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In Philly lies a casualty of the Battle of the Little Bighorn — and a question of duty

Second Lieutenant Benjamin Hodgson, of Kensington, was shot down on the Little Bighorn river on June 25, 1876, five days short of his 28th birthday.

This is the Laurel Hill Cemetery grave of Second Lieutenant Benjamin Hodgson, who was killed with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After the fight, his remains were temporarily buried on the battlefield, then returned to his hometown of Philadelphia.
This is the Laurel Hill Cemetery grave of Second Lieutenant Benjamin Hodgson, who was killed with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After the fight, his remains were temporarily buried on the battlefield, then returned to his hometown of Philadelphia.Read moreJeff Gammage

Some soldiers held dark premonitions ahead of the battle, imagining their own deaths. An Army scout began giving away his belongings once he understood the size of the Indian village.

Second Lt. Benjamin Hodgson, the son of a Philadelphia oil merchant, foresaw how he would survive.

Should he be wounded or knocked from his horse, he told friends, he planned to grab the stirrup of a passing rider. He would then be pulled to safety.

All but the last held true.

Hodgson, “Benny” to his friends, was shot down on the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876, five days short of his 28th birthday, lost in the merciless clash of forces that lives in the American imagination as Custer’s Last Stand.

Eight soldiers from Philadelphia were killed at the Little Bighorn. Seven are buried on the battlefield.

Hodgson lies on a hilltop in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a few miles from his family home in Kensington. A fresh U.S. flag adorns his grave. So does a worn, red-and-blue guidon, a replica of the one that flew the day Lt. Col. George Custer led Hodgson and more than 260 others to annihilation at the hands of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

On Memorial Day, the nation pauses to remember and honor members of the military who gave their lives in service to the nation. But what of men like Hodgson, who fought not in defense of country, but to dispossess native peoples of their land and their lives?

“I don’t think American soldiers who oppressed Native Americans should be honored, any more than Confederate soldiers should be honored for defending slavery,” said Oklahoma attorney Brett Chapman, a descendant of Ponca chiefs White Eagle and Horse Chief Eagle. “The excuse that American soldiers were just following orders during the Indian Wars is an excuse that is no longer acceptable. … They knew what they were doing.”

That question of responsibility looms now in Washington, as President Donald Trump considers Memorial Day pardons for American military personnel accused or convicted of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. It resonates in Hodgson’s hometown, where native peoples speak against the modern consequences of colonization, opposing the renovation of Columbus Square, which they want renamed, and the use of stereotypical Indian imagery to promote the East Passyunk neighborhood.

Hodgson was born in Philadelphia on June 30, 1848, the son of Mary and Joseph Hodgson, the latter a prominent businessman. He graduated from West Point in 1870, was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and assigned to the Seventh Cavalry.

He was small in physical stature, but his wry wit made him popular in the regiment and a personal favorite of Custer, historian Nathaniel Philbrick wrote in The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

By April 1876 he was at Fort Lincoln, in Dakota Territory, preparing for the Sioux Expedition. The mission was part of a larger government strategy to subjugate the Indians, to force nomadic Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples onto reservations and make them accept a stationary life of farming.

“The more Indians we kill this year,” Gen. William T. Sherman wrote in 1867, “the less will have to be killed the next war, for the more I see of them, the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers.”

On June 22, Custer led the Seventh Cavalry out of Fort Lincoln to pick up the trail of Sitting Bull, believed to be camped near the Little Bighorn. Time was pressing.

The nation’s Centennial International Exhibition was scheduled to open in Philadelphia on July 4, and Custer and several of his officers wanted to be there. A quick success in battle, and Custer would arrive not only on time but to the acclaim of his countrymen, author Evan Connell wrote in Son of the Morning Star.

It was also an election year, and Custer foresaw, Connell said, that he “would ride in triumph through the streets of Washington, like Alexander through Persepolis.”

Hodgson had his own vision, Connell wrote, where the stirrup of a fellow trooper would be his lifeline.

When bullets and arrows flew — an estimated 675 soldiers, scouts, and civilians challenging a village of about 8,000, including 1,500 to 1,800 warriors — some reeling troops splashed back across the river.

James Donovan, author of A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn, provides a comprehensive account of Hodgson’s fate:

As the lieutenant plunged into the river, his horse was shot from under him. Hodgson, wounded, tried to stand, his blood reddening the water. He grasped for the stirrup of a passing trooper — and missed.

“For God’s sake,” Hodgson cried, “don’t leave me here — I am shot through both legs.”

He grabbed hold of Pvt. William Morris’ stirrup with both hands, towed through the river toward the high bank on the opposite side. On the flats below the bluff, Hodgson was shot in the head and killed.

Villanova University history professor Paul Rosier said that Custer had no right to be on Sioux land that was protected by treaty and that the Army attack was “dishonorable.” But individual soldiers, then and now, have little control over their assignments in the service. Look at the nation’s divisive war in Vietnam as an example, he suggested.

“We should hold the politicians and military leaders accountable for these conflicts,” said Rosier, author of Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century.

Hodgson’s body was retrieved by friends and brought home to Philadelphia. His Laurel Hill grave site lies a steep 15-minute walk from the gatehouse. His headstone includes a broken column, symbolic of a life cut short.

Chapman thinks the grave should feature something else as well: an explanatory plaque, to offer a native perspective on the U.S. soldiers who went looking for trouble — and found it.

“They largely believed in the mission, which was fully rooted in white supremacism, as that was the foundation of the Indian policy of the United States,” he said. “A full and fair understanding of history will help Americans understand Native Americans.”