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Fallen Custer Trooper Hears Taps--at Last

June 26, 1986|BILL CURRY | Times Staff Writer

CUSTER BATTLEFIELD, Mont. — In a solemn military ceremony that so long eluded him, a young American soldier known only as "Trooper Mike" was finally laid to rest Wednesday, 110 years after he fell in battle with George Armstrong Custer.

His remains had been overlooked in a previous mass burial ceremony in 1881, but on Wednesday, almost to the very hour that Custer was overrun in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a seven-member military escort, in rigid respect, bore him at last in a flag-draped container to his grave.

His actual name is known to none, and he was interred with the anonymous remains of 33 others killed during Custer's Last Stand--remains newly brought to light as the result of an extraordinary archeological examination of the Custer Battlefield.

'Deserve Our Respect'

"The unnamed soldiers honored here today are symbols of soldiers of all wars and deserve our respect and reverence," said John D. McDermott of the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. "Let us come to hope . . . that in future years we may come to fully understand and appreciate what happened here."

Already, the archeological effort here is offering new insight into the men and events of June 25, 1876, when Custer and 209 others were slain by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors as he rode to attack their Indian village.

"We're getting a much better description of the flow of battle," Douglas D. Scott, a National Park Service archeologist who supervised the effort, says of the fighting that spawned a century of myth, speculation and historic disputes over what happened at the Little Bighorn River that day. "We can get some idea of individual movement.

"We have perpetuated one of the myths: Last Stand Hill with Custer and 40 to 50 of his men may have been a last stand. Last Stand Hill may very well be one of the last places to fall."

Viewed as 'Crime Scene'

By meticulous plotting of bullets, casings and other battle remnants, Scott and others have, in essence, reconstructed the battlefield as a "crime scene," complete with ballistics comparisons that allowed them to chart the movement of individual weapons through battle.

The reconstruction more closely matches Indian versions of the battle than the Army's, Scott says, supporting Indian accounts that the 7th Cavalry fought bravely and was not routed, as some historians have suggested. "A running fight?" he says. "No, it was not."

But the team is also discovering facts about the individual men who died with Custer--including the fact that some shouldn't have been here at all because they were too young to enlist.

They have also found, Scott said, that the Indians who swarmed over the cavalry troops that day were better armed than previously believed. They had far more repeating rifles.

Seized an Opportunity

The archeological work here began two years ago, after James Court, superintendent of the Custer Battlefield National Monument, seized on an Aug. 9, 1983, prairie fire that had denuded much of the battlefield. That presented the opportunity for the first systematic search for battle remnants.

In addition, Court saw the opportunity to solve the riddle of the markers that had been placed on the battlefield supposedly marking the spots where men had died. "There were 260 markers," Court says, "but only 150 of the 260 markers bore some semblance of being right."

Archeologists found that many paired hillside markers actually represented one fallen soldier.

In what may well be the most extensive use of metal detectors ever in an archeological investigation, volunteers then spent the summers of 1984 and 1985 locating, unearthing and recovering 2,200 artifacts, 411 human bones and 200 animal bones.

Among the most surprising of finds was the nearly complete skeletal remains of the man dubbed Trooper Mike by a laboratory worker. Analysis showed him to be about 22 years old, 5 feet, 7 inches; he most likely was one of five soldiers in either Company C or L.

Wounded in Ribs

His ribs bore signs of two bullet wounds, and a bullet fragment was still lodged above his left wrist. There were cut marks on his hip and thigh bones.

Fragments of skull indicated massive damage from a blunt instrument.

Dr. Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who examined the bones says of Trooper Mike: "I would think the two body shots were incapacitating, maybe not lethal. The wounded were then dispatched with blows to the head. The last stage was post-mortem mutilation--dismemberment of the legs and thighs," a common practice of Indians at that time who believed that it would disable their enemy's spirit should they meet again in the next world.

Trooper Mike was found just below a place called Greasy Grass Ridge. Like the other enlisted men killed here, he was hastily covered with earth soon after battle, and cursorily reburied in 1879, after the elements had exposed the remains of many.

Created Mass Grave

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