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Coffin: Little Bighorn Reflections



(Host) Each year tens of thousands of people seeking a fascinating chapter in American history travel to a thinly settled part of the west where the Seventh Cavalry came to grief. Two Vermonters were recently among them, at the Big Horn Battlefield National Park. One of them was author, historian and commentator, Howard Coffin.

(Coffin) On a mild, slightly hazy September afternoon my wife Sue and I watched the vast Montana landscape roll toward the Black Hills from the long almost treeless ridge where George Armstrong Custer and 210 of his men perished on June 25, 1876.

From those distant hills Custer and his Seventh Cavalry had ridden west to encounter 7,000 Native Americans camped along the winding blue Little Bighorn River. Foolishly, Custer divided his command in the face of a far superior force, and his band of blue clad soldiers was soon driven to this ridge.

They never had a chance, and small white stones mark where Custer's men fell. A few red markers tell where some of the attackers met their deaths, fighting for chiefs Crazy Horse and Gall and the great Lakota Sioux warrior Sitting Bull. The cavalrymen, surrounded by 2,000 warriors, fell in a rain of arrows and fusillades of rifle fire that cut through the soft summer air.

We then moved five miles east along the ridge to where another 250 Seventh Cavalry men, under an erratic captain named Frederick Benteen, dug in to face Sitting Bull's victorious legion. Somehow, after a desperate two day siege, most of Benteen's command survived.

Back at the last stand site, an incident came to mind based on the fact that, late in the Civil War, the First Vermont Cavalry was part of Custer's command. The men had admired their general's leadership and bravery, from Cedar Creek to Appomattox, and years after Custer perished they reacted upon learning that his widow, Libby, was vacationing on Lake Champlain's New York shore. The old horsemen crossed the lake and, on another summer evening, paraded by torchlight past the hotel veranda where Mrs. Custer sat.
But back to our visit to Little Bighorn Battlefield, it concluded with a tour given by a young Lakota Sioux woman who told how in 1876 her ancestors had fled the reservation they thought was theirs' forever after gold prospectors broke a treaty by invading the beloved Black Hills.

My people were trying to preserve their way of life, she said, speaking with pride of the old Sioux ways, their love of nature, love of the land. You know, she said, my people once could talk with the animals.
Amazed, I asked her, How long ago could they do that?

Sitting Bull couldn't, she replied, but his father could.

Andthen, as an autumn breeze whispered through what the Sioux lovingly called the Land of the Greasy Grass, I heard a bird singing.