It’s among the most famous and controversial battles ever fought on American soil. At Custer’s Last Stand, in June 1876, the U.S. Army was outnumbered and overwhelmed by Native American warriors, along the banks of the Little Bighorn River. By the end of the battle, some 268 federal troops were dead.
But how many were killed and how many died at their own hands? Often-cited historical accounts tell the story of many Cavalry suicides, with the men choosing to shoot themselves rather than risk death and dismemberment at the hands of Native American fighters. Now, new research presented earlier in April 2018 at the Society for American Archaeology’s annual meeting raises more questions about this historic bloodbath.
Instead, said bioarchaeology researcher Genevieve Mielke, from the University of Montana, preliminary skeletal analysis suggests suicides among army troops may have been few and far between. “No doubt suicides happened among Custer’s men,” she told Science News, “but perhaps not on the grand scale previously suggested.”
A few months into the Great Sioux War, federal troops clashed with Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in southeastern Montana Territory. Gold had been found on Native American lands, and relations were growing strained. When tribes missed a federal deadline to move to reservations, tensions rose still higher. The U.S. Army, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and his 7th Cavalry, were sent off to confront them.
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According to historical accounts, the Army expected no more than 800 Native American warriors. Instead, they were met with as many as 2,500, to their 700 Cavalrymen and Scouts. It was a crushing, consequential defeat—though precisely what happened has often proved contentious.
Native American oral histories often assert that Custer and his men committed suicide when they realized they had lost. One account from Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne Indian, describes a chaotic scene up on the ridge: “Right away, all of the white men went crazy. Instead of footing [sic] us, they turned their guns upon themselves. Almost before we could get to them, every one of them was dead. They killed themselves.”
But archaeologists have often wondered at a lack of physical evidence to support the story. Mielke’s own analysis, reported in Science News, suggests something similar: Though 14 of the 30 written battle accounts from Native American fighters tell tales of Custer’s men killing themselves with revolvers, this doesn’t bear out in the scant figures available.
According to data on skeletal injuries of 31 of Custer’s soldiers, only three committed suicide by firing their gun into their head. Meanwhile, 22 soldiers showed signs of having been scalped, dismembered, or mutilated at the hands of their victors. Though the findings are new, the data is not and does not include the skeletons of Custer’s men. Instead, it comes from two projects dating from the 1980s and 1990s, where 7th Cavalry Soldiers were excavated and then reburied.
Mielke is quick to acknowledge that there’s still much that remains unanswered about this narrative. Though we may know a little more than we did, for now, “the actual prevalence of suicide during the Battle of Little Bighorn remains unknown.”