This 1878 rendering of “General Custer’s death struggle” was printed by the Pacific Art Company of San Francisco. Library of Congress

When Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led his men to slaughter at the Battle of Little Bighorn, one of the bloated bodies found at the site of “the most desperate fighting” belonged to an Army surgeon named George Edwin Lord.

Though it escaped attention during the many accounts of the famous massacre in 1876, Lord spent part of his youth in Auburn as the adopted son of a minister and was a student at Lewiston Falls Academy, the area’s secondary school in the mid-19th century.

A picture of George Edwin Lord as a surgeon in the U.S. Army. Denver Library Digital Collections

A graduate of Bowdoin College, Lord studied medicine after the Civil War and joined the Army after completion of his studies.

It proved a fateful choice.

Todd E. Harburn, a physician with a scholarly bent, takes a look at Lord’s life in a new book, “A Life Cut Short at the Little Big Horn,” issued in hard cover and for electronic devices by The University of Oklahoma Press.

Despite the thousands of volumes written over the years detailing the events at Little Big Horn and the men who fought there, Harburn’s surprisingly thorough and well-written book is the first to focus on Lord, who received scant notice even at the time.


The Battle of Little Bighorn, fought over two days beginning June 25, 1876, in what is today southeast Montana, was the most spectacular of the engagements between U.S. military forces and a group of native warriors during the Great Sioux War.

More than a third of the 700 members of the U.S. 7th Cavalry perished when native forces cut them off, surrounded them and wiped them out, including Custer and two of his brothers.

Lord, the chief surgeon, was the only member of the U.S. 6th Infantry assigned to go along with Custer.

But the doctor got sick, struggling to keep up as Custer’s forces moved toward Sitting Bull’s camp.

The day of the battle, Custer told Dr. Henry Porter to take Lord’s place with the troops. But Lord insisted on completing his mission.

“I am going with you,” Lord told Custer.


And so he did.


Red Horse, a Lakota artist, drew this rendering of the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1881. Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archive

Harburn’s research put together the pieces of Lord’s early life, helped along by a handful of remembrances published in the Lewiston Evening Journal in 1907.

An old photograph of West Auburn Congregational Church, the oldest in the Twin Cities. The building was erected in 1842. George Lord’s uncle, the Rev. Thomas Lord, was pastor of the church when it was known as the First Congregational Church of Auburn in the mid-1800s. West Auburn Congregational Church

Lord’s mother died eight days after his birth in Boston in 1846. At some point not long after, he wound up in the care of her parents in Massachusetts, who raised him until 1858.

At the age of about 12, Lord was adopted by his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Lord and his wife, Mary. The minister, a Bowdoin graduate, was Lord’s father’s brother. The family also had another adopted son, Thomas, and a couple of daughters, one of whom was likely adopted as well.

At the time, the Rev. Lord was the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Auburn — today’s West Auburn Congregational Church — and “a respected pillar in the community,” according to Harburn.


Both boys attended Lewiston Falls Academy, which educated the children of the leading families in Lewiston and Auburn.

Henry Packard, a schoolmate, told the Journal years later that George Lord “was clean, bright and full of life and energy” as well as “high-minded.”

Lewiston Falls Academy in Auburn,, where George Lord studied before attending Bowdoin College. Private collection

In 1862, after graduating the academy, George headed off to Bowdoin while Thomas signed up to fight for the Union Army as the Civil War heated up.

Thomas Lord lost his left leg at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but recovered enough to log a long administrative career for the Army.

George Lord did well at Bowdoin, graduated in 1866, and became a high school principal in Massachusetts. But a year later, he headed to medical school in Chicago.

He began working as a doctor for the U.S. Army after collecting his degree in 1871 and secured an appointment with its medical corps in 1875.


One of his assignments took him to southwestern Minnesota to provide “relief for grasshopper sufferers” following a plague of the now-extinct Rocky Mountain locusts that ate crops, swarmed buildings and even ate the clothing off people.

Lord never married or had any known children, but it wasn’t for lack of desire.

He wrote to Annie Hooper of Old Orchard Beach, who seems to have been a former flame, that he had “been engaged three times, three times jilted; and consequently my faith in the female portion of the human family is decidedly shaken.”

His two letters to Hooper, the only personal glimpse into his soul known to exist, left one sympathetic reader of Harburn’s book, C. Lee Noyes, wondering “about the angst of this lonely man as he rode to destiny” with Custer.

A 1905 lithograph depicting Custer’s last stand. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West


George Lord at Bowdoin College Bowdoin College

In June 1876, Custer’s troops were on the move along the small streams west of the Black Hills, searching for the camps of restive natives upset with ever-increasing intrusions into what they considered sacred land.


Lord was among the military men moving along Rosebud Creek, but he was having a tough time.

Capt. Frederick Benteen noted on June 23 that Lord told him after a long day’s march “that he halted alone some miles back, being completely tired out, broken down, so much so that he had given up all hopes” of catching up.

Lord “wanted nothing to eat or drink,” Benteen noted.

Harburn said one likely cause was simply fatigue and dehydration. But it’s impossible to know.

After another day’s march, with Lord still suffering, Custer offered to have him swap places with another doctor.

The physician who might have served in Lord’s place, Henry Porter, told a Minnesota newspaper two decades later that Custer came to him and said, “Doctor, I would like to have you go with me, as you are younger and a better rider than Dr. Lord, the chief surgeon. Porter agreed, then Custer went to ask Lord about the proposed change.


As Porter recounted it, Lord responded that he didn’t like the “contemplated arrangement.”

“I am going with you,” Lord told Custer.

Porter added, “The poor fellow in those few words saved my life and sealed his own doom.”

This is a 1903 painting called “The Custer Fight” that sought to depict the last stand of Lt. Col. George Custer and his men at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Library of Congress


The details of what happened to Custer and his men can never be known with certainty, given conflicting accounts from the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who survived and the archeological evidence compiled over the years.

What is certain is that Custer’s troops wound up on a summit, their horses mostly slain, as native foes surrounded five companies of increasingly desperate men.


Harburn guesses that Lord would have stayed close to Custer and the regimental staff, all of them found after the battle on what came to be called Last Stand Hill.

Book cover of Todd E. Harburn’s “A Life Cut Short at the Little Big Horn.” The University of Oklahoma Press

The biographer said Lord likely had little chance to tend to the wounded, though true to his calling, he may have tried.

“The desperation and hopelessness” of the situation, however, makes it probable that Lord “utilized his own revolver, not a tourniquet, in the end.”

“Anything less seems illogical,” he wrote.

In any case, “the end came quickly that Sunday afternoon as the soldiers were overrun,” Harburn said.

When Army comrades reached the scene, men who knew the slain were able to identify Lord among the dead, though for a long while he was listed in news accounts as missing.


His remains were never recovered. He is almost certainly buried in a mass grave on Last Stand Hill.

Lord’s brother Thomas in 1877 said that if he had been consulted, that’s where he would have wanted him buried.

A decade later, Thomas Lord wrote a letter about his family’s decision to donate his brother’s sword, uniform and more to the Army Medical Museum.

“My brother’s service was brief, but, as I understand, faithful & acceptable,” Thomas Lord wrote. “At least he gave his life in the service.”

The battlefield at Little Big Horn in Montana has become a national park. U.S. National Park Service

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