The Truth About Little Big Horn

If you’ve never been to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, you should drop whatever you’re doing and … Continued

If you’ve never been to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, you should drop whatever you’re doing and go there right this minute. Among its many wonders is the Cody Firearms Museum, which was founded in 1976. In the early 1980s, the Museum received a Maynard carbine (used by the Confederacy in the Civil War) from a Nebraskan, who claimed that a Native-American ancestor of his had used it at the Little Big Horn.

Half the old guns in the West were allegedly used at Little Big Horn, so the curators put the Maynard aside and more or less forgot about it. Then, in 1983 a range fire burned the Little Bighorn battlefield right down to the dirt, and for the first time, a team of forensic archaeologists was able to explore the battlefield and, in the process, dug up thousands of expended cartridge cases, including Maynard shells, and other artifacts.

The cases went to the Cody Firearms Museum, and then to the FBI lab for examination. Then someone remembered the Maynard carbine, and sent it along for testing. And sure enough, some of the shells found on the battlefield came from the old gun. One of them might even have done in Lt. Col. Custer.

The forensic examination showed something else. One of the enduring myths of the Custer battle was that his troopers were massacred because their copper-cased Springfield .45/70 cartridges jammed in their carbines. Over 1,700 .45/70 cases were recovered, and just over .3 percent showed signs of being pried from a carbine chamber. The jammed-carbine legend was one of many that started because Americans at the time couldn’t tolerate the idea of a major military hero being whipped by “savages.”

The truth was best spoken by Sitting Bull. Speaking of Custer years after the battle, he said:

“He was a fool and he rode to his death. He made that fight, not I.”