By 1865, as Colorado’s war escalated, the Army had its forts established and began to fill them with Civil War veterans from both sides. To meet manpower needs the Federal government started a program of offering Confederate prisoners-of-war freedom in exchange for moving to frontier areas to man Army posts. The ex-Confederates swore an oath of loyalty and entered Federal service. Many were sent to posts in northeastern Colorado. They were nicknamed “Galvanized Yankees” an allusion to the galvanizing process used to stop rust on iron tools. Except for a few days a year battling natives, life for these soldiers involved garrison and escort duty. Morale was usually low and alcoholism became a problem. As the Civil War ended desertions diminished the Army’s effectiveness as drafted soldiers returned home to rebuild their past lives. Nevertheless, the presence of these outposts did make travel and life in northeast Colorado less risky. Many settlers felt the forts represented security and small communities soon sprang up around them.
During 1866 and 1867 relative calm existed in northeastern Colorado. Sporadic raiding and livestock stealing continued. As more and more Europeans moved into the area, the level of hostile activity increased, especially as the Union Pacific made its way west across Nebraska. The Army, fearful of a repeat of Sand Creek, took over responsibility for protecting settlers. In 1867 a new strategy was introduced to quash native activity. Roving patrols were sent out to look for hostiles. The government also undertook new treaty talks with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. By this agreement, the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, the Cheyenne were removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) but maintained hunting privileges off the reservation. The Arapaho were sent to the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. That summer, to enforce its new strategy, the Army ordered Brevet General George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh U.S. Cavalry to patrol western Kansas, Nebraska and northeastern Colorado. His quarry was a band of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho led by Chief Roman Nose. Custer found signs of Native American activity but he never engaged in battle with his foe.
Roman Nose decided, by 1868, that Anglo encroachment had to be stopped. He and his followers increased their attacks on homesteads and small communities in Colorado and western Kansas. To stop Roman Nose, Army officials determined to mount a summer campaign to force the natives onto a reservation. Among the units charged with this task was Major George A. Forsyth’s Volunteer Scouts, a group of 50 frontiersmen who joined the Army for the summer to track Native Americans. By September 1868, Forsyth’s force was on the Arikaree River in northeastern Colorado in hot pursuit of Roman Nose’s band. On September 17, the hostiles ambushed the detachment. The soldiers made their way to an island in the river and dug in. The battle lasted more than a week as the group of 50 held off an estimated 1,000 warriors. After nine days, help arrived in the form of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry, a unit of black “buffalo” soldiers. Amazingly, the volunteers lost only five killed, but many were wounded. Among the dead was Lieutenant Frederick Beecher for whom both the island and battle were subsequently named. While native casualties were unknown, Roman Nose, the much-feared war chief, died leading a charge on the embattled soldiers.
The battle accomplished little except to convince the Army of a need for winter campaigns against the Native Americans. The Cheyenne were most vulnerable during winter months because of decreased mobility while their ponies were weak from lack of forage. To lead an expedition into Indian Territory against the natives, General Philip Sheridan chose George A. Custer and his Seventh Cavalry. The Seventh moved, in November 1868, from Camp Supply toward reported Cheyenne encampments along the Washita River. Custer pushed his men hard across the snowy plains. In late November they had reached their objective. Custer repeated Chivington’s strategy and surrounded the camp at night. When first light dawned the attack began. Again Black Kettle was the victim but this time he did not escape. As the regimental band played the Seventh’s battle song, “Gerry Owen,” Custer’s troops went about their business of extermination. The Battle of the Washita did much to break Cheyenne power but it was not until the next summer that the last battle for northeastern Colorado was fought.
Tall Bull, leading a band of Cheyenne and Sioux, left the reservation in May 1869 and moved north toward their old hunting grounds. Along the way, they skirmished with General Eugene H. Carr’s Fifth U.S. Cavalry in western Kansas. They also raided a Kansas Pacific Railway section station at Fossil Creek. Carr’s troops attempted to stop Tall Bull with little success. However, under increased pressure by the troopers, he was forced to move west into northeastern Colorado to rest. Helping guide the Fifth Cavalry was William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Major Frank North’s Pawnee Scouts. Finally, on July 11, 1869, the Pawnee Scouts located the hostiles encamped at Summit Springs. Carr decided to attack before his presence was discovered. Using the cover of hillocks and ravines, as well as a fortuitous dust storm, the army approached within a mile of the camp sounding the charge before they were discovered. The surprise was complete and the troops were in camp before the warriors could gather their horses and weapons. The Pawnee, in particular, relished this attack on their old enemies. By the end of that day, Tall Bull was dead and Carr had crushed the last pocket of Native American resistance in northeastern Colorado.
Even before the Battle of Summit Springs, the Army began to lessen its role in the area. A technological revolution took place and the older concept of static forts was replaced by that of a “mobile force”. As railroads built across the plains, the Army sought to take advantage of this new agility. No longer would garrisons be necessary every few miles since now an entire army could be moved within a few days. Taking this into consideration, and the fact that most hostilities, by 1868, were outside of northeastern Colorado, the Army started to close its outposts. Closure of forts did not mean the Army completely abandoned northeast Colorado. Detachments occasionally operated in the area. An experimental heliographic signal base was set up on Pike’s Peak but it proved a failure and was soon closed. By the early 1870s settlement became so intense in northeastern Colorado that the cavalry went the way of the buffalo into extinction.
Source: Steven F. Mehls, New Empire of the Rockies, Bureau of Land Management, 1984.