Sigismund Sternburg Part Two - A Fatal Shot

Grave of Sigismund Sternburg
The grave of Sigismund Sternburg is at the Custer National cemetery

NPS (Wilkinson)

The Brush Corral
As commander of this small force Sternburg oversaw construction of a fortified brush corral where the livestock and soldiers would be provided a modicum of protection during the night. The corral was said to be 100 feet long by 60 feet wide. Green willow branches with their leaves left intact were strung on poles spaced apart every six feet. An opening was left on the brush corral’s south side, but placed across this gap was a wagon’s running gears. Inside the corral several military tents were erected.

Unfortunately, the corral’s location was flawed. The south side was only about 40 feet from Warman Creek, a good place for hostiles to hide until they made attempts to breach the fortification. This tactical flaw seems to be a strange oversight coming from a man with Sternburg’s military engineering background. Conversely, Sternburg had no experience fighting Indians and the materials at hand were less then desirable for construction of a proper fortification.

A Fatal Shot
On August 1st, 1867 after breakfast the hay cutters headed down the valley to continue their work. Several soldiers were strategically placed to guard the hay cutters while others relaxed in the corral. Around noon, the soldiers at the corral heard shots being fired.

They then noticed the hay cutters urging their mules toward the corral with large groups of primarily Sioux warriors close behind. Sternburg immediately recalled the soldiers he had posted in the field. The soldiers and citizens moved inside the corral, than laid down behind the logs and brush.

Finn Burnett, a civilian who was involved in the battle, would later state that Sternburg’s initial plans called for the party to fight the battle from rifle pits just outside the corral, but the frighteningly fast approach of the warriors made this impossible.

At this point, while the rest of the group lay flush against the ground, Sternburg according to Burnett “stood tall” refusing to take cover. Reportedly, Private Thomas Navin implored Sternburg to get down before he got shot. Sternburg grew angry at this warning from one of his subordinates.

With bullets and arrows flying in his direction, it was only a matter of minutes before a bullet struck Sternburg in the head, killing him instantly. The foolish bravery of Sternburg had proven costly, the group was now left to fend for themselves.

Always A Soldier
The rest, as is so often said, was history. The group, led by Burnett, with the aid of repeating rifles and breechloaders was able to hold off approximately 800 warriors. Help arrived in the late afternoon from Fort C.F. Smith. At the end of the day, another soldier had been killed along with several others wounded. The Hayfield Fight went down in history as a tactical victory for the twenty-five odd soldiers and civilians, but in the process Sternburg had been killed.

A day later Sternburg, whose body had been carried back to the fort, was given a funeral with full military honors. He was buried on cemetery hill, close to the fort. A multitude of his personal belongings were sent back to his family, including a Hebrew bible, sabre, and a photograph album. In 1892, the body was moved to the Custer National Cemetery at Little Bighorn Battlefield. He still lies there today, half a world away from his homeland, a soldier to the very end.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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