Fox describes these movements as supporting a downstream reconnaissance by the Left Wing while waiting for expected reinforcements. He describes how Custer's famous written order to Captain Benteen to come quick and bring packs was not a plea to avert disaster and replenish exhausted ammunition, but a desire for reinforcements both from Benteen's 3 companies and the pack train that would have enabled Custer to launch an attack on fleeing villagers north of the village. Fox provides the further information that Custer's brother Boston (along with his cousin Autie Reed), both initially with the pack train, had ridden ahead to join him after his first message to move up, and encountered his second messenger on the way. They would have reached Custer before the Left Wing had moved ahead of the Right or shortly thereafter, and so Fox believes Custer had excellent reason to expect reinforcements to arrive shortly. The bodies of Boston Custer and Autie Reed were eventually found near George Custer and his brother, Captain Tom Custer.
The inference is that Benteen's failure to arrive in support was still a factor in the massacre (he was ordered by Major Reno to support his detachment after its aborted attack on the village from the south), for Custer's two widely separated wings appear to have held their ground for a considerable period during which there was not heavy fighting and Fox concludes they were waiting for Benteen. They appear to have delayed too long, and were overtaken by rapidly changing events on the battlefield..
Only 15-20 men from Right Wing companies were able to reach the Left
Wing, which may have shifted its position to what is know known as Custer Hill to intercept the fugitives.
Pressure increased on the dismounted (and soon to be completely
horseless) E company, which ended up making a very brief stand with F
Company at its back before rushing back downhill, perhaps initially to
force a breakout, but in a move that quickly turned to disaster. A
handful of fugitives, from the remaining defenders on the hill fled after them as
they too were overwhelmed, and the fight ended.
In many parts of the battlefield, there are far fewer remains of soldier cartridges than can be explained by battlefield collection, and a number of eyewitness accounts after the battle remarked on the small numbers of shell casings. Fox makes a convincing argument that except for the L company skirmish line, in many sectors Custer's men gave relatively little resistance. He found very little evidence that the cartridges in the soldier's single shot carbines jammed, nor does the archaeological record and a number of historic accounts indicate that they ran out of ammunition. It was possible using forensic ballistics technology to trace the movement of individual firearms, both Indian and soldier weapons, between sectors of the battle, indicating a flow from south to north.
Much of the killing was done close in without firearms and where soldier carbines in particular would have been ineffective. The so-called South Skirmish Line where most of E company fell is revealed by Fox to be a place where soldiers moved quickly and did very little firing, dying as they ran. The clusters of men found around Captain Keogh, the Ring Wing Commander, and Colonel Custer are not in any sort of tactical formation, but indicate the bunching that combat behavior modeling documents can happen when frightened men come under heavy pressure and they cling to a strong point. The fighting was apparently brief in these places where men fell bunched together, rather than evidence of a prolonged stand.
While reading Fox's account, I kept thinking about two other books I have read that tried to reconstruct what happened after notorious wildfires overwhelmed crack firefighting crews at Mann Gulch in 1949 and the South Canyon Fire in 1994. Aside from the forensic nature of these accounts, there are many parallels between the behavior of troops trying to escape a converging enemy and how firefighters were overtaken by a pursuing wall of fire. The movement from tactical integrity to disintegration happened in both of these cases when firefighters, moving in line up a ridge ahead of a progressively dangerous and much faster fire, abandoned their tools and tried to crest the ridge ahead of the flames. Moving in a group is slower than moving as individuals, even though there is a perception of security and even strong bonds with the group. Many bodies of fallen firefighters were found bunched together in the burned over areas, while a few strong individuals ran ahead and either escaped or nearly outpaced the flames. The line of bodies that extended north from the Right Wing toward the perceived safety of the Left at Little Bighorn appears to have this in common with the wildfire blowup incidents.
Fox makes it clear that by describing the Little Bighorn fight as something quite different from conventional heroic, last stand terms, the soldiers who experienced tactical disintegration with Custer should not be thought of as cowards. No more, I would add, than the firefighters who tried to escape the flames. There are many factors that combined to create this situation, not only with the Right Wing but also the Left, and as you might imagine Fox offers a very controversial reinterpretation.
I would invite anyone with an interest in the subject of battlefield archaeology in general and the Little Bighorn in particular to read his book and see what you make of the evidence and alternative hypothesis it presents to explain what may have happened to Custer and his men. Now I look forward to reading a subsequent study, jointly authored by Douglas D. Scott; Richard A. Fox; Mellisa A. Connor and Dick Harmon, entitled Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of Little Bighorn (2000), to see what ongoing spadework and scholarship have revealed.