I am reprinting this essay here for the simple reason that I could not find it with many Google searches and felt that it should be publicly available online, and I think it’s lovely. I am someone who respects copyright, mostly, but for the original creator, not their descendants. Charles Kuralt has been dead many years. We’ll see if his estate gets litigious. I hope you enjoy.
This is about a place where the wind blows and the grass grows and a river flows below a hill. Nothing is here but the wind and the grass and the river. But of all the places in America, this is the saddest place I know.
The Indians called the river Greasy Grass. White men called it the Little Big Horn. From a gap in the mountains to the east, Brevet Major General George A. Custer’s proud Seventh Cavalry came riding, early in the morning of June 25th, 1876, riding toward the Little Big Horn.
Custer sent one battalion, under Major Marcus Reno, across the river to attack what he thought might be a small village of hostile Sioux. His own battalion he galloped behind the ridges to ride down on the village from the rear. When at last Custer brought his two hundred and thirty-one troops to the top of a hill and looked down toward the river, what he saw was an encampment of fifteen thousand Indians stretching for two and a half miles, the largest assembly of Indians the plains hand ever known—and a thousand mounted warriors coming straight for him.
Reno’s men, meantime, had been turned, routed, chased across the river, joined by the rest of the regiment, surrounded, and now were dying, defending a nameless brown hill.
In a low, protected swale in the middle of their narrowing circle, the one surviving doctor improvised a field hospital and did what he could for the wounded. The grass covers the place now and grows in the shallow rifle trenches above, which were dug that day by knives and tin cups and fingernails.
Two friends in H Company, Private Charles Windolph and Private Julian Jones, fought up here, side by side, all that day, and stayed awake all that night, talking, both of them scared. Charles Windolph said: “Then next morning when the firing commenced, I said to Julian, ‘We’d better get our coats off.’ He didn’t move. I looked at him. He was shot through the heart.” Charles Windolph won the Congressional Medal of Honor up here, survived, lived to be ninety-eight. He didn’t die until 1950. And never a day passed in all those years that he didn’t think of Julian Jones.
And Custer’s men, four miles away? There are stones in the grass that tell the story of Custer’s men. The stones all say the same things: “U.S. soldier, Seventh Cavalry, fell here, June 25, 1876.”
The warriors of Sitting Bull, under the great Chief Gall, struck Custer first and divided his troops. Two Moon and the northern Cheyenne struck him next. And when he tried to gain a hilltop with the last remnants of his command, Crazy Horse rode over that hill with hundreds of warriors and right through his battalion.
The Indians who were there later agreed on two things: that Custer and his men fought with exceeding bravery; and that after half an hour, not one of them was alive.
The Army came back that winter—of course, the Army came back—and broke the Sioux and the Cheyenne and forced them back to the starvation of the reservations and, in time, murdered more old warriors and women and children on the Pine Ridge Reservation than Custer lost young men in battle here.
That’s why this is the saddest place. For Custer and the Seventh Cavalry, courage only led to defeat. For Crazy Horse and the Sioux, victory only led to Wounded Knee.
Come here sometime, and you’ll see. There is a melancholy in the wind and sorrow in the grass, and the river weeps.