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:

34 Comments

  1. A fascinating write-up on an equally fascinating chapter in the history of the United States and the Native American Nation. I’m definitely getting my copy — thanks for the review and recommendation, Ian!

  2. Somewhat related to the subject of firearms and Custer is that part of his command of Michigan Cavalry in the Civil War were some of the early users of the Spencer Rifle. As an officer with early experience of repeating rifles, its ironic to think that the role would in a way be reversed at Little Big Horn and his troops armed with single shots and the Native Americans armed with at least some repeaters.

  3. If you get a chance visit Rock Island Arsenal along the Mississippi River near Rock Island, Il. After the Indian Wars hundreds of Indian weapons were collected and stored at RIA. After the 1983 grass fire when addnl data and artifacts were collected someone at RIA had the idea to try ballistics testing on Indian rifles at the arsenal – attempting to match bullets found at Little Bighorn with bullets fired from rifles at RIA. Testing confirmed 80 +/- rifles in RIA’s possession were used at Little Bighorn. They put up a wall display of the rifles. The variety is amazing. Its been quite a few years since I was there but I hope the display is still there.

  4. I read the 1st issue having checked it out of the Huntsville AL library in 2002 .. It is an absolute must have ( My opinion ) for those interested in Cavalry history, the “Indian War’s” and of course the Springfield .45-70 (actually 45-55)Carbine as well as some interesting facts about the 50-70 Carbine as well. The statistical data debunks the myth about how “tremendous” number of Carbine’s extraction failures. It is also a great reference for those collecting the .45 Colt SAA. I purchased a cy years ago. (Library’s always seem to want the books back!!) Thanks Ian for letting people know about this jewel.

  5. Great read and excellent reference. (Another reference to get a good “feel” for the battle: The made for TV movie, “Son of the Morning Star”.)

    The archaeologists were also able to determine specific firearms that changed sides during the battle based on firing locations and empty cases. Of course, at the end, all firearms changed sides!

    Custer was probably not so much arrogant and brash, but rather an aggressive Indian fighter. Previous experience with the Indians indicated they would escape rather than do battle. Lacking battlefield intel of their sheer numbers, he tried to cut off their escape. In an abrupt change in tactics, this time, the Indians didn’t try to escape! I’m sure, for Custer, it had to have been one of those “Ah, $hit!” moments.

  6. As a native European i must protest on the comment that we proberly dident know this batle. I had 12 friends for lunch today, they all knew of Custer and this batle, some eaven knew some of the background.

    • Perceptions of Europeans thru American eyes are different than the way it actually is. But it must be also added, they are typically generous enough to allow us to catch up on subject in case we were lacking knowledge on the subject. This should be appreciated!

      I am from central Europe and people there are (those who care) lot more educated about American history that some Americans may themselves be. Just for curiosity – on my first trip to DC I came accidently across two Czechs (apparently on gov’t mission) who gave me detailed guidance thru Capitol plus relevant portions of American history. Each one could have taught history at high school. Most amazing; never underestimate Euro’s knowledge. Same might apply for some educated Asians.

  7. I used this fantastic piece of writing when working on my thesis on gunshot wounds in archaeological contexts. Really well written and well worth a read!

  8. Thanks for the recommend. I remember catching the last part of a (History Channel? Military Channel?) documentary on this several years ago, but never seeing the first 3/4 of it.

    Side note — when my wife was a teenager, a family vacation took them to the Battlefield. She is a bit fey and precog and has described it as the weirdest and spookiest place she has ever been. Absolutely refused to include it on our itinerary when we vacations through the region a decade ago.

    • That would have been the excellent series “Battlefield Detectives” which was either on Discover or the History Channel (before it was all aliens all the time). I saw this episode as well as one on Waterloo, which focused on the terrain and its effect on the battle.

  9. Another very good in depth analysis of the US Regular Army post Civil War to the early 1890’s is “Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay” By Don Rickey. It is devoted to the enlisted men of the regular Army during that period. The best of weapons are only as effective as the men that employ them, and this book goes a long way on providing give insight into men behind the 45-70’s, 50-70’s a Spencer’s. Dozens and dozens of first hand accounts of the life as an enlisted man of foot or horseback. The book address recruitment,equipment, pay, training (or lack thereof), campaigns and engagements, etc. Includes a few picture that rather dismisses the “movie look” of a 1800’s soldier; foot or cavalry. Author consulted with 300 Indian War period veterans. Twenty pages of Bibliography.

  10. I volunteered on an archaeological survey of the 8 May 1846 Palo Alto battlefield down by Brownsville, Texas. We used pin flags and GPS to monitor where all the artefacts were found for a computer model of the battle, following in the footsteps of those Little Bighorn excavations. We found lots, and lots, and lots of cannister shot, that is for sure! .69 cal. musket balls, bits of U.S. horse bridle, etc. One always turns up modern-day ammunition too: 9mm and m1 carbine bullets, .45 bullets, shotgun shells, etc. One of the archaeologists found a very corroded shotgun case head and tried to play a trick on me: “Look here: a brass uniform button from the 12th GA Georgia!” We also turned up a U.S. six-pounder solid shot. Thanks for the book recommendation, the forensics are really interesting.

    I’ll have to check out that RIA collection you guys mentioned up post!

  11. I traveled thru that area on my way back from Yellowstone park in Wyoming in 2008. What a beautiful piece on Earth! I just plain love it. Unfortunately my wife had developed medical problem (from insect bite) and unfortunately, we were not in mood to stop at couple of places of historical significance among them the local mentioned in the article. I bet the dramatic countryside must have added to drama of the battle. True epic event it was!

  12. On subject of bullet calibers used by natives; is it possible that some were traded over from Canada? I am referring specifically to note about .577 Enfield. There was lots of trade dealing done by early French Canadians who would penetrate deep into Midwest of current United States.

    • It’s definitely possible – probably, really. The book authors note that muzzleloaders are much harder to identify from fired bullets then cartridge guns, and they can’t make any realiztic conclusions about the .577, or many of the .50 and .45 muzzleloading projectiles that were found.

  13. Two things I’d like to point out :

    1. There are a lot of Europeans, Asians and other people who are actually more knowledgeable about the history of the United States than many Americans are — no offence intended, and certainly not a pointed criticism, just a fact of life. To be fair, the reverse, or variations thereof, is also true in many cases. For example, I have personally come across many instances whereby some knowledgeable American and Canadian friends have ended up having to explain the deep-rooted whys and wherefores of the modern Sino-Japanese conflicts of the 20th century in purely factual terms to both Chinese and Japanese acquaintances. In the end, I think much depends on individual circumstances and the willingness to open one’s mind, followed by the ability to think critically and correctly discern, as far as is humanly possible, fact from perception, regardless of ethnic background, nationality, creed, belief system or anything else. This applies to all and sundry, regardless.

    2. Denny brought up a potentially interesting point concerning the possible influx of ammunition supplies that may have eventually reached the Sioux and Cheyenne in his Sept. 20th 2013 / 2:24 p.m. post. Does anyone with in-depth knowledge of the era, eg., Ian McCollum, David Carlson, Mark E., Tom and Thomas, have more to add to this? Thanks very much in advance for your input.

    • Hi Earl, we are again hitting the same path….. and it truly amazes me. You are absolutely right – it is a matter of individual’s interests. I met couple of Americans who had surprisingly good knowledge of other places and cultures. Some were ‘natural’ travellers, some were ex-servicemen; kind of people I like to talk to. Besides, I am also interested in affairs relating to Sino-Japanese history and cultures.

      Now, one thing I wish to mention. In almost incredible way and in unexpected time in mid seventies, the American Embassy in CR had presented to Czechs exhibition named “American West”. It was sensational and people visiting there including myself were overwhelmed with impressions. There were pieces of artwork, maps, short movies, photography, artifacts from times of pioneers including weapons both native and settler’s. This kind of thing stimulated my own interest in America and its culture and history.

      • Hi, Denny :

        It’s great to be able to share our perspectives, and quite amazing to follow this pathway regardless of whether we agree or disagree. I am very grateful for this meeting of the minds among all of us — it is something that one can never put a price on.

        Thomas and Kevin RC O’Brien are very good examples of ex-servicemen who are well-traveled, intelligent, open-minded and have a great deal to share, much like yourself.

        That “American West” exhibition must really have been something. Did you get any photographs of it?

        • This was some 40 years ago, Earl. I had a brochure which I kept long time. Just considering this might have been considered a propaganda by government of the day makes me wonder how it could have happened. Actually, when I compare my (faint) memories of that event and what I saw on spot matches perfectly. I have seen in front of me vision of Indian hordes clashing with Custer’s cavalry like in day-dream.

  14. Earl & Denny .. you done lit a fire (hahaha) My thoughts: 1. I spent 46 yrs in US Army 26.5 in Special Forece /Socom orghanivations .. Team SGT from late 80’s the civilian with SOCOM to retired. Have spent time in 17 countries in Asia, Central & South America, the “Middle East” and Pacific Rim. 2. Married a beautiful small Okinawan lady in 1962, married 49 yrs and 11 mo. 3. What others think of us, have thought of us and why they think of us (Americans – America) in these ways is very complex and evolving. Recently my wife’s surviving family members came to visit Shizuki’s grave. All they knew of America was from the war, occupation, post war build up, my relationship with their sister and MOVIES. Her next youngest sister (born in a cave in 45) has NEVER been off Ishigaki Island (Shima)in 63 years. The first American Indian they saw was in Tucson Airport in 1800’s murals. Bringing them to my home (60 miles across open country) they wanted to know if Indians still attacked people. Shizuko, once talking about the day she and her mother surrendered .. she said Mikii .. we really cried cause we knew they were going to rape,kill and burn us”. The world we see and the world others see is not the same, and again I will say; truth is in many instance not as important as perceptions of what is truth. I believe this is the crux of honestly understanding the “America Indian War’s”. This is not unique to American history, or the “settling of the west”. The weapons we are interested and their use was in many many cases controlled by, dependent upon and determined by the perceptions by civilians of the Indian, and our battlefield commander and leaders in Washington that were Civil War veterans for the most part. When many times I would ask Shizuko .. “why do you think that? Answer .. Mikii .. I am Okinawan, not American.

    • Thomas, thanks for sharing your personal experiences and wonderful personal stories ; they speak volumes about our collective humanity. You are also absolutely right about the power of perception and its importance in life. There are so many people who do not have access to the privilege of perspective, so we must count ourselves as being incredibly blessed in that regard.

  15. I wandered this battlefield for many hours 8 or 9 years ago. it is no wonder the cavalry lost the engagement. the territory they chose to fight on was perfect for an attacker, not a defender. the criticism of the other cavalry that had taken up a position several kilometres away on higher better defended ground, is unwarranted.

    Custer split his forces and then made poor tactical decisions. i was there at the same time of year the battle occurred. the many ravines, gentle rolling terrain and long grass makes approach and concealment very easy. the cavalry should have exploited their mobility and reformed on higher ground, with one of the formations that had split off earlier. those troops survived.

    I had read previously several reports of this battle, but walking the ground certainly clarified my understanding of the reasons the indian attack succeeded. dont surrender your tactical advantages, choose the ground that you fight on and dont take your enemy for granted.

    • Very nice, it adds touch of authenticity. That carbine looks very well made; state-of-art for its time and development in small arms.

  16. Another thing, the trapdoor springfield had a problem with firing pins. And ammo was iffy quality too. The two don’t play well. A cartridge with no primer. A bad firing pin. If you can find it google had a book on google books that is called marksmanship published in 1919 talks about the army not liking early cartridge rifles and charging soldiers for each round. Gives the figures on failure rate and how much rifle training was given. Shocking how little.

  17. William If I may.. I’d highly recommend you acquire “An Army of Marksmen” by Douglas C. McChristian, 1981. Available on Amazon I believe. The Model 1873 Breach loading Rifle and Carbine Cal 45-70 was and still is a fine weapon and as with every weapon that was ever issued had “soldier” problems once it was placed in the hands of soldiers; in mass. Am I saying the 45-70 (45-55) Carbine was the best weapons that could have been issued technically… no probably not. But when we consider the factors that the “selection boards” most of them combat veterans, were required to consider, to the greatest extend was and still is .. money, we may come away with a little better idea of why the 45-70 was selected. This has occurred after every war .. a fact. Having two sons currently serving, one getting ready to retire in 16 months, believe me we are doing the same thing now .. but calling it “draw down”. And William, what to me is shocking, is that today few people seem once again to care or are willing to take the risk with our soldiers lives. I am sure many others out there will want to comment … I hope.

    • I have to agree with you. It often seems to feel as if professional soldiers are marked “In case of fire, break glass” and treated as such ; outside of that, a lot of people just don’t want to know and care little as long as their lives continue normally.

      I’m not being bitter, just cognizant of reality.

      • Exactly Earl ..I have a very dear and long time friend that is a very professional ammunition collector 1868 to current all under 34mm. One day while doing some trading I made mention of a particular weapon that used a certain cartridge and started to explain how the cartridge was developed first .. then the weapon to use it. He said .. “That’s nice Mike but I’m not so interested in the weapons.” When discussing weapons there are a lot of factors that we as collectors or researchers for knowledge about them should realize impact the final product .. and politics and money are but two; and which cannot be separated. Weapons systems cannot come into fruition without both of these two. As a German Col said during interrogation after the bulge, “You Americans are the fastest to learn, but also the fastest to forget.” I’m not bitter either, just disgusted with our inability to overcome the “not my problem” syndrome. Certainly the US is not and has not been the only nation struck by this mindset. I think there is a saying “you can pay now, or pay later, but eventually you will pay.”

        • Precisely, Thomas, precisely….and I am also in complete sympathy with your assertions that individual categories of any subject, firearms included, cannot be divorced from other categories because they are all inter-related. Without the “other” categories, no subject will ever be truly complete. The whole is only as good as the sum of its parts, regardless of how apparently painful, difficult, unacceptable, anathematic or distasteful those other parts might individually be.

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