A friend was at the Little Big Horn Museum in Montana. He posted this image on Facebook. It got me thinking about this cemetery and wondering about the equine history here…
And then I remembered the post I had written about the famous warhorse, Comanche, who had survived the battle at Little Big Horn.
I’ve excerpted the pieces of my previous post that relate to The 7th Cavalry Horse Cemetery below:
LITTLE BIG HORN
On June 25, 1876, Captain Keogh rode Comanche at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, led by Lt Col. George Armstrong Custer. The battle became famous when their entire detachment was killed. Comanche was found two days after the battle, badly wounded.
This excerpt is taken directly from a record of that time:
“He was found by Sergeant [Milton J.] DeLacey [Co. I] in a ravine where he had crawled, there to die and feed the Crows. He was raised up and tenderly cared for. His wounds were serious, but not necessarily fatal if properly looked after…He carries seven scars from as many bullet wounds. There are four back of the foreshoulder, one through a hoof, and one on either hind leg. On the Custer battlefield (actually Fort Abraham Lincoln) three of the balls were extracted from his body and the last one was not taken out until April ’77…”
A DESCRIPTION OF HOW THEY FOUND COMANCHE
This is another direct excerpt I found fascinating… not just for the battle information, but I didn’t realize that the battle casualties were shipped back. Of course! But, I had never thought about it.
“As they walked among the bloating, decaying bodies of their fallen comrades, all was still. As the cavalrymen bowed their heads in silent prayer before beginning the odious task of burying the dead, the silence was abruptly broken by the faint whinny of a horse. As the men looked up and searched the broken terrain with weary, tearful eyes, down by the river a horse was struggling to get to its feet. Several of the men recognized the horse because of its peculiar buckskin-like color. It was Comanche, the favorite mount of Capt. Myles Keogh, who had valiantly rallied the men of “I” Company right up to the end, when they were overwhelmed by the charge of warriors under Crazy Horse and Gall. The horse was on its haunches, seemingly too weak to move any further. He had apparently sustained at least seven wounds, and his coat was matted with dried blood and soil. CPT Nowlan ordered the men to get water for the horse from the river. Several other troopers coaxed the horse onto its feet and led it away. The farrier field dressed the wounds. Comanche marched with the command to the junction of the Little Bighorn and Bighorn Rivers, and was loaded aboard the steamer “Far West” with the battle casualties, heading home to Fort Lincoln. Comanche never again was to charge to the sound of the bugle.”
OK, SO BACK TO THE HORSE CEMETERY…what I didn’t know…’breastworks’.
While researching the 7th Cavalry Horse Cemetery marker, I found very few stories relating directly to the cemetery.
What I did learn during this quest was that Custer instructed his men to shoot their horses and use them as protection from the onslaught. They called the dead horses “breastworks” which means ‘a low temporary defense or parapet’.
The men killed their own horses for protection – which didn’t work, ultimately.
So, the fact that Comanche survived being shot by his own men and then being shot by the Indians, was extraordinary.
Here is an excerpt from HORSE CEMETERY EXCAVATION by John A. Doerner.
“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.”
1N 1879, THE HORSE BONES WERE BURIED… so that no one thought human bones still remained on the hill… and then the horse bone were reburied.. and then forgotten…and then found and excavated and honored.
In 1879, the horse bones were buried because there were complaints that not all the human bones had been buried – but really, the bones strewn about were horse bones – but it was decided that the best plan would be to bury ALL the bones.
So, a nice monument was erected for the fallen horse soldiers.
But then they were discovered again in 1941… and then the bones were moved again… and again…
The rest of the story was written very well by John A. Doerner… (original article linked here).
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.
DOUG SCOTT’S FULL REPORT OF THE 7TH CAVALRY HORSE CEMETERY.
This is an amazingly thorough piece of work – the only real document I could find on the 7th Cavalry Horse Cemetery. Bravo, Doug Scott, nice work!
Original article linked here.
Webmaster’s Note–We are excited to bring you Mr. Scott’s complete unpublished report for The Friends’ members. References noted within the report are listed on the last page. Membership dues help support this website and reports like this. If you’re not a member, please consider joining our non-profit organization. Just click on “How To Join Friends” at right.
Siting of the Americans with Disabilities Act compliant sidewalk from Last Stand Hill parking lot to the Indian Memorial led to identifying an unanticipated impact to the archeological feature known as the horse cemetery or pit. The horse pit is the location where battle-related horse skeletal remains were deposited in 1881 during the installation of the Seventh Cavalry memorial on Last Stand Hill. The proposed sidewalk construction specifications and terrain constraints require the removal of two or more feet of dirt, and/or subsurface disturbance up to a depth of four feet for the installation of retaining walls that were believed to likely directly impact the horse cemetery site. Given the constraints of the landscape and the construction specifications there were no feasible avoidance alternatives and a mitigation plan was developed to excavate the horse pit site. Field work was conducted from April 29 to May 1. The field investigations determined that the horse pit was near, but outside the direct construction impact zone. The horse pit was documented and preserved in situ.
The “horse cemetery” project was enabled by Neil Mangum and John Doerner, whose tireless efforts are gratefully acknowledged. Center Manager, Mark Lynott, and Park Archeology Program Manager, Thomas Thiessen, supported and facilitated the investigation. Tom along with Harold Roeker and volunteer Wilfred Husted volunteered to be the investigation crew. Without their support the fieldwork would not have proceeded as well and as quickly as it did.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument staff, especially the maintenance staff, provided essential support to the work. Les Frickle’s able handling of the backhoe truly facilitated and speeded our work immeasurably. The entire staff, as always, cheerfully responded to our requests for assistance, and we are truly grateful for their support and assistance.
Siting of the Americans with Disabilities Act compliant sidewalk from Last Stand Hill parking lot to the Indian Memorial site led to identifying an unanticipated impact to the archeological feature known as the horse cemetery or pit. The horse pit is the location where battle-related horse skeletal remains were deposited in 1881 during the installation of the Seventh Cavalry memorial on Last Stand Hill. The proposed sidewalk construction specifications and terrain constraints require the removal of two or more feet of dirt, and/or subsurface disturbance up to a depth of four feet for the installation of retaining walls that were believed to likely directly impact the horse cemetery site.
The horse pit location was identified in February 2002 by comparing the current landscape with photographs dating to the 1941 discovery of the site during earlier construction and by a multi-instrument geophysical survey of the site using ground penetrating radar (Nickel 2002) and electromagnetics and magnetometery (De Vore 2002). Given the constraints of the landscape and the construction specifications there were no feasible avoidance alternatives and a mitigation plan was developed to excavate the horse pit site. Field work was conducted from April 29 to May 1, 2002 by the author, Thomas Thiessen, Harold Roeker, and volunteer Wilfred Husted. The field investigations determined that the horse pit was near, but outside the direct construction impact zone. The horse pit was documented and preserved in situ. The archeological documentation of that investigation is presented in the following pages.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn resulted in the deaths of a number of soldiers and Indian combatants. In addition perhaps as many as 90 horses were killed during the battle or wounded and later destroyed by the troops burying the dead. Perhaps the most famous battle survivor was the horse, Commanche (Lawrence 1989). Badly wounded, Commanche was tenderly restored to health and pampered by the Seventh Cavalry until his death in 1890. Commanche became an enduring symbol of the Seventh’s defeat at the Little Bighorn, and its resurrection as a fighting force. Commanche’s remains were stuffed and to this day evoke an emotional response from all who view him at the Dyke Museum at the University of Kansas. Commanche is a powerful symbol of all the horses killed at the Little Bighorn and today is the only known surviving physical set of remains of a post-Civil War cavalry horse.
Since the battle of the Little Bighorn there have been three major episodes of reburial of the soldiers’ remains. In 1877, 1879, and again in 1881 burial details went to the field specifically to reinter remains exposed by the elements and scavengers. Fred Dustin (1953) has described the reburial details as well as John Gray (1975), and Richard Hardorff (1989) has presented the story of the reburials in detail. One aspect of the burial and reburial episodes included the gathering and burial of the horse bones that had been left bleaching on the battlefield since 1876.
Due to natural erosion and some human vandalism, skeletal remains continued to become exposed in the years following the first hasty burials in June 1876. In April 1879, Captain George Sanderson was ordered with his company of Eleventh Infantry from Fort Custer to rebury the exposed remains. Sanderson reported he found very few exposed remains. He gathered together those remains consisting of parts of four or five bodies, by his estimate, and buried them on Last Stand Hill. He then proceeded to build a cordwood memorial on that site. Sanderson noted he believed the reports of unburied dead resulted from misidentification of horse bones for human remains. To forestall further problems he had the horse bone gathered together and placed in a mound giving the field “a perfectly clean appearance, each grave being re-mounded and all animal bones removed” (Sanderson cited in Gray 1975:37). Stanley Morrow’s famous photographs of the Keogh area graves, Crittenden’s grave, and of the mound of horse bone were taken at this time, and some were even attached to Sanderson’s original report to his superiors.
The following extract is from the detailed report by Capt. Sanderson:
Fort Custer, M.T.
April 7, 1879
Sir: I have the honor to report that in obedience to instructions I went to Custer Battlefield to carry out orders in regard to the graves at that point. I found it impossible to obtain rock within a distance of five miles. I accordingly built a mound out of cord wood filled in the center with all the horse bones I could find on the field. In the center of the mound I dug a grave and interred all the human bones that could be found, in all parts of four or five different bodies. This grave was then built up with wood for four feet above the 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.
Instead of disturbing any remains, I carefully remounded all graves that could be found. At each grave a stake was driven, where those that had previously placed had fallen. Newspaper reports to the effect that bodies still lay exposed are sensational. From a careful searching of the entire ground the remains now buried beneath the mound were all that could be found. 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.
The ground to the north and east of the field was well searched for six miles in each direction, but no trace of any remains were found, nor anything to indicate that any persons were killed in that direction. The whole field now presents a perfectly clean appearance, each grave being remounded and all animal bones removed.
In 1881, a detail of soldiers commanded by Lieutenant Charles Roe, Second Cavalry, was sent to disinter the remaining soldiers’ remains and rebury them in a mass grave. He was also to erect a granite memorial shaft to commemorate those who had fallen in the battle. Roe moved the pieces of the monument to the site on sledges. He erected the granite shaft on the top of Last Stand Hill at the site of the Sanderson cordwood marker and then had his detail disinter the remains from around the field. A mass grave, ten feet wide was dug surrounding the memorial shaft (Charles Roe letter October 6, 1908 to W. M. Camp, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument files). Roe made no mention of the horse bones that were in the center of the cordwood monument his men disassembled, but it is presumed that he had his men dig a pit and bury the horse bones not far from the site of the monument.
That was certainly Superintendent Edward Luce’s assumption when the laying of a water discharge line from a large water tank on Last Stand Hill revealed a pit containing a large number of horse bones (Luce 1941a). Luce also thought he identified human bone co?mingled with horse bone when he inadvertently cut into the horse cemetery.
The water tank, of 20,000 gallon capacity, on Last Stand Hill was the primary water reservoir for the National Cemetery irrigation system and for potable water to the residences. The tank was installed on the northeast side of Last Stand Hill immediately east of the Seventh Cavalry monument placed by Charles Roe. The tank’s date of construction is not precisely known, but it may have been around 1911 (Doerner 2002). Water was pumped to the tank from the Little Bighorn River. In turn water was delivered by gravity fed lines to the cemetery irrigation system, and to a hypochlorinater that filtered the water for the drinking fountain and residences (Hommon 1940).
Apparently the reservoir tank overflowed from time to time and in April 1941 Superintendent Luce installed an overflow drain on the tank and a drainage line that discharged to the east. During the digging of the trench for the drain line a large quantity of horse bone was encountered. This prompted Luce to report the finds to his superior, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park (Luce 1941a), and to the Quartermaster General of the Army (Luce 1941b).
The discovery of the horse pit during the overflow line trenching was excitedly reported by Luce (1941a) on April 9, 1941. In part the memorandum to his superior at Yellowstone National Park stated:
- This afternoon while excavating for a trench to run the overflow pipe of the 20,000 gallon reservoir situated on Custer Hill in the rear of the Custer Monument the long lost ‘horse cemetery’ was discovered. This cemetery is directly in rear of the reservoir on the slanting hillside and is a trench built on an arc of about 120 degrees. It is about fifty feet long and about twenty feet wide. It follows the contour arc of the hill. Before discovering the cemetery it has been believed that this apparent sunken spot was due to the water overflow from the tank or usual rain erosion, but after one end of the burial trench was opened it could be seen that this sinking was caused by earth slipping in between the skeletons of the horses. At present the earth covering is only about two feet thick from the surface and it will only be a matter of two or three years before rains will wash the earth away and expose the bones. With this erosion in view, authority is requested that permission be given to cover this plot of ground and from this plot to the regular lines of the hill. It is also recommended that a fence be erected around this ‘horse cemetery’ to perpetuate its location and its history of the battle.
- At this time the pipe trench was being dug we encountered some old rotten wood that ran parallel to the side of the trench and as it broke away we discovered a large number of horse bones and one or two human bones. The proposed pipe line was changed so as not to disturb the ‘horse cemetery’. It is very evident that in 1877 when these horses were buried a trench was dug and boarded up as the wooden enclosure can easily be followed, and when the skeletons were placed in this enclosure a wooden cover was placed over the top. Due to wood deterioration this cover has rotted away and that is the cause of the sinking of the earth surface. With your permission the same method that is used on human sunken graves will be followed, i.e. fill in the depression, tamp and dress the top even with the normal surface.
- When the sideboard gave way and exposed the cemetery, one or two human bones fell out as did an old army boot and a tin cracker box can with several bullet holes through the tin…..
- In a cavalry regiment there is a great attachment between the rider and his horse and there is not doubt that due reverence and respect were shown these horses when they were buried in 1877. For this reason it is requested that permission be given to properly outline this ‘horse cemetery’ with an fenced-in enclosure and have a historic sign made that will explain to the tourists and visitors to this cemetery of the prominent part played by these horses in the battle and the sacrifice they made for the protection of their riders.
- The matter of changing this overflow pipe line was taken up several months ago with Mr. Emmert, as the line led from the reservoir into the Custer Group plot and ended with a huge concrete apron despoiling the natural contour of the ground and causing water ruts the length of the Group. With the change of the pipe the water now flows north instead of south and away from the view of the visitor.
OCTOBER BUCKET FUND MINI MARE IS HEAVILY PREGNANT AND HAS HORRIBLE HEAVES, plus an eye infection… Can you help? To read her story, click here. She was rescued in the group of 12 with the stallion and the dead eye. Her heaves can be heard on the video linked here. All donations are 100% tax deductible! Thank you!!!