The land now occupied by the modern town of Garryowen was seared into the American imagination on June 25, 1876, when three companies of George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry forded the Little Big Horn River to attack the south end of the vast Indian village camped on its banks. It was the opening action of a battle that was immediately catastrophic for the 7th Cavalry and ultimately catastrophic for the Native Americans who won it.
The Garryowen property straddles the end of Sitting Bull's Hunkpapa Sioux encampment and the area of the first skirmish line established by Major Marcus Reno to attack the camp. "Reno's valley fight," as it came to be known, was Reno's ill-fated attempt to position his troops as the southern jaw of a pincer action that was meant to be reinforced by Custer and his five companies from the north. Those reinforcements never came.
Instead, Sioux warriors, initially confused by the sudden attack, quickly sorted themselves out and began to pour into the south end of the village. They soon outflanked Reno's line: cavalry discipline and organization evaporated as Reno led a disastrous and chaotic retreat back to the river ford and up the bluffs to the high point where the remnants of his command were entrenched for the next thirty-six hours, defending themselves from a hail of Sioux and Cheyenne bullets. Thirty-three men died between Garryowen and the Reno entrenchment. Four and a half miles away, in a storm of dust and smoke, Custer's five companies were annihilated while Reno's men dug pits with tin cups and spoons.
In 1895, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad established a station here at Garryowen on the banks of Little Bighorn River, where water was taken on and U.S. Army troops, supplies, and mail were offloaded for delivery to several nearby forts. The station was called "Garryowen" after the Irish drinking song adopted by Custer as the fighting song of the 7th Cavalry – the same song that was sounded as a bugle call on this very location as Reno's attack commenced.
Today, when dawn breaks over Garryowen, a fiery glow backlights the dark ridge that looms to the east. The golden light steals around the promontory from which Captain Weir strained to see into the smoky chaos of Last Stand Hill one hundred and thirty-nine years ago. Coyotes howl in the ravines that sheltered hundreds of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors from gunfire as they worked their way toward the doomed companies on the ridge's summit. Mist rolls off of the waters of the Little Big Horn and curls itself around the roots of the giant cottonwoods on Garryowen's grounds. Standing under those trees of a morning, it is hard not to imagine, the same mist curling around the ghost-stakes of Sitting Bull's tipis, and the ancient peace that preceded, and finally followed, the dreadful storm of the battle that began on this spot.