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New Insights into the Battle of The Little Big Horn

Speaker: Doug Scott

In association with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the American Civil War Round Table United Kingdom

Every summer visitors swarm over the almost treeless rolling countryside of eastern Montana to see Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. It is the ground where an event that looms large in part of American history is still wrapped in mystique, contention, and bafflement. In modern times battlefields have become ceremonial sites were people can see, touch, and experience an interpreted version of the past. They evoke drama, sacrifice, glory, and grief. Little Bighorn offers all that, and nearly every visitor arrives with some preconceived notions of what happened there on June 25, 1876.

American Civil War Round Table UK / Battles & Campaigns / Custer

Little Bighorn seems always to be in the public eye for one reason or another, but that was especially true in 1983 when a range fire burned over the monument's lands. Thanks to the fire a new opportunity revealed itself and between 1985 and 2004 archaeological investigations were undertaken on behalf of the National Park Service. These investigations yielded thousands of artifacts. Those artifacts and their carefully recorded locations became the basis for a reassessment of the battle story.

Spatial patterning of artifacts-recording what they are, where they were found, and studying what their relationship to each other might be-is a central tenet of modern archaeological research. This concept was applied as the fundamental building block to examine the newly unearthed physical evidence of the 1876 battle. The results revealed insights into the movements of individual combatants as well as the overall positions of Indians and Army soldiers.

Evidence to reconstruct the sequence o1 events at the Battle of the Little Bighorn comes in two forms. First is the historical documentation, which ranges from Army reports to oral recollections by survivors and their descendants from both sides of the battle. Another more recently available source is the body of artifacts recovered during the archaeological investigations of the mid- 1980s and early 2000s.

To understand the relative value and relation of the two forms of evidence, consider a criminal investigation. The historical documentation is like the testimony of witnesses, and the archaeological data is like the physical evidence collected at the crime scene. Historians are, in essence, detectives interviewing victims, suspects, and witnesses. Archaeologists are the forensic experts gathering physical evidence for detailed scientific examination in the laboratory. Such analysis is used to either corroborate or refute the testimony of witnesses.

Like detectives, scholars know that individual oral historical accounts -people's stories-should be suspect. Perhaps a witness did not remember correctly, or did not see part of the action, recounting only what others said they had seen, or was opinionated, or lied. Archaeological data, the physical clues used in forensic analysis, adds a wealth of information to the record of the past. Artifacts help form a more complete picture and unbiased view of the situation than oral accounts alone can provide. Artifacts do not lie

Perhaps, as detectives might, say, it can crack the case.

Gathering physical evidence at the Little Bighorn employed standard archaeological techniques augmented by the volunteer work over twenty years with nearly 250 metal detector hobbyists. This has resulted in the accumulation of over 5000 artifacts from the National Park Service sponsored investigations, and thousands more artifacts were collected by Jason Pitsch in his study of the Reno Valley fight and portions of two Indian camp areas. The result of these efforts is much new and previously unavailable data on the battle.

The core of the efforts was a metal detector inventory of the battlefield. Specially selected volunteers, experts in the use of detectors, walked about 15 feet apart covering all of the National Park Service managed lands (the Custer battlefield as well as that of the Reno and Benteen defence) during two five week periods in 1984 and 1985. Between 1994 and 2004 another 1500 acres of Crow Tribal lands, Custer Battlefield Land Preservation owned lands, and some private lands were detected and collected. These lands included some battle areas north and south of the main Custer battlefield as well as lands adjacent to the Reno/Benteen defence site, the area around and below Weir Point, and the lower reaches of Medicine Tail Coulee.

The field methods called for six to eight volunteers forming a detector line and then walking designated zones or transects until the over 1750 acre area was searched for artifacts of the battle. The search or inventory crew did not cover every square inch of the field, nor was that the mission. Rather, tests of metal detector efficiency coupled with standard scientific sampling procedures allowed us to determine that this spacing was optimal to recover a statistically valid sample of all metallic artifacts left on the battlefield, yet achieve the goal of leaving some of the site intact for future investigators, when newer and better techniques may allow other levels of inquiry into the battle.

The detector operators literally swept the area, swinging their machines across the battlefield. When their detectors beeped', they marked the area with a pin flag. Behind them came the recovery crew, also volunteers, and supervised by experienced archaeologists. These people would excavate cautiously using the archaeologist's tool of choice, the six-inch mason's trowel, searching for the object that caused the detector to signal. When found, the object was carefully uncovered and left in place. Finally, the survey crews came along, consisting of an archaeologist transit operator, a person to hold the prism pole, and a volunteer to record, number, bag, and collect each artefact. Using either a transit or a theodolite, these crews would set up on a pre-established datum or grid point and determine the angle and distance of the surrounding artifacts from that point. This crew would make notes on the depth of the artefact below ground surface, and in the case of bullets and cartridges, also note the orientation and the declination of the piece. Only then was the artefact collected.

Formal archaeological excavations were also undertaken at thirty-seven of the 252 marble marker locations. Markers that were erected 1890 to commemorate where it was believed that officers and men of Custer's battalion had died in battle. Even though the Army had removed the soldiers’ remains to a mass grave in 1881 many of their bones were left behind. Studies of those skeletal remains have given us significant new insights into how the men lived, there true ages, heights, physical and oral health, and how they died from bullet wounds, arrow, knife, and lance wounds, and the crushing force a stone-headed war club.

The metal detector survey located the majority of artifacts' including thousands of bullets, expended cartridge casings, and unfired cartridges. It became obvious even before analyses were complete that the Indians were much better armed than had been previously thought. Subsequent firearms analyses using the same forensic techniques employed in modern crime laboratories identified 47 different types of guns used by the warriors. Other Indian weapons included bows and arrows (inferred from metal arrowheads), knives, lances, tomahawks or axes, and stone-headed war clubs. All were identified from examination of the artifacts or from marks on soldiers' bones made by the weapons.

Indian arms included the .44 calibre Henry, .44 calibre Model 1866 Winchester, and the .44-40 calibre Model 1873 Winchester, all lever-action repeating rifles that could fire up to 16 rounds without reloading. In contrast, Custer's troops used the single-shot, .45-55 calibre Springfield carbine, as the Army would not issue repeating rifles to its troops until 1892. The carbine was more powerful and more accurate than the Indians' repeating rifles, but stopping power and accuracy of 210 Springfields was no match for 1500 warriors at least half of whom were probably armed with guns.

Indian arms also included the Army's Springfield carbine and Colt Model 1873 cartridge revolver as evidenced by the distribution of artifacts. Springfield and Colt cartridge cases were intermixed in some Indian positions with no other indication of army activity at those sites. These guns could have been captured from General George Crook's command during the Battle of the Rosebud eight days before, or in the fight against Maj. Marcus Reno's battalion earlier on the same day, or even just moments before from Custer's own men.

By using modern forensic techniques the number of individual weapons could be determined. Analysis of firing pin marks on cartridge cases indicate that at least 350 different firearms were in the hands of Indian warriors. This estimate is conservative, as groups of round balls fired from older muzzle-loading rifles, on which such techniques are limited due to lead oxidation obscuring individual characteristics, were counted as only one gun per calibre.

By using statistical techniques on this data, a picture emerged of how Indian forces were armed. If we assume that 1,500 warriors took part in the battle, again a very conservative estimate about 375 would have been armed with muzzle-loaders or single-shot rifles such as .40, .45, or .50 calibre Sharps and .45 and .50 calibre Ballards and about 200 with repeating rifles. The rest may have been armed with bows and arrows and a few old pistols and revolvers. The Winchester manufactured guns, readily available on the frontier of 1876, and for which there was no prohibition against their sale to American Indians, had an effective rate of fire of about 20 rounds per minute under ideal conditions, while the soldier could only expect to fire four to six rounds per minute. Custer and his men were outnumbered and outgunned on June 25th. Even using these minimal figures, it is starkly apparent that Custer's 210 men were outgunned two to one and the Indians' advantage in rate of fire was even higher.

Battle events in Medicine Tail Coulee and the cavalry's movement to Calhoun Hill, along Battle Ridge, at Keogh, Last Stand Hill, and the Deep Ravine Trail- as well as the development of Indian opposition to those movements - are some of the most difficult to reconstruct from the historical record given the conflicting views and interpretations held by many battle scholars. It is now, however, fairly well agreed by various scholars that Custer halted in the upper reaches of Medicine Tail coulee and divided his command into two wings, a right wing under his direct Command consisting of Companies C, I, and L and a left wing composed of Companies E and F under the command of Capt. George Yates.

Overall, artefact patterning and distribution gives the impression of soldiers fighting on Nye-Cartright Ridge, and in Medicine Tail Coulee, and then moving up Deep Coulee toward Calhoun Hill. The distribution of fired Army cartridge cases indicates some firing as the withdrawal continued, but it appears light. The distribution of Indian bullets also gives the distinct impression that the Army was under fire as it moved toward Calhoun Hill. And some of those bullets took their toll as demonstrated by the skeletons of soldier dead that have been found in the last 75 years.

In any case, archaeological and relic evidence is consistent with observations made by the Crow scout Curly, and the majority of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who remarked on a movement of soldiers to the ford and then a retreat under fire. In summary: A group of soldiers, perhaps a company moved down Medicine Tail Coulee to its mouth. There a light and probably brief action pitted soldiers on the east bank against warriors on the west bank of Little Bighorn River, with perhaps some combat in the river itself. After this skirmish, the cavalrymen withdrew under relatively light fire and moved up the east bank of Deep Coulee to reunite with the rest of the command. Shortly thereafter, the command was overwhelmed and annihilated. The historical documents, oral histories of the warriors, and the archaeological evidence all point to the warriors using the local terrain to advantage for cover as they fought in small groups. The warriors fired and destroyed soldier units who had deployed in skirmish order in the manner in which they were trained. The soldiers were spread out over nearly a half mile long front, and they were out numbered, out gunned, and out fought by the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors on that Sunday afternoon.

There is no end to speculation regarding the events at the Little Bighorn. Conspiracy theories abound, as do apology theories that seek to blame someone other than Custer for the epic defeat. Like any criminal investigation, the Little Bighorn battle has many witnesses and many suspects. The witnesses and the detectives point fingers at likely suspects based on their interpretation of the oral testimony and historical accounts. With the addition of the physical data from the systematic archaeological investigations an unbiased data set is now introduced into the equation. The artifacts were in the ground at Medicine Tail Coulee and along Deep Coulee, at Calhoun Hill, in the Keogh position, at Last Stand Hill, along the Deep Ravine Trail, other places outside the park boundaries. This physical evidence of the event allows us to carefully evaluate the witness accounts and critically analyze the detectives' theories. The archaeological evidence validates a number of oral testimonies and historical accounts. It also clearly refutes others. The physical evidence and the validated testimonies and accounts combine to support the position that the left wing did make the movement to the river ford at Medicine Tail Coulee, while Custer and the right wing were engaged on Nye-Cartright Ridge. The withdrawal from Medicine Tail Coulee along Deep Coulee and a reconvergence of the command at Calhoun Hill is clear in the archaeological record and further validates those sources that recall those events. Custer then placed Keogh about 300 yards, a reserve position in the rear of Calhoun, while he moved on with two companies. He managed to move beyond the park boundary before being pushed back to Last Stand Hill, probably through the site of today's Custer National Cemetery and the Visitors Centre. The fight may have lasted an hour or so, but it was a deadly and decisive defeat for the U.S. Army.

The Little Bighorn battlefield may be a ceremonial site to many today. Native Americans view it in one context, an epitome of victory in an otherwise lost war for cultural survival. Other Americans see the battlefield in ways that evoke drama, sacrifice, glory, and grief. The archaeological evidence does not change those images and meanings; rather it places the different meanings on a solid ground where each can meet to truly understand a past where cultures were in conflict.

After Doug's lecture, the floor was opened for questions. This session proved just as lively as the lecture....

1) Ambrose believes that the Indians appeared to be fighting in an organised role for the first time? The Indians fought in tribal sectional groups and chose whether to join a battle on a given day according to the portents and spirits. Sitting Bull had just recently cut himself in a ritual so he didn't take part in the battle. The Indians also followed the leader of their choice. They were also able to converge on the soldiers because even though they had the high ground, they were silhouetted.

2) What would have been the outcome if Custer had charged into the village? Don't know, but the outcome would maybe have been the same. Custer was outnumbered 7:1 and outgunned.

3) Benteen and Reno were isolated - why didn't they get wiped out? Reno had more men than Custer and was able to set up a good defensive position with ammo boxes and pack mules. Their suppressive fire kept the Indians at a distance.

4) There are few marble markers on last stand hill. Yes - there was no last stand. The trail of dead soldiers may lead to Custer moving West/ Northwest to find a defensive position.

5) Can the artifacts be traced in a time sequence? With great difficulty. There are one or two rifles that we can identify with a first shot, a movement and then a subsequent shot, but ballistics is difficult to determine.

6) Is there evidence of trooper suicide? No skulls examined have signs of the trauma linked with that type of gunshot wound.

7) Doug then continued. The work done has changed the concept and added detail to the story. The Indian stories appear to fit better (no direct US survivors). The Indians had more firearms. We are able to look at the evidence and say something happened right there.

8) What happened to Custer's body? His remains were found at Last Stand Hill. He was not scalped. There was a cut on his leg and he was shot in the left breast and temple. He was buried there on 27th June. In 1877, the officer's bodies were recovered and sent to Fort Leavenworth and elsewhere. Custer was interred at West Point.

9) How did the Indians fight? Exclusively on foot - ambush and run.

10) What is the scale of the battlefield? You can walk it in 30 minutes. Running Indians would have no problem in moving from one hotspot to another.

11) Doug's favourite Custer film? Not Son of the morning Star. You can't beat Errol Flynn and an ice-cold beer.

12) Where was the last stand? Probably somewhere along the south skirmish line One marker had 9 separate bullet types around it suggesting a converging fire.

13) The Indian losses were low - just bad shots or low ammo? No real answer. Some Indians were killed and some wounded. There is no doubt that a lot of the wounded would have not received proper treatment and would have died. On the US side, 25% of the troopers were new recruits and their basic training would have been very poor. Not much time was spent on marksmanship. The US army strength in 1876 was only 25,000 so Little Big Horn losses accounted for 1 % of the total US manpower.

14) What of Custer's reputation? It depends on whom you talk to. He is just one of history's characters. He made his decision and stood (and died) by it.

15) Derek Batten said he made his first visit in 1984 and was amazed at the progress the team had made. Custer had no children? Doug suggested that 4 years in the McClellan saddle might have had some effect on that. He also said that Brian Pohanka believed that whilst Custer was at West Point, his medical records show that he was treated with mercury for venereal disease. This may have had longer-term effects but this is just speculation.

16) Why was the battle over so quickly? The attrition rate meant that wounded men would be hors de combat along with any trooper coming to their aid. Dead and wounded men cannot fight so Custer lost out very quickly.

17) Where are the US weapons? The Indians carried away everything they could. The US army rifles had serial numbers but they weren't assigned to any trooper. Many collections have been searched and around 220 rifles were looked at with a ballistic match on 17 of them.

18) What about Garry Owen? From 1866 Custer wanted to build an esprit de Corps within the cavalry and the tune helped with this.

19) What was the situation with ammunition? Each trooper carried a box belt with 40 rounds plus another 60 in his saddlebags. There would have been extra on the mules. Unfired rounds were found so it can't be certain whether they ran out or not. The Indians would also have picked up rifles from fallen men and turned them on their owners. Upon his return to camp, Reno asked for 25,000 rounds to replenish his depleted stock (for 450 men).

20) Was Custer suitable for command? Promotion was based on seniority so he would have gone from Colonel to General over time. Was he good? Well he stayed alive and was victorious. He was also popular with his men. He wasn't the best, but he wasn't the worst.

21) Elaborate on the quality of marksmanship. Records indicate that marksmanship was generally poor. Only 10 rounds per month were given over to live target practice. The quality of the weapons was poor. In the main, the troopers were probably firing blindly.

22) There are a lot of officers at Last Stand Hill. Yes that would have been Custer's command unit, Custer, Tom and Cook plus the remnants from the other companies.

23) What happened after the battle? The Indians split up. Some went north to Canada. After the winter of 76/77 some carne into the reservations. Sitting Bull eventually surrenders and dies in 1890.

24) What about the Custer mythology? He had an excellent Civil War record hence the reputation. The press loved a winner. Sadly Kellogg was the first embedded reporter and the first journalistic casualty!


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