Book Review: Documenting the Weapons used at the Little Bighorn

Grandgaard book coverI previously reviewed a book on archaeological study of the Little Bighorn battlefield, which did an excellent and very insightful job of tracing the battle through tangible artifacts, including forensic tracing of different individual weapons across the field. I recently picked up another book on the battle (Little Bighorn to the Americans; Greasy Grass to the Sioux and Cheyenne). This work takes a very different approach to the history: following the stories from the descendants of the combatants who were there that day. The author, Wendell Grangaard, is a 53-year resident of the Dakotas and an avid historian. His work as a construction crew chief in the area put him in contact with many Sioux and Cheyenne, including (instrumentally) Benjamin Black Elk, whom he first met in 1967. Benjamin Black Elk was an iconic Sioux historian, and his father (a cousin of Sitting Bull) had been one of the warriors at the Greasy Grass.

Through Black Elk and others, Grangaard compiled a collection of battle accounts of that fight and the others before and after it. His interest in firearms led him to combine these oral histories with detailed research on the arms carried by both the tribes and the whites at the time. The result, in the form of this book, is a retelling of the battle with a focus on the arms used, and with numerous photos of the specific weapons carried, captured, and lost that day. More importantly, Grangaard’s lifelong friendship with the tribes and interest in their customs has allowed him to present the warriors’ accounts in an objective light, explaining actions like the mutilation of bodies and the use or non-use of captured arms from the battlefield. The Little Bighorn stands out from other battles because Sitting Bull had decreed that the weapons of the fallen whites should not be taken on that day, which made for a substantial dilemma for the warriors. Many took arms anyway, but they often treated them as the property of Wakan Tanka and kept them wrapped up and hidden. Guns captured at the Little Bighorn were rarely discussed or seen in public, unlike arms from other battles, which were treated as rightful and glorious spoils of war.

At any rate, Grangaard has done a fantastic job in this book of presenting the individual battle accounts with the event on the large scale, and allowing us to understand what the day was truly like for the Indian forces there. The book begins with some introductory explanation of Sioux and Cheyenne culture as well as US Cavalry organization. It then moves into brief descriptions of the events that led up to the Battle of the Greasy Grass, including the Fetterman Massacre (the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand) and the Rosebud Battle. Each of the 21 accounts which follow includes a map showing the warrior’s movement through the day, and also what is known of the man’s life after the battle. In more than one case, he is able to trace specific individual firearms from original issue to the Cavalry to their capture on the field and through to surrender on the reservations years later or to present-day ownership. The combination of macro and micro views of the fight from a writer with a nuanced understanding of both sides makes this a fantastic and engrossing read.

The book is not available on Amazon, but can be purchased through Abe Books or directly through the publisher, Mariah Press. Or you can do what I did, and pick up an autographed copy from the gift shop of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. But however you acquire it, this is an excellent book for anyone who is interested in firearms or the history of the American West – and if you enjoy both subjects, you will find few books more interesting than this one!

18 Comments

  1. The several seasons of field-work in the 1980s at the Greasy Grass/Little Bighorn battlefield where the artifacts could be used with a computer model to suggest how the battle proceeded, what weapons were used, etc. has become something of a model for battlefield archaeology.

    Similar techniques were used at a survey of the Palo Alto battlefield in the early 2000s too.

    There is an interesting book by historian Gump (no relation that I’m aware of!) called _The Dust Rose Like Smoke_ that tries to compare Little Bighorn/Greasy Grass and Custer’s 7th U.S. cav with the British defeat at Isandlwana in 1879.

  2. Have you read the reprint of the interview with the warrior Rain In The Face? I was reprinted in an outdoor magazine – IIRC, Field and Stream – some years ago. Not sure if it was F&S.

  3. I recommend Red Sabbath: the Battle of the Little Bighorn, by Robert Kershaw. Kershaw examines the Fetterman, Greasy Grass and Rosebud battle from the perspective of a conventional military force confronting an insurgent force with an unexpected will to fight and an unexpectedly sophisticated weapons.

  4. There is a book available for free through Google Books that has an account of he battle as told by American Horse, with his tongue loosened by whiskey. American horse gave no formal accounts of the battle to historians. e got drunk one night and finally “opened up”. His account recorded over 100 years ago so closely matches the recent computer renderings that it is scary!

  5. Many Indian rifles that were later surrendered are on display at the Browning Museum located on the Rock Island Arsenal.

  6. It seems that an inordinate amount of weapons of undocumented lineage sold on gun auction sites are claimed to have been used at that famous battle. Excavations of fired casings have enabled some of them to “forensically prove” that at least several such claims aren’t just rural legends. But something I’ve got to wonder about is this: forensic science being what it is (as least as much art as science) what happens to someone who throws down a six-figure sum to buy such a rifle from a RIA or James Julia auction — only to have experts a decade later, using improved technology, dispute its authenticity — an authenticity that the buyer paid a 50x or 100x premium for?

    The Little Bighorn battle is not only one of intense interest, but a notable “military” battle in US history where the weapons used by the winning side were largely undocumented. The major art auction houses in the world are said to invest considerable money to verify an artwork’s authenticity (though many would dispute their effectiveness) but it seems that in contrast, gun auctions are much more caveat emptor.

    • Good grief. The saddest part is that no American survived save for the one who was sent out on an errand elsewhere just before Custer and all the guys (and all but one horse) around him were filled with lead and mutilated… The Trapdoor Springfield was good in stand-off battles at long range (where most lever action rifles of the day had a hard time since they fired “pistol” ammunition) but once the Indians got to within revolver distance, Custer’s guys were screwed. Single shot rifles are TERRIBLE at fending off opponents who get up close and personal. And if I’m right, that’s when the cavalrymen whipped out their side-arms. The problem with that was when the revolvers ran out. With no quick reload or knife available (cavalry are issued heavy sabers, which are only good when slashing victims from horseback, not when the other team drags you off the horse and into the dirt), I assume that’s when Custer started to wish he hadn’t abandoned the Gatling.

      Did I mess up?

      • No, you pretty much summed it up.

        There was no heroic “Last Stand”, as the archeological evidence shows, just a series of small massacres as small (20 men or less) groups of cavalrymen, panicked and trying to escape with their lives, were surrounded, overrun, and killed, mostly hand to hand, by superior numbers of opponents who were much better equipped for, and skilled in, close combat than the cavalrymen were.

        The entire “battle” was over in about half an hour. The myth that it took longer comes from the fact that Reno’s surviving second section was pinned down for most of the afternoon and into the night by enemy sniping. They only managed to break loose when the reinforcements arrived the next morning, and that was mainly because the Sioux skirmishers had pulled out just before dawn, not wanting to find themselves in the same fix Custer had been in the previous day.

        BTW, Greasy Grass is not really comparable to Isandlwana. There, the Zulu had about 20,000 troops vs. about 1,800 British, an over ten-to-one numerical superiority. And contrary to Hollywood, the 24th Regiment of Foot was not “wiped out”; they suffered about 1,300 KIA while inflicting nearly twice as many casualties on the Zulu impis (regiments). The main body forming the front line suffered the heaviest losses, including Lord Chelmsford himself, which probably gave rise to the “wiped out to the last man” myth;

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Isandlwana

        A better comparison to Little Big Horn would be Majuba Hill, two years after Isandlwana. There, the Boers basically destroyed a 405-man detachment of the 58th Regiment and the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders, with only about the same number of men on their side. They killed 92 men, wounded over 140, and captured 58 for the loss of one dead and five wounded on their own side. It was the most one-sided defeat the British Army had suffered since the American Revolution and the War of 1812. (See “Concord and Lexington”, “King’s Mountain”, and “New Orleans”; Khartoum was still in the future at this point.)

        In the case of Majuba, armament on both sides was roughly equal. Simply put, the Boers were better tacticians;

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Majuba_Hill

        Which is also the point of Little Big Horn. By all accounts, Tashunkta Witco (in English, “Horse which is crazy”, i.e. Crazy Horse)was a much better combat commander than George Armstrong Custer.

        cheers

        eon

        • “Including Lord Chelmsford himself.” Actually, no. Lord C was not present during the fighting at Isandlwana, he was leading a separate force that was not involved in the battle that day. When news of the disaster reached London Lord C was relieved of command and replaced with Lord Wolseley. However, by the time Lord W actually got to Africa to relieve him Lord C had hustled up to Zululand and won the battle of Ulundi, shattering the Zulu military and forcing Chetswayo to surrender. All was forgiven.

          The 24th Foot was the sister Regiment to the Rhodesian African Rifles, a Regiment in which I had the privilege of serving.

          Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

      • The sword used by US cavalry at the time was the Model 1960 light cavalry sabre, which weighed only 2 lb 4oz, so not excessively heavy at all and a much better close combat weapon than any knife ever invented except at cramped spaces. I don’t know how much training on foot the US cavalry received with their swords, but the most important factor is that Custer’s men were typically outnumbered at the close combat stage, which is very bad unless you have trained to fight in tight defensive formations with your weapons. Only in movies people attack one at the time. Only infantry typically received such training, and with bayonets rather than swords in the 19th century. The native warriors also had spears, which in most cases are better weapons than swords for unarmored and shieldless combat.

        When you said “heavy cavalry sabres” you probably thought about the Model 1840 heavy cavalry saber, which weighed 2.5 pounds, affectionately known as the “Old wrist breaker” by US cavalrymen. That was fairly heavy sword for a single handed weapon, although far from unusable even on foot. For comparison, the medieval single-handed arming swords weighed about the same or slightly (1.5oz) less on average, and they were the most popular swords for several hundred years.

          • Perhaps the skill of feinting a lunge, where you trick your opponent into defending against a blow that never comes!

          • Correction: Feigning, not feint. In any case, saber fencing skills would do you no good against a mob unless you impaled one (in such a manner as not to kill him instantly) and used him as a shield!

          • I wouldn’t say that they would do you “no good”. Knowing basic saber fencing techniques would certainly help a lot, but the main problem would still be that typical sabre fencing in the 19th century didn’t include fighting in formation with other sword users (infantry officers were taught how to use their sabres alongside bayonetted muskets/rifles), nor did they include fighting more than one or at the most two opponents in front of you. Such skills became largely unnecessary after the 16th century in typical European style warfare.

  7. AA,
    Good question about validation and verification for authenticity. Let me tell you an odd story, but true…
    ‘Twas in the 1980’s and I was visiting my little brother in Lincoln, Nebraska. A hot summer night and we’re having a beer on the porch when the brother says, “Hey, you should meet my across-the-street-neighbor. He’s an interesting guy…”
    He calls out to his wife, “Hey, we’re going over to Doug’s house.”
    And guess who Doug is? Yup, Doug Scott, author of the archeology book on Custer at the Little Big Horn. He’s a personable fellow and shows us his top floor really, really interesting home office, replete with Old West Army uniform, period firearms and real-deal Native American weapons. I emphasize, Real Deal.
    How do I know? Among the period stuff in the room is a very expensive and modern comparator microscope. For those that don’t knonw what that is, it’s the instrument investigators use to compare bullets and cartridge cases to prove “this” bullet came from “that” gun. Analysis of the cartridge case verifies way beyond reasonable doubt that this particular cartridge case was fired from that particular rifle.
    “The Nebraska State police were kind enough to let me borrow this,” said Doug, “But let me show you something really interesting.
    He produces an original 1866 Winchester. “We got this from a Native American family reputed, as long as any family member could recall, that it had been at the Little Big Horn fight. We managed to find several live cartridges for it, harder to find, in fact, than the rifle itself. They don’t make .44 rim fire ammo much anymore.
    “We fired one off into a water-bath so the bullet would be undamaged and the began searching for its mate.”
    He installed the newly fired bullet into the comparator.
    “We found not only this bullet on the battlefield, but this cartridge-case not too terribly far away,” he said as he installed the 1876 fired bullet in the comparator.
    He fiddled a bit adjusting the instrument and then said, “take a look…and give me your honest opinion if you think this could possibly be a match.”
    Now I’ve seen some interesting and even unusual things in life, some even confounding, but few things can match what I saw through that comparator. My hair actually stood on end. It takes a pretty powerful object to cause that in me.
    “And that, Sir, would stand up in any court in the land,” said Doug Scott. And it certainly would.
    So there you go. That’s how verification can happen.
    And should you ever have the chance, like Waterloo, walk the battlefield. It clairifies exactly why things worked out the way they did.

  8. I had the pleasure of taking some forensic classes with Doug’s wife and got to meet him on several occasions. I was even invited to his house for a couple of university mixers. I can vouch that his man cave was extremely impressive and overflowing with Wild West/Frontier artifacts. He even had a cannon in his garage! Fascinating guy and I am glad that I had the chance to meet and talk with him.

  9. One of Wendell Grangaard’s auctions at Julia in Spring 2014 was of a ‘hand made tomahawk’ he claimed came from Little Big Horn battlefield & belonged to He-Dog which he used to finish off Custer & his men. Any knowledgeable collector would know immediately it was an African Axe–looks nothing like our tomahawks! How did he verify all this? Because of the 5 holes in the blade–seriously. That was it. As an authenticator of tomahawks I have little knowledge of his guns but there are many others questioning his stories of guns that were sold the month before without provenance & suddenly have reappeared with the same serial numbers purported to be from Little Big Horn’s battle with specific owners names in the next months auction at another auction house. Follow the money. http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2014/10/robert-farago/rock-island-auctions-distances-james-d-julias-fake-guns/

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