I was the only person there and it was a spooky experience walking among the monuments marking the places where the bitter enemies fell.
Custer and the Seventh, according to the history I learned in elementary school, came here to pacify “hostiles,” Indians who refused to submit to the will of the benevolent Great White Father in Washington.
We children were taught savage Indians outnumbered the noble Custer and his courageous soldiers, the Americans fighting to the last man on that forlorn hilltop.
I believed Custer’s mostly manufactured legend, hero of the Civil War with the flowing blonde locks and buckskin jacket leading his men to glory. As a kid, I read everything I could lay my hands on about the gallant Seventh, watching “They Died with Their Boots On” whenever it was on TV.
Like all things childish, it was utter nonsense, a xenophobic fantasy.
In reality, Custer was an arrogant and reckless glory hound, executing a policy of conquest on people who had roamed the Great Plains for millennia. The Indians had adapted and thrived in a harsh environment, the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, proud, tough and resourceful, in harmony with the land and its rhythms.
Then came Lewis and Clark, followed by the fur trappers, the gold prospectors, the sodbusters and ranchers, and finally the pony soldiers. It went downhill from there for Native Americans.
Sitting Bull, a Sioux holy man who’d learned the white man couldn’t be trusted, led his people to the bench lands beneath the majestic Big Horn Mountains, where a placid river flowed and the game was plentiful.
A couple of thousand lodges went up along the banks of the Little Big Horn not long before the Seventh Cavalry appeared on the morning of June 25, 1876.
Custer divided his command before an unknown number of Indians, violating basic military doctrine. So much for his tactical brilliance. Intent on making national headlines, Custer led five companies headlong into no fewer than a thousand mounted warriors bent on preserving their way of life.
The soldiers retreated to the top of a nearby ridge, where they were annihilated. Custer made the national headlines — just not the ones he wanted.
It was a resounding victory for Sitting Bull’s followers, but it was only a battle. Native Americans eventually lost the war.
Sitting Bull was gunned down in 1890. The Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho and other Native Americans were forced onto reservations where many of their descendants remain to this day.
In Custer’s time, Americans were driven by “manifest destiny,” which journalist John L. O’Sullivan defined in 1845 as “the right … to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”
Sitting Bull would regard manifest destiny as a curse and Custer as an invader with no right, God-given or otherwise, to take away the freedom his people had enjoyed for untold centuries.
I got to thinking about this sad history as I drove past the Custer battlefield on my way out here, and how we Americans still possess an enormous sense of self-righteous entitlement, an air of infallibility that dictates whatever we do is always the right thing.
Confronted with evidence to the contrary — Custer, the Banana Wars, Vietnam, Iraq, for example — why is it some of us so ardently seek to ignore or justify our mistakes rather than acknowledging and learning from them?
Kevin Foley is a public relations executive, author and writer who lives in Kennesaw.