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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Battle Ground From Another Time, Another Place and Still the Same

Little Bighorn: A NovelLittle Bighorn: A Novel by John Hough Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many readers would probably not chose to read this book unless they have an interest in the Indian Wars in general or Lt Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the rout of his 7th Calvary along the Little Big Horn River, specifically. It would be their loss. I entered this first reads giveaway on Goodreads for several reasons: I've been to the Battlefield several times, one of my daughter's classmates at MSU in Bozeman is a descendent of one of the Crow guides used by Custer and in recent years a town by the name of Garryowen was for sale and among the items included in the sale were many of Libbie Custer's writings and apparently some of her possessions. I must look Garryowen up again to see if it ever sold.

From the very beginning in the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. I was hooked in the telling of the tale. The premise of the novel is that Custer, in Washington to testify before Congress before returning to Fort Lincoln in Dakota, promises the American actress and sometime lover, Mary Deschenes, that he will take her 18 year old son, Allen Winslow with him. Allen has no interest in going West to fight the Indians but, having been somewhat captivated by Custer and feeling a need to placate his mother agrees he will go. Unknown to him, Custer also plans on having him serve as escort for the young sister of one of his surgeons. Addie Grace Lord is anxious to escape her all girls' boarding school and her domineering aunt and uncle and wishes to visit her brother, George.

And so the adventure begins--with a very accurate description of the train ride from Grand Central Station in New York City to Albany, New York and then westward across the forested rolling hills of New York, through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin to the flat plains leading to Bismarck, North Dakota. I've driven this route so often I could see it as I read. Across the Missouri to Fort Lincoln. By the time the two young people stepped out of the wagon in front of Officers' Row they had fallen in love. Fort Lincoln was set up like most of the outposts of the Midwest--a large Parade Ground with a flagpole in the middle and bordered by brick or clapboard buildings on at least three sides. The fancier buildings on one side making up Officers' Row, another side with enlisted mens' housing, some for married men and a dorm for the singles, another side bordered with the buildings necessary to provision, maintain horses etc for a large population of soldiers and families.

When the wind blows across the grounds of some of these places you can almost hear the sounds of voices: singing, ordering, talking, preparing. Those of horses hooves and the music of parade bands as the men go through their marching practice, getting ready for battle whenever it may come. By the time Custer and his men were ready to head to Montana I wondered what Garryowen, the drinking song and The Girl I Left Behind, the ballad, they'd chosen as their own music sound like. I also began to wonder, since so many of the characters were actual soldiers, which of the characters were fictional. I knew that Custer had taken his brother, Tom, with him. But a brother, Boston? A nephew, Austin? Both of these were friends of Allen and stayed with him throughout the story.

I found a webpage that has the full roster of the men with Custer, Reno and Benteen at Little Big Horn. Allen, Addie, Mary Deschenes appear all to be imaginary. But the others, including George Lord are on the list. Along with many of the other characters depicted. Fort Abraham Lincoln is now a State Park near Mandan,North Dakota and Custer was its Superintendent until his death in 1876.

Once more, as the troop marched Westward I could see the Badlands, the wide flatness at the foot of hills in which the Powder River runs and onward over what are now several reservations to the site of the battle which has become known as Custer's Last Stand. The first time I saw that sacred ground on which so much blood, soldier and warrior alike, had been shed, much of the land was off limits to the visitor. There were few of us and the Ranger was a taciturn, unfriendly man who either didn't know much about the battle, which I find hard to believe, or was not in the mood to elaborate with such small showing--I think there were about six of us there. My sister and I drove out the short loop road, looking at the small white markers purportedly placed at the spot where a trooper had fallen. Outside the visitors' center was a fairly small square on which a monument with the names of the men was placed. The small square of ground is a grave of many. Falling away toward the river is a slight downward slope on which several white markers are grouped, one of which has a blackened shield-like face proclaiming it as the spot on which Custer fell. Close by is another marking the location of Tom, his brother's demise.

As I read the description of the battle, I could see the crests and valleys of that terrain the imagine the waves of braves sweeping over them from all directions and yet, it was as if all was happening in slow motion. I was amazed that as I read, Kellogg wrote the date, June 25 and with a shock I realized I was reading this on June 25! I had started earlier in the day but, knowing how the battle would go, I kept finding things to take me away from the story. At last, I sat and read of the arrows, the bullets, the desecrations, the war cries, and simply the cries of anguish.

I've been back since several times. I'm happy to see the monument to the Crow and others who helped Custer. I look at the ribbons of clothe tied there by the Crow who still live on the reservation that surrounds the site and say a prayer,too. The road to drive is longer now, it goes out to an overlook that allows one to see where Reno's men were across the River. Horses graze free there and once in awhile a Native man in a pick-up truck brings bales of hay to them. There are some reddish markers, too, showing where Sioux warriors fell. The Cavalrymen were not the only ones who died.

I cannot like Custer--he was egotistical, had a history of disobeying orders, breaking treaties with the Indians, leaving men behind and leaving his post on several occasions. I'm not sure Reno was the drunk he is portrayed here but, though I bought a book about him, when I was last at the Big Horn, I've not yet read it. I know that both he and Benteen were seen to have been derelict--I'm not sure but I think Reno was even court-martialed. I know they both were highly critical of Custer's command decisions and that Libbie spent the rest of her life making sure her husband was considered a brave and gallant hero. I have more reading to do, obviously.

For those who want to start on learning about the Big Horn they could do worse than to start with this novel. I've often found myself delving into real history after having read a good fictional narrative about an event.

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