Archaeology, History and Custer's Last Battle

Archaeology, History and Custer's Last Battle


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On the afternoon of June 25, 1867, an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians quickly mounted a savage onslaught against General George Armstrong Custer’s battalion, driving the doomed troopers of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry to a small hill overlooking the Little Bighorn River, where Custer and his men bravely erected their heroic last stand.

So goes the myth of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a myth perpetuated and reinforced for over 100 years. In truth, however, "Custer’s Last Stand" was neither the last of the fighting nor a stand.

Using innovative and standard archaeological techniques, combined with historical documents and Indian eyewitness accounts, Richard Allan Fox, Jr. vividly replays this battle in astonishing detail. Through bullets, spent cartridges, and other material data, Fox identifies combat positions and tracks soldiers and Indians across the Battlefield. Guided by the history beneath our feet, and listening to the previously ignored Indian testimonies, Fox reveals scenes of panic and collapse and, ultimately, a story of the Custer battle quite different from the fatalistic versions of history. According to the author, the five companies of the Seventh Cavalry entered the fray in good order, following planned strategies and displaying tactical stability. It was the sudden disintegration of this cohesion that caused the troopers’ defeat. The end came quickly, unexpectedly, and largely amid terror and disarray. Archaeological evidences show that there was no determined fighting and little firearm resistance. The last soldiers to be killed had rushed from Custer Hill.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806129983
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/15/1997
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 1,136,178
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle

The Little Big Horn Reexamined

By Richard Allan Fox Jr.


Copyright © 1993 Richard Allan Fox, Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-2998-3



The derivation of the word archaeology gives little evidence of its present use. —Carl Russell Fish

Battles are the laboratories of war. Military theoreticians have long drawn on experiences of battle to heighten preparedness for future conflict. S. L. A. Marshall, for example, analyzing the conduct of U.S. Army combat units in World War II, concluded that inadequate training techniques and too little attention to the psychological well-being of the common soldier severely hampered combat effectiveness. His ideas eventually led to reforms in the U.S. Army, which in turn produced demonstrated improvements in its effectiveness during the Korean conflict. J. Keegan's historical analyses of past battles, including the French and English conflicts at Agincourt (A.D. 1415) and Waterloo (A.D. 1815), as well as the World War I Battle of the Somme, led to important insights into conflict between various branches of the military (e.g., cavalry and infantry), into the individual soldier's will to combat, and into other trends in battle.

Marshall's analyses proceeded from actual combat studies; Keegan's came purely from historical studies of past battles. But there exist additional fertile and largely untapped venues relevant to the analyses of processes in warfare. In recent years, interest has surfaced in the archaeology of war. L. G. Ferguson, for example, excavated at Fort Watson, once a British outpost in South Carolina. Attacked in 1781 by American forces, the king's forces soon surrendered. The battle left a peculiar patterning in musket balls, which Ferguson revealed and recorded. From these patterns, and by locating the principal American position, he neatly deduced the strategy and tactics used to force the British to capitulate.

S. South and R. A. Gould have also highlighted the value and versatility of archaeology in warfare studies. Their works illustrate how patterns in artifacts of war can reveal much about behavior during wartime. South, in examining Ferguson's Fort Watson research, felt the contextual relationships of arms-related artifacts there perhaps represented a "Revolutionary War Military Battle Pattern" applicable to other Revolutionary War battle sites. Though he did not pursue the matter further, South intimated that such a battle pattern might be explained either in terms of a battle or within the context of "supply lines,logistic bases, military supply, types of arms available, etc." Each of these analytical domains is interconnected, and indeed, one might expect analyses at one level to assist in explanations at another.

Gould's interest in the archaeology of war seems to stem from his investigation of World War II aircraft wrecks. Drawing on differences in craftsmanship—differences recognized archaeologically—between aircraft engines made in the United States and Britain, Gould suggested that aviation archaeology might provide a material basis for inferring nonmaterial aspects of national behavior during wartime. In this case, he noted that compared with U.S.-manufactured Merlin aircraft engines, British-made Merlins preserved much better in an archaeological context. From that, Gould tentatively concluded that requirements of mass production in the United States superseded quality requirements and thus the engines reflected differences in wartime manufacturing standards, conscious or unconscious, between the two countries.

Building on this theme, Gould later argued that British recycling of both Spanish (Armada) and German (Battle of Britain) war materials provided an "archaeological signature" of defensive stress suffered by the British during both wars. The salvage and reuse, for example, of cannon and shot from Spanish Armada shipwrecks revealed an urgency experienced by the British in their defensive role. So too did the recycling of aluminum from German aircraft wrecks during World War II. Using the British experience, Gould proposed that the greater the defensive isolation of a combatant, the more adversary war materials, where available, will be salvaged and reused or recycled.

Gould further noted that defensive recycling, from an archaeological perspective, "will tend to produce a skewed sample of wreck remains," an archaeological signature of defensive stress, leaving only those wrecks in inaccessible or hidden locations and those too badly damaged for efficient reuse. In the case of defensive recycling, his general proposition is perhaps premature, for one can envision a number of variables, including inadequate wreck site inventories, that might skew analyses. Similarly, in his discussion of aircraft engines, Gould could not control for numerous depositional variables, including variations in soil chemistry, that might lead to differential preservation of aircraft wrecks.

Although aware of the limitations and the preliminary natures of their work, Gould, South and Ferguson recognized the value of archaeological resources in studying the scourge of humankind—warfare. These pioneering steps stand in opposition to Noël Hume's observation that through archaeology, "little can be said about battlefield sites." Such pessimism is rejected here. Archaeology is a useful tool for studying battlefield sites, and much can be said about battles in particular and warfare in general. This book is about history, but not history in the traditional vein. It relies heavily on archaeology, a unique and wondrous discipline that shares a common goal with history—understanding the past.

The fundamental tenet on which archaeology rests is straightforward enough. Human behavior is mostly patterned. People generally get the job done in a finite number of ways, each of which is more or less fixed by cultural constraints that channel and mold behavior. It therefore follows that the residue of human activities should also be patterned and should reflect the actions and events that produced the physical remains. Archaeologists exploit these links between behavior and artifacts in explicating the past.

War, though hardly a credit to humanity, is a distinctly human enterprise. Combat behavior is, from the archaeological perspective, no more and no less susceptible to analyses than any other form of human endeavor. Battlefields, the theaters for war, represent the sites at which armed adversaries engaged in combat. Armaments—weapons and equipment—are the implements of war, and few battles have been fought without them. It is thus not asking too much to expect that battlefields are replete with the remains of armament. These are the residues of warring behavior, the records of tactics and strategies, of decisions and responses, of successes and failures. Is it, then, not possible to investigate battlefield events using the remnants of armed conflict? Is it not possible to seek in the archaeological record processes that led to the results of a particular contest?

It is. Historical archaeology is a legitimate, even necessary, approach to the study of past battles. As the name implies, historical archaeology manipulates data from two sources—the written word and material remains. Historical archaeologists turn pages, not just the ground. The discipline, sometimes called historic sites archaeology, has been around for some time, but its application to battlefield studies is original.

Blending archaeology with history is analogous to criminal investigations. The analogy between detectives and historical archaeologists, developed by my colleague Douglas Scott, is instructive. Witnesses are important but so are clues provided by physical evidence of a crime. Detectives interview witnesses while others gather blood samples, fingerprints, and perhaps even the "smoking gun." This evidentiary partnership enhances the likelihood of obtaining a conviction.

In similar fashion, historical records and documents are tantamount to eyewitness testimony; the archaeological record contains related clues in the form of physical remains—artifacts. Checks and balances between the two data sets allow a more complete understanding of the nature of historical events. It is hard to imagine a police force that would not assemble all available evidence, or at least try to do so. So it should be with history, and that is what historical archaeologists do.

Battles throughout history span a time period measured in millennia—from remote times to Egyptian, Greek, and Roman wars, and to modern battles of the twentieth century. Although the face of warfare in human terms has remained constant, warring technology has changed dramatically through time. G. Dyer, and J. Keegan and R. Holmes, present excellent summaries of the technological developments in warfare over the ages, from bludgeons and lances to automatic rifles. Though the practice of historical archaeology is not restricted in time, so long as written sources are available, it is necessary here to limit study to the era of modern conventional warfare.

The modern era is set off in time by the transition from musketry to rifled, breech-loading firearms and their projectiles—self-contained, metallic ammunition. Widespread use of the new, improved weapons began during the American Civil War and can be dated roughly to the mid-1860s. This transition in firearm technology and its effects on the nature of battle are treated in more detail in part 2. It is sufficient here to note that in future references to battlefields, I mean those battle sites that date from the inception of modern conventional warfare.

One such site is the Custer battlefield in Montana, the scene of archaeological investigations in 1984–85. Events occurring there over a century ago are the centerpiece of this book, but the showcase here is historical archaeology. Some of the physical traces of battle unearthed during the mid-1980s expedition, of which I was a part, are put to work in an analytical role. What really happened during the Custer battle? The answer to that question has been more elusive than the wind. Now, archaeology helps capture that moment from the past.



Reports of soldiers in battle are often deficient. —Jan Vansina

Although archaeology is often perceived, in practice or utility, as limited to prehistory, it is not. Human behavior produces material remains, the domain of archaeology, no matter what the age. Today, archaeologists study garbage from Tucson suburbs, technology among Eskimos, slavery in the antebellum South, and the origins of agriculture and they explore even dimmer recesses of time—cultural developments of our prehuman ancestors. In no way is the practice of archaeology restricted temporally. But history, by definition, is. It is limited to a study of the past recorded principally in documentary form. So long as there are material remains available for study, archaeology is a legitimate partner in historical endeavors.

This study addresses three broadly conceived objectives predicated on this belief: (1) to propose an analytical framework designed to extract past behavior from material remains at battle sites; (2) to demonstrate the utility of this framework in practice; and (3) using the results to show that history and archaeology, when applied together, furnish sturdy bridges to the past—much sturdier than either discipline alone.

The analytical framework proposed here is unique, for it relies foremost on the archaeological record. Indeed, Gould, examining the potential in the archaeology of war, noted that archaeologists, on purely archaeological grounds and within the parameters of archaeological reasoning without reliance on nonarchaeological evidence, should be able to discern the combat behaviors that produced certain residues. As in any endeavor, this potential can be realized in varying degrees of resolution. In this book I show that differences in behavior under a variety of combat circumstances can be distinguished in the archaeological residues of battle.

To do so, I develop a theoretical model of combat, called the stability/disintegration model, that casts combat behavior within an archaeological framework. I design innovative methods to link the model with patterns in the material remains of battle. In this way, combat behaviors in time and space can be exposed, and battle events can be explicated and explained. Application of the analytical framework—the theory and the method—provides a solid archaeological foundation for studying battlefield events at battlefield sites dating to the era of modern warfare.

My laboratory is the Custer battlefield, now part of the National Park Service system. Custer Battlefield National Monument is located next to Little Big Horn River in what is now south-central Montana (near Crow Agency and Hardin). This site marks the scene of the Little Big Horn fight, which comprised several related but separate engagements. The fight took place in June 1876, during the American Indian wars period, an era of strife spanning the years between 1846 and 1890 that saw the eventual subjugation of the American West's Indian peoples. The Little Big Horn fight resulted in defeat for the U.S. 7th Cavalry regiment, including the deaths of over 260 soldiers, scouts, and civilians, and a monumental, if fleeting, victory for the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations. Some members of the regiment died on a field some four miles from the Custer battle site, but most fatalities, about 210, occurred at the Custer battle. In this confrontation, warriors rubbed out to the man a battalion of five companies led by George Armstrong Custer, then the 7th Cavalry acting regimental commander. Lieutenant Colonel Custer by this time had gained fame, not to mention a meteoric rise to the rank of brevet major general, during the American Civil War. Entirely because of his presence at the Little Big Horn, the Custer battle—the subject of this book—is today etched indelibly on the American consciousness.

In applying the analytical framework to the Custer battle material record, I set out to deduce behaviors—behaviors of the type defined by Gould—from material remains alone. Thus battle events are recognized and described principally on archaeological grounds. The sequence used in developing this approach to understanding Custer's last battle is of methodological interest. From the beginning, I knew certain historical data regarding the site location and the participants, and I had read other descriptions and explanations of the battle. I augmented this "common" knowledge with extensive research into late-nineteenth-century military tactics, as well as more general background information about the composition of military units and armament. Such data provided the basis for formulating and then applying the stability/disintegration model to the Custer battlefield archaeological record. In applying the model, and in assessing its implications, I proceeded with my basic data analyses along research lines customarily used by archaeologists.

My archaeological results provided the comparative base by which I evaluated and then incorporated the historical record into a historical-archaeological explanation of battle events. The process of weighing the archaeological knowledge against the documentary record led to a rather detailed construction of thisfamous episode in western history. Although Custer's final contest has entered the realm of American folklore—indeed mythology—there is to this day no real understanding of its exact course. Historical archaeology, I believe, succeeds in placing the events of June 25, 1876, in much clearer focus. This, I anticipate, will be of substantial interest to the many people enchanted by the events of that day.

But just as important, historical-archaeological analysis of the fight provides the opportunity to probe relationships between history and archaeology as vehicles to discover the past. Elucidation of these relationships constitutes the last objective of this book. Wherever a historical event has left physical traces, the full story of its history has not been told until archaeology has had its say. Under these circumstances, history and its methods alone are not sufficient to provide the most satisfying explanations of the past.


Excerpted from Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle by Richard Allan Fox Jr.. Copyright © 1993 Richard Allan Fox, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures,
Foreword, by W. Raymond Wood,
Part One. Opening,
1. Introduction,
2. Archaeology and Objectives,
3. About This Book,
4. Glances Forward and Back,
Part Two. Archaeology,
5. Models, Methods, and Patterns,
6. Fieldwork, Burials, and Distributions,
7. Custer Battlefield Archaeology,
Part Three. History and Archaeology,
8. Prelude,
9. The Calhoun Episode,
10. The Keogh Episode,
11. The Cemetery Ridge Episode,
12. The Custer Hill Episode,
13. The South Skirmish Line Episode,
Part Four. Defeat: Causes and Factors,
14. Prefatory and Immediate Causes,
15. Contributing Factors,
Part Five. Fate, Blame, and Strategy,
16. Fate versus Choice,
17. Fixing Blame,
18. Strategy,
19. The Whereabouts of Custer,
Part Six. Closing,
20. Conclusions,
References Cited,

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