General Custer was here! (well, parts of him)
There are several battle names that everyone has heard of. Even if you don’t know when or why it was fought, or even who won it, you’ve heard the name. Names like the Battle of Gettysburg, or the Battle of Waterloo, or the Battle of Okinawa, and so on. One of the big names that is mentioned a lot is the Battle of Little Bighorn. Why? It was a major victory for the Plains Indians during the Great Sioux War of 1876, and it would be the location of the last stand and death of the famous General George Armstrong Custer. You may be wondering, how does this have anything to do with Poughkeepsie?
When George Armstrong Custer went into battle on June 25, 1876, his goal was to round up all of the Plains Indians in the Black Hills and bring them to reservations. Anyone who didn’t come willingly was considered hostile and would be killed. Thousands of members of the Lakota, Dakota, and Cheyenne tribes had followed leaders like, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, to lands around the Little Bighorn River; this is where Custer and about 700 members of the 7th Cavalry Regiment ended up in a bloody battle. The exact details of George Armstrong Custer’s last moments on earth are unclear. All of the men that may have witnessed his death, including his brothers Boston and Thomas, his brother-in-law James Calhoun, and his nephew Henry Reed, died with him. In fact, every soldier that was in the five separate companies that Custer commanded was dead, except for the few that had fled before the battle began.
What is known is that Custer suffered at least two gunshot wounds–one near his heart and one in his temple, either of which would have been fatal. His remains were initially buried in the location where he died, at the top of what would later be known as Custer Hill. Contrary to popular belief, his body was not mutilated by the warriors, but was stripped of his clothes. About a day or so after the battle, troops were deployed to the location of the battle to bury the dead, which was done very poorly, if at all. The soil was hard and they lacked the proper tools for digging graves. The only real mutilation that occurred to Custer’s remains was from the wolves and coyotes in the months after the temporary burial. When his remains were dug up a year later, it was difficult to tell who was who, and it was said that only “several handfuls of bones” were collected and placed in a coffin which was marked with a note by Post Surgeon R.G. Read, stating that these were the remains of Gen. George A. Custer.
In August of 1877, the Atlantic Express train pulled into Poughkeepsie from Fort Abraham Lincoln with the remains of Gen. Custer. The destination was supposed to be the cemetery at West Point, where Custer had graduated from in 1861 (last in his class and with the most demerits in the school’s history). Custer’s wife Libby was planning an elaborate funeral with the help of Major General Schofield that was to take place at West Point, but they needed time to plan and time to allow for the travel of all of Custer’s military friends abroad. Since the West Point Cemetery had no receiving vault to store the General’s remains, Mrs. Custer reached out to Mr. Philip Hamilton (son of Alexander Hamilton) of the City of Poughkeepsie for his advice.
Philip Hamilton’s son, Louis McLane Hamilton, had served with Custer in 1868, and was killed in action at the Battle of Washita. Custer must have cared for the young man as he came to serve as a pallbearer at Hamilton’s funeral. Philip Hamilton felt a need to repay Custer by offering a temporary place to secure the General’s remains within the receiving vault at the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. He even went so far as to reuse the same American flag that had draped his own son’s casket in 1868, and placed it on Custer’s casket for the duration of the grand procession through the streets of Poughkeepsie. The headquarters of the 8th Brigade here in Poughkeepsie declared in the Poughkeepsie Eagle News that this procession should be as “imposing as possible” for the memory of a war hero (though future historians would debate the “hero” part). The march moved from the cemetery to the steamboat The Mary Powell waiting at the riverfront, with the streets lined with mournful faces. The boat sailed down the river to West Point where Custer’s remains were finally laid to rest.
Poughkeepsie Eagle News – 4 Aug 1877, 8 Oct 1877, 11 Oct 1877
Harper’s Weekly – 27 Oct 1877
Brininstool, E.A. “Troopers with Custer,” 2015 https://www.hoopladigital.com/title/11520137
Custerdeath – Dramatic portrayal of Native American man stabbing “Custer,” with dead Native Americans lying on ground, in a scene by Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show performers. 1905 – Library of Congress – https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3c12856/
Custerfamily – George Armstrong Custer, in uniform, seated with his wife, Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon Custer, and his brother, Thomas W. Custer, standing. 1865 – Library of Congress – https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3c14798/
Custergrave – Photo of George Armstrong Custer’s grave at the West Point Cemetery. Photo taken by Shannon Butler.