The Mystery of Custer’s Horse, Vic, at the Little Bighorn
Like nearly all lore about Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, there is much controversy regarding the fate of Custer’s Thoroughbred, Victory, at the LBH. But claims have always existed that Vic’s hooves were robbed from his grave at the LBH by two Cavalry officers. Then, in 2005, two horse hoof candlesticks showed up at a London auction house, inscribed with the date: June 25, 1876.
Few historical events generate more controversy than Custer and his last battle at the Little Bighorn (LBH). Among the many controversies is that of the fate of Custer’s prized Thoroughbred sorrel he called “Vic” (short for Victory). This author does not claim to know “the truth” about LBH and the fate of “Vic.” But a fascinating series of events, including the sudden appearance of alleged LBH artifacts in modern times, invite conjecture about one particular theory.
Custer had two horses in 1876. “Dandy” was a fifteen and a half hand Morgan mixed-breed, a dark bay with white nose and elongated star on his forehead. Custer liked Dandy for riding rough terrain and for hunting because he was sure-footed and agile. But for speed and spirit, particularly riding into battle, he preferred the younger and faster “Victory,” a Thoroughbred sorrel with three white socks, dark tail and mane, and a white blaze on his forehead.
On the morning of June 25, 1876, some historians believe Custer rode “Dandy” up to the “crow’s nest” where his scouts had been observing the Little Bighorn Valley. Custer was informed that the Sioux had discovered a box of hard tack that had fallen from the pack train and further observed the 7th. Having initially planned to rest the regiment for the day, Custer altered his plans and decided to attack instead of waiting. He therefore switched his mount and was riding “Vic” when the regiment moved out.
“Dandy” survived the battle and lived to a ripe old age of 26. Libbie Custer eventually returned Dandy to the Custer family in Michigan where Custer’s father was photographed on him.
The fate of Vic was more bloody. Although some Sioux claimed to have captured Vic alive, officers in Benteen’s command identified Custer’s sorrel among the dozens of dead horses shot by Cavalry soldiers to create a rifle bulwark on Custer Hill. Some historians believe it is likely Custer gave the order and shot his beloved Thoroughbred himself.
This post posits a fascinating theory: that Vic was killed at the LBH, most probably shot by Custer and his men--with dozens of other Cavalry horses—under orders to create a bulwark for soldiers in a last-ditch effort to defend themselves. The theory continues. Captain Benteen showed up two days after the battle and identified Custer and several officers claimed they identified the body of Vic, as well. It is possible, that when the soldiers hastily buried the nearly 250 human casualties of the battle, they buried Vic, as well, near his master?
The theory doesn’t end there either. About a year later, the Army sent a detail to disinter the LBH victims and bury them in more permanent graves. The frontier photographer, John H. Fouch also took the first known photograph of battlefield, strewn with bones and horse skeletons. (See above.) Custer was disinterred and his body buried at Arlington Cemetery. It was during this gruesome expedition that two Cavalry officers, Captains Home Wheeler and John Bourke, claimed to have dug up Vic’s grave and sawed his hooves from his skeleton as mementoes. (In his critically-acclaimed, runaway bestseller about Custer, Son of the Morning Star, author Evan S. Connell writes of this incident. It was common in Victorian times to make inkwells and candlesticks using horse hooves as the base.)
Much later, Colonel Homer Wheeler became a very popular frontier author, in addition to his long Army career. In his popular 1923 book, Buffalo Days (I am lucky to have an actual copy of his book!), he writes on page 184:
[During the excursion to LBH in the summer of 1877] “We located the spot where Custer made his final stand. His brother, Tom Custer, ..., Custer’s nephew, Mark Kellogg,...and two or three of Custer’s officers were buried there. The remains of their dead horses were nearby. Captain Bourke and I cut off the hoofs of [Vic], the horse ridden by Custer, (a sorrel with three white fetlocks). Bourke had his pair made into inkstands and gave them to a Philadelphia museum. I placed mine in a grain sack and, being ordered out against the hostile Nez Perce in 1877 [against Chief Joseph], I left the sack in our wagons, which were lost.”
The legend does not end there either. More than a century later—128 years, in fact—two light colored horse hooves (the pigmentation of the hooves indicate the horse had white socks) mounted into sterling candlesticks showed up at a British auction house, Brightwell’s in Herefordshire, England, in 2005. (Brightwell’s was established in 1846 and is one of the world’s leading auction houses, serving many of Britain’s grand old estates and wealthiest collectors.)
The sterling silver encased hoof bases of the candlesticks bore the Roman numerals “VII,” embedded in both hooves. And the silver bases bore the date June 25, 1876, the date of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It is believed that the embedded VII’s indicated Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. But they could have had yet another meaning. When Wheeler and Bourke found the graves at the Little Bighorn about a year after the battle, Custer’s grave and that of his brother, Tom, were marked with a “VI” and a “VII.” Because the graves were so hastily and shoddily marked, is it possible the grave-robbing captains mistook Tom Custer’s grave marked “VII” for his brother George’s grave? And was Vic buried near his ill-fated master? We will never know...
“The Mystery of Custer’s Horse, Vic” was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on October Wednesday, October 13, 2021.
You may also be interested in these related posts:
• Custer’s Black Hills Expedition of 1874
• Veterinary Care on Custer’s Campaigns
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