Lt. John James Crittenden was a Kentuckian who died at Little Big Horn in 1876. Kentucky Life talks to the Center for Kentucky History about an artifact belonging to Crittenden that was lost that day, but later recovered.
Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led more than 200 men into battle against the Lakota at Little Big Horn in 1876, and not a single Army soldier survived. One of those killed was 2nd Lt. John James Crittenden of Kentucky. His story, however, doesn’t end on the battlefield.
At the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort, a pocket watch belonging to Crittenden has found a home. The gold watch was given to Crittenden by his father as a coming-of-age gift.
Crittenden had deep Kentucky roots. Thomas’s father and uncle were both generals in the Civil War; one fought for the Union, the other, the Confederacy.
Trevor Jones of the Kentucky Historical Society said Thomas would have heard all the war stories growing up in Frankfort. “I think his entire life was about sort of living up to those family ideals,” said Jones.
Thomas received an appointment to West Point in 1873. Two years later, however, he was forced to leave. “He clearly wasn’t a great student in the first place,” said Jones. “He had a lot of demerits, a lot of problems with discipline. And then for him to fail out was really sort of a black mark on him.”
His father’s influence, however, helped land him a spot in Custer’s 7th Cavalry. “If you were a young man, looking to live up to your family’s legacy, this was a great opportunity,” Jones said.
Crittenden had no official position with the cavalry at first, Jones explained. “He got a fairly non-glamorous infantry second lieutenant appointment, and he’d only been there a couple of months when they rode out into Montana territory.”
Crittenden was 22 years old when he died at Little Big Horn. His body, found close to his company, was identified because of his glass eye. His father decided that his son should be buried at Little Big Horn, where a monument for him was erected.
The Crittenden watch was lost. Thomas’ father wrote to newspapers in the Montana territory describing the family heirloom and asking that it be returned.
In 1880, Canadian E.F. Gigot was working at a Manitoba trading post when a man came in with furs, blankets, and a watch. Gigot bought the watch for $2 and began to investigate its origins.
“This is not a fur trapper’s watch. This is a gentleman’s watch,” said Jones. Gigot wrote to the watchmaker in Liverpool, England, and gave him the serial number. The watchmaker wrote back that a man named Crittenden bought this watch, along with a lady’s gold watch, in 1850.
Gigot tried several military channels and finally wrote to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman’s aide de camp wrote back and said they believed the watch belonged to John James Crittenden.
Gigot’s motive was kindness, said Jones. “He certainly wasn’t trying to get anything monetarily out of it. He just wanted the family to have this watch back,” he said.
Jones said the watch is a story of grief and loss. “The family wanted this watch back so badly to have some memento of their son,” he said.
The watch was loaned to the Kentucky Historical Society in 1949 and remains there to this day.