The Ghosts of Little Bighorn

from Haunted Battlefields
by Dan Asfar

“I always wanted to visit Little Bighorn,” says Jason Davies (a pseudonym), a Vietnam War veteran who agrees to tell his story on condition of anonymity. “I mean I was raised on that ‘How the West was Won,’ stuff…John Wayne westerns and the like—and I guess I never really got over my childhood fascination for Custer’s Last Stand.” Jason pauses for a long moment on the telephone. “I probably thought I did for a while. When I got back from Vietnam, I kind of hit the ground running. Everything seemed so different when I got back, more serious. And it was a long, long time before I gave cowboys and Indians any thought again.”

Ultimately, however, Davies realized that he hadn’t lost his ardor for the story of the American frontier, but only put it aside for a while. “Years later, after my kids moved out and I put away my last paycheck, I started to go back to the Westerns. I got back into the movies. Every Friday, me and my wife rented two tapes; hers was always some big romantic thing, mine was always a Western. All I was reading was history books on the Old West. And then, in ’98, when we were planning our seasonal holiday, it hit me. Hell, I’d never been to Little Bighorn.” Davies managed to convince his wife that a road trip to Montana would be a lot of fun, and they left for the Little Bighorn Battlefield in late June, heading for the big skies and sweeping vistas of the famous western state.

They saw the same big skies and sweeping vistas that Custer and his Seventh Cavalry would have looked on in 1876, the year they were wiped out by thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors on a nondescript hillock upon the plains of eastern Montana. There is little need to go over the details of the historic battle. Those readers unfamiliar with the particulars can read about the engagement in any one of the countless histories that have been written about it. Suffice to say that it was one of the great military disasters of American history, in which brash young Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer stumbled on his overconfidence. His disregard for the strength of his enemy compelled him to advance against an Indian war party when he should have waited for reinforcements and to divide his regiment into three separate battalions in the face of a larger enemy force. The outcome of Custer’s strategy is well-known. On June 25, 1876, all 272 men of the Seventh Cavalry, including Custer himself, were attacked and killed.

This is all established historical fact, written and rewritten into the annals of the American narrative, enshrined in the national mythos. The supernatural legends that have long been associated with the battlefield, however, have not received nearly as much attention. Indeed, the shades, apparitions, inexplicable sounds and eerie sensations that so many witnesses have experienced on the battlefield over the years have largely been ignored by mainstream media.

And yet the stories persist. Passed on among paranormal enthusiasts from year to year, the accumulated reports of so many visitors’ strange experiences have formed an alternative account of Little Bighorn. This account stands apart from the established themes of the official history. For visitors to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument who have had their visceral and jarring encounters with the site’s supernatural denizens, the details of troop movements, the military lessons and social mores of the battlefield are distant footnotes.

What is the nature of these encounters? They are many and varied. Employees at the museum making their rounds after the doors are closed to the public have spotted a transparent likeness of Custer wandering among the artifacts. The description is always the same—he is dressed in full military regalia and is recognizable by his bushy handlebar mustache and sorrowful eyes. He never appears for longer than several seconds, taking a few paces, looking worried or pained, and then quickly fading to nothingness. Those who have seen Custer’s apparition in the museum never recall it as a positive experience, for his ghost is always accompanied by a profound chill and a very real sense of dread. Park employees who have spotted Custer making his rounds attribute this oppressive feeling to the trauma of his demise and believe that his spirit still hasn’t accepted his death and defeat.

The museum is not the only part of the battlefield believed to be haunted. Countless stories have emerged from residential apartments near the battlefield’s cemetery. Tenants have spotted mist-shrouded apparitions of dead soldiers drifting down hallways. On other occasions, the dispossessed spirits have entered individuals’ apartment suits. More than one tenant has woken in the middle of the night to find a transparent figure in 19th-century military dress standing at the foot of the bed, at the doorway or in the corner of the room.

The frequency of such sightings in private residences might suggest that the casualties of Little Bighorn are calling to the living for some sort of aid, attention or valediction. But for every ghost seen making itself at home in someone’s apartment, there is at least one frazzled visitor who catches sight of a shimmering specter wandering aimlessly among the tombstones of the Little Bighorn cemetery.

Dressed in the same anachronistic military uniforms as the others, these phantoms appear most often at dusk, when the cemetery is nearly empty. The descriptions of the ghosts that appear in the graveyard at this time differ greatly. Some witnesses report seeing faint, barely visible apparitions concealed by patches of whirling mist, while others claim the images they saw appeared so lifelike that they assumed they were looking at historical reenactors or historical interpreters. That was until these “reenactors” abruptly vanished into thin air.

And then there are the goings-on at Reno’s Crossing. Located some 5 miles from where Custer made his last stand, Reno’s Crossing is the place where Major Marcus Reno waged his own foolhardy fight against a contingent of Indian braves on that fateful summer day in 1876. It was Reno who had actually initiated the battle, launching an attack on the enormous Indian camp near the Little Bighorn. But the Sioux counterattack that followed was so fierce that Reno and his troops were soon engaged in a desperate fighting withdrawal. They made their retreat through the deep ravines around the Little Bighorn River, holding their lines together for nearly two days.

Reno’s Crossing is the place where Major Reno’s men made their frantic dash across the Little Bighorn River under the withering fire of Indian rifles. Carrying or dragging what dead and wounded they could, the soldiers crossed the river and scrambled up the hills on the other side, where they dug in and made their own stand against the coming enemy. Unlike Custer and the cavalry under his command, Reno’s unit survived the battle, though many of the major’s men were killed in the fighting.

Today, Reno’s Crossing is one of the attractions for history buffs visiting Little Bighorn, as well as for paranormal enthusiasts hoping to come face-to-face with a ghost from America’s history. For of all the places on the famous battlefield where strange and inexplicable phenomena have occurred, Reno’s Crossing is the place where they occur most often. Certainly Jason Davies would have something to say about this.

“I’m not sure how to put it,” Davies says today. “The trip to the Little Bighorn Battlefield was nothing like I thought it would be. I mean, I knew everything about the battle when I went, and I guess I was expecting the ground where they fought to feel…I don’t know…familiar.” There is a long pause before Davies continues. “But the thing is, the moment my wife and I got out of the car at the National Monument, what I was most aware of was just how…strange…the place felt. It was everywhere, in the air. This heaviness. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before.”

What was stranger to Davies was that his wife wasn’t getting the same feeling. “I asked her about it. I asked her if there was anything about the place that spooked her out. She just looked at me like I was nuts, so I let it go.” But the sense of foreboding didn’t loosen its hold on Davies. In fact, it just got worse as the day went on.

“Things were weird at the cemetery, for sure. When I say weird, I mean…and this is gonna sound weird…that there were others there. And I don’t mean other people that made the trip to see the battlefield.” It wasn’t long before Davies’ intangible sense of foreboding took on more substantial manifestations.

“We were in the cemetery for just a few minutes when things started to get really spooky. You’re going to think this is crazy.” Davies hesitates for a moment. When he resumes, his voice is weighted with a somberness that wasn’t there before. “I started hearing voices. They were men’s voices; there was more than one…there was actually quite a few of them. All of them were speaking at the same time, and there were too many voices, all speaking way too softly for me to really make out what they were saying. But I’ll tell you right now that none of these men were too happy about their situation.”

As the sun sank farther under the horizon, the voices intensified, and Davies started to see moving shapes in his peripheral vision. “I was just standing there like some kind of zombie, floored by all of this stuff going on around me. I mean, first there were these guys, so many of these guys…whispering to me. Some of them were scared, others were angry and others were in pain. And then there were the shapes. I swore I saw them—men in dark uniforms, moving slowly towards me—out of the corner of my eyes. But whenever I turned to get a good look at them, they would vanish. There was nothing there.”

Davies’ wife walked ahead through the cemetery and didn’t notice what was going on with her husband until she turned to tell him something about the cemetery. She was shocked at the sight of her husband, his ashen face frozen into an expression of terrified awe, his head swiveling toward some unseen wonder every few seconds. “I can only imagine what I must have looked like,” Davies chuckles. “Because when my wife came up to me, the look on her face was like she had just snapped me out of a coma. She was worried and asked me what was wrong. I was going to ask her about the voices, took a look at her and decided that it might not be the best thing to do. So I tried to shrug the whole thing off and just told her something about how the cemetery jogged some memories about ’Nam.”

That wouldn’t be the end of the couple’s experiences in Little Bighorn. “We ended up getting to the battlefield kind of late the first day,” Davies says, “so we decided to save the rest of it for the next day. We walked through the museum there, went out to take a look at Last Stand Hill and then went out to Reno’s Crossing.” Davies is uncertain how to continue when he brings up the place where Marcus Reno’s men made their retreat across the Little Bighorn River.

At first, he speaks haltingly. “Now in spite of everything I’ve told you,” Davies begins, “I gotta tell you that I’ve never been one to think about ghosts or the afterlife or anything like that. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe; I just never got around to thinking about those sorts of things. And then the whole thing at Little Bighorn happened, and lately, it’s all I’ve been able to think about. Especially after what I saw at Reno’s Crossing.”

The morning was warm and sunny. “Things felt better when we got up,” Davies says. “They have an outstanding museum there, with more than enough to satisfy the historical enthusiast in me, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky when he walked out to Last Stand Hill.” The strange experience Jason Davies had in the cemetery the night before seemed a world away by the time they were making their way to Reno’s Crossing. “I guess I just wanted to forget it. It was too weird. I mean, I’m not a kid anymore, you know? I’m soft in the middle. I wasn’t ready to accept any big new revelations.”

But like it or not, Jason Davies’ worldview was about to change dramatically. “I remember that the sounds started almost the moment we were close enough to the Little Bighorn to hear its waters flowing. I’ll always associate those sounds with that river. And when I think back, the rifle fire, shouts, screams and war whoops are inseparable from the sound of running water.”

The sky may have been bright and clear, but once Jason and his wife were in the wooded ravines along the river, everything seemed to grow darker—just a tinge darker, but it made a world of difference to Jason. “It suddenly got cooler when we got close to the river, cooler and darker, and then the sounds started. They were faint at first,” Davies says, “but they got louder with every step we took towards the river.” If Jason was frightened at what he had witnessed the night before, his fear was infused with curiosity the next day. “I don’t remember feeling nearly as much fear in Reno’s Crossing as I did at the cemetery. More than anything else, I think I was curious, even excited.”

It dawned on Jason Davies that he was coming into contact with much more American history at Little Bighorn than he ever thought he would. If the phenomena he was witnessing were indeed supernatural manifestations of the historical 1876 battle, then he wanted to see as much as he could. Davies ignored the goose bumps rising on the back of his neck and quickened his pace towards the river.

“On some instinctual level, I wanted to get out of there. My palms were sweaty, my heart was pounding and the adrenaline was pumping. It was like my body was telling me to turn around and run. And this time, I wasn’t the only one that was feeling it.” While Jason says that his wife didn’t hear the sounds of battle the way he did, it was obvious that she was becoming uneasy as they approached the river. “Hell, who knows, to this very day, she won’t talk about the Little Bighorn River, except to say that she just got a bad case of the ‘creeps’ when we walked up Reno’s Crossing.”

Jason Davies isn’t so reticent about what he saw. “My heart stopped when we got to the river’s edge. He was the first thing I saw. There, on the other side of the Little Bighorn, there was this soldier, an officer I think. He had red hair and a short red beard. He was just standing there in the trees, staring at me. I could tell right off that he was not real…or maybe I should say not alive, anyway. He looked really sad, like he was saying bye for good, and even though he didn’t know who I was, he was still sad about it.”

Davies can’t say how long he stood there staring at the man on the other side of the river. “Sometimes when I think back to it, I’ll think it might have been five minutes or so, but then other times I swear he was only there for a few seconds. My wife can’t say either, ’cause she actually turned around before the riverbank and was waiting for me a few yards back. Well, however long it was, after he was done doing whatever he was doing, he vanished—there one second, gone the next. Just like that.”

Davies and his wife returned home after spending one more day at the battlefield. Husband and wife have said very little to each other about what transpired on the Little Bighorn River. Mrs. Davies is just unwilling to talk about what it was that spooked her near Reno’s Crossing, and Mr. Davies has no wish to aggravate his wife by bringing up the subject. And so Jason has kept the experience to himself for a few years now, not sure how friends and family would take it if he began ranting about phantom battles and the ghosts of soldiers who died over 100 years ago. “My kids already think I’m getting a bit strange in my old age,” Davies jokes, “I throw info like this at ’em, they’d write me off all together.”

One conversation with Jason Davies and it’s clear that he isn’t a befuddled old man but someone trying to come to grips with the incredible things he has experienced. Why did they appear to him and not to his wife? Did his time in Vietnam make him more likely to see the battlefield ghosts? But then why have other visitors, people who have never fought on a battlefield, had run-ins with the ghosts there? Indeed, why is it that some people see the ghosts and others do not? Are the spirits at Little Bighorn trying to say something? Or are they just lost souls still reeling from the trauma of their demise? These are questions that Davies might never find answers to, but his world has been changed because of them.

“Everything was different after our trip to Little Bighorn,” Davies says. “It’s been a few years now, but I still think about what I saw in Montana—about all those lost souls still roaming over the battlefield where they were killed. All my life, I’ve never been very religious, but since our trip in ’98, I’ve taken to praying every now and then. I pray for my wife and my kids and myself and for all those men who were killed out on the Little Bighorn. I hope that one day, they find some peace.”

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