On the 1st of October, 1879, the garrison at Fort Russell, Wyoming Territory, was startled by the receipt of telegrams recounting a disaster that had overtaken the command of Major Thornburg, who was known to be marching to the relief of the white inhabitants of the Ute Indian Agency. In this command, which had been attacked by the Utes, was part of the garrison of Fort Russell. Major Thornburg is killed; Captain Payne and two other officers, including the surgeon of the command, are wounded. The command is surrounded and constantly pressed by the hostiles; fifty men are killed and wounded, and all the horses are killed.
These were the fragments of news that dribbled through the wires, all too slowly for the impatient comrades of the small beleaguered force in the wilds of Colorado. You will proceed with all available troops in your command to the rescue of Payne and his sorely pressed command said the dispatch from the commanding general of the department to the officer in command at Fort Russell. Officers were assembled and the orders for preparation given. No need to insist on haste; the dead, wounded, and beleaguered were kith and kin to those going to the rescue, endeared by hundreds of associations which make men stick closer than brothers. Each officer went about his work with the coolness and precision of the usual preparation for a routine service, though there were decisions and promptitude which told of the serious work ahead.
In four hours from the time the news first reached Fort Russell all the troops of cavalry, with their horses and equipment, for which there was transportation by rail, were on the cars, and running as fast as steam could carry them toward Rawlins, a point two hundred miles distant on the Union Pacific Railroad, from which the march was to commence across the country to the scene of disaster.
By daylight, on the following morning (October 2nd) a force of about 200 cavalry and less than 150 infantry had collected at Rawlins station. The move to the relief of Payne and his command must be made as soon as sufficient force was collected. Payne had reported he was sorely pressed by the Indians on every side, and had many wounded, among the rest the medical officer. His supplies were sufficient to last for five days from the 29th of September. The way to the scene of disaster was long, and succor must arrive in three days of the time still left for the troops at Rawlins. Other troops were being hurried forward, but they could not reach the railroad starting-point for a day or two at least. Rumors were current that the Southern Utes had broken out, which would increase greatly the strength of the hostiles. The greater their strength, the less time remained for saving the shattered and maimed command. Even then the Ute Indians on the war-path had been largely augmented by the malcontents from kindred bands and were making every effort to destroy the weak remnant of Thornburgs command.
In anticipation of the fewness of the available cavalry for the rescue, and with knowledge that no infantry unassisted could make the march in time to be of service, light wagons, with as good teams as the country could afford, had been ordered collected from the country around Rawlins, in which to transport the infantry. This was all done, and the supplies of every kind transferred to wagons and pack trains so that the command march-ed out from Rawlins at eleven & clock on the morning of October 2nd. There was a distance of 170 miles to be traversed before the fate of the besieged command could be determined.
The march was a case for calculation and judgment. A single dash of fifty or even 75 miles can be made by horses, as racing men say, on a breath, but at the end of this greatest distance still, a hundred more miles were left to be accomplished. Too much haste at first, wearing out the horses, would leave the command afoot and helpless. Would the command reach its destination in time was the one absorbing thought in the mind of every officer and trooper in the column.
It is difficult for one who has never marched on the plains to form a conception of the tedium and seeming slowness of the progress. The cavalry command scouting after Indians will see the land-marks, apparently, a few miles off made so by the clear atmosphere of the plains, stand out as though one could walk to them in a few hours, remain during days of marching in the same places and with the same appearance. Were it not that nearer objects conveyed the fact of distance gained, one might easily imagine that he was journeying in a land where the efforts at motion were nullified by the sorcerer’s art, and progress was impossible. And if this is so when a usual march is being made, who can tell the exasperation at the want of apparent progress on the road the rate of travel on which means Life or death to those whom it is one’s duty to save! At the end of the first ten hours from the start, the relieving column had accomplished about forty-five miles. Everything was brought up, and the command was still in good condition. Here a halt was made till dawn of day, at the break of which the onward march was resumed.
Let us now, while still marching forward, recall, as was done by everyone in the rescuing column hundreds of times, what had occurred to Thornburgs command. Ten days before the news of his disaster reached Fort Russell, Major Thornburg left Rawlins station with a force of cavalry and infantry to protect the agency and its white inhabitants from the Indians they were there to feed and instruct. The Indians had grown restless under the efforts of the agent to teach them farming and the other industries of the whites, and the agent became anxious for the safety of his family and himself. Thornburg moved leisurely through the country, making convenient camps after usual marches, without molestation, and not until the sixth day were any Indians seen. In the camp, after it was established on this day, several Ute Indians of prominence visited Major Thornburg in the afternoon, talked freely and pleasantly with him and his officers, and departed about nightfall, apparently in a most friendly mood. This was more than a hundred miles from the agency. After this Thornburg pursued his march without incident. On the morning of the 29th of September, while his command was separated by a short distance, he came on the Utes in strong force near a pass in the mountains which bounded their reservation. Their attitude was extremely hostile. While incredulous of their intent to fight, he took the precaution to deploy the part of the command with him, at the same time by signs trying to open communication with the Indians. His overtures were met by a volley from the Indians, which was at once replied to by the troops, the skirmish line being slowly withdrawn to connect with the rest of the command and to protect the wagons. In battle, Indians always send warriors to the flanks and to the rear of the force with which they fight. This they do without reference to the strength of the enemy. It has therefore passed into a proverb that there is no rear in an Indian engagement.
The Utes pursued these tactics with Thornburgs command, in the meantime violently engaging his skirmishers in front. While concentrating his command, and when a few hundred yards from the wagons, Thornburg was killed. The command was united at the wagons, and, surrounded by the hostiles, hurried measures were taken for defense, the fighting on each side being continued with desperation. The wagons were formed in an irregular circle, and the contents, together with the dead animals which had fallen nearby, were used in constructing a sort of defensive work. Within this ghastly protection, the wounded men were conveyed, and soon, with the implements in the wagons, a circular rifle pit was constructed. And now a new danger threatened. A high wind arose soon after the commencement of the attack, and the Indians fired the dry grass and brush to the windward of the wagons, and taking advantage of the smoke and fire, made a furious attack in the hope of burning the defenders out. This was a terrible danger, but with coolness and courage the troops combated the flames, and it was not long before their fury was expended. Later in the day the Utes made a violent onslaught on the breastworks, but being repulsed, settled down to watch their prey in the hope that starvation or lack of water would finish the work. During the night the means of defense were strengthened, and water was obtained by force from the stream nearby for the famishing wounded and suffering defenders. Couriers were also sent out into the darkness in different directions with the hope that the distressful condition of the command could be made known and relief hurried to them. The couriers succeeded in passing out and carried the news that started the relief command from Fort Russell.
On the last day of September, and for four days in October, the command contended with the Indians, repulsing attacks made from time to time, answering shot with shot and taunt with taunt – for many of the Utes spoke English. Each night the defensive works were strengthened and each day defended against renewed attacks. A deep square pit was dug in the interior of the circle, in which the wounded were made comfortable, the medical officer, though wounded himself, dressing the wounds of those most needing attention. At night, also, armed parties sent out for water succeeded in bringing in a supply, though at times meeting resistance and fighting for what was obtained. In this way, the time for five long days and nights was occupied, who can tell with what anxieties, gloomy forebodings and doubting hopes!
In the meantime, the rescuing force was losing no time. Without drawing rein, save for a needed rest at intervals to conserve strength for the whole of the work, the command pressed on with unflagging energy, marching with the advance guard, and at times flankers to prevent the possibility of ambuscade or surprise. The country was quiet, and no signs of Indians were discovered. A halt was made on the second night, after completion of little less than two-thirds of the whole distance to be accomplished. At dawn the morning of the 4th of October the march was resumed. The unfinished distance must be completed by the following dawn. About one hundred miles had already been accomplished in twenty-three marching hours. More than seventy miles, to be marched over in daylight and darkness, in the next twenty-four hours, was before the command. This would require little less, if all went well than twenty hours’ constant marching.
In these days of rapid transit, it is not easy for people to bring their ideas of travel down to the rate of march of a cavalry column. This, if long distances are marched, cannot safely exceed, including halts for rest, four miles per hour. A single horseman can do more than this, for he can regulate the rate according to the road, and he has not the dust and crowding of a mass of cavalry horses on a narrow road to contend with. Besides, the single horseman provides himself with the best of horses, while the march of a cavalry column must be regulated to meet the abilities of the least enduring animal. All these elements entered into the calculation of the march of the rescuing force. It must make the march, and that, too, with undiminished numbers.
On this day’s march, several settlers were met by the command, fleeing for safety, and rumors of murders and depredations by the Indians were received from all quarters. At one point the head of the column was approached by an excited party asking medical assistance, who led the medical officer to a wagon in which a citizen was lying on an improvised bed, who was an unsightly mass of wounds and had been left by the Indians for dead. His companion had been killed. When it was discovered that the wagon body in which he lay was nearly half full of loose cartridges, in which he had been trading with the Indians, sympathy for him was greatly diminished.
As night came on the difficulties of marching were much increased by the darkness and rough roads. From time to time halts had to be made, and staff officers sent to the rear to direct the column in the darkness and see that all kept well closed. After a seemingly interminable season of marching by the uncertain light of a waning moon, in which objects were dimly defined and always distorted, the hour indicated to the weary though watchful horsemen that they were approaching the scene of the conflict. Not a sound broke the stillness of the chilly night save the steady tramp of the horses and the rattle and jingle of the equipment of the men. The infantry part of the command, owing to the darkness and difficulties of travel, had fallen behind.
A blackened heap of ashes on the highway, with fragments of iron and chains and pieces of harness and rubbish, marked where a train loaded with stores for the agency had been burnt, and further on the bodies of the slaughtered trainmen with distorted features and staring eyes, told all too plainly of their short-run for life of the mercy they had plead for, and how their prayers had been answered by the merciless foe. These were not cheering omens. Had Payne and his men shared a like fate? No one had come to tell. But it would soon be known. It cant be far from here, said the guide, for the third time, as the command was brought to a halt, and everyone strained eyes and ears for a sight of the surrounding country or a sound from the front. A bugler with his trumpet ready was close at hand to sound the call known as officers call in the cavalry, a certain sign of recognition, that there might be no collision with friends who, hearing the tramp of horses, might mistake the force for foes. Presently the guide satisfied himself that the command was near the place, and the clear notes of the trumpet awakened the echoes of the night.
Captain Payne, in recounting the event, says: “Believing it just possible for help to reach us next morning, I directed one of my trumpeters to be on the alert for the expected signal.” And so it was: just as the first gray of the dawn appeared, our listening ears caught the sound of officers call breaking the silence of the morning, and filling the valley with the sweetest music we had ever heard. Joyously the reply rang out from our corral, and the men, rushing from their rifle pits, made the welkin ring with their glad cheers.
By General Wesley Merritt in 1890, compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.
About the Author: General Wesley Merritt (1834-1910) was a general in the U.S. Army during the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War. He is noted for distinguished service in the cavalry. Three Indian Campaigns appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Volume 80, Issue 479, in April, 1890.