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George Custer & Tobacco

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Custer's Last Drag: An Examination of Tobacco Use Among the 7th Cavalry During the Nineteenth Century

By Shannon Vihlene

"But nothing could induce me to use tobacco, either in smoking or chewing. I consider it a filthy, if not an unhealthy practice. I can say what few of my age can – I never chewed tobacco in my life."

George A. Custer in "The Custer Story"

“Most of the men have been without this ration (tobacco) for three days, and are getting desperate. I have seen men nearly crazy due to their unsatisfied longing for tobacco.”

Ami Frank Mulford, 7th U.S. Cavalry 1878

“A man who smoked too much could still aim his gun and hit the enemy; one who drank to excess might pull the trigger and amputate his toe”

Eric Burns, "The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco"

We present a fascinating and relatively unknown study regarding whether George Custer and the troopers of the 7th Cavalry used tobacco products and, if so, how much. Shannon Vihlene’s 2008 study was conducted for a master of arts in Forensic Anthropology and Historic Archaeology from the University of Montana, Missoula.

Ms. Vihlene states her objective in this study, “…sought to identify the frequency of tobacco consumption among soldiers from the nineteenth century in an effort to gain a better understanding of soldiers lives during the nineteenth century. The soldiers who lost their lives during the Battle of the Little Bighorn were chosen as a case study to analyze tobacco use during that era.”

Ms. Vihlene includes in her thesis detailed history of tobacco and its various use from the colonial period through today. She also sets the record straight on exactly what form of tobacco was popular in the 7th Cavalry and why it was used. Ms. Vihlene’s study helps us to better understand the soldiers in the U.S. frontier army and most specifically, the 7th Cavalry.

I asked Ms. Vihlene how she chose tobacco use in the 7th Cavalry for her thesis and her plans for the future:

"My interest in the Battle of the Little Bighorn began with an interest in the history of Montana and its related archaeology/osteology as well as my fascination with our nations military history. My professor, Dr Kelly Dixon, recommended that I read Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Douglas Scott. Needless to say, I was hooked on the topic. Dr. Dixon put me in contact with Dr. Scott to see if there were any topics that had yet to be researched related to the battle, the result, tobacco consumption.

As for the future, my goals include pursuing my PhD in historic archaeology after some real world experience in the field of cultural resource management. At some point in my career I would truly enjoy the opportunity to work with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in conducting an archaeological recovery mission overseas."

Access Ms. Vihlene’s thesis via the navigation button at right. It is a pdf and large file.

Bob Reece

January 2009

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