Picking the losing side (and liking it)
One hundred forty years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, one might wonder why reenactors continue to sign up for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry – the losing side – time after time at the Real Bird Reenactment. Having traveled this road before, the signees know they will be “killed” and have their flag stolen by the Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota forces, who will wave it triumphantly beneath the summer sun.
Crowds of hundreds even clap when the cavalry loses on the afternoons of June 24, 25 and 26 along the Medicine Tail Coulee near Garryowen, where Custer may have attempted to ford the Bighorn River before his demise. Henry Real Bird, whose family organizes the reenactment, provides commentary on historical events and leaves no illusions as to the cavalry’s fate.
“In the time that it takes for a man to eat a meal,” Real Bid announced over the sounds of drumming and gunshots, “that’s how long the battle was.”
Still, as historically-minded members of the crowd move toward the makeshift battle arena following the show, reenactors seem happy to converse, pose for photos, and hand out shell casings or their units’ patches.
For some, reenacting provides a place to fit in, for others an experience to remember, or others a chance to connect with the past. Compare reading a play to acting in one, then apply the concept to history.
“When you dress up and throw the McClellan saddle on the horse…it takes you right back in time,” reenactor Greg Casteel said as he walked to the main camp – his horse had ran off somewhere in the scuffle. “It gets better every year – the cavalry, the Native Americans, the skits. It flows smoother and is more creative for the audience every year.”
Casteel, a retired fire captain from California, gave out an anniversary card for the 1876 battle, depicting him in sepia tones wearing a vest and wide-brimmed hat before gravestones at the Custer National Cemetery. The card labels him as Lt. Algernon E. Smith, who died on Last Stand Hill with Company E.
“If you lived before our time, who would you be?” asks a poem on the back, ending with “Living every generation before us, remembering every generation to come.”
In Casteel’s case, if he had lived in the 1800s, he might very well have been Smith. Ten years into his 25-year reenacting career, he discovered that he was a descendant of the lieutenant.
“I was always a cowboy and I was always into ranch roping,” he said. “Then I started collecting cavalry gear, just trading here. Then I got a McClellan saddle and, after that, I just started buying more and more and more.”
Traveling to the main camp Friday afternoon after his scripted demise, reenactor Rich Bright hitched his horse to a post and got to removing the straps from its saddle. Bright belongs to a Civil War reenactors group in Washington State that contains both Union and Confederate soldiers, due to a shortage of horses. Recently, the retired Army soldier was pleased to find that his side – the Union – has begun to outnumber the Confederate counterparts.
His horse let out a loud neigh as he removed the saddle with some effort. Now hunched over, he walked around his four-legged friend before dropping the saddle onto a wooden platform.
“There you go, young lady,” he said, while petting the horse. “That feel better? All right, good girl.”
Many spots of the camp – complete with canteens, tents, and uniforms – show scenes that wouldn’t be out of place for a movie set in the Old West, as long as the cameraman shot around the trailers. What the movie couldn’t show, however, would be the background smells of dirt, oil, leather and horses permeating the campground.
“To me, there’s nothing else like the smell of a horse,” explained reenactor Hans Feldtanzer, who portrays a mountain man. “When you put the nose to their fur and breathe in, horses have this beautiful smell.”
Feldtanzer, an Austrian immigrant with shoulder-length white hair, learned to ride horses at the age of 12 and grew up reading about adventures involving the Old West and Plains Indians as told by writer Karl May. Deciding to embark on an adventure of his own 13 years ago, Feldtanzer drove 2,000 miles from his home in Ontario, Canada and tracked down some reenactors in Hardin at the 4 Aces bar. Despite having no gear of his own, he was entered into the reenactment the following day.
Like Casteel, he has since accumulated enough historical gear to portray his role without help, explaining that “it never stops.”
“I bought a log cabin at home now, just to house everything,” he said. “To put it up nice and not just throw it in a bin, right?”
Bright, now settled in a chair outside his tent beside fellow reenactors and his pre-teen daughter, said his group has – like the area’s Crow Tribe – developed a horse culture of their own. They also bring their children and immerse them in history in a way normally unavailable to the public.
As a reenactor for seven years, Bright, along with Feldtanzer, came to the reenactment for the history and eventually stayed for the comradery.
“This is fun,” Bright said. “It’s just a hoot to do this.”