Book Review: Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little BighornI’m sure all my American readers are familiar with George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, one of the more famous disasters in American military history. For our European folks, a bit of explanation may be helpful, though. In the summer of 1876, the US government sent out troops to force a large group of Lakota Souix and Cheyenne Indians onto reservations. Part of this campaign included the 7th Cavalry, consisting of about 700 men under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. On the 25th of June that year, Custer located a major Indian encampment in eastern Montana Territory, and attacked it without realizing (or being concerned about) its full size – which actually was nearly 10,000 including around 2000 warriors. Custer split his forces into several units to attack the encampment and prevent anyone from escaping, and he led a group of 212 men personally on the attack, despite being massively outnumbered. The result was his death, along with every last man in his detachment. Overall, 268 of the 700-odd men of the 7th Cavalry died on the field, and the Indians were able to escape north into Canada.

Since Custer’s entire unit was slaughtered, questions immediately sprang up about what had actually happened in the battle. Custer’s wife was quite active in creating and enshrining the legend of Custer’s noble and heroic last stand, and this PR campaign did much to drown out discussion of the true facts of the event. The battlefield was made into a National Cemetery and National Monument, and memorial stones placed at the locations where each of Custer’s troopers had died (they were all initially buried where they lay). Curiously, there ended up being 252 such markers placed on the site, despite Custer’s force having numbered only 212.

In 1983 a grass fire swept across the battlefield, clearing out the vegetation and scrub brush that had concealed the ground for a decades. A group of archaeologists took advantage of the opportunity to conduct what was by far the most thorough investigation of the site ever undertaken. They established a formal grid coordinate system and swept approximately 780 acres of ground with metal detectors at 2-meter intervals. Working for two full summers (1984 and 1985), they located and recovered thousands of artifacts – mostly bullets and cartridge casings. Each individual item found was exhaustively logged, including notation of its exact location and orientation. The items were then plotted by computer on a precise map of the area, allowing an excellent large-scale view of where forces on both sides were fighting throughout the battle. In addition – and part of what makes this study so interesting – the bullets and cases were subjected to modern forensic analysis. Based on their sizes and rifling patterns, it was possible to determine what types of weapons were in use during the battle, and in what numbers.

One of the lingering questions about the fight, and one I find particularly intriguing, is what weapons were used by the Souix and Cheyenne warriors. Were they armed with clubs? Bows? Muzzleloaders? Single-shot cartridge rifles? Modern repeating lever actions? And in what quantities? We know that the Cavalry used primarily Trapdoor Springfield carbines (although a few men had things like Remington sporting rifles), but what were they fighting against? Accounts from Indian participants are rather few in number, and not necessarily very detailed on these subjects. Well, the 1984/85 investigation found a tremendous variety of bullets and cartridge cases – everything from a .577 Enfield bullet to .44 Evans cases, and cases and bullets from more than 40 other types of firearms. The Souix and Cheyenne were in fact quite well armed, with a significant number of Henry and Winchester lever-action repeaters.

What gets ever more interesting is that they were able to identify individual firearms based on fired cartridge cases, and in several cases track individual troopers through the battle by tracking the different places their weapons were fired. This provides a tremendous amount of evidence about how the battle actually progressed, as the Indians progressively rolled up the Cavalry’s defensive line and ultimately wiped them out.

The archaeologists involved wrote up their results in book form, Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and it’s a seriously technical account of the project, at more than 300 pages. Their procedures and results are accounted in minute detail, and they specifically address a number of other persistent questions about the battle. For instance, one popular theory was that Custer’s men were crippled by extraction problems in their Springfield carbines, and left virtually unarmed. Well, the fired cases tell the story clearly of how many rounds had to be pried out of weapons with knives of other tools, and how many rounds suffered case head separations. Spoiler alert, it’s basically the same number for the Cavalry and the Indians. One interesting side note on that point is a group of problem cases that were found in reasonable quantity: .45-55 cases blown out and ruptured by being fired in .50-70 carbines. A number of Indian warriors started using captured arms, and mistakenly tried using the .45 ammo in .50 caliber weapons.

The project also involved a number of excavations of burial sites on the field, in part to attempt to resolve the discrepancy of the number of markers versus the actual number of Cavalry casualties. These sites were documented even more rigorously, and with interesting results.

Although I have never had a particular fascination with the Little Bighorn (seems fairly straightforward to me; Custer was an arrogant and brash fool whose lack of respect for his enemy got him and his men slaughtered), I found Archaeological Perspectives to be a really engrossing read. The firearms experts who worked on the project really knew their stuff, and a major portion of the book is devoted to analysis of the guns used at the fight. It is an outstanding resource for anyone interested in the arms of the Indian Wars or the Little Bighorn in particular. I took it on a recent trip planning to read it over several days, and ended up finishing it on the very first day. What more can I say?

Actually, the other thing I can say is that this is that happily, the work was reprinted in 2000, and is still cheap and readily available. My copy was from the 1989 printing, but the 2000 version is much more common, and available for as little as ten bucks: