Discerning history through archaeology: the Custer battle

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Archaeology is a valuable tool for studying historic battles. The nature of a battle can be deduced from material remains using archaeological methods and reasoning, and without recourse to non-archaeological evidences. The spatial application of firearm identification analyses allows identification of individual movements and positions on the battlefield. Traditional analytical methods provide supporting data. Methodological analyses are focused within the parameters of a tactical stability/disintegration model. The results allow recognition of the temporal, spatial and behavioral aspects of a battle. Results of archaeological analyses are indispensable in evaluating documentary sources, since historical accounts of a battle can be expected to be incomplete, confusing and contradictory. The Custer battle provides an example. The malleable documentary base has allowed many differing interpretations of the battle. Analyses of material remains suggests that the Custer battalion disintegrated, that disintegration developed in the initial stages of fighting, and that thereafter there was little resistance to the Indian attack. Analytical results find confirmation in documentary sources which are deeply embedded in a confusing historical record. Contradictory written sources are rejected. The historical-archaeological construction of the battle indicates the Custer battalion delayed prior to attacking. Fighting during the delay was low-key. Poor judgment in assessing the tactical situation while delaying resulted in disintegration. Historical constructions of the battle which portray hapless soldiers driven, while on the defensive, to Custer Ridge and overwhelmed, plus Indian accounts which leave this impression, may be rejected. In fact, the historical-archaeological construction indicates the Custer battalion prior to disintegration was on the offensive. This construction provides insights into the strategy utilized during earlier stages of fighting which occurred outside of the archaeological study area. Such insights are not available from either material or documentary sources alone. Results of the Custer battle studies demonstrate the utility of archaeology in battlefield studies. Methods and modeling developed here may be used in historical analyses of other battles dating from the period of modern warfare. Results also demonstrate that the application of archaeology to the study of the past complements historical analyses. Both disciplines share common goals and are equal partners in historical studies. The process of amalgamating history and archaeology results in more complete and satisfying constructions of past reality.
Bibliography: p. 409-419.
Fox, R. A. (1988). Discerning history through archaeology: the Custer battle (Doctoral thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from https://prism.ucalgary.ca. doi:10.11575/PRISM/12147