Three Indian Campaigns

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 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 equipments 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 every one 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.


Old West Greetings Postcard

Old West Greetings Postcard

Added July, 2005, updated August, 2017.

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.

Also See:

Battles, Campaigns & Massacres of the Indian Wars

Frontier Skirmishes between the Pioneers & the Indians

Indian Fighters

Indian Wars of the Frontier West


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