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Custer Battlefield Museum

Where the Battle of the Little Big Horn began . . . Garryowen, Montana

Officer candidates come face to face with military history

Story & Photographs by Lauren Kelly, 2009 Summer Intern, Custer Battlefield Museum
(Published Big Horn County News July 9, 2009)

History came alive for over 142 visiting members of the Fort Meade’s Officer Candidate School as they embarked on a tour of the town of Garryowen and the Custer Battlefield Museum. Swiftly becoming an annual tradition, this is the third consecutive year that officer candidates from the South Dakota OCS have stopped off at the historic site as a part of a battle staff ride, an activity that is used in the military to educate fledgling officers about previous battle failures and successes. The candidates are taught to approach the historic military action “from the principles of the offense and the defense in preparation for a military briefing that they’re going to be giving here in the ensuing week,” says Major Jeff Crouch, a senior instructor with the OCS.

After touring the museum and listening to a talk by founding Director Chris Kortlander, potential officers were invited to hold and examine a rare military artifact – the Springfield Carbine rifle that once belonged to White Swan, one of Custer’s Crow Scouts. Students were encouraged to approach Kortlander with questions regarding military tactics, operations and equipment, and after the whole group had toured the museum, the outfit concluded their visit with a photograph in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The ceremony was concluded with the presentation of a Certificate of Appreciation to Kortlander by the South Dakota Army National Guard Regional Training Institute for the preservation of the historic value of the United States Military.

The proximity of Fort Mead to the historic site of Little Big Horn battle creates a particularly unique chance for the students to connect directly with military history, both in person and in text. Crouch verifies the integral role historical literature plays in the learning experience, explaining, “We call on the students who have had advanced reading assignments and they’ll stand up and read the account through their eyes and we’ll interject at appropriate times about time and distance, and some of the principles of water and the offense and defense. For many of them, that’s the first time they’ve ever been exposed to these principles.”

Despite the disheartening implications of re-visiting the site of a military defeat, Crouch believes that the very act of revising the action as a group enriches the candidates’ understanding of their country and their history, “solidifying the feelings of Americanness because they’re all looking at it together, they’re all working towards a common goal in this program at OCS, but at the same time they also can leave with their own decisions on what did and did not happen.”

The students weren’t the only ones experiencing this unique opportunity for the first time. Sergeant First Class Jonathan Nesladek stated that while this is his first year teaching at the Fort Meade OCS, “it is a great opportunity for the students [but] as an instructor I learn even more as many of the students may [ask questions] I have to embed it and instruct it.” Nesladek has an inclusive teaching technique. “I try and put the students in the place of Benteen, Reno, Custer. What went wrong, what could have (in terms of the students today) been done to turn the war around if they were in their shoes?”

A respect for the past permeates the curriculum of the Fort Meade OCS, a surprisingly innovative teaching tactic not exhibited by its peers. Major Crouch expressed a great deal of pride that they come here to the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn. “I don’t know of any other OCS program that does take their candidates to a battlefield and allows them to learn from history the way that we’re doing here,” he said. Nesladek agreed. “The opportunity to be here on-site, touch the ground on which the battle actually occurred, gives them a better understanding of United States history and the military.”

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Museum Info:

Memorial Day - Labor Day
8:00 AM to 7:00 PM

Spring and Fall
9:00 AM to 5:00 PM

9:00 AM to 5:00 PM


P. O. Box 200
Garryowen, MT  59031

Admission Fees:

Adults $ 7.50

Children 12 & under free


Closed on All Major Holidays

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AAA Members
$1 Discount on Admission

Guided Tours Available by Special Arrangement

(406) 638-1876


Custer Battlefield Museum  1-90 Exit 514  Town Hall, P. O. Box 200, Garryowen, MT  59031  (406) 638-1876

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