In 1969, I watched the moon landing with my mother’s family including her grandfather who was in his mid 90s at the time. When he was born in the early 1870s (I don’t recall the exact year) steam locomotion was still a new technology, and the First Transcontinental Railroad was very recent history. In his lifetime he saw the invention of the car, the invention of the airplane, and finally rockets to the moon. He remarked that day that seeing Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon was the highlight of his life.
A few years later I visited Little Bighorn Battlefield for the first time. Sometime during walking around the battlefield it dawned on me that my great-grandfather had been alive when Custer, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull fought where I was now standing. Within his long lifetime, the Montana I knew and lived in had gone from being true wilderness to a place with interstates and television.
It has been said that more books have been written about the Battle of Little Bighorn that any other battle in history. The obvious question is why? Why does a battle in the small corner of present day Montana still matter to people?
Like the Battle of Isandlwana (present day South Africa, January 22, 1879), the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 continues to capture our imagination precisely because it represents ultimately the last violent confrontation between wilderness and modernity. At both Isandlwana and Little Bighorn the native people won… but their victories ultimately meant their complete and utter defeat.
Because there are so many books about Custer’s Last Stand, it has taken me decades to decide which one to read. I wanted to read the best one, the definitive one. At last, I recently settled upon Evan S. Connell’s now classic Son of the Morning Star, and I am glad I did.
Like Stephen Ambrose and Cornelius Ryan, Connell brings narrative power to history. It is clear that his research is broad and deep, but it is the way he tells the story that keeps you turning pages. Son of the Morning Star was first published in 1984. I read 2001 edition from History Book Club with a “new” introduction. Sometimes “new” introductions written for older works seem pointless, like changing floor mats on an old car and selling it as new. But Connell’s brief “look back” at his work 20 years down road is illustrative and adds to the pleasure of the book.
The site of the Little Bighorn Battlefield is the stark and empty plains of eastern Montana. When I was young, I thought that Montana should end where the mountains end… somewhere around Laurel, Montana, or maybe Billings. I had no time for the great, empty plains. “Give it to North Dakota” I said. As time has passed, I have grown to love eastern Montana and western North Dakota as much as the mountainous West. There is a spiritualness to empty spaces that grows on you. That sense is heightened as you walk Custer’s battlefield and remember what happened there. Having now at last read Son of the Morning Star, those feelings will no doubt be more pronounced for me next time I visit The Little Bighorn Battlefield.