Staff Ride on the Little Bighorn

1 month ago

History, nowadays, is usually experienced by seeing it after the fact, unless a person was lucky enough to be present when the event occurred.

The military conducts “staff rides” where a battlefield is explored with the help of historians, to better understand the tactics used. In the early 1930s many key battlefields were managed by the War Department before the National Park Service took over. These “staff rides” were done from horseback and staff officers were the primary audience. Over time “staff rides” have included Non-Commissioned Officers, and even civilians, and can occur at any battle location in history. Learning while walking the ground only enhances the experience and understanding.

On September 4, 2022 members of the Society conducted a casual “staff ride” to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana. According to the National Park ServiceThis area memorializes the US Army's 7th Cavalry and the Lakotas and Cheyennes in one of the Indian's last armed efforts to preserve their way of life. Here on June 25 and 26 of 1876, 263 soldiers, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer and attached personnel of the US Army, died fighting several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.”

Custer National Cemetery

We started our staff ride by visiting the Custer National Cemetery. According to the National Park Service: “Custer National Cemetery was created after those killed in battle were already buried here. Between 1877 and 1881, troops garrisoned at nearby Fort Custer (modern-day town of Hardin, Montana) regularly gathered remains for reburial, recovered graves, and policed the battlefield for exposed bones. The first of these details disinterred and collected all identified officers, except Lieutenant John Crittenden. Lt. John Crittenden was left where he fell at the request of his family until 1932. General Custer was reinterred at West Point.”

The temperature was rising towards 95 degrees as we walked through the first plot (A) surrounding the flagpole. As we walked past the headstones, we could not help but be drawn in.

Here you can see the graves of members of soldiers who fought in the Indian wars, served in the cavalry or as Indian Scouts or as volunteers. There is a section for veterans of more recent conflicts also. You can see graves of Unknown soldiers. Each headstone tells a story and also generates more questions about the story of each person buried there.”
- David Hathaway, Society Assistant Quartermaster

Haunting, yet beautiful, headstones covered the first plot and we found many unique graves to marvel at. As time went by each of us would announce a new discovery, and we would all gather around the headstone and read the name. For each of the Tomb Guard, we started to look for our badge number amongst the dead.

“I had visited this battlefield during a PCS in 1993 in the winter time and was unable to truly experience the site as it should be. Finding the grave of Charles McDevitt was moving, as we both have Scottish names and served in Cavalry units. Being able to say his name aloud, as it was likely that nobody has visited his grave since his burial, gave me chills that I was not expecting. This small gesture felt like I was living up to our motto to never forget his service and sacrifice. Tomb Guards never forget.“ - Gavin McIlvenna (1997-98)

*Sergeant Charles McDevitt, died December 5, 1900, Company M, 2nd US Cavalry, buried Section A-457

“While I walked the Custer National Cemetery, I noticed many of the things I have in my many visits to national cemeteries and some new ones. I always enjoyed walking the rows of headstones looking for unique identifying information I have not previously seen. I really like unusual names, jobs, locations or units. Unfortunately, many civil war and Indian war headstones are quite plain, most just containing name, birth location, birth and death dates. Custer cemetery had quite a few WWI and later headstones, so I did see many new things I hadn’t seen before. The group of TGs all decided to find our badge numbers amongst the headstone admin numbers and take a photo. My number matched up with a Peter H Schneidler* of the 10th US Infantry. I was unable to find any information on him yet but will continue to look for his story.” - Paul Basso (2000-4, 2015-17)

*Private Peter H. Schneider, died June 13, 1867, Company F. 10th US Infantry. Transferred from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. Buried March 6, 1905 Sec A -487

“One of the things I’ve learned from the Tomb Guards is how to walk a cemetery and study the headstones and learn about those buried beneath them. I stumbled on this person while walking through the Custer National Cemetery at the Little Big Horn National Park today. Frederick Bittner* and I are both from Pennsylvania, he was a quartermaster for his unit in the Army and I serve as the assistant quartermaster for the Society. I could not have learned about him and made the connection if I had not been reading each headstone. In keeping with the tradition of the Tomb Guards, I stood in front of the grave and spoke his name. This helps to remember and honor him, and ensure that he is never forgotten.” - Dave Hathaway

*Quartermaster Sergeant Frederick W. Bittner, Company H, 31st US Infantry, aka Beltnor, transferred from Fort Totten, Dakota Territory, buried March 6, 1905, Sec A-80

“This has always been a top 10 bucket list item but I never knew that I would make 2 visits, just 3 months apart. Growing up and fascinated with history of all types, especially military, this national battlefield has always been one of great interest to me because it was the last great Indian War of the West and our young nation. Walking the trails of the battlefield, the same grounds of a terrible massacre really brings you to the heart of the sacrifice these brave men and warriors faced. Native Americans were fighting for their land and existence and the 7th Cavalry as ordered by their President. In the end, a defining moment in American History was etched.” - Lonny LeGrand Jr. (1981-83)

*Lieutenant R. F. Walborn, died November 30, 1868, 31st US Infantry, Transferred from Fort Rice, Dakota Territory, buried March 6, 1905, Sec A-249

Staff Ride through history

We moved from the Custer National Cemetery to the visitors center to start the “staff ride”. From here it was an uphill walk to the bluff where Custer and his men fell. A monument to the Cavalrymen and Scouts dominates the area, with a fenced in section protecting the headstones of Custer's command.

It was here that we learned that the headstones only mark where they had fallen, and most had been re-buried around the 7th Cavalry Monument in a mass grave, with notable exceptions. Just to the side of the road was a marker for the mass grave of horses that were killed in the battle.

“Much like our previous trip to World War I cemeteries in France for the centennial, I could not stop imagining the horror of battle against such a beautiful backdrop. The area is really some of the most beautiful in the US. “ - Paul Basso (2000-4, 2015-17)

From this dominating high ground, you could see how the battle was fought along the ridges, steep bluffs, and ravines of the Little Bighorn River. Rolling terrain was dotted with white and red headstones, marking where a warrior fell during the battle.

As we walked the battlefield and read the guide, it was clear that this was a violent, chaotic, and fluid battle were warriors from both sides were caught in untenable positions and killed. The lone headstone or groups of them spoke to us. Comments were made about the differences between this battlefield and Gettysburg, where instead of individual headstones marking the location of the fallen (Little Bighorn), there we monuments to the units and their location on the battlefield (Gettysburg). We all agreed that the loss would be felt more by keeping headstones to mark where they fell.

Close to the main monument to the 7th Cavalry is a memorial to the Native Indians who also fought during this battle. According to the National Park Service: “The Indian Memorial commemorates the sacrifice of the Arikara, Apsaalooke, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Oyate tribes in the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they fought to protect their diverse values and traditional way of life. The theme of the memorial, "Peace Through Unity", carries the commemoration further by acknowledging the need for cooperation both among Indian tribes and between tribal governments and the federal government. The relevancy and significance is further highlighted when one considers it is the only memorial to the Native American experience mandated by Congress and constructed with federal funds.”

A group of airplanes flying in the sky Description automatically generated with low confidence

Scouts for the 7th Cavalry came from the Crow and Arikara tribes, including Crow Army Scout Goes Ahead who is the ancestor to Elsworth GoesAhead (USMC) of the Chief Plenty Coups Honor Guard.

“We spent a good portion of Sunday at the Battlefield of Little Bighorn. As a retired Captain who deployed with a Cavalry unit, the experience evoked many emotions good, bad and in between. I was able to share those feelings and find solace through a connection with an individual who I had become aware of through a podcast. This connection was very meaningful as this person is a veteran and Native American.” - Amy McIlvenna, Bereavement Director, CPT (Ret), RN

There was an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness in the memorial, yet deep pride in tribes who fought to preserve their way of life on this battlefield. The inclusion of the “other side” of the conflict was good to see, and provided a deeper perspective of what happened here in 1876.

“I really enjoyed the names of the native Americans buried there, some colorful expressive names. Again, unfortunately little was recorded of these native warriors from this era. One headstone I photographed was “Curly” “Custer Scout''. When I got home, I discovered that curly was one of the only members of Custer's detachment or column that survived. I found that there are quite a few accounts of his story, but he basically scouted the battlefield from a distance during the fighting. He witnesses Custer and his men’s last moments and when it was over, he rode off to escape. He then found a nearby Army unit and drew pictures and acted out what he had seen (he only spoke Crow), this was the first news of Custer's last stand. He was interviewed by military investigators and authors for years after the battle and lived and died on the Crow Agency after the battle. I always enjoy finding random headstones then learning their story.” - Paul Basso (2000-4, 2015-17)

The “staff ride” was concluded and we all headed back into Billings, MT to meet with the GoesAhead family at their home to reflect on our growing friendship, respect, and to learn more about each other and our different cultures.

“We were welcomed into the home of Elsworth and Brandy GoesAhead for dinner on Sunday evening. Brandy made us a wonderful meal of Indian Fry Bread Tacos and we celebrated Elsworth’s birthday. Since the time of Jesus, sharing a meal in someone’s home was a way for people to connect with one another. The gift of hospitality allows us to share our homes, our bounty, our stories and our love and respect for each other. I received some very personal and meaningful gifts from 2 of the individuals that we met. These items will forever connect me to these people and will be worn and used with great humility and respect. The personal and spiritual connections that were made will be an important part of my life. The connection between the Society and the Crow community should be nurtured and broadened. This is such a wonderful opportunity to bring pride and fellowship not only to The Crow community but to The Society.” - Amy McIlvenna, Bereavement Director, CPT (Ret), RN

“I'm always excited to be around my Tomb Guard Brotherhood, any chance we have. Add to that a small group of Associate members of the Society were able to join us for this celebration. We were then guests of Elsworth and Brandy GoesAhead for a wonderful night of food and conversation. Those Indian Tacos with that fry bread, let’s just say, I could do that again for sure. The bond we've developed grew even more, were like family to each other now. Different cultures bonded together as one, forever. I look forward to my return or any return to Billings and the Crow Nation.” - SHGTUS President Lonny LeGrand Jr. (1981-83)

For more information on the Little Bighorn Battlefield please visit:
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)

The Commemorative Committee coordinates with organizations that have ties to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and/or work to honor the TUS and its higher meaning to never forget service and sacrifice. The participation in the Day of Honor by the Society is just one example of the work the committee is doing.

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