‘Uncovering History’ takes a look at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn

Chris Banner

By Corene Brisendine

What actually happened at Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25-26 in 1876? A lot of people, both warrior and soldier died in battle. Beyond that, we are not so sure, even though authors over the years have published hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books, monographs and articles on the subject. Douglas Scott’s bibliography contains 276 entries. The Manhattan Public Library’s holdings of 18 titles on the Custer bears further witness to our continued fascination with him.

The day after the battle, Gen. Alfred Terry and his troops arrived on the battle scene and began hastily burying the soldiers, in most cases by digging a trench perhaps a foot deep or simply covering the body with soil dug from along side of it. Over the years since, remains have been reburied at various locations.  Custer’s body was transported to West Point and buried there with great ceremony in October 1876.

The warriors took their comrade’s bodies back to their villages for traditional burials, which is why so few of their skeletons have been found on the battlefield and why we do not have an accurate count of their losses.

Historians formerly depended solely on documents, but today, many also work with archeologists, anthropologists, geographers, oral historians, sociologists and other scholars in the arts, humanities and social and physical sciences. This gives them yet more ways to investigate history, including Custer’s last stand and combat history generally.

While people in the first burial party began picking up artifacts and innumerable people have done so since, most did it as an act of a collector getting a trophy, memento or souvenir and these articles are worthless as historical objects because they lack proper documentation. 

Use of archeological techniques to document discoveries did not begin at the Custer battlefield until the 1930s. Because of lack of funding, the activity dragged on without a lot being done until a range fire in August 1983 revealed many things that had long been forgotten. From this, the fields of historical archeology and of conflict archeology blossomed and today their techniques are used world wide.

“Uncovering History” tells of investigators using archeological anthropology to excavate the Custer battle site in a scientific manner. In addition to simply looking at anomalies in the terrain and monuments at gravesites, they used metal detectors and ground penetrating radar to discover all manner of artifacts.

About a third of Scott’s book is an exposition on the geological, environmental, and historical features of the general area from prehistoric times and on the evolution of research at the battlefield. It can be fairly interesting.

Scott devotes 73 pages to archeological techniques and to discovery of the artifacts and the chronology of the battles and 64 to a description of every skeleton found. His team found buttons, bits of uniforms, guns, buckles, tack, and, of course, soldier and horse skeletons. They also found innumerable shell casings and bullets, which showed the paths of the battles.

It can be interesting at first to learn what they found and where, how the skeletons were positioned in relation to each other, which bones were missing, how old the soldiers were, what physical shape they were in, how tall they were, their dental and health histories, what the life of a cavalry soldier was like, which weapons person on both sides used and other things. After a while, though, this careful itemization can become tedious reading.

In general, Scott’s findings agree with battle accounts and work done since but because of his meticulous work, we have gained new information and we can be more certain of what actually occurred.

Scott tried to identify individual skeletons but in most cases was only able to narrow each down to perhaps a half dozen possible names, which is still an impressive achievement.

While the warriors were called “hostiles,” “savages,” and worse in those days, whites of that era viewed warrior mutilation of soldier bodies as desecration; these ritual acts were a part of the Indian culture. They took place regardless of who the fallen were. As Scott explains, mutilation of the fallen enemy is a part of many cultures and goes back to time immemorial.

Scott includes several maps and aerial photographs to show us where battles occurred and where artifacts were found but they are not always easy to read. He would have done better to include more detailed ones to accompany the two chapters on his findings.

Informing the public of events and discoveries is a very important activity in all of this research.

Researchers and the National Park Service try answer visitors’ questions, to create interesting displays and have docents on site.

The Little Bighorn battle sites and museums are easily visited, because they are in a Crow reservation on I-90 about half way between Sheridan, Wyo., and Billings, Mont. Give them a look when you travel this summer.

Christopher Banner is emeritus senior music specialist at K-State and a Manhattan resident.

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