How did George Custer die

Battle of Little Bighorn: Most US soldiers died at the hand of the Indians, not by suicide

According to a myth, many soldiers of the US cavalry committed suicide in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 for fear of cruel mutilation by the Indians. Wrong, says a young researcher. She has re-analyzed the earlier examinations of the bones.

For the United States Army, the Battle of Little Bighorn remains one of the greatest traumas to this day. On June 25 and 26, 1876, the 700-strong 7th US Cavalry Regiment, led by George Armstrong Custer, met around 2500 warriors of the Lakota and Dakota Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne on the Little Bighorn River in what is now Montana Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall guides.

On the evening of June 26, 268 American soldiers were dead and 55 seriously wounded, six more of whom died in the following days. The total death toll represented over one percent of all soldiers enrolled in the United States Army at the time. Custer was killed in the battle, as were two of his brothers, his nephew and a brother-in-law.

Even more than the deaths of so many soldiers, however, there is a grave suspicion like a dark shadow over the memory of that battle. Contemporaries already speculated that more men could have died by their own hands than were killed by the Indians.

14 out of 30 eyewitness accounts say that many of the men committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of the indigenous people. The anthropologist Genevieve Mielke from the University of Montana studied the bones of the dead found in the 1980s and 1990s as well as eyewitness accounts for her master's thesis in order to find out the truth.

Indians collected weapons from dead enemies

How can you find out after more than 140 years whether someone committed suicide or was killed? Especially since the weapons used by both sides were the same: The Indians not only shot with rifles that they had captured from American soldiers in previous battles, but also collected American weapons from their dead enemies in the Battle of Little Bighorn and used them against their comrades. Projectiles can be assigned to individual weapons using modern forensic methods - no one can say whose hand was on the trigger.

At this year's annual meeting of the Society for American Archeology, Mielke presented her research criteria. For example, the decisive factor is the caliber. The soldiers had both rifles and pistols. Technically, it is much easier to hold a pistol to your head than to position a rifle with a long barrel so that the trigger can be operated from the “wrong” side and the muzzle at the right angle sits on the skull.

Ultimately, the way in which the skull bone splinters as well as possible smoke traces on the bone also play a role. Because these criteria provide information about how far the muzzle was from the head when the shot was fired. Only a shot in which the muzzle was practically on the bone is a possible suicide.

Custer was found without his left little finger. The enemy warriors cut the heart out of his brother Tom.

Mielke also examined whether the body showed any traces of other violence. The Indians were feared for cruelly mutilating their enemies. Examples of this were abundant at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Custer himself was found with pierced eardrums and without his left little finger. The enemy warriors cut the heart out of his brother Tom. Many soldiers were scalped. And they cut the whiskers from the middle of his face. However, if a dead body shows evidence of such abuse, it is unlikely that it belongs to a suicide.

The fear of falling alive into the hands of the Indians actually drove many American soldiers to suicide. Did this also apply to the dead of Little Bighorn? Apparently not as often as the historical reports would suggest. Of the 31 dead from the two excavations, Mielke was only able to identify clear injuries in three. By contrast, 22 of the dead showed signs of abuse. However, the young anthropologist could not take the bones into her own hands - they were buried again a long time ago.

Mielke had to rely on the investigation reports of her colleagues who looked at the remains in 1983 and 1997. "I actually expected to find more evidence of suicide," says Mielke. "There were undoubtedly suicides among Custer's men, but possibly not to the extent described."

Debate about suicide in US Army

"It is certainly sometimes frustrating to work with old photos instead of the bones themselves, but in this case a new exhumation would probably not have led to different conclusions," says Eilin Jopp-van Well, forensic anthropologist at the University Medical Center Hamburg Eppendorf. “There is no longer any tissue on the skulls anyway. And you don't know what damage they might have suffered when they were reburied. "

Genevieve Mielke hopes her work will also spark a debate about suicide in the US Army. In 2009 there were 21.7 suicides for every 100,000 soldiers. "The subject of suicide in the military is a taboo, even if it is still very topical," she says. "The discussion of suicides in the Army, whether in 1876 or 2018, will hopefully draw attention to this ubiquitous problem."