General George Custer and all of his men were killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Few remember that he was a Brigadier General (at the ripe age of 23!) in the Civil War, and his relentless pursuit of Confederate leader, General Robert E. Lee helped bring the war to an end. A native Ohian, he was born on December 5, 1839, he joined the 7th Cavalry in 1868. On June 26, 1876, he led 210 men into battle a Little Bighorn against Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.
George Custer enrolled at West Point in 1857. Needless to say, it was not a good fit. Custer finished last in his graduating class in June 1861. Just like the pharmacist or physician who finishes last in their class, the future career soldier generally does not fare much better than his health care counterparts. BTW, what do they call the guy who finished last in his class? Unemployed!
But when it came to war, Custer excelled. He was brilliant at leading the cavalry at the Battle of Bull Run, his first battle, earning him recognition. His bright red neckties became his signature look, giving him the makings of a real military hero. His daring and bravery earned him the title of “The Boy General.” In fact, his cavalry units were critical in forcing the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. He was deemed a hero by none other than Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan.
He continued to distinguish himself in battles with Native Americans, even though we called then Indians back then. In 1876, an attack was ordered on the large Lakota village. His biggest mistake was dividing his troops into three units, as Custer and his men were surrounded and killed. The defeat was an embarrassment to the U.S. government, which then redoubled its efforts and quickly and cruelly defeated the Lakotas.
Though Custer became a legend, his career could not overcome “Custer’s Last Stand.” His wife, Elizabeth Bacon, tried to salvage his image and reputation. Her father was a judge, and did not approve of George, whose father was a blacksmith. After he was appointed brigadier general, her father gave his approval, and they married fourteen months after they formally met.
Skipping the details of Little Bighorn, I quickly digress to say it quickly became the highlight of the western Indian wars. So, despite all of the hoopla around his failure, he has been honored in several ways. Six states have named counties in his honor. Custer National Cemetery is located within Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. There is even a Custer Monument at West Point, where he is buried. He is probably the first, only, and last grad, who finished last in his class, to be buried there.
But Custer State Park, South Dakota’s first and largest, was named after Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. The park now cover 71,000 acres, and is home to many animals, three dams, and miles of road. The park is home to a famous herd of 1500 free roaming bison. It is easily accessible from Rapid City, where we land. Even President Coolidge made the park his “summer White House” back in 1927.
The park is known for its “begging burros”, donkeys who approach passing cars in the park. The burros have become famous, with many people bringing food specifically for feeding the animals. How different from the hungry bears in Yosemite National Park.
The park also has an annual buffalo roundup (more than 1,300 buffalo) and auction in September of each year. Other animals found in the park are mule deer, elk, mountain goats, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mountain lions, and feral burros. Needles Highway and the wildlife loop are reputed to be the best drives in the park. Needles, so named for the slender granite formations that dominate the skyline, and grassy (not dewy) meadows.
There are rules here. Pet leashes can be no longer than 10 feet. July and August are hot, something I can do without. Bison, and not Custer, are the big attraction in the park. This is the world’s largest herd of bison at nearly 1300. Three hundred are sold at auction each November to keep the herd consistent. Campers should not drink from lakes and rivers. Cell phone reception is spotty, and rock climbing is allowed. Five lodges are part of Custer.
Most importantly, Custer is one of the last wild places left in the U.S. What do I mean by wild? Is it like the call of the wild, or the wild and woolly west? Probably, the wild means a little of all things wild. Like prairie dogs, white-tail deer, and the cute but smelly begging burros.
Custer City is the oldest town (1874) in the Black Hills, with a rather picturesque downtown. I think that is a euphemism for artsy craftsy places, and a few food joints lining a dusty road with no traffic signals. The town has rebuilt the stockade, a few minutes east of town. Also located here is the National Museum of Woodcarving, including the carvings of Dr. H. Niblack of Denver, who was the original animator of Disneyland.