nevada: Buried Bones||109|
|9||California: Sand Castles||113|
|10||Arizona: The Old Pueblo||131|
|12||New Mexico: Land of Enchantment||153|
|13||South Dakota: Sculptured Stone||159|
|14||Oklahoma: Shades of the Past||171|
|15||Utah: Glen Canyon Reservoir||177|
|16||Idaho: Lava Land||197|
|17||Washington: Ancient Forests||203|
|Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading||227|
Posted July 10, 2014