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Chris Merritt

Chris Merritt describes how the Battle of the Rosebud unfolded at the Rosebud Battlefield.

It was calm before the storm, and then the hills erupted with the sound of gunfire, setting the stage for an eight-hour battle between Gen. George Crook and Crazy Horse, and the men under their separate commands.

A three-year archaeological survey into the Battle of the Rosebud, along with fresh forensic ballistic analysis, is shedding new light on the historic battle, waged between Crook and Crazy Horse on the Montana prairie on June 17, 1876.

The Battle of Little Bighorn was still eight days away, but the events at Rosebud would pave the way for Gen. George Custer’s own defeat at the hands of a determined Sioux and Northern Cheyenne force.

“This battle played directly into the outcome of Little Bighorn,” said Chris Merritt, director of the University of Montana’s Archaeology Field School. “Rosebud was the first large engagement between the Sioux and Cheyenne, and the U.S. Army in the Great Sioux War.”

Merritt has led the survey at Rosebud for the past several years. He believes the new findings – aided by forensic firearms analysis conducted by University of Nebraska anthropologist Doug Smith – may help answer lingering questions surrounding the historic battle.

Scott’s own analysis of rifle casings recovered from Rosebud revealed 17 separate guns, most of them belonging to Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. They include a Henry rifle and a Winchester Model 1866. Casings also point to a Winchester Model 1873, several Springfield and Remington rifles, and a Civil War-era carbine.

“The warriors had older muzzleloading guns, trade guns and military surplus,” said Scott. “The unusual one is this ball carbine. It was a small-run Civil War carbine that was unpopular and immediately sent to surplus. It’s interesting that one of those would have gotten out West.”

Scott has written several books on battlefield archaeology, including a lengthy review of Little Bighorn, where Native American forces fired no less than 47 different types of firearms in defeating Custer’s command.

While research continues at Rosebud, enough evidence already has been recovered to connect two individual rifles to both battles. Using casts made of casings recovered at Little Bighorn, Scott matched them to a Henry Rifle casing and a ball carbine uncovered at Rosebud.

“They’re from the same guns – what we call individual characteristics,” Scott said. “Narratives tell us that many of the warriors at Rosebud also fought Custer and destroyed his command at Little Bighorn. We’re able to show that now with physical evidence.”

Matching casings from the same weapons at two separate battles opens up new possibilities for researchers. While it may not be possible to name the individuals who carried the rifles, Scott said, the band of warriors that fired them may be determined with continued research.

“The potential is there for additional interpretation,” Scott said. “I was hoping we might see that.”

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After years of planning, the UM research team began its field work at Rosebud in 2011. Merritt described it as the most pristine battlefield in the American West, and as the investigation pushed forward into 2012, its secrets soon revealed some historic clues.

“We found clusters of U.S. Army cartridge cases that align in a rough skirmish line,” Merritt said. “About 100 yards north of the skirmish line, we found weapons used by the Sioux and Cheyenne. From that, we can tell where both combatants were located when the fighting broke out.”

The initial skirmish began early to midmorning on June 17, when a column of Crook’s soldiers and scouts encountered a force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The warriors had taken the high ground and used it to their advantage, picking Crook’s forces apart over the course of the day.

“The army was in a bad position, moving toward the high ground,” Merritt said. “The Sioux and Cheyenne used the landscape to their advantage to hold back a superior force.”

Crook’s men also would overuse their supplies during the engagement. Estimates suggest that his forces expended 10,000 rounds of ammunition, but claimed fewer than 40 Native American casualties.

The waste of ammunition and food, along with a determined foe, forced Crook to retreat from the battlefield by day’s end. He returned to his encampment at Goose Creek near today’s Sheridan, Wyo., with his troops, leaving Custer’s arriving force without useful intelligence.

“Custer never knew the size of the force that Crook had encountered,” Merritt said. “Custer was never aware that Crook had engaged maybe 1,500 warriors a week earlier. If he’d known that, he may have changed his tactics a little bit.”

The Rosebud Battlefield sits roughly 25 miles southeast of Little Bighorn. While researchers have made surprising discoveries stemming from the battle, Merritt said they’ve only scratched the surface.

Over the past three years, they’ve surveyed roughly 170 acres of the 3,000-acre state park. The team has yet to explore several key areas, including Crook’s Ridge – where piles of hand-stacked rocks from old Army defensive positions remain – and Conical Hill, where Native leaders orchestrated the battle.

“The Rosebud battlefield is the most pristine battlefield in the American West, as far as I’m concerned,” Merritt said. “It still feels like 1876. You’ve got the long-grass prairie and no real development. You can place yourself back there and think, this is where a guy was standing 1876.”

Scott will discuss the archaeological investigation into the Battle of the Rosebud at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The talk takes place in Room 123 of the Gallagher Business Building at the University of Montana.

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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