Three Indian Campaigns

By daylight on the following morning (October 2nd) a force of about two hundred cavalry and less than one hundred and fifty 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 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 seventy-five 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 sorcerers 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 ones 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 break of which the onward march was resumed.

Let us now, while still marching forward, recall, as was done by every one 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 mean time 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 near by, 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.

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