Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Were the Indians Better Armed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn?

Were the Indians better armed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn?  Yes and no says Richard Allan Fox Jr., author of Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Re-examined

Custer’s men were initially under no great pressure.  The many Indians who were eventually involved accumulated over time, and cautiously infiltrated up the coulees toward Custer’s command. Eventually Lt. Calhoun’s company deployed to disperse the infiltrating hostiles.  This set off an Indian counterattack, and the sudden and unexpected disintegration of the southern end of Custer’s line.  This disintegration resulted in complete panic and the collapse of the entire command in swift order.  (Fox, 287-288)

In Fox’s view it was the sudden disintegration of the southern end Custer’s line that resulted in disaster.  Custer’s men were armed with the single shot .45 Springfield carbine.  According to anecdotal evidence this carbine had significant problems with jamming, but Fox writes, “Archaeological analyses of cartridge cases…lead to the conclusion that extraction failure was not a significant factor in the defeat of Custer’s battalion.” (Fox, 242)  The Indians were armed with repeating Winchester rifles, but Fox tells us, “Range, stopping power, and accuracy combined to make the Springfield carbine technically superior to any repeating rifle of the day.  The long range Springfield effectively kept Indians at distances beyond their normal abilities as riflemen.”  The effective range of the Springfield exceed that of the Winchester by at least 400 yards.   The Springfield carbine remained the official cavalry firearm after the Little Bighorn and until 1893. (Fox, 251) Because of the rugged and broken terrain at the Little Bighorn, the Indians, armed with repeating rifles, were able to creep within firing range of the cavalry, which was unusual, “Thus, the repeater as instrument of shock, coupled with the liability of the single-shot carbine in close-in fighting, probably contributed significantly to demoralization….The shock effect was magnified by the likelihood, based on archaeological data, that the Indians had at least 200 repeating rifles.” (Fox, 253)




For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Paperback edition


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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

History and the Movies

What is the interaction of history, politics, and the movies?





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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

History's Worst Generals

Success leaves clues.  So does failure.  Some of history’s best known commanders are remembered not for their brilliant victories but for their catastrophic blunders. 

Throughout the centuries countless armies have gone down to defeat, succumbing to greater numbers, more advanced technology, or more skilled opponents.  A few armies have been defeated because of the blundering incompetence of their own commanders.  What are the elements of leadership failure?  A recurrent pattern emerges over the last two thousand plus years. 







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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Custer's Last Stand: Who Killed Custer?




Showdown at Little Big Horn by Dee Brown (1964)

     Dee Brown was a novelist and historian.  This book is a dramatic retelling of the battle as seen through the eyes of many of the major participants, military, civilian, and Indian.  The book is essentially a non-fiction novel, in which Brown puts words into the mouths of participants to make historical points.  For example, Brown has Captain French approaching Major Reno during the initial charge on the village and saying, “Winchesters!....Too many blasted redskins armed with new Winchesters.”  There are no new facts here, just Brown embracing certain historical assumptions through the medium of dramatic dialogue.
     What is new is Brown’s abandonment of the “Great Man” approach to history.  For Brown, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is not just, or primarily, about George Armstrong Custer.  Using eyewitness accounts, diaries, letters, and testimonies of participants in the battle, Brown embraces the historical perspective of the common man.  Significant too, is Brown’s willingness to embrace Indian testimony on an equal level with that of white participants.  This book anticipates the treatment of the battle in Brown’s more celebrated book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), in which he recounts the battle solely on the basis of Indian testimony.  In Bury My Heart Brown tacitly admits that Indian testimony can be contradictory, acknowledging at one point that no fewer than four different Indians had claims to killing Custer ( Rain-in-the Face, Flat Hip, Brave Bear, and an unidentified Santee warrior named by Red Horse).  Given the contradictions embedded in non-Indian accounts of the battle, however, Brown has concluded that it is reasonable to treat the Indian testimony on an equal footing.
     Brown’s use of the Indian perspective is a radical departure from previous histories written from the Anglo perspective of the battle and its aftermath.  Brown writes in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, “When the white men in the East heard of Long Hair’s defeat, they called it a massacre and went crazy with anger.  They wanted to punish all the Indians in the West.  Because they could not punish Sitting Bull and the war chiefs, the Great Council in Washington decided to punish the Indians they could find, those who remained on the reservations and had taken no part in the fighting.”  On August 15, 1876, Congress forced the Indians to give up all rights to the Powder River country and the Black Hills, maintaining that the Indians had violated the treaty of 1868 by going to war with the United States.  “This was difficult for the reservation Indians to understand, because they had not attacked United States soldiers, nor had Sitting Bull’s followers attacked them until Custer sent Reno charging through the Sioux villages.” (Brown, 297-298)  By writing from the Indian perspective, Brown reverses the importance of the roles earlier histories assigned to Custer and the Indians.  Custer is now merely the foil for the real heroes of the story…the Indians.

Paperback edition


Hidden Treasure in Virginia



The history of Virginia told through treasure tales about pirates, Indians, Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War raiders. The full text of the famous Beale Treasure cipher is included along with some sixty other legends.




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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Historic Civil War Blenheim: Fairfax,Virginia


Virginia Time Travel interviews Andrea Loewenwater from Historic Blenheim in Fairfax, Virginia.





A brief look at the impact of war on civilians living around Manassas based on first person narratives and family histories.



A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Stratagem 1861: The War for the Potomac




Virginia Time Travel interviews Robert Alton, author of the book Stratagem 1861 which describes the war for the Potomac River in 1861.







A brief look at the impact of war on civilians living around Manassas based on first person narratives and family histories.






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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Women in the American Civil War





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The National Civil War Life Museum




A brief look at the impact of war on civilians living around Manassas based on first person narratives and family histories.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Project Enlightenment – 18th century science reenactment






Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

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