You just happened to post regarding a topic that Ipersonally am very interested in.In fact I just visited the Little Bighorn battlefield only last summer and have made several trips there since the early 1980's.
I will answer your questions one by one.First I would like to make a few statements regarding the Custer Myth and the battle itself.Remember that the time of the battle was very different than now, the news media and national conscious were different as well as social mores.So having said that you can imagine how it impacted the reports of the battle.
With regard to the differences in the accounts presented in books...Since the 1920's historians professional and amateur have published on the battle.Keep in mind that historian have egos, when they publish, they put their reputations on the line so to speak.So any radical departure from thier line of thinking is a threat as it attacks their ideas which are tightly bound to their egos.So with regard to Custer their is great debate and difference of opinion.In the last 20 years radical new studies of the battle have been carried out using the most advanced scientific and forensic methods.These have led to a great revision in the Custer Myth.So much so that even the conservative National Park Service has now updated their out dated and political correct presentations to include the new conclusions.
Additional confusion is injected into historical accounts by the inclusion and exclusion of indian eyewitness accounts.This is for two reasons.In most cases the indian accounts were ignored as being unreliable and the equally inaccurate post battle eye witness testimony of men under Benteen and Reno was taken as gospel.Then to add to the confusion it is beleived that the indians that were interviewed in the months and years following the battle, told the white interviewers what they thought they wanted to hear.Out of fear of reprisals mostly.So the soldiers and their conduct was painted even in these accounts as noble and heroic.The truth was somewhat more grim.
It was traditional on religous grounds for indians to mutilate the dead. Reports say that Custer's body was untouched.However in personal letters this is revealed as not so.It is beleived that published reports to the contrary were in respect to the feelings of Mrs. Custer.Custer had shorn his long hair and would not have been readily identifiable, in fact the indians did not even know who commanded the soldiers they were fighting.So the idea that every indian, and squaw knew who Custer was and could identify him are absurd.It is admitted that Custer's brother Tom was badly mutilated and dismembered, so I think it safe to assume Custer was too.
Many historians feel that the nature of Custer's death over shadowed anything that he might have done personally to contribute to his own demise.In death he was cannonized, since it was not proper to speak ill of the dead, so the fault for the defeat must have lay with the survivors, Reno and Benteen.Also, Custer's wife Libby, went on a campaign that lasted the rest of her life to protect the memory of her husband.So the press and other would be critics were deferential to her.Any account of the battle that cast her husband at fault was met with a vitrolic response by her in the press.
Even Hollywood of the 1930's cast Custer as the tragic heroic figure eg:Errol Flynn in they Died with their Boots on, betrayed through no fault of his own by unscrupulous Reservation traders selling guns to the indians..So what we have is an ingrained myth that the noble soldiers led by their equally noble and charismatic Civil War boy soldier General (he was actually only a Colonel at the time of his death, he was a brevit General or temporary general during the Civil War and returned to his regular rank after the war.In fact he was not even in command of the 7th Cavalry (a regiment) he only had command of the detachment sent to the field, some companies survived the battle at their home base)rode to their deaths unaware that the indians outnumbered them, out gunned them, and lay treacherously in wait to do them in...
In reality what we had was a group of indians a large group leaving their reservations.A plan was that three converging columns of soldiers would move toward each other to locate fix and do battle with the indians in order to force them back on the reservation.The columns would move from northwest to southeast (Gen Terry),Northeast to Southwest (Gen Crook) and Custer from the Southeast to the north.Crook first encountered and was badly handled by the Indians at the battle of the Rosebud, I think it was, he then withdrew, Custer's column pressed forward and encountered the indians again at the little Bighorn.It is believed that he was torn by two things, a desire to carry out his mission before the indians knew of his arrival and scattered, and two, a desire for personal glory fueled by the belief that his troops could fight and win against any number of indians.A look at his conduct in the Civil War will reveal a soldier who revelled in taking risks and believed undoubtably in his own immortality, which has been referred to as the "Custer Luck".
Lets look at Custers command.Many were green untrained recruits, some did not even speak english well. They were fatigued as well.This had serious consequences regarding cohesion later.
So having set the stage for the battle.As you probably kow there are numerous attempts to define the conduct of the battle and what happened to Custer.One has the badly outnumbered soldiers rallying around their steadfast commander on last stand hill fighting to the last man and bullet.This is depicted in most contemporary paintings. The other is that Custer was wounded early in the battle and that is why the soldiers failed to press the attack into the north end of the village, they then carried their wounded commander to safety (?) on Last stand hill where they were surrounded and died.
In 1984, a wildfire swept through the park denuded it of vegitation.Historians (Fox, et al) proposed a sweeping study of the battlefield.The NPS agreed and an army of supervised volunteers swept across the battlefield weilding metal detectors and GPS recievers carefully recording the position of every found artifact.The bullets and casings recovered were then sent to the labs of the Nebraska Highway Patrol for forensic study.The results were then analysed using computer maps and reveal a new and startling picture of the conduct of the battle.
First though let me say that the artifact retrieval was a statistical sampling.It was impossible for them to cover every foot of the park, so the surveyors only coverd swaths, say the width of the swing of a detector from side to side.They were aligned at greater intervals so there were gaps in the coverage.Take that and all the artifacts that had been found and removed in the previous 110 years into account and you have only a statistical sample.
None the less the results are sound and scientific and disputed in some quarters by other historians for reasons already innumerated.So..
What conclusions did Fox draw and how didhe draw them..?
First he was able to recreate the movement of individual guns around the battlefield during the course of the battle based on the identification of individual shell casings as having come from the same gun.The same for projectiles or bullets.He was then able to identify when a gun changed hands.For instance, concentrations of artificats on the battle field were identified as indian or soldier.If a given type of bullet and casing (the soldiers only had two types, a specific rifle and specific pistol) was found in high concentrations it meant two things.Example.If lots of gov't issued casings were found in one spot then the soldiers had been there firing.And a variety of different bullets were found (the indians used over 150 different kinds) indicating the indians had been firing at that position.Conversely, soldier bullets were found at positions that had high concentrations of indian shell casings.Get it?So if a bullet fired from a soldier gun was later found in soldier positions
it indicates that the gun had fallen into indian hands and was now firing at soldiers.This gives an indication of time.The other action involving the gun had taken place FIRST, before the gun fell into indian hands, and the other action took place later than the First.So it establishes a time line.
Using this technique Fox created maps showing the movement of guns on the field, and established a timeline for the battle.
He also incorporated studies of stress in battle and the behaviour of soldiers conducted by the US Army in WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam.The results were startling similar.
What his results revealed was a progressive and accelerating disintergration of Custers command.Custer brought this on by subdividing his command in the face of an unknown threat.Instead of a unified command, the indians faced several bodies of isolated companies that progressively disintegrated soldiers lost their horses (horse holders (one soldier in every 4 was detailed to hold the horses while the others manned the skirmish line) were especially targeted by the indians)they lost their means of escape and ammunition reserves and paniced.
Without going into details of the battle, suffice to say data indicated that the route of one troop led to the route of a company, followed by flight.Modern US Army studies indicate that in highly stressful situations men flee to the false security of greater numbers.In small groups they huddle like sheep paralyzed to point they do not even defend themselves and are easily killed.
This matches accounts given by indian participants.During the general route from the south east side of the battle field to the northwest, soldiers both mounted and unmounted were ridden down by the pursuing indians, who described it as a buffalo hunt..similar to them pursuing a herd of stampeding buffalo...
These panic soldiers fled in the direction they percieved as safety, in the direction of the Command detachment, Custer.
Evidence on the battle field supports this, a long drawn out string of gravesites over 1 mile long from the South east to N West.Evidence also indicates, although somewhat obscured by the NPS museum and cemetary built over that part of the battlefield, that Custer's original advance was halted and driven back to Last Stand hill, where the remnants of the other routed companies joined him.Then when nearly surrounded, a group of 40 or so soldiers mounted and afoot fled from the hill toward the Deep Ravine, where the last fighting occurred.Post battle observers said 28 bodies were found there and were subsequently buried.These have not been found to this day.Investigations and digs are still ongoing.
So contrary, to accepted versions the last fighting did not occur on Last stand hill.
Something else of interest came out of the study regarding the marble markers on the field.There are far too many.
Long after the battle the markers were added at locations that had been marked by primative means, and in a lot of cases only green grass grew to mark the soil fertilized by human remains.There were also indication of shallow depressions, taken as graves.However what the workers did not realize is that after the battle the decomposing bodies were covered by scooping soils from either side and heaping it over the corpse.So in fact they were putting two markers where only a single body lay.This was corraborated by detailed excavation.Even though most bodies had been removed and reburied on Last stand hill under the monument.Small bones were over looked and in some cases whole bodies.In every instance only one body was identified at sites with two markers.The error was compounded by the fact that all markers meant for the battle site of the Reno Fight, were placed on the Custer battlefield.So there is somewhere in the order of 40 markers too many on the battlefield. Add those to the 28 markers slated for the bodies in the Deep Ravine that were never found and you have a lot of markers randomly and incorrectly placed on the battlefield adding to the confusionThe marker pairs, actually represent one body.This preponderance of was nobly attributed to two buddies going down fighting or at worst suicide pacts.
What actually happened was total disintegration.That is not to say that here and there soldiers did not stand and fight and die heroic deaths, but for the entire command to be wiped out in under an hour, wellthat speaks for itself.The final flight of the soldiers to the Deep Ravine probably indicates that Custer was dead at that time, or even earlier.The concentration of officers, those from the different companies, on Last Stand hill, while the remains of the bulk of their commandswere elsewhere also points to disintigration.Every man for himself....not a flattering view of the officer corps of the day.
Hope this helps with your understanding of the battle.
The third book below details the excavation of individual marker locations.
Here are some links to books on the current thoughts on the battle.They can be viewed on Amazon and in most cases you can read excerpts of the books.The first, third and fourth I have personally read and can highly recommend.The others are relatively new.The fourth was a preliminary publication of field work done in 1984 after a wildfire on the battlefield.I visited the park then.The first listing is the final publication of the results of the forensic and ballistic work completely revising prevailing thoughts on the battle.I was able to watch them film some of the material for the show you saw at some of the individual grave site excavations.
Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Reexamined
by Richard Allan, Jr Fox, W. Raymond Wood
They Died With Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn
by Douglas D. Scott , Melissa A. Connor , P. Willey
Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of Little Bighorn
by Douglas D. Scott , Richard A., Jr. Fox , Melissa A. Connor , Dick Harmon
Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle: An Assessment of the 1984 Field Season/With Map
by Douglas D. Scott , Richard A. Fox (Contributor), Dick Harmon (Designer)
Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed
by John Shapley Gray , Robert M. Utley (Designer)
The Mystery of E Troop: Custer's Gray Horse Company at the Little Bighorn
by Gregory Michno