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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
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Horse Cemetery Excavated
By John A. Doerner, Chief Historian
Photos provided by Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
7th Cavalry Horse Cemetery wayside exhibit --
designed by John Doerner
NPS, Midwest Archeological Center staff Douglas D. Scott, Tom Thiessen, Harold Roecker, and volunteer Wil Husted conducted an archeological excavation of a 7th Cavalry horse cemetery on Last Stand Hill April 29 to May 2, 2002. The excavation work was conducted to mitigate any adverse impact or disturbance from the construction of a new Indian Memorial concrete sidewalk that is scheduled to pass through the area.
The 7th Cavalry horse cemetery was originally discovered on April 9, 1941 when NPS maintenance staff were digging an excavation for an overflow water drainage pipeline which ran from the old water reservoir tank on Custer Hill. In an April 18, 1941 letter to the U.S. Quartermaster General, Superintendent Edward S. Luce wrote: “While digging an excavation the East End of the wooden trench or ‘horse cemetery’ on Custer Hill was encountered. The wooden end of the trench gave way and about ten horse skeletons fell out. Among these bones were human bones. They were the leg and arm bones, but no skulls. There was also a pair of cavalry trooper’s boots with a few toe bones inside. The tin cracker boxes: “C.L.Woodman & Co., Chicago,” with bullet holes through the tin were found. These at one time contained “hardtack” and were used for protection as breastworks during the fight on Custer Hill, at the time when General Custer ordered all the horses shot to form protection for a defensive position….This horse trench was not thoroughly explored…The grave or trench has been closed waiting instructions from your office…”
The fascinating administrative history of the horse cemetery can be traced back to just after the Custer Fight. Arriving on Custer Hill two days after the battle, Lt. Edward S. Godfrey, Company K, 7th Cavalry remarked “There were 42 men and 39 dead horses on Custer Hill.” General Edward J. McClernand who was attached to the Montana Column observed: “On top of Custer Hill was a circle of dead horses with a 30 foot diameter, which was not badly formed. Around Custer some 30 or 40 men had fallen, some of whom had evidently used their horses as breastworks.” Col. John Gibbon recalled: “Numerous dead horses were lying along the southwestern slope of Custer Hill. On the very top were found four or five dead horses which were swollen, putrid, and offensive, their stiffened legs sticking straight out from their bodies. Close under the brow of the hill several horses are lying together, and by the side of one of these Custer was found.” An historic photograph taken on Custer Hill by John Fouch in 1877, and in 1879 by Stanley J. Morrow, clearly show heavy concentrations of horse bones strewn over the knoll.
In 1879 the battlefield was policed and the graves of Lt. Col. Custer’s battalion were carefully remounded, and stakes placed at the original Seventh Cavalry casualty sites. The remains of the cavalry horses were collected and placed inside an 11’ cordwood monument erected on Custer Hill as a temporary memorial. Captain G.K. Sanderson, 11th Infantry, stationed at nearby Fort Custer, supervised the 1879 detail and reported: “…I accordingly built a mound…. out of cordwood filled in the center of the mound with all the horse bones I could find on the field. .. This grave was then built up with wood for four feet above ground, well covered, and the mound built over and around it. The mound is ten feet square and about eleven feet high; is built on the highest point immediately in rear of where Gen’l Custer’s body was found…Newspaper reports to the effect that bodies still lay exposed are sensational… I believe the large number of horse bones lying over the field have given rise to some of such statements, and to prevent any such statements being made in the future, I had all the horse bones gathered together and placed in the mound where they can not be readily disturbed by curiosity seekers.” Stanley J. Morrow took advantage of Captain Sanderson’s work and took a series of historic photographs which clearly show the horse bones gathered on Custer Hill in several large piles just prior to their first interment within the cordwood monument.
Later, in July 1881, the cordwood monument was dismantled and a 36 thousand pound granite memorial erected at the same location. Lt. Charles F. Roe, 2nd Cavalry supervised the work and reported: “I placed the monument on the point of the hill within six (6) feet of the place where the remains of General Custer were found after the fight.” Although Lt. Roe does not mention removing the horse bones, they were probably reinterred just to the northeast of the monument. The fond reverence that the cavalry held for their horses is evident Luce’s 1941 report which mentions the presence of original 1879 memorial cordwood, that was utilized by Lt. Roe’s 1881 detail to line the horse cemetery.
Further excavation was delayed due to the outbreak of World War Two. The horse cemetery was not excavated again until July l946 when the services of Lt. Col. Elwood L. Nye, U.S. Army Veterinarian, were requested by Superintendent Luce to supervise the excavation work. A formal report on the 1946 excavation work was apparently not done.
The latest excavation of the horse cemetery led by Douglas D. Scott, located horse remains in two areas, measuring roughly six feet square, just to the northeast of the Seventh Cavalry Memorial. The remains included a vertebra, leg bones, shoulder bone, and rib bones. In a preliminary report Douglas A. Scott wrote: “The pit was located to the west of the zone (Future Sidewalk) by a few feet. As it was outside the direct impact zone, but potentially within the AEC (Area of Environmental Concern) it was decided in consultation with Superintendent Mangum, to document the feature and its contents in place and preserve the same in place. Notes, maps, and photographs were taken or made to document the feature and those bones and other items observed at the exposed surface. The feature was covered with plastic and backfilled. Wooden stakes were placed after backfilling to define the features boundaries so that construction work will not inadvertently impact the site.”
We don’t often think of horses as making sacrifices in battle, but they too “gave their all” during one of our nations most famous battles; Custer’s Last Stand. An interpretive wayside exhibit or granite marker is planned to commemorate the site and pay homage to the Seventh Cavalry horses interred on Custer Hill.
Doug Scott will issue a full report in June.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022