Time / Life Books Old West series. Once a month, a new volume would arrive with its stamped, leatherette binding and richly illustrated with historic images and artifacts. Each book in the series covered a different topic, ranging from the legendary - The Gunfighters - to the esoteric - The Expressmen - , and many are still satisfying reads today with a wonderful level of historic detail.
Written for the general public - although perhaps not with precocious 8-year-old readers specifically in mind - The Old West series was my first introduction to the Custer fight at Little Bighorn. The final chapter of the book on The Soldiers is devoted to Custer, and other volumes approach the events from the perspectives of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. There is an especially fascinating series of pages in The Soldiers devoted to "Last Stand" artwork from the late 19th century that brings the Custer myth - if not the reality of the fight itself - vividly to life,People have been fighting over the Battle of Little Bighorn ever since the last gun was silenced, and since
Regardless of where the blame may lie for the massacre - and there is no end of controversy over where that belongs - the traditional interpretation of what happened after Custer divided his command is that after ending Maj. Marcus Reno with three companies to charge the Indian village from the south Custer continued north along the high ground east of the river. After Reno's attack stalled and eventually withdrew in disorder back across the river, Custer and his five remaining companies were forced to occupy defensive positions in the face of overwhelming numbers of well armed Indians, and fought as a unified command practically to the last bullet. Survivors from other parts of the battlefield and from another column of soldiers that arrived in the days that followed buried the men where they fell, and some saw what looked to them like evidence of skirmish lines across a wide defensive area. Reno's men may have broken, but not Custer's, who in the best western tradition are usually said to have gone down fighting.
Had the Time Life series been written a decade later, a very different story might have been told about what happened to Custer. In 1983, a range fire burned across the national monument at Little Bighorn and the park superintendent recognized an opportunity for battlefield archaeology to examine the exposed terrain for artifacts that might shed new light on the Custer fight. I have just finished reading one of the products of that research - Richard A Fox's (1993) Archaeology, History and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Bighorn Reexamined. An expansion of his Ph.D thesis based on two years of fieldwork and a fresh examination of historic accounts informed by new archaeological data and combat modeling, Fox presents an alternative explanation of the Custer fight that turns many long held assumptions on their heads. Despite the academic structure of the text, I found it absolutely fascinating. We will look into this further in a subsequent post.