The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Garryowen

 


Hundreds of U.S. military officers visit Garryowen every year to study the Custer Battle, to make sure tactical mistakes are not repeated.

 

General Godfrey and Chief White Bull, both survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, clasp hands over the open crypt of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at its dedication in 1926.

 

 


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Garryowen shelters the remains of a cavalryman lost in the dusty chaos of a frenzied afternoon on the banks of the Little Big Horn River.  An integral part of the Garryowen complex, it is the only privately held tomb of an unknown soldier in the United States.  The owner of Garryowen is, of necessity and privilege, the caretaker of a monument of national importance.  It houses not only the remains of a participant in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but also a crypt containing mementos deposited there on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the battle.

Discovered in 1926 by a road crew working along the path of Reno’s retreat from the Sioux encampment to the hill-top entrenchment, the headless skeleton was accompanied by two bullets – one near the hip and the other embedded in the shoulder – and several rusted buttons.  One of the thirty-three men left behind in Reno’s flight to the bluffs, he was almost certainly decapitated by the women who followed the warriors onto the battlefield and who revenged themselves for similar acts that had been perpetrated by soldiers upon daughters, siblings, parents, and others at the Sand Creek Massacre and the Battle of the Washita.

The 50th anniversary of the battle was commemorated only a month after the discovery of the remains, and was attended by Indian and non-Indian dignitaries; by Sioux, Cheyenne, and Crow warriors; by Indian Wars veterans; and by fully fifty thousand visitors.  At that time, the Unknown Soldier’s remains were placed under a great sandstone marker at present-day Garryowen after a full military funeral was given him by the new 7th Cavalry. 

After his casket was lowered, General E.S. Godfrey, a survivor of Reno’s command, and Chief White Bull, a Sioux chief, shook hands over the tomb at a ceremony to “bury the hatchet.”  Into a compartment carved into the center of the huge stone monument, they deposited Chief White Bull’s tomahawk, as well as a number of remarkable items, among them a jeweled 7th Cavalry crest, a letter from Elizabeth Custer to the 50th Anniversary Executive Committee, an autographed book on the battle, and fifteen D.F. Barry photographs of battle participants.  This crypt has never been opened, and constitutes a priceless “time-capsule.”

The tomb is a moving touchstone for Garryowen’s thousands of visitors, particularly for the veterans of America’s wars, for whom its pathos is magnified and its relevance immediate.  Refurbished and secured, the tomb is now the focal point of a small park in front of the Custer Battlefield Museum, shaded by mature cottonwood trees.  A memorial wall embraces the monument, which is flanked by life-and-a-half-sized bronze busts of Custer and Sitting Bull; and elegant, slim black marble tablets commemorate the tomb’s rededication as a Peace Memorial. 

 
     
 

     
Matt Robertson, 406-294-6308, or mrobertson@naibusinessproperties.com

 
 

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