Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Peace Monument.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Peace Monument.

Custer Battlefield Museum

Field review by the editors.

Garryowen, Montana

In 1926, just before the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn, a road crew building Highway 87 uncovered the remains of a US cavalry trooper.

And a good thing too, because that unidentified participant in the Battle of Little Bighorn became the star of the anniversary's "Burial of the Hatchet" ceremony.

Today he still rests in the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier -- "The only solitary grave site dedicated to an unknown US soldier anywhere in the United States which is not located in a national cemetery."

Miniature battle scene.

The Tomb is in Garryowen, a highway exit south of the main battle site, in a spot that was Sitting Bull's campsite, and the last place Custer was seen alive by another white man. "Garryowen" is an old Irish tune and was the marching song of Custer's 7th Calvary. The town is privately owned and operated by Christopher Kortlander, and appears to be designed entirely for battle tourism.

Out in the parking lot of the Custer Battlefield Museum, an audio recounting of the battle blares from a loudspeaker - decribing the "horrible stench." The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier -- situated 20 feet from a large souvenir store and the museum -- is flanked by two bronze busts -- one of Sitting Bull and one of Custer. It's a Peace Monument. They'd probably be shaking hands or throttling each other if they weren't mounted in stone and separated by the grave...

Sitting Bull's death mask.
Sitting Bull's death mask.

The souvenir store is what you'd expect -- the same variety of Native American crafts and battlefield mementoes you'll find up the road near the National Memorial entrance, or in Crow Agency.

The Custer Battlefield Museum opened in 1995, replacing an earlier museum. It claims to be the largest Custer collection on public display, and includes:

  • a lock of Custer's hair
  • the only complete pair of cavalry boots recovered from battlefield, initialed WW (7 soldiers had those initials).
  • the death mask of Sitting Bull, cast in the 1890s
  • a Kerr revolver owned by Custer's brother, Tom Custer, who died at Little Bighorn.
  • the headdress of Stinking Bear
  • a shovel used to bury bodies of the slain cavalry
  • Rings from Custer's saddle made into an Indian necklace

Bugle recovered from the battlefield.

Many items are tastefully lit and displayed behind glass. There is also a collection of historical photographs on exhibit.

Back out in the parking lot, the audiotape tells us that [like 9-11], the Custer massacre news brought out rage and a demand for "vengeance from the populace back east." The demand was quickly satisfied by the systematic decimation of the tribes.

While the Little Bighorn National Memorial, from an outsider's perspective, appears to trumpet the Native American POV after 130 years of Custer worship, Garryowen gives its own perspective. It seems to be about those two busts -- worthy opponents -- looming over a third guy whose name we'll never know. Perhaps he was the bugler, and he got off a note or two before that rain of arrows....

[May 2008: Sarah Chapman points out: "While some small attempts have been made to represent the Lakota and Cheyenne history and perspectives, their story of temporary victory remains largely untold..." and also that the "rain of arrows" is a Hollywood stereotypical myth.]

Custer Battlefield Museum

Address:
Frontage Rd, Garryowen, MT
Directions:
I-90 exit 514, southeast side.
Phone:
406-638-1876
Admission:
Adults $7.50
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