Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn Since 1876
by Jerome A. Greene, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2008, $34.95.
Anyone who has set foot on Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeastern Montana realizes the place is about far more than just George Custer’s defeat on June 25, 1876. Highly respected author Jerome A. Greene, a retired National Park Service research historian, has long had an interest in the battle, as well as how the battlefield has changed over the years “from a memorial shrine honoring Army dead to an inclusive historic site welcoming all perspectives.” The site once centered exclusively on Custer, a notion that offended the descendants of the Plains Indians who kicked his 7th U.S. Cavalry’s backside. “From the start,” writes Paul L. Hedren, a retired National Park Service superintendent and Great Sioux War expert, “it has been a place of swirling intrigue, mystery, aversion and controversy that boils to the very present.”
It can safely be said this hallowed ground has produced as much controversy as Custer himself, and Greene does not shy away from the issues. These include protests by Indian activists, the 1991 name change from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the archaeological projects, the way the battle has been observed, the 2003 memorial to the Indian victors, and commercial development in the area. “Through various administrations of the Little Bighorn Battlefield as a government-managed entity,” Greene writes, “there have always been questions of appropriate balance, questions perhaps more starkly apparent at the beginning of the 21st century than ever before.”
Greene opens the book with maps and a concise account of the “Signal Event,” followed by the story of how fallen soldiers were recognized and how the site was administered by first the War Department and then the National Park Service Administration. After the National Park Service took charge in 1940, interpretation of battlefield components and research activity increased. Greene devotes Chapter 8 to “Research and Collections” and Chapter 9 to “Nonprofit Support Groups and Interest Groups,” particularly the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association (CBHMA), Little Big Horn Associates (LBHA) and the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee (CBPC). It may be a stricken field, but at least the field still has a lot to offer both Custer lovers and Custer haters and will continue to be a rewarding destination, according to Greene, as long as “federal historic preservation policies, at all events, are observed to the letter.”
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.