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Battle of the Little Bighorn: The story of Custer's last stand lives on

On June 28, 1876, the bodies of Custer and his command were hastily buried in shallow graves at or near where they fell. In 1877 the remains of 11 officers and two civilians were transferred to eastern cemeteries. Custer's remains were buried at West Point.1 / 2
A metal sculpture creates a focal point at the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial. On Dec. 10, 1991, President George Bush signed legislation to change the battlefield's name from "Custer" to "Little Bighorn" Battlefield National Monument and to create the Indian Memorial. The law authorized a national design competition, construction of the memorial and acceptance of donations. Photos by Jon Echternacht2 / 2

Almost everybody knows something about Custer's last stand although it took place 136 years ago on the plains of southeastern Montana near the Little Bighorn River.

Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and 262 of his U.S. Army 7th Cavalry troops died in a fight with combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho people in a battle June 25-26, 1876. The Indians involved called it the Battle of the Greasy Grass, the name of the ridge near what is now called Last Stand Hill.

Today the scene of the skirmish is officially the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The name was changed in 1991 from Custer Battlefield National Monument in a move to include more of Native American participation, according to information distributed by the Western National Parks Association.

It is about half way between Sheridan, Wyo., and Billings, Mont., just off I-90.

I had the opportunity to visit monument for the first time in late May. The day was perfect with sun and blue sky in amongst cumulus clouds and a slight breeze to reduce the shimmering afternoon heat off the plains.

Walking along the trails of the battlefield among hillocks, ridges, coulees and ravines of the prairie above the wooded banks of the river put the area in perspective of those days long ago.

After viewing the battlefield, the artifacts in the visitor center and enjoying a lecture on the events and monuments in and around Last Stand Hill, visualizing action that took place more than a century ago was easy.

Imagining soldiers in dark blue wool uniforms fighting of an attack on the top of a barren hill, with no real cover except the horses they killed for battlements, I almost started to sweat thinking about it.

Looking backward it's easy to say Custer was obviously out-manned and out-gunned by the opposing forces camped along a three-mile stretch of the Little Bighorn. Estimates put the combined forces under Chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and others at 900 to 1,800 warriors, but there could have been more.

Custer's regiment had 647 men in 12 companies. Custer sent Maj. Marcus Reno and Capt. Frederick Benteen to attack the encampment from the southeast.

With five companies of about 210 men, Custer planned to move northwest, cross the river and attack from that direction.

He was turned back by heavy resistance and moved to higher ground when he discovered his troops surrounded a cutoff.

Nobody knows what exactly happened on Last Stand Hill, except everybody died. Estimates said the final struggle lasted anywhere from 20 minutes to about an hour. The last trooper was killed around 5 p.m., according to various historical estimates.

Reno had 53 men killed and 52 wounded during the standoff and retreat from his attack on the other end of the Indian settlement.

Many years after the fact, it is hard to believe so many died in battle on the very spot. Time and weather have healed over the most prominent signs of war, but remnants remain.

A park ranger at Last Stand Hill said in in August 1983, a prairie fire swept over the entire battlefield and exposed thousands of artifacts from the 1876 battle. Archaeological examinations of the Little Bighorn followed in 1983, 1984, 1989 and 1994 in a continued effort to determine what really happened.

Some historians believe the Battle of the Little Bighorn is the most written about fight in U.S. history next to the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg fought July 1-3, 1863, in southern Pennsylvania, just 13 years earlier at the same time of year.

For more information on the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument contact the National Park Service website at