General Godfrey's speech published

At the ceremony honoring the Battle of the Little Big Horn held in 1916, 40 years after the fact, General E. S. Godfrey delivered an address. As a young soldier, Godfrey was a member of Major Reno’s command sent to the field three days after the battle.  

Godfrey spoke and the Miles City Star published his speech a few days later.

“The day after the arrival of General Terry’s relief column, and three days after the battle which we now commemorate, the Seventh Cavalry under Major Reno broke camp to march to this field to bury the dead.

“On reaching yonder hill, the highest point of this field, the command was dismounted to receive instructions. With the glint of the early morning sun, the inequalities of the ground were brought out in striking relief. 

“We saw in bewildered astonishment what appeared to be white boulders scattered over the field. ‘What are they?  Are those rocks?” These were almost universal exclamations as the troop successively arrived on the top of the hill.

“An officer raised his field glasses: in a moment, his arms dropped limp by his side and he said, with suppressed feelings, ‘My God, they are the bodies of the dead.’”

When we read about the battle today, and its aftermath, much of how that field appeared is based on the words of Gen. Godfrey. His first account of what he saw was published in January, 1892.

Edward Settle Godfrey was born in 1843 in Ohio. He began his military career as a private in the U.S. Army in the 21st Ohio Infantry from April to August of 1861. He impressed his superiors and was admitted to West Point two years later, graduating in 1867.

A year after serving on the burial detail at Little Big Horn, he served under Gen. Nelson A. Miles at the Battle of the Bear Paw. He was wounded but continued to fight on, leading to his receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions in 1877. The medal was awarded in 1894.

Godfrey went on to serve in Cuba during the Spanish American War and retired with the rank of Brigadier General in 1907.

When he died in 1932 at age 88, his obituary mentioned that he was “a survivor of the historic massacre of Gen. Custer and his men.” 

Godfrey’s speech on that afternoon in 1916 was fairly descriptive of what he saw on that burial detail in 1876. It was good deal more gruesome than would probably be considered acceptable today, especially since the occasion included women and children gathered around the family basket, but probably only the people closest to him heard the actual words.

He ended on a peaceful note. “When we came here 40 years ago, this whole region from Bismarck to Bozeman was a wilderness. . .and now on this 40th anniversary, I come to greet you in a land of promise and plenty.”

In the past century, that land of promise and plenty has developed in ways beyond what Godfrey could imagine but one thing remains the same: the view at the battlefield and the feeling of sorrow that still fills the air.