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.

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