On This Day: Custer’s Funeral Held at West Point

On a beautiful fall day on 10 October 1877, controversial military leader Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was buried with full military honors at West Point Cemetery.

Illustration: “The Funeral of General Custer at West Point,” from sketches by Theo, published in Harper’s Weekly, 27 October 1877
Illustration: “The Funeral of General Custer at West Point,” from sketches by Theo, published in Harper’s Weekly, 27 October 1877. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

With his final resting place, the renowned Civil War cavalry officer and infamous Indian fighter’s 15-year military career came full circle: his active career began when he graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in June 1861, last in a graduating class of 34 cadets. That military career ended with his defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, popularly called “Custer’s Last Stand.”

The bookends of Custer’s military career were tremendous opportunity contrasted with horrible misfortune. It began with the good luck of graduating just two months after the Civil War began, at a time when the Union army was desperate for trained officers. Thus, despite his poor performance at West Point, Custer was pressed into duty immediately and made the most of his chance. He became known as a brave and daring cavalry officer – although critics labeled him reckless and even foolish.

Custer was involved in many of the major campaigns and battles in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War – including the war’s first major clash, the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) the month after his graduation. He fought, mostly with distinction, at such important engagements as the Peninsula Campaign; the Battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg; and General Grant’s Wilderness Campaign and the final Petersburg-Richmond Campaign.

Photo: Major General George Armstrong Custer, 1865
Photo: Major General George Armstrong Custer, 1865. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

During the war he was promoted to the rank of brevet (temporary) general, at 25 the youngest major general in the Union Army. He was present at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865 for the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee; General Sheridan gave Custer the table upon which the surrender was signed as a gift for Custer’s wife Libbie.

Custer remained a colorful and controversial character after the war, serving as a lieutenant colonel in the new unit formed to fight in the Indian Wars: the 7th Cavalry. The same lack of discipline that tainted Custer’s West Point career (he was almost expelled on several occasions for receiving too many demerits) hurt him in his new career as an Indian fighter. He was court-martialed in 1867 for taking leave without permission to visit his wife, and was suspended for a year without pay.

When he was reinstated in September 1868 it did not take him long to regain attention: on 27 November 1868, he led the 7th Cavalry in the Battle of Washita River that destroyed the Cheyenne camp of Chief Black Kettle. Even in this triumph Custer could not escape controversy: critics pointed out that he had actually attacked a peaceful Cheyenne camp, and others faulted him for quickly withdrawing after the battle and leaving some of his men behind.

Custer was instrumental in setting the wheels in motion that led to his final disaster. In 1874 he led an Army expedition into the Black Hills, sacred hunting ground of the Sioux whose rights had been recognized by the Treaty of Laramie in 1868. Custer’s expedition found gold, causing a gold rush that prompted the U.S. government to abrogate the treaty and summarily announce that all Indians had to relocate to reservations by 31 January 1876.

Influential Lakota Chief Sitting Bull and thousands of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians ignored the ultimatum and were in their traditional Montana hunting grounds near the Little Bighorn River in the summer of 1876 when Custer came looking for them.

Illustration: “Custer’s Last Stand,” Edgar Samuel Paxson, 1899
Illustration: “Custer’s Last Stand,” Edgar Samuel Paxson, 1899. Credit: Whitney Gallery of Western Art; Wikimedia Commons.

That is when the good luck that had attended much of Custer’s military career deserted him. On 25 June 1876, a determined force of around 2,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors fiercely defended their combined village on the Little Bighorn River against a surprise attack from 600 men of the U.S. 7th Cavalry led by Custer. When the dust finally settled from the furious fighting, Custer and every man of the five companies he was leading lay dead, with the 7th Cavalry’s other seven companies pinned down and unable to come to his aid.

U.S. forces lost 268 men that day, including 31 officers and 10 scouts, and another 55 were wounded. Historians continue to argue whether Custer was at fault, rushing headlong against impossible odds in his lust for personal glory, or whether he was let down by his subordinates. Or had luck simply run out for the famous, dashing, 36-year-old cavalry officer?

Custer and all his slain men and officers were buried on the battleground, but a year later his remains were dug up and brought east for a hero’s military burial at West Point. The following two newspaper articles are about Custer’s funeral. The first article is a news report of the funeral; the second is an editorial praising “one of the bravest of American soldiers.”

An article about Custer's funeral, New York Herald newspaper article 11 October 1877
New York Herald (New York, New York), 11 October 1877, page 3

Here is a transcription of this article:

CUSTER AT REST.

THE REMAINS OF THE GALLANT GENERAL INTERRED AT WEST POINT – A SOLEMN PROCESSION – FULL MILITARY HONORS AT THE GRAVE.

West Point, N.Y., Oct. 10, 1877.

The funeral of General Custer today was attended by a large concourse of people, from the transferring of the remains from Poughkeepsie to their final interment in this place. The funeral procession at Poughkeepsie formed at nine o’clock A.M. in the following order: A platoon of police, the Twenty-first Regiment band, Brigadier General George Parker and staff, a battalion of the Twenty-first Infantry, N.G.S.N.Y., cadets of the Poughkeepsie Military Institute, Bald Eagle Battery, clergy, in carriages; hearse, horse, with empty saddle; Mayor and Common Council, in carriages; citizens, in carriages and on foot. The hearse was drawn by four black horses and was decorated with flags and black crape. The casket containing the remains was draped with a flag, a single floral offering by Bald Eagle Battery, a shoulder strap with two stars formed of geraniums and immortelles. The stars were made of tube roses. The horse, with empty saddle, had all the equipments belonging to Custer’s rank. Thousands of people lined the streets and roadway, and as the procession moved flags were placed at half mast and the bells of the city tolled.

The remains were deposited on the steamer Mary Powell, at half-past ten A.M. The steamer was crowded with about 2,000 people intending to accompany the remains to West Point. The remains were placed in the ladies’ saloon, and when a landing was made the passengers filed slowly by the casket in regular order.

Landing the Remains at West Point

As the [Mary] Powell landed here the special steamers Hopkins and Henry Smith also arrived from New York with the Loyal League Commandery and the Connecticut Volunteer Cavalry Association on board. The Mary Powell landed first and the remains, under escort of the Poughkeepsie military, were safely put on shore. A detachment of cavalry, commanded by Brevet Colonel Beaumont, received them, and with other escort attended them to the chapel, where they were deposited and left under guard.

Services in the Chapel

Services at the chapel commenced at a quarter past two o’clock and were conducted by Rev. John Forsyth, D.D., post chaplain. They consisted only of the reading of a portion of the Episcopal burial service, with responses sung by a choir of cadets. The coffin was covered by the national flag, crape and a profusion of choice floral decorations. General Custer’s hat and sword were also placed on it.

General Custer’s widow was present at the services, attended by Major General Schofield, together with E. H. Custer, the father of the hero of Little Big Horn; Mrs. Nellie B. Smith, his sister; Mrs. Lawrence Barrett, Mrs. General Alfred Gibbs and Miss Cora Bean, friends of the deceased; and Lieutenant Braden, of the Seventh Cavalry, who fought under Custer and had been several times wounded.

Procession to the Grave

At the conclusion of the brief services a line was formed and the procession started for the cemetery in the following order:

Major General Thomas H. Neill, with escort, consisting of a detachment of cavalry, commanded by Colonel Beaumont.
Cadet battalion of artillery, Colonel Piper.
West Point Band and cadet battalion of infantry, with arms reversed and colors draped.
Carriage with clergyman.
Caisson bearing the body.
Horse with vacant saddle and covered with a blanket.
Brevet Major General J. B. Fry.
Brevet Major General R. B. Marcy.
Brevet Brigadier General J. B. Kiddoo.
General T. C. Devins.
Adjutant General Forsyth.
Colonel Stephen Clyford, Colonel Ludlow and Colonel Mitchell, pall bearers.
Carriages containing mourners and friends.
Officers of the Military Academy.
Naval and Army officers.
Loyal Legion Veteran Organization of New York, commanded by General George H. Sharpe.
Volunteer and Militia Officers.
Detachments Twenty-first Regiment and Bald Eagle Battery of Poughkeepsie.
Delegation of the Society of the First Connecticut Volunteers.
Citizens.

Military Honors

The procession moved slowly to the cemetery, the band playing the funeral march. At the grave the balance of the burial service was read and an infantry salute of three rounds were fired. The grave is near the cemetery entrance, to the left of the gate, not far from General Scott’s sepulcher. The ceremonies were concluded and the procession dismissed at four P.M.

An article about Custer's funeral, New York Herald newspaper article 11 October 1877
New York Herald (New York, New York), 11 October 1877, page 6

Here is a transcription of this article:

General Custer’s Funeral.

The obsequies of General Custer were at once worthy of his own distinguished services and of the gratitude of his country. The saying that republics are ungrateful is untrue, and originated in the fact that they cannot acknowledge as quickly as monarchies the heroism of public servants. But the American people never forget a hero, and this has been again proved by the devotion to Custer’s memory, crowned so honorably by the last tribute of affection paid yesterday in the funeral at West Point. The day was beautiful and thousands of people assembled to witness the solemn event. The ceremonial was properly entirely military in its character, and was the more impressive because of its dignified simplicity. There was no oration, nor was there need of any, for the draped flags, the muffled drums, the imposing procession, the still multitude of spectators, and, more than all, the bier upon which laid the mortal remains of one of the bravest of American soldiers, had eloquence deeper than any words. Within sight of the great military school where he was educated for the service of his country, by the side of the stately river he loved, in the sepulcher he had chosen, General Custer’s remains have found a last resting place. If it be dust to dust, it is consecrated earth where he is laid; and if ashes to ashes, so it is glory to glory. All that now remains for his countrymen to do in expression of their esteem is to place over his grave a monument that shall commemorate his worth as a man, the splendor of his career and the strange and tragic manner of his death.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors serve in the U.S. Cavalry? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.

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