The Horse Spirits of Big Sky Country

Travel Stories: Deanne Stillman ventures to the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana to remember the nearly forgotten warriors of Custer's Last Stand

07.02.07 | 11:38 AM ET

little bighorn

On June 25, 1876, a few days before the country’s centennial, Lt. Colonel George Custer was felled in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. More horses than soldiers died in that horrific conflagration in the greasy grass, and on a recent anniversary, I visit the Montana battlefield to pay my respects—to the men of the 7th Cavalry, the victorious Native Americans and the weird and bloody fever dream that brought this country to life. But mostly, I want to honor the horses that died that day—barely remembered yet haunting the killing field like the other tormented souls, tough and tender war veterans who gave their all in service.

The horse cemetery is about halfway between the Indian memorial, finally installed in 2003, and Last Stand Hill with its huge tombstone, erected three years after the battle. It’s shown on the park map, but on foot is easy to miss because the stone that marks it is small, perhaps a couple of feet high. It says:

In memory of
7th Cavalry horses
Killed during
Custer’s last stand
June 25, 1876
And later buried here
In July 1881
Under supervision of
Lt. Charles F. Roe
Of the 2nd Cavalry

This stone was placed in 2002, after a long controversy involving the question of whether wheelchair access between the Indian memorial and Last Stand Hill would be impeded. Also, Native Americans were concerned that if there were a well-marked horse graveyard in the park, more people would visit it than their own memorial for which they had waited so long. They were probably right, but as it stands now, hardly anyone visits the horse grave. In fact, it had been lost track of until 1941.

“While digging an excavation, the East End of the wooden trench or ‘horse cemetery’ on Custer Hill was encountered,” wrote Edward S. Luce, then the park superintendent. “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 & Col, 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… This horse trench was not thoroughly explored… The grave or trench has been closed waiting instructions from your office.”

When the horse cemetery was found, park administrators began a search through the records to find out how it got there. They knew from a famous photograph taken on Custer Hill in 1877 and again in 1879 that there were huge mounds of horse bones all over the knoll. Further investigation revealed that in 1879, the remains of the cavalry horses were collected and placed inside a temporary monument on Last Stand Hill, very near where Custer’s body had been found.

In July, 1881, the cordwood monument was dismantled and a massive, 36,000-pound granite memorial was erected at the same place, in honor of Custer and the soldiers who died in the battle. The horse bones were probably reinterred just to the northeast of the monument, according to the Friends of the Little Bighorn, whose members devote much of their lives to poring over and analyzing all manner of battle history and details. Further excavation had been planned, but then was scuttled because of World War I and then World War II, and it was not until a few years ago that it resumed.

I sit on the small grassy plot in front of the tombstone and ponder the fate of the horses. When soldiers entered the field after the battle, the equine carnage grew worse as they approached what came to be known as Custer or Last Stand Hill. On top of it, observed Lt. Edward S. Godfrey, Company K, 7th Cavalry, “There were 42 men and 39 dead horses.” They formed a circle with a 30-foot diameter. “Around Custer,” reported Gen. Edward J. McClernand, “some 30 or 40 men had fallen, some of whom had evidently used their horses as breastworks.”

In fact, it would appear that Custer himself was not only protected by a ring of horses before he went down, but also in death could not be separated: When found, according to one account, his left leg was extended across the grass, and his right leg lay across a dead soldier who had fallen next to a dead horse on which Custer’s heel rested—able to spur him no longer.

As I sit on the grass, music of the commemoration floats by. Some impromptu drumming and singing is coming from the Native American shrine and a few hundred yards away, a ranger demonstrates bugle calls for tourists. As I photograph the horse tombstone, some people stop and ask what I’m doing. I explain that this is where some horses that fell during the battle are buried, and they are immediately interested, surprised, or saddened.

I spend some time with the horse spirits for awhile and then begin a long walk to an incline on the field where Myles Keogh’s body was found. Capt. Keogh was in Custer’s gray horse unit, riding the horse Comanche, who had been taken from the wild and sold to the army when he was a foal. Comanche was named for the courage he displayed while soldiers removed an arrowhead embedded in his flanks during an earlier battle. A long-time veteran of the cavalry, he survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn and became a celebrity of his time—retired with full honors and billed as the “only survivor of the battle.”

“Stay on the path,” a ranger has told me. “Watch for snakes.” I walk a bit along the paved path, and then, spotting a crop of marble slabs, I step off into the prairie grass and sage and make my way towards the area known as Battle Ridge.

Every battle, especially this one, has its scholars and devotees and one of them now sits among the stones, drawing pictures.

“I’ve been coming here for 20 years,” he says.

“For the memorial?” I ask.

“No, all the time. I can’t stay away.”

He explains that his wife doesn’t understand why he spends so much time here, but one of these days he’s going to exhibit his drawings.

“See that place over there?” he says, pointing to a depression in the grasses. “That’s Horseholder’s Ravine. It’s where the soldiers would hold the horses while three or four of the men would dismount and fight on foot.”

He’s referring to the standard cavalry practice which was carried out that day on the field and that’s how the Indians were able to run off large numbers of army horses. I walk into the ravine and imagine the scene when the grass was three feet high and touched the underside of a horse’s belly and then ask him if he can point me to Keogh’s marker. “Oh, yes,” he says, “Captain Myles Keogh. Did you know it was really his last stand? All that stuff about Custer is bullshit.”

That’s what everybody says, except for the Custerphiles and even they have a zillion different versions of what happened. I thank him for his time and move on. “Watch for snakes,” he says.

While many people believe that it was Crazy Horse himself who finished off Custer, no one knows exactly how Keogh was felled—the fog of war descended over this battle even before it happened, as Custer left Ft. Lincoln and marched into the mist. As it happens, the man I have just met in the park is not alone in his view that Keogh was perhaps the last of the 7th to go down, or at least one of the most heroic. Officers did not dismount during battle and various Native American accounts describe a man who fits Keogh’s description trying to draw Indian fire by galloping back and forth between two groups of men who were fighting on foot while the others held their horses in the ravine.

Not too far away from the spot where Keogh was found is where some cavalry re-enactors have set up a period camp, living just the way the 7th did 129 years ago, dressed in the garb of the time, each according to rank, covered in dust to simulate days of marching, and feeding their horses from a bag strapped around their noses. Some have trucked in their horses from points east, west, north, and south—wherever they live—to the battlefield.  Others borrow a horse every year from the Crow, who fought with Custer and are still embroiled in an old rivalry with the Lakota and Cheyenne, who didn’t.

“Where’s the guy who plays Captain Myles Keogh?” I ask some men who are bivouacked with their horses along the banks of the Little Bighorn.

“Is he here this year?” one said.

“I haven’t seen him.”

“I just saw him,” said another. “I think he’s over there with a film crew from Germany.”

I head deeper into the encampment and keep asking. A guy dressed as an orderly directs me towards a tent.

“Hello?” I call out. “Captain Keogh?”

Out comes junior high school history teacher Bill Rino, dressed just like all the pictures of the cavalry captain. He doesn’t really look anything like Keogh though—he’s short and Italian. He’s been coming all the way from Queens every year since 1995. Like many re-enactors, he’s very certain about what happened that day.

“Actually, there were four last stands,” he says. “Custer’s, Keogh’s, Weir’s, and Calhoun’s. Once Reno ran, Custer was in trouble. Did you know Custer’s bugler is buried in Queens?”

Of course, I ask him about Comanche.

“Comanche was identified by Keogh’s best friend, Lt. Nowlan. He was shot ten times, not seven. Probably by Crazy Horse. By the way, do you know how horses gave the Indians an advantage? When they surprised Custer in the morning, they ran their horses up and down the perimeter to make a dust cloud. The cavalry couldn’t see where to shoot. And one more thing. Captain Keogh did not die while crouching under Comanche between his forelegs and getting off a few final shots. He was definitely shot out of the saddle. You can tell from the wound in his knee.”

Maybe he was shot from the saddle and then continued to fight under Comanche? I ask. Absolutely not, he says. The bugler sounds dinner but before Capt. Keogh disappears, I take his picture. The horse playing Comanche has been taken back to the rez by the Crow so it’s a solo shot of Bill standing near the river. It’s dusk, and as the sun sets in the West, he straightens out his buckskin shirt, stands erect in his cavalry boots, and his chest swells, his body stretches to the sky and his eyes look off to the future as the Crow run some ponies through the Little Bighorn River behind him.

The next day, I attend a press conference at the Custer Battlefield Museum in the town of Garryowen, where the first skirmish of the battle happened. Outside the museum, a recording of “Garryowen” plays, the 7th Cavalry siren that lured many across the prairie to their doom. Inside, Joe Medicine Crow, 97, the grandson of Custer scout White Man Runs Him, consultant to the 1941 Errol Flynn movie about Custer, “They Died With Their Boots On,” is talking story. Alas, not many are here—some members of the European press, a few academic types, a couple of local reporters. The Crow elder is wearing a full war bonnet, jeans, a denim shirt, and cowboy boots. He speaks of how the Crow got horses—it was before the white man found the tribe. “Inter-tribal warfare started over horses,” he says. “The horses reached the Crow in 1730.” 

They reached my family in the 1950s, transforming our world as well—after my parents got divorced, my mother, a life-long equestrian, got a job as one of the first female exercise boys on the racetrack. For the next five years, she got up every day at dawn and headed for the track to ride. It wasn’t a high-income gig but it helped her return to college so she could get a master’s degree, and it paid our bills. It also took us into an enchanting world of misfits and outcasts who, like us, did not have a traditional family. They had each other and their sanctuary was the race track, and their best friends and saviors were horses. The community was driven by heart, uplifted by belief in the racetrack version of sunrise (every day is a new chance), and held together by first-hand knowledge that outside the track there was one damn cruel world. From then on, my life was linked with our country’s greatest partner.

As with all of the Horse Nations, the Crow quickly paired up with the horse, and today have one of the country’s premiere annual rodeos. The Crow re-enactment of the Little Bighorn Battle earlier that day stands as one of the finest, most charming horse spectacles I have ever seen, with tribal history presented as a series of gorgeous, primal scenes involving the great rivers of horse. It began with the national anthem, then the Crow anthem, and then there was a prayer in Crow. A horse whinnied as the prayer finished—perhaps on cue, perhaps not—and then the Crow narrator told a joke:

Custer and his brother Tom are on the battlefield. Tom says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”

George says, “What’s the bad news?”

Tom says, “We’re gonna die here.”

George says, “What’s the good news?”

Tom replies: “We don’t have to go back to North Dakota.”

But the horse did and on the plains it continued to carry us into battle. And today, after blazing our trails and fighting our wars, it’s fighting its own last stand, in diminishing numbers, on what’s left of the range in the West, its home.