WASHINGTON — Historical accounts of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn report that many of Gen. George Custer’s 7th Cavalry soldiers shot themselves to avoid being killed by Native American warriors after the crushing defeat. But a preliminary skeletal analysis, presented April 12 at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting, suggests suicides were relatively rare among Custer’s overwhelmed forces.
“No doubt suicides happened among Custer’s men, but perhaps not on the grand scale previously suggested,” said bioarchaeologist Genevieve Mielke of the University of Montana in Missoula.
Just over 1 percent of the U.S. Army at that time, 268 soldiers, died in the battle in Montana.
Mielke reviewed 30 written battle accounts taken from Native American fighters and army soldiers in nearby regiments, and found that 14 described instances of Custer’s men killing themselves with revolvers.
Yet data on skeletal injuries of 31 of Custer’s soldiers indicate only three committed suicide by firing a gun into their head, Mielke reported. In contrast, 22 soldiers had skeletal damage consistent with dismemberment, scalping or other mutilations.
These data were previously published by two teams that excavated and then reburied 7th Cavalry soldiers who died at Little Big Horn. One project took place in the 1980s, the other in the 1990s.
Mielke did not have access to any skeletons of Custer’s men.
Evidence suggests that today’s soldiers enter military service at an elevated risk of killing themselves (SN: 1/9/16, p. 22). If that were true for 19th century soldiers, it’s plausible that many of Custer’s men would have committed suicide in the face of certain torture and death. For now, “the actual prevalence of suicide during the Battle of Little Bighorn remains unknown,” Mielke said. A larger study of deceased 7th Cavalry soldiers would be needed to estimate how many took their own lives.