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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Ghosts, Graves, and Time Travel Along the Little Bighorn

Little Bighorn Battlefield

October 2017
We're standing on the top of a hill, my husband and I, looking down to where the Little Bighorn River winds through a ravine. This is the spot where Custer's men had been driven back by the warriors, preventing them from fording the river into the Indian camp full of women and children. The intense fighting that took place is hard to reconcile with the serenity of the place now. The sky is immense and bright blue. We're surrounded by fields of tall, golden grass. The landscape is so free of distraction that we watch the shadows of the clouds overhead snaking across the grass.
But suddenly, the peace is disturbed. I hear them before I see them: thundering hoof-beats coming right at us. The ground shakes under our feet as a herd of horses runs right past us, heading down the hill toward the river. 
I get a chill up my spine. This is one of the many sounds you would've heard that day in late June, 1876 if you'd been unlucky enough to have been a solider under Custer's command standing in this spot.

Horses roaming the park

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills and white settlers started pushing into Indian territory, conflict was inevitable. The US government set about to solve the Indian problem.
In what would turn out to be a last hurrah, a combined force of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota Indians gathered in one large camp under the great chiefs Sitting Bull, Gall, and Crazy Horse. The exact number of Indians is debatable, but there were thousands--perhaps as many as 8,000, with the camp stretching out over 3 miles along the Little Bighorn river.
Now, imagine you're a green solider (many of Custer's men were immigrants from Germany and Ireland who hadn't seen much frontier action until this day) and you come over a rise to see that vast camp spread out before you. I often wonder what thoughts ran through those men's heads as they realized they faced almost certain death--and there was going to be nothing peaceful about it.
Not only were the soldiers outnumbered, they were out-gunned. Recent archaeological work on the battle field, recovering spent shells, showed the Indians had superior fire power having repeating rifles. The soldiers were armed with single-shot Springfield rifles. Take a second and think about that. They had to reload after every shot--with thousands of warriors pouring out of the camp coming straight at them.
One misconception about the battle that is that the whole 7th cavalry was wiped out. It was not. The companies under Reno and Benteen fought elsewhere along the river, unaware of the fate of the 200 plus men fighting under Custer.
There were no survivors in the five companies under Custer that day. The battle ended quickly. One Crow chief said, the battle was over in "about as long as it takes for a hungry man to eat his dinner."
Days later, a group of soldiers came across the bloated and badly mutilated corpses of Custer's men. But fearing further attack, the detail only had time to cover the bodies as best they could, sticking tepee poles in the ground to mark the shallow graves. If a man could be identified, his name was written on a slip of paper and inserted in a shell casing. Some remains were never identified.
It took five years for those dead to get a proper burial. Storms and harsh weather kept churning the bodies up to the surface so that the ground was littered with the bones of men and horses. At some point white marble stones replaced wooden markers, which in turn came to replace tepee poles, which marked the spot where a soldier fell.

Where They Fell

Take a closer look at the miles of golden grass and you'll begin to pick out the white markers scattered around. Clustered together in some places, standing alone in others where a lone soldier either fled or fought for his life. It's a sobering sight, these seemingly endless and identical rectangles of white marble.
Only one marker is singled out. Captain Myles Keogh's marker, in the midst of his men, is flanked by flags. Born in Ireland, he fought in the Papal army in Rome before joining the Union Army in America during the Civil War. If you view Custer as the anti-hero, by contrast Keogh is remembered for his valor and decency. Incidentally his was the only body to not suffer ritual mutilation, which is one of the unanswered questions of the battle. One theory is he fought with such bravery, he earned the respect of the warriors. Native American accounts of that day single out an officer fitting Keogh's description. Keogh's horse, Comanche, though wounded, survived and was treated like a hero until his death in 1891. 
(There is some debate about the treatment of Custer's body after the battle, which is also sometimes said to have been left untouched. But, details of the mutilation he suffered may have been downplayed to spare his widow. But one story passed down is that Indian women put needles in his ears so that he might hear better in the next life.)

M.W. Keogh, Capt, Co 1, 7th Calvary, Fell here June 25, 1878

During the battle, Custer was pushed back to take up a defensive position on what would be called Last Stand Hill. There he and his men, sheltering behind a breastwork made from their dead horses, fought to the death. Custer's marker is distinguished by a black shield. He's not buried here, incidentally. His body was re-interred at West Point.

Last Stand Hill, Gen. Custer's Marker

It wasn't until 1881 that all the human remains were gathered and buried in one mass grave. A monument over the grave sits on top of Last Stand Hill. Though human bones continued to turn up in recent times.

7th Calvary Memorial

 While all these attempts to properly bury the white soldiers was going on over the years subsequent to the battle, the Indians were quietly remembering their fallen heroes in their own way. Stones cairns were placed to mark the spots warriors died. These warriors are known as the "Suicide Boys." The night before the battle 24 Sioux and Cheyenne vowed to fight to the death in the next battle with US soldiers and participated in a ritual--not knowing that the 7th cavalry was moving toward them at that moment. For decades the pact made by the Suicide Boys was a secret the Indians kept to themselves.
Attitudes about the park have changed along with its name from Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield, and in 1999, red granite markers replaced the stone cairns.

"A Minnikojou Lakota Warrior Fell Here On June 25, 1876 While Defending The Lakota Way Of Life."
Because we no longer think of this a tragedy that happened to General George Armstrong Custer, there is now a memorial to the tribes that fought that day. The park now acknowledges there were two sides to the conflict.

Indian Memorial, designed by Oglala Sioux artist Colleen Cutschall (alias Sister Wolf) 

And lest we forgot the other lives that were lost that day...

All the Horses

In 1886 the Custer National Cemetery opened on the edge of the battlefield for the burial of known and unknown veterans of our nation's wars and other distinguished individuals, among them men, women, children who died on isolated frontier posts, Indian scouts, and Medal of Honor recipients.

Custer National Cemetery

Buried here is one of Custer's Crow scouts, Curly. When the scouts came back with reports that there was the biggest Indian encampment they'd ever seen, Custer ignored them. Curly did not. He decided today was NOT a good day to die and took off. He survived to an old age, living in a cabin near the battlefield. (His cabin has been moved to Cody, Wy, Old Trail Town)

The Grave of Curly, Crow Scout 

Ghosts and such:

The Little Bighorn Battlefield is an atmospheric place, full of vibes on it's own, but with Halloween around the corner, let's talk about some of the ghosts stories.
If you don't believe in ghosts, fine. But, if you do...Of course, this place is haunted! If you had to make a recipe for hauntings this is it: sudden violent death, that release of intense energy into the scene, disturbed burials, body parts separated from buried, and then reburied bodies, and sad tales of heroism and lives cut short.

A lot of the weird happening seem to occur at the Stone House sitting on the edge of the cemetery. In the early years this building, which is now a library, housed the superintendents of the cemetery and later park staff. Bodies were stored here before, there's that as well.

The Stone House
The neighboring Crow called the superintendents of the cemetery "Ghost herders." They thought when the superintendent lowered the flag at dusk, it was the signal to the spirits to come out, and when he raised the flag in the morning, it was the cue to go back to their graves.
Among the strange things that happened at the stone house are lights that go on and off by themselves on the second floor and heavy footsteps on that floor when nobody is up there.
One man woke up to feel the his bed sink as if someone sat down there. When he sat up, he saw the torso of a soldier, sans head and limbs, walk across the room and through the wall.
Another woman reported waking up one night to find a soldier with a handlebar mustache and an anguished expression on his face sitting at the kitchen table as if he were trying to convey to her the horror he'd witnessed. The next day while getting a tour of the grounds she heard the story of Lt. Benjamin Hodgson who was killed on the banks of the river after his horse was shot out from under him. With a broken leg, he grabbed onto the stirrup of another passing horse and managed to cross the river, only to be shot dead on the other side. Curious about him, the woman asked to see a picture of Hodgson. When she was shown the picture later, it was the man who sat at her table the night before.
To me, one of the creepier stories at the Stone House involved a TV. The wife of one of the staffers was watching TV when the screen went black and a voice came out of the TV repeating, "second floor, second floor."
Apart from the Stone House, soldiers have been seen wandering around the visitor center, passing through walls and such.
A Crow woman who lived near by and was out one night saw two warriors in full battle regalia on horseback on the top of a ridge. One even sat up in his saddle to get a better look at her. Were they two of the Suicide Boys? She thought so.
The strangest story by far is the story of the disappearing tourist. A cab driver from New Orleans went missing for a couple of hours. He resurfaced ashen and terrified, claiming he had been transported back in time to the day of the battle.

Have you been to the Little Big Horn Battlefield or any other place that evoked strong emotion in you?

(all pictures courtesy of the author)


  1. Wow Patti. I’m sitting in the airport lounge (I use the word loosely) getting goosebumps. Is it due to the flight ahead or your ghostly tales at the end of this excellent piece? Will Custer be on my flight or Crazy Horse? Time will tell...

    1. Thank you, Andi! Don't time travel (without me)! I know you've been to the battlefield yourself. We were lucky enough to be there with perfect weather and we're able to stay from opening to closing. I love that it's a place that's mainly been left untouched so it speaks for itself. Much like Culloden battlefield in Scotland if you've ever been there. I'm glad you stopped by and wishing you safe and happy travels.

  2. I've no doubt there are ghosts present. Such a heartbreaking tragedy on both sides. Thanks for sharing, Patti.

    1. Thanks, Kristy. It is a piece of history that has long captured my imagination. I have compassion for both sides and they do a good job at the park of presenting the story in that way. Being able to walk the battlefield was an experience I'll never forget. (I think there are ghosts too!)

  3. I have always wanted to visit this battlefield as it is easily a day drive. When we were stationed in Germany, my husband had the chance to visit Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and what he noticed was the quiet...absolutely no bird song despite trees. So much evil, sorrow, pain that it haunts the air. So I can imagine the same for this battlefield. Thank you for your in-depth article and photographs. War is so horrible, especially face-to-face combat and yet it continues. People just don't read enough history because war is driven by power and greed, deadly combination.

  4. So true. Some of these places are haunted and haunting and not I'm not referring to ghosts. You go to a place like this and it puts a human face on the suffering. If you're that close I would definitely go! Plan according to the weather though. It's very open. I don't live close and I'd been trying to get my family to go there for years. I finally got my way last fall and it was a trip I'll never forget. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Beautiful. You captured the atmospere perfectly. Thank you. Doris

  6. Thank you, you're welcome! It was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I've been to and seeped in our history. I'm glad I captured it.

  7. I found it so interesting that the soldiers were buried where they fell. Somehow that makes it more poignant. I'm with Curly, the scout. It would have been a pointless death to stay.
    I don't believe in ghosts, but I DO believe people truly believe they have seen or heard them. If any place should be haunted, it's battlefields. Gettysburg, PA is one of those places that certainly feels like the presence of all those who lost their lives still have energy there. So I can imagine the haunting energy at Little Big Horn.
    A most excellent post, especially at Halloween, Patti!

    1. You have to imagine that when the soldiers who came across the over 200 bodies scattered there and with the threat of meeting the same fate, all they had time to do was cover the bodies the best they could. You can look up photos taken sometime later and see the condition of the battlefield then: bones littering the ground. They're not buried there now, because eventually under pressure of the public and surviving relatives, all the remains were placed together in a mass grave. I've wanted to go here for years! Gettysburg is another one I want to go to. Culloden in Scotland is another one of those places you can feel the emotion of that day. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Patti,

    I've been fortunate in my limited travels to visit several *known* historic places that have a strong otherworldly presence: Custer's battlefield, Gettysburg battlefield, Vicksburg battlefield, the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, Ransom Canyon (near Lubbock, Texas), St. James Hotel (Cimarron, New Mexico), the Loretto Chapel (Santa Fe, New Mexico). At each location, I was able to spend quiet alone time to 'feel'. I believe if we still our minds, our senses open to accept and experience the otherworldly-ness in these places.

  9. I've been to Pearl Harbor and the Loretto Chapel. The others are on my list, especially Ransom Canyon after reading your story! Places like Little Bighorn as so moving because there is a loneliness about it. Thanks for visiting.

  10. I'm late to the party, but here I am anyways!!

    This was ghostbump inducing! I love history and my empathic self goes into overdrive reading/feeling/experiencing/absorbing these things - it's so heartbreaking, despite the tiny nuggets of good there (the bravery and honor of some individuals).

    I'd love to go someplace like that, but like you in the first paragraph, I have a feeling I'd be transported in my own way - kinda like when I went to Independence MO to the park where travelers gathered to take the Oregon Trail.... something special there.

    1. Glad you made it to the party, late or not! I hear you: I'm very easily transported in places such as this. I had wanted to go the Little Bighorn for ages. And when I finally got there, I resented any outside chatter (like my husband reading signs outloud, LOL). I just wanted to absorb and feel.Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Such a tragedy, for all concerned. From the brave native Indians, defending their culture. to the misled soldiers who didn't really understand the politics of the situation. I hope that one day, I can visit here, as I have always been intrigued by this place. Thankyou Patti, for sharing with us. Steve (from England).