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Army In The Indian Wars - Page 3

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Fort Phil Kearny, WyomingFort Phil Kearny became the focus of enemy attention and during its brief existence remained virtually in a state of siege. On December 21, 1866, the Indians attacked a wood train six miles from the fort.


Captain Fetterman, who had been brevetted lieutenant colonel in Civil War actions and now boasted that with eighty men he could ride through the whole Sioux Nation, asked to lead a relief column. Indian decoys demonstrated invitingly before the rescue party, withdrawing gradually over Lodge Trail Ridge northwest of the post. Fetterman fell for the ruse and, against Carrington's orders, with eighty men at his back crossed the ridge. In a carefully executed ambush the Indians wiped out the entire force, including two civilians who had gone along to try out their new Henry repeating rifles, weapons far superior to the Springfield muzzle-loaders carried by the infantrymen and the Spencer carbines carried by the cavalrymen in the detail.


The Army was more successful in two other notable actions on the Bozeman Trail. In August 1867 the Indians launched separate but apparently coordinated attacks against a haying detail near Fort Smith and a wood detail outside Fort Kearny. In the Hayfield Fight 19 soldiers and 6 civilians, under Lieutenant Sigismund Sternberg, equipped with converted breech-loading Springfields and several repeating rifles, held off vastly superior odds with a loss of only 3 killed and 3 wounded. In the Wagon Box Fight, Captain James Powell, with 31 men similarly armed and stationed behind wagon boxes removed from their running gear, held off an investing force of several thousand Sioux and Cheyenne for a good four hours, withstanding mounted and dismounted attacks by several hundred warriors at various times with only 3 killed and 2 wounded.


It is risky to deal in statistics concerning Indian participation and casualties in western campaigns. Accounts vary widely, are founded on shaky evidence, and require some balancing and juggling merely to reach a general order of magnitude, much less an accurate assessment of the facts in a given situation. There is no doubt that the Sioux and Cheyenne suffered serious casualties in the Hayfield and Wagon Box fights. For the Army, however, these were defensive engagements and it lacked sufficient force in the Upper Plains to undertake offensive operations. At the same time there was sentiment in the East to treat with rather than chastise the Indians. The government withdrew the garrisons and abandoned the Montana road in July 1868.


The Southern Plains


The Army during the Indian Wars was habitually unable to balance resources with requirements, both because of limited manpower and because of the continental size of the theater of operations. As Lieutenant General William T. Sherman, commanding the Division of the Missouri put it, "Were I or the department commanders to send guards to every point where they are clamored for, we would need alone on the plains a hundred thousand men, mostly of cavalry. Each spot of every road, and each little settlement along five thousand miles of frontier, wants its regiment of cavalry or infantry to protect it against the combined power of all the Indians, because of the bare possibility of their being attacked by the combined force of all the Indians."


It was the good fortune of both the Army and the citizen in the West that the Indians rarely acted in concert within or between tribes, although had they done so the Army might have been able regularly to employ large units instead of dispersing troops in small detachments all over the frontier, and might also have had better luck in forcing the elusive opponent to stand and fight. But, troops and units were at a premium, so much so in 1868 that Major General Philip H. Sheridan decided to try an unusual expedient to carry out his responsibilities in the Department of the Missouri.


Sheridan directed Major George A. Forsyth to "employ fifty first-class hardy frontiersmen, to be used as scouts against the hostile Indians, to be commanded by yourself." Recruited at Forts Harker and Hays in Kansas, the command took the field in late August in a region frequented by Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, augmented by some Sioux roaming south of the Platte. The tribes were restive. The Kansas Pacific Railroad was advancing through their country, frightening the buffalo -- their source of food, clothing, and shelter -- and attracting white settlement. The Cheyenne were still smoldering over the massacre of some 200 of Black Kettle's band, including women and children, by Colonel John M. Chivington and his Colorado volunteers on Sand Creek in 1864, and had demonstrated their mistrust of the whites when Major General  Winfield Scott Hancock penetrated their area with a large and presumably peaceful expedition in 1867.






Forsyth and the Indians collided on the Arickaree Fork of the Republican River at dawn on November 17, 1868, when a combined war party of about 600 Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho attacked him in a defensive position on a small island in the river bed. The Indians pressed the fight for three days, wounding Forsyth and upwards of 20 of his scouts and killing his second in command, Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher, and his surgeon and 3 scouts. Among the Indian casualties in this Battle of Beecher Island was the influential Cheyenne leader Roman Nose. The first rescue force on the scene was Captain Louis H. Carpenter's company of Negro troopers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment.


By the late 1860's, the government's policy of removing Indians from desirable areas (graphically represented by the transfer of the Five Civilized Tribes from the Southeast to Oklahoma -- the Cherokee called it the "Trail of Tears" -- had run its course and was succeeded by one of concentrating them on reservations.


The practice of locating tribes in other than native or salubrious surroundings and of joining uncongenial bands led to more than one Indian War. Some bands found it convenient to accept reservation status and government rations during the winter months, returning to the warpath and hunting trail in the milder seasons. Many bands of many tribes refused to accept the treaties offered by a peace commission and resisted the government's attempt to confine them to specific geographical limits; it fell to the Army to force compliance. In his area, General Sheridan now planned to hit the Indians in their permanent winter camps.


General William T. Sherman

General William T. Sherman


Native America: Voices From the Land DVDWhile a winter campaign presented serious logistical problems, it offered opportunities for decisive results. If the Indians' shelter, food, and livestock could be destroyed or captured, not only the warriors but their women and children were at the mercy of the Army and the elements, and there was little left but surrender. Here was the technique of total war, a practice that raised certain moral questions for many officers and men that were never satisfactorily resolved.


Sheridan devised a plan whereby three columns would converge on the wintering grounds of the Indians just east of the Texas Panhandle, one from Fort Lyon in Colorado, one from Fort Bascom in New Mexico, and one from Camp Supply in Oklahoma. The 7th Cavalry Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer fought the major engagement of the campaign. Custer found the Indians on the Washita River and struck Black Kettle's Cheyenne village with eleven companies from four directions at dawn on November 29, 1868, as the regimental band played "Gerry Owen."


A fierce fight developed which the Indians continued from surrounding terrain. By midmorning Custer learned that this was only one of many villages of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche extending for miles along the Washita.


Facing such odds, Custer hastened to destroy the village and its supplies and horses, used an offensive maneuver to deceive the enemy, and under cover of darkness withdrew from the field, taking 53 women and children as prisoners. The 7th lost 21 officers and men killed and 13 wounded in the Battle of the Washita; the Indians perhaps 50 killed and as many wounded.



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