Coffin: Little Bighorn Reflections

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(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

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."

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

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