Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s wife Libby may have erected an impressive obelisk headstone for him at the military’s West Point Cemetery in New York, but it is very unlikely that the remains buried below are his. After the battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 — where Custer and 209 of his men were famously killed — a full three days passed before an army burial detail arrived. What they found was not a pretty sight — “a sickening, ghastly field” as General Edward S. Godfrey put it. Family members had removed the bodies of the Indian dead after the battle, but the Seventh cavalrymen had been stripped, scalped, pin-cushioned with arrows, and mutilated by Indian women venting their anger at the army, while the fly-covered corpses were bloated and blackened from three days under the summer Montana sun. Custer was one of the few who had not been scalped (at this time he had short hair and was balding), and he was found on Last Stand Hill in a sitting position between two soldiers. He was naked except for his socks, with two bullet wounds: one in his temple and one in the left chest. Many years later, Godfrey confided to a friend that he also had an arrow forced into his penis, a detail that was kept quiet to spare his widow. Despite his celebrity status as a Civil War hero and bestselling author, the burial detail decided the leave Custer’s body on the field. The soldiers were not only sickened by the carnage, they were genuinely concerned about further Indian attacks. With only eight shovels between them, they hastily threw dirt on top of the dead. Then they dug a shallow grave for the fallen Custer, covered it with an Indian travois (a type of sled made from poles) piled with rocks, and beat a hasty retreat.
The American public wanted a more respectful burial for men they considered fallen heroes. But thanks to the remote location of the battlefield and ongoing fighting, a whole year passed before the military sent a second detail with pine coffins to collect the bodies of Custer, 10 officers, and two civilians for burial in eastern graveyards. They arrived to find that the corpses had first been exposed to the harsh Montana weather; coyotes then scattered the bones around Last Stand Hill. As Lieutenant John G. Bourke recorded: “Pieces of clothing, soldiers’ hats, cavalry coats, boots with the leather legs cut off, but with the human feet and bones still sticking in them, strewed the hill.” Custer’s body had been disinterred from its shallow grave and the travois overturned. After misidentifying a nearby skeleton as Custer’s — a note in the jacket pocket revealed that it actually belonged to a corporal — they had to choose another for the coffin. “I think we got the right body the second time,” wrote one participant unconvincingly, but another remembered one of the leaders cynically muttering: “Nail the box up; it is alright as long as the people think so.” On October 10, 1877, the skeleton was buried at an elaborate ceremony with full military honors at West Point, where it remains to this day. • 10 September 2010
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Hardoff, Richard, The Custer Battle Casualties: Burials, Exhumations, and Reinterments, (El Segundo, 1989).