LEAD, S.D. — Vernon Davis kicked through the snow at a grave site in the West Lead Cemetery like a miner looking for gold.
He struck history instead and revealed the resting place of a hero.
“There it is,” Davis said. “I thought it was right about there.”
He leaned down to push away snow with his hand, exposing a metal plaque that read: “Peter Thompson. Medal of Honor. Indian Wars.”
Davis, a 79-year-old Navy veteran from Beulah, Wyo., read the words and translated them simply.
“There’s just something so special about this,” he told the Rapid City Journal. “He was a hero. He deserves more than this.”
Davis and others committed to history and historic cemetery preservation in the Black Hills intend to give it to Thompson, with the addition of a flag pole and flag, and a light that will likely be powered by solar energy and illuminate the grave site for portions of the year.
“Congress said your Medal of Honor winners should have a flag and a light at their graves,” Davis said. “And we’re going to get that done for him.”
It isn’t like the grave is entirely ignored now. On either side of the plaque, small United States flags stood in the snow one recent Wednesday. And a few feet away, another small flag stands near a more traditional headstone showing Thompson’s date of birth, death and enlistment in the U.S. Cavalry.
It also notes this attention-getter: “In General Custer’s Command.”
That’s Gen. George Armstrong Custer (who was given a temporary battlefield rank of major general during the Civil War but was a lieutenant colonel in the regular Army after the war), a controversial figure in history who died along with more than 200 members of his outnumbered command in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in what is now southeast Montana on June 25, 1876.
There is no controversy about Thompson, however, at least not in Davis’ mind. He was a hero, but not because of the men he killed. Rather, it was the many he helped save, Davis said.
“He was wounded himself, but he risked his life to get water for the wounded,” Davis said. “Somebody who saves others like that is a hero.”
And he deserves a hero’s grave.”
Thompson was with Custer’s detachment when the day began. But he didn’t die that day. He had fallen back with another soldier when his horse gave out.
“He was there that day,” said Jeannine Guern, another history buff working on the grave project. “He would have died, too, if his horse hadn’t played out.”
Instead, Thompson missed the massacre and joined other troops in continuing the fight. He exposed himself to enemy fire during repeated trips across open terrain to get water for wounded soldiers.
Davis and others committed to upgrades at the Thompson grave are planning a flag-raising ceremony and memorial at 11 a.m. June 22 at the grave site, which is on a hillside across the highway west of the high school in Lead. By then, they expect to have a new flagpole and flag and lights erected.
Extended relatives of Thompson are being contacted and might attend.
Davis, president of the Committee for the Preservation and Restoration of Ancient Cemeteries in Western South Dakota, is working on the event with Guern, a history researcher and past president of the Lawrence County Historical Society. They have plans, too for an overall revamp of the cemetery, which is owned by the Masons, Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization that no longer has a presence in Lead.
Guern is working on a grant to help pay for the cemetery upgrades, in cooperation with the owner groups. But that’s secondary now to that one particular grave, and the plan to add what Guern and Davis say a Medal-of-Honor winner deserves.
Thompson, who came to the United States from Scotland with his family as a child, served another four years in the U.S. Cavalry after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He then lived in Lead, where he worked in the Homestake gold mine for 18 years before ranching near Alzada, Mont. He died in Hot Springs in 1928.
Davis said Medal of Honor winners typically are buried in military cemeteries. But Thompson wanted to be buried in Lead, where he had worked the mine and made many friends, he said.
“That’s pretty special, when you think about it,” Davis said. “He wanted to come to come back to Lead to be buried near his friends.”