Custer's heroic image collapses under investigation: Archaeologists have demolished the myths surrounding a legendary American battle. David Keys reports

David Keys
Saturday 14 August 1993 00:02 BST

ONE OF North America's most famous military encounters - the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 - was not the glorious last stand of United States legend, according to new research.

After 10 years of archaeological and historical investigations, a team of American academics has concluded that the 210-strong battalion commanded by 'General' Custer - in fact, he was only a Lt Colonel at the time - simply disintegrated under fire.

The archaeological evidence excavated from the battlefield - 750 bullets, 450 cartridge cases, nine iron arrowheads, three pieces of guns, scores of buttons and quantities of human bone (belonging to at least 33 people) - is published in a new book. It shows that there was no determined last stand and probably no hand-to-hand fighting on what, since the day of the battle, has been Last Stand Hill.

Instead, the evidence, gathered by the team led by the American archaeologist, Richard Allan Fox, reveals that Custer's men were engaged in offensive - not defensive - action when they suffered a series of catastrophic tactical disintegrations.

Applying forensic science techniques to examine tell-tale marks on spent cartridges and bullets, researchers were even able to track individual warriors and troopers across the field of battle.

The work revealed that the disintegration started in Company C while it was trying to clear Indians out of a ravine, half a mile south- west of what was to become Last Stand Hill. Instead of clearing the Indians out of the ravine, the troopers found themselves being shot at from a nearby ridge by substantial numbers of Indians armed with repeating rifles. Under this pressure, the company disintegrated and its members were killed.

Company L, which had been covering Company C from high ground 600 yards from the ravine killing field, then came under pressure and disintegrated. A few survivors appear to have fled to Company I, just 400 metres to the north and the Indians' attack was now concentrated on this sector, again mainly through sniper fire, not close combat.

Most of Company I were picked off, although around 20 Company L and Company I troopers succeeded in reaching Custer's 85-strong command post on what was to become Last Stand (or Custer) Hill.

It appears that Custer then sent five mounted troopers south in an attempt to get help. Partly to distract the Indians he also sent 40 men (Company E) - almost half his remaining force - on foot west into a small canyon called Deep Ravine. Company E rapidly came under fire and disintegrated - and the southbound mounted troopers never succeeded in getting through to obtain help.

Meanwhile, the Indians had begun to besiege Custer's command post - now only 60-strong. His men were picked off by Indian riflemen as they attempted to hide behind the carcases of their dead horses. There was probably no hand-to- hand fighting, and definitely no glorious last stand.

In Deep Ravine, nearly half a mile away, the remaining soldiers of Company E hid behind bushes in a vain bid to shelter from Indian bullets. A few survived marginally longer than their unfortunate comrades on Last Stand Hill.

Archaeologists and the traditional military historians agree that none of Custer's 210 men lived to tell the tale. The archaeology merely proves for the first time that there was no determined last stand. Custer's battalion simply collapsed like a row of dominoes.

The information produced by the past decade's archaeological and historical research also reveals that Custer's battalion met its tragic end while pursuing Indian women and children, who had fled from a large Indian village.

It had long been thought that Custer was intent on attacking the village itself. Now it appears that he had headed off in pursuit of its inhabitants. His task at the time was to force the Indian population back into a reservation.

Dr Fox's archaeological work has shed considerable new light on why Custer lost the battle. Custer's decision to disperse his 210-strong force to four separate locations spread over 250 acres of terrain appears to have been a major tactical error.

The archaeological material - the bullets and cartridges - have also confirmed that his troopers' guns were unsuitable for the battle that ensued. At relatively close range - 50m to 100m - the Indians' repeaters were more effective than the longer-range, single-shot carbines of the soldiers.

Moreover, some of Custer's troopers were raw recruits - and consequently of poor fighting quality. His men were also suffering from fatigue.

Although there was some criticism of Custer immediately after the battle, he was soon built up into a hero - the valiant leader of a valiant force that resisted 'to the last bullet and the last cartridge'.

The myth that Custer's battalion of the 7th Cavalry perished in glory was not a deliberate attempt to deceive - no troopers survived and so there could be no definitive white accounts of the engagement. And in the years that followed the battle, Indians who had taken part were fearful of the US authorities and unwilling to cast aspersions on Custer.

Moreover, the limited military criticism that did arise immediately after the battle was dismissed because it emanated from people known to have disliked Custer.

The heroic image was built up by the United States press and nurtured for decades by Custer's wife, who died in 1933. But in the year of the battle, 1876, America was celebrating its 100th birthday as a nation, and was certainly not in the mood for recriminations over Little Big Horn. It wanted a hero, and a hero it got.

'Dr Fox's book has exploded the myth of the last stand,' Douglas McChristian, the chief historian at the Little Big Horn battlefield national monument, said.

'It is the most revealing study ever on what happened during the battle. It is the first time a study of the engagement has been based on proper scientific investigations,' he said.

'Also of great importance is the fact that Dr Fox rediscovered forgotten Indian accounts of the battle, and a previously unknown Indian map of the engagement,' Mr McChristian added.

Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle, by Richard A Fox; published by University of Oklahoma Press; pounds 26.95 in the UK.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in