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Custer’s Ghostherders

By Neil Asher Silberman
Winter 1990 • MHQ Magazine

Battlefield archaeologists digging at the Little Bighorn have reawakened haunting memories and revived some of the bitter controversies connected with the Last Stand.

THE DESOLATE RIDGES AND WINDING GULLIES ABOVE THE LITTLE BIGHORN RIVER in south-central Montana provide an eerie backdrop for a sanctified place on our national landscape. It was here on June 25, 1876, that Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 troopers of the 7th U.S. Cavalry were surrounded and wiped out by thousands of angry Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Perhaps no other event in our history is more symbolic of the Indian-white conflict and of the vulnerability of American military might. And its final agonizing moments have been indelibly etched in the American psyche by the countless melodramatic paintings, dime novels, Wild West shows, and movie versions of “Custer’s Last Stand.”

Today, a dramatic new picture of that battle is emerging from the dry prairie soil of the Custer Battlefield. Since 1984, Dr. Douglas Scott, chief of the National Park Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Division, Midwest Archaeological Center, has been directing a series of extensive excavations. Finds of human bone fragments, flattened bullets, spent cartridges, and discarded military equipment offer raw material for a new understanding of the Custer myth.

Methodical sweeps by metal detectors and meticulous excavations have yielded thousands of battle-related artifacts, which have been carefully plotted on a master grid. Microscopic ballistic analysis of the recovered bullets and cartridge cases has led to the identification of dozens of individual Indian and cavalry weapons used in the battle. And because the location of each find has been registered with such precision, Scott and his colleagues have been able to generate an illuminating computer replay of the movements of the opposing forces that is quite different from the conventional interpretation of the events.

The unlikely juxtaposition of modern archaeological technology and the romantic Custer image has attracted enormous media attention. During the 1984 and 1985 excavation seasons, film crews and newspaper and magazine reporters converged on the site to convey breathless ac-counts of the archaeological discoveries. Yet, ironically, the publicity gained by the Custer Battlefield Archaeological Project aggravated long-standing tensions between Native Americans and whites. Even before the digging, in 1976 at the centennial of the Custer battle, a group of Native American activists appeared at the battlefield to express their contempt for the celebration. And in the summer of 1988, after the initial findings of the excavations had received widespread attention in the national media, another delegation of the American Indian Movement returned to the battlefield to gain some attention for their cause.

The demonstrators–from both the nearby Northern Cheyenne Reservation and the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota–placed a hand-welded plaque on the base of the monument marking the mass grave of many of the 7th Cavalry soldiers. In the angry, heartfelt inscription, this plaque proclaimed an alternative understanding of the Battle of the Little Bighorn “in honor of our Indian patriots who fought and defeated the U.S. Cavalry. In order to save our women and children from mass murder. In doing so, preserving rights to our homeland, treaties, and sovereignty.”

This graphic demonstration of Native American feelings offered an emotional counterpoint to the archaeological project, but it was not the main motivation for the recent continuation of the dig. The National Park Service staff at the battlefield had noted an alarming rise in reports of damage caused by visitors and, more ominous, illegal digging in the vicinity. Immediate steps had to be taken to protect the battlefield’s endangered archaeological remains. So in the spring of 1989 the archaeologists returned to the site for three weeks of excavation. Their goals were to retrieve the remains of a cavalryman recently reported extruding from the earth at the end of one of the public trails; to search for the remains of 28 missing soldiers; and to uncover a cache of military equipment that had been hastily destroyed and abandoned by a contingent of the 7th Cavalry about four miles south of Last Stand Hill.

Of course Scott and his staff recognized that they would have to deal with the modern repercussions of the Custer battle, as well as with the historical facts. At the Little Bighorn, archaeologists, Custer buffs, and Native Americans each have their own dearly held understandings of the significance of Custer’s Last Stand. These historical understandings are closely linked to concerns of the present. And when I went to Montana to follow the progress of the recent excavations, it seemed quite clear that the scientific methods and unexpected discoveries of the Custer Battlefield Archaeological Project reflect far wider changes in our national consciousness.

Just a dozen yards beyond the visitors’ center and its parking lot crowded with vans, flip-top campers, and huge RVs with out-of-state license plates, Last Stand Hill rises gently toward the enormous Montana sky. A squat obelisk of gray Vermont granite at the summit is inscribed with the names of the fallen cavalrymen, and at its foot is a mass grave that contains the remains of many of them. Although Custer himself is buried at West Point, the spot where he fell is marked by a white marble tablet–surrounded by 41 others–within a black wrought-iron fence. More white tablets, marking the places where the bodies of other troopers were found, dot the nearby ridges and extend toward the valley below. They lend a spooky, frozen aspect to the last fatal moments of a battle that was closely connected to contemporary developments in American history.

 

THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN WAS THE UNEXPECTED, IF NOT UNPREDICTABLE, outcome of a policy of westward expansion that had become irreversible as the United States reached its centennial year. The western frontier, that eternal Eden of seemingly inexhaustible resources and rich land for settlement, beckoned as a panacea for the severe depression that had gripped the country since the Panic of 1873. It seemed vital that this region now be opened for development-despite the explicit provisions of earlier treaties with the Northern Cheyenne and the Sioux.

The War Department’s plan for the 1876 campaign was efficiently deadly. Three columns of cavalry and infantry would converge on a suspected concentration of Sioux and Cheyenne–followers of the charismatic Sioux chief Sitting Bull–somewhere between the Powder and Bighorn rivers in Montana Territory. Contingents of Crow and Arikara scouts (traditional enemies of the Sioux and Cheyenne) assisted in the search for the “hostiles,” who were finally located in the Little Bighorn Valley in late June by the column spearheaded by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the approximately 600 men of his famous 7th Cavalry.

Custer was clearly anxious to engage his enemies before they had a chance to scatter, and on the morning of June 25, when his scouts reported the sighting of the huge Indian village, he ordered an immediate attack. Dividing his troops into four battalions, he directed Captain Frederick Benteen to probe upstream with one battalion to make sure that no Indians were behind them. At the same time he ordered Major Marcus Reno and another battalion to attack the village from the south. Custer retained command of the remaining two battalions, promising to offer Reno immediate support.

As Reno and his 140 men charged toward the village, they quickly discovered that the Sioux and Cheyenne had no intention of retreating. The village in the Little Bighorn Valley, concealed by the cottonwoods and the bluffs on the eastern bank of the river, contained approximately 1,000 lodges and stretched northward for some three miles. When Reno and his men charged the southernmost circle of tepees, they were met with a fierce counterattack by hundreds of warriors. Suffering heavy casualties and unable to mount a defense, Reno led a panicky retreat across the river to the steep bluffs above.

Before Reno’s precipitous retreat, Custer had ridden northward with his own battalions and had dismissed his Indian scouts from the imminent fighting, apparently planning to attack the village from the north. But the size, strength, and fearlessness of the Sioux and Cheyenne forces must have shocked him as they quickly poured out of the village to give battle and gradually encircle his men. The intensity of the gunfire, described by one of the fleeing Crow scouts as like “the snapping of the threads in the tearing of a blanket,” took a murderous toll on Custer’s men, who were forced into untenable, exposed positions. What happened then has remained something of a mystery.

While Reno’s battalion, now joined by that of Benteen, fought for their lives on the high bluffs farther up the river, the Sioux and Cheyenne relentlessly pressed their attack on Custer. Custer’s troopers could not hold back the Indian forces, who considerably outnumbered them. By late afternoon every man in his battalions was dead.

The beleaguered troops of the Reno-Benteen defense–four miles away–still maintained a desperate hope that Custer would return to help them (and their own failure to come to Custer’s assistance would be the source of continuing controversy). But two days later, after the sudden dispersal of the Indian village, they finally discovered what had befallen their commander and comrades. Arriving at the Custer battlefield to face a “scene of sickening ghastly horror,” they hastily buried 214 bloated, mutilated bodies and burned their excess equipment before they began their OW retreat.

As the news flashed eastward on July 5 to a nation that had just celebrated its hundredth anniversary, politicians and military leaders scrambled for explanations. A simple defeat of the army’s best and brightest by a horde of savages was too much for the nation to accept. Democrats hastened to blame the corrupt Grant administration; the Grant administration blamed Custer; and Custer’s admirers found ample reason to blame Major Reno for his hasty retreat from the valley fight.

But in the years that followed, as the emotions of the moment subsided, the massacre of the 7th Cavalry gradually took on the trappings of a national myth. The image of a heroic commander fighting to the death with his soldiers against bloodthirsty savages in the far Montana wildness became a symbolic mandate for revenge against the Indians and for further conquest.

Of course, there are always two sides to every mythic image. As the decades passed, the lessons drawn from Custer’s Last Stand gradually began to shift. By the 1950s, with the civil-rights struggle, and in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War and the rise of the Native American rights movement, the vivid symbolism of the Custer image was turned on its head. All that was once noble was now seen as evil, and Custer became the villain of a late-20th-century myth. In this version of the story, the ending was happy: He got what he deserved.

 

ALMOST ACCIDENTALLY, ARCHAEOLOGY ENTERED THE PICTURE. IN 1958, SOME EXCAVATION of the Reno-Benteen defense site was begun. Then, in 1983, a prairie wildfire swept across the Custer battlefield and burned off the thick ground cover, revealing bullets, cartridges, buckles, and even human bone fragments left behind by the burial details and hidden under the sagebrush for more than a hundred years. The extensive archaeological excavations that followed opened a new era in the study of the Custer battle. As always, historical understandings of the Battle of the Little Bighorn had modern implications. And the resumption of the digging in 1989 would continue to play a role in separating fact from fantasy in our understanding of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

From the very start of the excavations, the sensational appeal of digging at one of the most famous sites in American history brought a public outpouring of interest. Yet Doug Scott recognized that this project could have implications far wider than the study of Custer’s Last Stand. Few systematic attempts had ever been made to study the archaeological remains on battlefields as anything more than isolated relics, valuable to collectors and students of military equipment perhaps, but still subservient to contemporary battle accounts. Scott, trained at the University of Colorado as an anthropologist, firmly believed that the buried bones and bullets might serve as a useful check on the vagaries of the memory of the participants, or on the carefully scripted memoirs of officers with specific axes to grind.

Scott recognized that in order to distinguish the patterns of battlefield action, it was important to utilize the most advanced technological tools. Metal detectors had been used before to locate relics at the Custer Battlefield, by both unauthorized diggers and the Park Service staff. But never before had they been used to establish an overall pattern of artifact areas. So beginning with the 1984 season, Scott recruited dozens of volunteers in a wide-ranging effort. After a master grid was established, a crew of metal-detector operators scanned the surface, followed by volunteers who placed Small orange flags at the sites of all detected finds. Each artifact was then excavated and precisely plotted for both position and orientation. Since the majority of the finds were fired bullets and expended cartridges, ballistic analyses carried out later at the Nebraska State Patrol Criminalistic Laboratory provided the archaeologists with the raw material for an unprecedentedly detailed examination of the last stages of the Little Bighorn fight.

A distinctive pattern of artifacts did in fact begin to emerge from the plotted finds on the battlefield. The concentrations of spent army cartridges, discarded military equipment, and human bone fragments-representing the positions of cavalry troopers-were clustered in a large V-shaped formation, with Last Stand Hill at its apex. This suggested a clear historical conclusion: Even though Custer’s troops were substantially outnumbered, they had apparently attempted to mount an orderly defense. The Indian forces, for their part, showed themselves to be no less tactically minded, for the metal detector scans located seven clear Indian positions marked by expended cartridges of non-regulation weapons, impacted army bullets, and the split cartridges of captured army ammunition fired in the non-regulation guns.

Ballistic analysis identified 371 individual guns used at all the battle sites and thus provided the first detailed glimpse of the progressive stages of the fight. The picture that emerged proved to be a striking confirmation of Indian accounts: The initial assault on Custer’s battalions apparently came from the south and southeast–an area that the fleeing Crow scouts and later testimony by Sioux chief Gall indicated was the location of the first Indian attack. From the two Indian positions in this area, the archaeological team identified almost eighty individual weapons, suggesting the intensity of the gunfire that rained down on the retiring Custer troops. But the most dramatic indication of the cavalry movements came from the evidence of its own expended cartridges: Several shells found at the first point of contact matched others scattered behind the retreating men, and still others farther back toward Last Stand Hill, suggesting that they fell back under fire.

The archaeological findings seemed to indicate that for the most part, the fighting took place at long distance, with the Sioux and Cheyenne forces directing intensive fire from their protected positions at the exposed concentrations of cavalrymen. The evidence also suggested that after overwhelming the southernmost group of soldiers, Gall’s Sioux attackers shifted northwestward to support an advance from that direction led (according to later Indian accounts) by Crazy Horse and his Sioux warriors and by Lame White Man of the Cheyenne. Once again the patterns of the recovered cartridges were telling. Several individual Indian weapons could be traced as they moved from the initial point of contact on the south to intermediate positions to the west, finally centering on Last Stand Hill.

By the end of the 1984 and 1985 excavation seasons, it was therefore clear that the Sioux and Cheyenne forces were not undisciplined savages; the archaeological work supported the contention of earlier historians, such as Jerome Greene, that the Indian forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn were well armed and ready to fight. Even more important, it now seemed likely that a series of opportune tactical movements by the Sioux and Cheyenne, rather than a simple imbalance of forces, were crucial factors in the Custer fight.

Now in 1989, with the groundwork laid by their earlier excavations, the archaeological team returned to the battlefield with more specific questions and objectives in mind. One task was to continue searching for the remains of Custer’s troopers, for despite the reverence accorded the battlefield over the past century, the disposition of the fallen has been a source of continuing official embarrassment–and dispute. Nineteenth-century mythmakers were fond of evoking classical allusions in which Custer’s troopers met their deaths “as grandly as Homer’s demigods.” But as it turned out, the fate of the mortal remains of those fallen soldiers was not nearly so grand.

On the morning of June 27, 1876, when the survivors of the Reno-Benteen defense arrived at the site of the Custer massacre, they faced the unpleasant task of burying badly mutilated bodies that had lain exposed in the summer heat for almost two days. The chore was made even more difficult by the lack of proper digging equipment and the hardness of the dry prairie soil. So while the bodies of Custer and the other officers were placed in shallow graves, the remains of most of the troopers were covered with only a thin layer of earth or with hastily gathered clumps of sagebrush.

In the years that followed the battle, disturbing reports of exposed human remains on the battlefield reached the War Department in Washing ton. In the summer of 1877 and again in 1879, new burial details were dispatched to disinter the bodies of the officers for reburial elsewhere and to dig proper graves for the rest of the troopers, each of which was marked by a cedar stake.

By 1881, after the declaration of the site as a national cemetery and with the erection of the granite monument on the summit of Last Stand Hill, it was decided that the cavalrymen’s bodies should be buried together in a common grave. By that time, however, the original grave sites had become so overgrown that many could no longer be located, and in those that were found, the soldiers’ remains consisted of jumbles of disarticulated bones. The reburial of 1881 was therefore something less than complete. Small bones, uniform buttons, and personal possessions remained scattered all over the battlefield–not to mention the considerable number of soldiers whose graves were not located at all.

The story became even more complicated with the placement of small marble memorial tablets in 1890. Those tablets, meant to mark the original grave sites, were placed wherever the original stakes could still be found-and at other locations where the soldiers initially might have been buried, judging by such indications as depressions in the ground or clumps of suspiciously luxuriant prairie grass.

That the positioning of these tablets was only approximate is evident from the fact that 252 were eventually placed on a battlefield where only 214 fell. Yet for decades the tablets were used by historians as an important source of information about the last stages of the Custer battle and were believed to mark the places where Custer’s men were killed. One of the main objectives of the 1984 and 1985 excavations was therefore to dig around selected markers in search of bone fragments or personal possessions left behind by the reburial parties, in order to determine how closely the markers corresponded to the sites of the troopers’ original graves.

Like investigators at a crime scene, the archaeologists have carefully dug beneath the grass around 37 of the markers, recovering human bone fragments at almost all of them. While in some cases it appeared that pairs of closely set markers represented the grave of only a single soldier (and thus could explain the discrepancy in numbers), the excavations indicated that the placement of the majority coincided with the general location of the human remains, even if not all were precisely correct.

Even more intriguing were the conclusions drawn from detailed examination of the remains of more than 20 individuals uncovered in the digging. This analysis was undertaken by Dr. Clyde Snow, a nationally noted forensic anthropologist from Norman, Oklahoma, with the assistance of Dr. John Fitzpatrick of Cook County Hospital in Chicago, who reviewed the X-rays taken of all the recovered human bones. Their findings shed additional light on the progress of the battle and seemed to confirm the ballistic analyses. Snow’s report in the published results of the excavations said that the

available osteological evidence supports a scenario of the events as consisting of a brief firefight followed by the close-range dispatch of the wounded. It appears probable that the majority of the troopers were still alive but more or less helplessly wounded when resistance ceased and that many were finished off with massive crushing blows to the head.

Almost half of the human remains showed clear signs of slashing by knives, hacking by hatchets, or massive blunt force that resulted in the crushing of skulls. Early accounts of the battle had dealt at length with Indian brutality and had angrily argued for revenge. But now, in an age when enemies are never permanent and regional conflicts are matters of geopolitical strategy rather than colonial expansion, the archaeological team seeks to understand the meaning of the grisly mutilations as an expression of Indian culture rather than savagery.

Recognizing the rage that the Indian warriors must have felt as their village was attacked by the bluecoats, Scott suggests that “it is more appropriate to view mutilation from the cultural context of the Sioux and Cheyennes rather than the Victorians.” That context, he argues, may even have included the idea of preventing one’s enemies from enjoying the physical pleasures of the afterlife. Rather than seeing the cavalrymen as heroic martyrs to irredeemable savages, the modern investigators have tried to understand the cultural process by which “the mutilated dead at the Little Bighorn become symbols of victory to the culture that defeated them.”

The archaeologists are therefore reluctant to express value judgments on the battle; they see their primary moral obligation in recovering, if possible identifying, and facilitating the proper burial of all human remains. Some notable successes in this quest have already been recorded. Through facial reconstruction and the photographic overlay of recovered skull fragments with faded 19th-century images, the team has identified the remains of Custer’s scout Mitch Boyer and of Sergeant Miles O’Hara, who was killed in Reno’s disastrous valley fight. And a complete skull discovered in 1989 on the banks of the Little Bighorn River will soon also undergo facial reconstruction and comparison with period photographs, in the hope that it too might be identified and reinterred in the mass grave on the summit of Last Stand Hill.

That is not to say that the recovery of human remains on the Custer Battlefield is devoid of modern emotional meaning. In 1987 a visitor to the site happened to notice with dismay what appeared to be a human vertebra poking out of the ground near one of the markers partially excavated in 1984. Since additional human remains might still be buried there, and be endangered by the constant tramping of tourists, the team returned in 1989 to complete the excavation of this marker-inscribed, like most others, with the simple words U.S. SOLDIER, 7TH CAVALRY, FELL HERE JUNE 25, 1876. That task was relatively simple from a technical standpoint, yet the archaeological remains found there provide a chilling reconstruction of the final moments of a 7th Cavalryman’s life.

Scraping away the thin grass cover, the team exposed the human bone fragments left behind by the 1881 reburial detail: ankle bones, a vertebra, and splinters of a thoroughly smashed skull. Nearby were the instruments of destruction: an 1858 .44-caliber Remington civilian pistol ball (an outmoded but still deadly weapon of the Cheyenne and Sioux warriors); a .45-.55-caliber army regulation bullet (apparently fired from a captured army carbine); and most suggestive of all, a Colt .45 pistol bullet fired straight into the ground near the position of the body, possibly as a coup de grace. At the edge of the excavation were a few simple possessions that this young trooper carried at the moment of his death: a pocket comb of hard India rubber and a five-cent piece, dated 1876.

This was no demigod, just a young man, according to anthropological analysis, somewhere between eighteen and 35 years of age. Whatever his hopes may have been in joining up for a hitch in the 7th Cavalry, they were brutally dashed on that hot June day. The evidence of his wounds was clear in his excavated bones. The skull splinters represented a massive blunt-force injury to his face, which probably rendered him unrecognizable to the burial detail that arrived on the battlefield two days after his death. A cleanly cut cervical vertebra was evidence of even more horror–a clear sign that he had been decapitated with a single blow of an ax or tomahawk.

The shattered, partial remains of this trooper will be reburied in the mass grave beneath the monument, but 28 of his comrades still await discovery. An intensive effort to find them was made in 1989 in a deep and winding gully called Deep Ravine. The question of the missing men in Deep Ravine has been in fact one of the Custer Battlefield’s most intractable mysteries.

Two days after the battle, the original burial detail had found more than two dozen dead soldiers in Deep Ravine. Although they were identified by eyewitnesses as members of Company E of Custer’s command, the circumstances of their deaths remained open to dispute. According to some, the bodies were discovered at regular intervals down the course of the gully, indicating that they had attempted to mount an orderly defense. Others said the bodies were found heaped together at the head of the ravine-an indication that they had attempted to take cover or flee in panic from a battle that was nearly lost.

Whichever version was correct would color historical interpretations, but unfortunately the location of the bodies had been lost. By 1881 the site of the hasty 1876 burial was so completely obscured by the undergrowth in the ravine that no attempt to find and remove the bodies was apparently ever made. The few extra markers placed near the head of the ravine in 1890 were deemed a sufficient memorial to the missing detachment. But now, nearly a century later, the archaeologists were intent on finally solving the mystery.

The search, directed by Dr. Vance Haynes, Jr., of the University of Arizona, was ultimately unsuccessful, but the geological findings pointed to a logical hypothesis: The 28 missing men had probably fled in panic from the battlefield and were cut down by the attacking Sioux and Cheyenne at the head of Deep Ravine. Analysis of the sediments in the ravine indicated that more than six feet of thick, wet silt had rapidly accumulated over the last century, obscuring all surface traces of the original grave. At the time of the reburial detail in 1881, the human remains already may have been deeply covered, and Haynes recognized that the disposition of the bodies themselves may have caused this geological change. If, as he suggested, they were slaughtered together in this deathtrap–rather than being arranged in an orderly defensive line–their remains would have created a gruesome obstruction that would explain the abnormally rapid collection of silt.

Once again a modern image of brutal warfare emerges from the archaeological work. It was panic at their imminent death, not the orderly defensive plan of their commander, that had apparently led the 28 missing soldiers to flee the battlefield into the deep and twisting ravine. Their attempted escape was unsuccessful and, in all probability, resulted in a last stand no less horrible than Custer’s.

 

THE PATHOLOGY OF DEATH AND THE RETRIEVAL OF THE DEAD WERE NOT THE ONLY CONCERNS of the new excavations. The team was anxious to uncover what might legitimately be considered one of the most fascinating concentrations of artifacts ever discovered in the history of frontier military archaeology. At the end of the 1985 season, Scott and his colleagues had found this cache almost accidentally, about four miles south of Last Stand Hill. After their intensive metal-detector scans and excavations at the Reno-Benteen defense site (which substantially confirmed the survivors’ accounts of a desperate battle in which there was no practical possibility of rescuing Custer), the search was continued on the slopes below.

It was there on the battlefield that the metal-detector operators came upon an area that gave unusually intense indications of buried metal artifacts. A few trial probes uncovered a thick concentration of burnt leather, saddle fittings, personal possessions, and nails. But there were no human remains among them. This was clearly a dump of abandoned equipment, covered by a thin layer of soil that had washed down the slope in the intervening century. And a review of the memoirs of some of the survivors of the Reno-Benteen defense provided a suggestive account of its origin.

On June 27, 1876, after nearly two days of continuous fighting, Reno and Benteen’s troops sensed that the attacks by the Sioux and Cheyenne had abated, at least temporarily. Hastily burying their own dead on the ridgetop, they moved their camp downslope to a small plateau away from the stench of the unburied horses that still lay where they fell. With the withdrawal of the Sioux and Cheyenne from the valley, most of the troopers were dispatched to the Custer battlefield for the distasteful task of burying the dead. Others remained at the campsite to prepare for an imminent retreat. Many of the wounded needed immediate attention, and it was crucial that the decimated regiment not be slowed by all the gear they had brought to the Little Bighorn in their packtrain. As a result, they destroyed and burned their excess equipment.

That dump, precisely dated to June 27, 1876, and presumably containing representative types of the 7th Cavalry’s field equipment, offered invaluable information about the kinds and quality of equipment carried by the troopers under Major Marcus Reno’s command. But unfortunately, the dump was discovered at the very end of the 1985 digging season, and a full excavation of its thousands of artifacts was impossible at that time. In the years that followed, Doug Scott and his colleagues, though fully occupied with the analyses of the other finds, still hoped to return. Meanwhile, they kept the location of the dump site a carefully guarded secret.

By the winter of 1988 it was clear that the secret had somehow gotten out. News of the discovery gradually spread among collectors of western military memorabilia, and Scott was alerted to disturbing rumors that professional relic hunters were planning to dig the dump secretly. Indeed, Park Service officials noted an alarming rise in illicit activities in the vicinity. In 1988 there were eight reports of unauthorized digging at the Reno-Benteen defense site, compared to only four at the Custer Battlefield. Thus, the renewed excavations were meant to uncover and preserve the valuable evidence before it was lost.

Even before the renewed excavations, Doug Scott suspected that the cavalry’s equipment might provide an indirect insight into the political issues that lay in the background of Custer’s Last Stand. Although largely ignored in the popular mythmaking that had swirled around Custer for more than a century, the policy of the U.S. government toward the Indians of the Northern Plains was a matter of intense debate in 1876. Public opinion wavered between a desire to “civilize” the Indians and the more expedient path of wiping them out.

The Grant administration tended to favor missionary work over killing, in order to transform the Indians of the region into productive farmers who would not object to the railroads and the settlement of the land. Opposing him and his Republican political allies was a coalition of eastern industrialists and southern Democrats who wanted the army in the West to be given a freer and more violent hand. Not unexpectedly, the debate manifested itself in the question of congressional appropriations. Scott hoped that the quality and type of equipment used by the 7th Cavalry might provide an indication of the practical effects of this national debate.

From the paved visitors’ trail along the ridgetop, all that could be seen of this phase of the 1989 Reno-Benteen dump site excavation were a small nylon tent for storing equipment, a few shallow squares and a few diggers, and a dappling of small orange flags where the metal detectors had pinpointed buried finds. But the finds from the dump site proved to be plentiful. By the end of the three weeks of digging, more than 2,000 individual artifacts had been found. Volunteer specialists were able to identify staples, rivets, and buckles as saddle and harness fittings. Nails of varying sizes were recognized as coming from boxes containing rations and ammunition. Personal items were also retrieved: a tin camp kettle, mother-of-pearl shirt buttons, and various gun parts.

None of the equipment recovered thus far seems to be the redesigned models that had been authorized for army use in 1875. Custer’s famous 7th Cavalry, according to the initial archaeological findings, was equipped with refitted Civil War equipment that had already become obsolete. What role that may have played in the course of the battle is still uncertain, but months of detailed analysis still lie ahead. With the aid of computer plotting of the patterns of excavated nails, staples, and rivets, the team hopes to identify many more individual pieces of equipment that were burned or had rotted away. Scott and his colleagues are deeply intrigued by the question of whether the army’s best and brightest–so bitterly mourned as fallen heroes after their deaths at the Little Bighorn–were provided with the army’s most up-to-date equipment and arms. The anti-mythic implications of that question-even without its definitive answer-reflect a clear, late 20th-century perspective on the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The myth of Custer has already been subtly altered by the new information gained in the digging-in attempting to understand the larger political context of frontier military operations, in offering a graphic description of the battlefield violence, and in underlining the tactical skill of the Indian forces. Yet few modern Native Americans have taken solace from the archaeological findings. In the midst of the chronic unemployment, alcoholism, and poverty that plague the reservations of the area, many of the Indians of the northern Great Plains are now looking back to the Battle of the Little Bighorn from their own embittered viewpoint.

Ernie Robinson, vice-chairman of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, put it succinctly when I spoke with him at his office at the tribal headquarters in Lame Deer, about 25 miles east of the Custer Battlefield. “At the Little Bighorn, we were pushed to the point where we had to make a statement. It was a turning point in our struggle for survival, but it wasn’t only Custer’s Last Stand, it was our last stand, too.” And now, in the wake of the archaeological excavations and the attendant publicity, the Native Americans of the Great Plains are intent on promoting their modern-day vision of that bitter chapter in Indian-white history.

As early as the 1930s, proposals had been put forth–mostly from white people–to erect a monument at the Custer Battlefield to acknowledge the victory and the later bitter sacrifices endured by the winning side. None, however, ever amounted to more than a passing suggestion, due to the continuing official veneration of Custer as a martyred hero and to a reticence by Native American authorities to bring up the issue at a time of more pressing modern concerns. For some Native Americans, the very idea of a historical monument is foreign; the mass grave of the 7th Cavalry soldiers on Last Stand Hill and the 252 white marble markers scattered across the battlefield seem to be the most eloquent commemoration of what took place there.

Yet the archaeological excavations at the site have refocused attention on the Custer battle at a time when Native American attitudes are changing. At this date, a new plan to memorialize the Indian viewpoint-and the estimated 100 Indian casualties in the battle-has moved far beyond the suggestion stage. On the official recommendation of the superintendent of the Custer Battlefield National Monument and the director of the National Park Service, a commission of historians, civic leaders, and Native American representatives has assembled to oversee the planning and construction of an Indian monument at the site. A design competition has formally opened under the aegis of the National Endowment for the Arts, and plans have been formulated for the erection of the monument on the Custer Battlefield by 1992.

Despite the long-standing tensions between the Crow tribe (who are still remembered as the scouts for the 7th Cavalry) and the Cheyenne and the Sioux (the primary Indian participants in the battle), the projected monument has become a unifying symbol for the current political and economic struggles of all Native Americans. Naturally, the old antagonisms among the various Northern Plains tribes will not be erased easily by this symbolic gesture, but the new historical emphasis at the Custer Battlefield may play a part in reshaping modern attitudes.

Many ghosts haunt the ridges and ravines of the Custer Battlefield; in fact, when the first superintendent was sent out by the War Department in 1893 to occupy the lonely stone house on the ridge above the river, the local Crows called him the “ghostherder.” They believed that in raising the American flag every morning he was signaling to the spirits of the soldiers killed in battle to hasten back to their graves. Even today many Native Americans consider the archaeological search for human bones ghoulish and find it difficult to understand why the archaeologists would want to disturb the eternal rest of the dead. The recent discovery of the cavalryman’s skull on the banks of the Little Bighorn River, on land still technically within the Crow Reservation, has brought angry criticism from Gilbert Birdingrand, a local Crow landowner, and from tribal authorities.

Yet for the archaeologists-the modern-day ghostherders–the recovery of bones, bullets, and abandoned military equipment has justified their faith in the importance of battlefield archaeology. Their methods may have profound implications for the study of battlefields all over the world. At the Little Bighorn, they have shown that the tangible remains of conflict may be invaluable in confirming or refuting conventional historical theories, participants’ memories, and official battle accounts.

The Custer Battlefield National Monument-like the ancient sites of Troy in Turkey and Masada in Israel-remains the object of obsessive attraction, for it continues to offer a vivid backdrop to a still-potent myth. Though modern understandings may be changed by new facts about the battle, the event’s symbolic significance remains. Custer’s Last Stand did not end on that hot afternoon in June 1876. The struggle of whites to take over the West, and the struggle of Native Americans to resist it, is kept alive by the myth of George Armstrong Custer, whose troopers and Indian opponents, at least on a symbolic level, still stubbornly refuse to die. MHQ

NEIL ASHER SILBERMAN is an archaeologist and author with an interest in the politics of preservation.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1990 issue (Vol. 2, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Custer’s Ghostherders

 

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