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Chapter XIII

  • Fitting out the winter expedition
  • -- accompanying the main force -- the other columns -- struck by a blizzard -- Custer's fight on the Washita -- defeat and death of Black Kettle -- massacre of Elliott's party -- relief of Colonel Crawford.

The end of October saw completed the most of my arrangements for the winter campaign, though the difficulties and hardships to be encountered had led several experienced officers of the army, and some frontiersmen like Mr. James Bridger, the famous scout and guide of earlier days, to discourage the project. Bridger even went so far as to come out from St. Louis to dissuade me, but I reasoned that as the soldier was much better fed and clothed than the Indian, I had one great advantage, and that, in short, a successful campaign could be made if the operations of the different columns were energetically conducted. To see to this I decided to go in person with the main column, which was to push down into the western part of the Indian Territory, having for its initial objective the villages which, at the beginning of hostilities, had fled toward the head-waters of the Red River, and those also that had gone to the same remote region after decamping from the neighborhood of Larned at the time that General Hazen sent Buffalo Bill to me with the news.

The column which was expected to do the main work was to be composed of the Nineteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Crawford; eleven troops of the Seventh United States Cavalry, under General Custer, and a battalion of five companies of infantry under Brevet Major John H. Page. To facilitate matters, General Sully, the district commander, was ordered to rendezvous these troops and establish a supply depot about a hundred miles south of Fort Dodge, as from such a point operations could be more readily conducted. He selected for the depot a most suitable place at the confluence of Beaver and [460] Wolf creeks, and on his arrival there with Custer's and Page's commands, named the place Camp Supply.

In conjunction with the main column, two others also were to penetrate the Indian Territory. One of these, which was to march east from New Mexico by way of Fort Bascom, was to be composed of six troops of the Third Cavalry and two companies of infantry, the whole under Colonel A. W. Evans. The other, consisting of seven troops of the Fifth Cavalry, and commanded by Brevet Brigadier-General Eugene A. Carr, was to march southeast from Fort Lyon; the intention being that Evans and Carr should destroy or drive in toward old Fort Cobb any straggling bands that might be prowling through the country west of my own line of march; Carr, as he advanced, to be joined by Brevet Brigadier-General W. H. Penrose, with five troops of cavalry already in the field southeast of Lyon. The Fort Bascom column, after establishing a depot of supplies at Monument Creek, was to work down the main Canadian, and remain out as long as it could feed itself from New Mexico; Carr, having united with Penrose on the North Canadian, was to operate toward the Antelope Hills and head-waters of the Red River; while I, with the main column was to move southward to strike the Indians along the Washita, or still farther south on branches of the Red River.

It was no small nor easy task to outfit all these troops by the time cold weather set in, and provide for them during the winter, but by the 1st of November I had enough supplies accumulated at Forts Dodge and Lyon for my own and Carr's columns, and in addition directed subsistence and forage for three months to be sent to Fort Gibson for final delivery at Fort Arbuckle, as I expected to feed the command from this place when we arrived in the neighborhood of old Fort Cobb, but through some mismanagement few of these stores got further than Gibson before winter came on.

November I, all being ready, Colonel Crawford was furnished with competent guides, and, after sending two troops to Fort Dodge to act as my escort, with the rest of his regiment he started from Topeka November 5, under orders to march straight for the rendezvous at the junction of Beaver and Wolf creeks. He was expected to reach his destination about the 20th, and there unite with the Seventh Cavalry and the battalion of infantry, which in the mean time were on the march from Dodge. A few days later Carr and Evans began their march also, and everything being now in motion, I decided to go to Camp Supply to give the campaign my personal attention, determined to prove that operations could be successfully conducted in spite of winter, and bent on showing the Indians that they were not secure from punishment because [461] of inclement weather — an ally on which they had hitherto relied with much assurance.

We started from Fort Hays on the 15th of November, and the first night out a blizzard struck us and carried away our tents; and as the gale was so violent that they could not be put up again, the rain and snow drenched us to the skin. Shivering from wet and cold, I took refuge under a wagon, and there spent such a miserable night that, when at last morning came, the gloomy predictions of old man Bridger and others rose up before me with greatly increased force. As we took the road the sleet and snow were still falling, but we labored on to Dodge that day in spite of the fact that many of the mules played out on the way. We stayed only one night at Dodge, and then on the 17th, escorted by a troop of cavalry and Forsyth's scouts, now under the command of Lieutenant Lewis Pepoon, crossed the Arkansas and camped the night of the 18th at Bluff Creek, where the two troops of the Nineteenth Kansas, previously detailed as my escort, were awaiting our coming. As we were approaching this camp some suspicious looking objects were seen moving off at a long distance to the east of us, but as the scouts confidently pronounced them buffalo, we were unaware of their true character till next morning, when we became satisfied that what we had seen were Indians, for immediately after crossing Beaver Creek we struck a trail, leading to the northeast, of a war party that evidently came up from the head-waters of the Washita River.

The evening of November 21 we arrived at the Camp Supply dep6t, having traveled all day in another snow-storm that did not end till twenty-four hours later. General Sully, with Custer's regiment and the infantry battalion, had reached the place several days before, but the Kansas regiment had not yet put in an appearance. All hands were hard at work trying to shelter the stores and troops, but from the trail seen that morning, believing that an opportunity offered to strike an effective blow, I directed Custer to call in his working parties and prepare to move immediately, without waiting for Crawford's regiment, unaccountably absent. Custer was ready to start by the 23d, and he was then instructed to march north to where the trail had been seen near Beaver Creek and follow it on the back track, for, being convinced that the war party had come from the Washita, I felt certain that this plan would lead directly to the villages.

The difficulties attending a winter campaign were exhibited now with their full force, as the march had to be conducted through a snowstorm that hid surrounding objects, and so covered the country as to alter the appearance of the prominent features, making the task of the guides doubly troublesome; but in spite of these obstacles fifteen miles [462] had been traversed when Custer encamped for the night. The next day the storm had ceased, and the weather was clear and cold. The heavy fall of snow had of course obliterated the trail in the bottoms, and everywhere on the level; but, thanks to the wind, that had swept comparatively bare the rough places and high ground, the general direction could be traced without much trouble. The day's march, which was through a country abounding with buffalo, was unattended by any special incident at first, but during the afternoon, after getting the column across the Canadian River — an operation which, on account of the wagons, consumed considerable time-Custer's scouts (friendly Osages) brought back word that, some miles ahead, they had struck fresh signs, a trail coming into the old one from the north, which, in their opinion, indicated that the war party was returning to the villages.

On the receipt of this news, Custer, leaving a guard with the wagons, hastily assembled the rest of his men, and pushing on rapidly, overtook the scouts and a detailed party from his regiment which had accompanied them, all halted on the new trail awaiting his arrival. A personal examination satisfied Custer that the surmises of his scouts were correct; and also that the fresh trail in the deep snow could at night be followed with ease. After a short halt for supper and rest the pursuit was resumed, the Osage scouts in advance, and although the hostile Indians were presumed to be yet some distance off, every precaution was taken to prevent detection and to enable our troops to strike them unawares. The fresh trail, which it was afterward ascertained had been made by raiders from Black Kettle's village of Cheyennes, and by some Arapahoes, led into the valley of the Washita, and growing fresher as the night wore on, finally brought the Osages upon a campfire, still smoldering, which, it was concluded, had been built by the Indian boys acting as herders of the ponies during the previous day. It was evident, then, that the village could be but a few miles off; hence the pursuit was continued with redoubled caution until, a few hours before dawn on the 27th, as the leading scouts peered over a rise on the line of march, they discovered a large body of animals in the valley below.

As soon as they reported this discovery, Custer determined to acquaint himself with the situation by making a reconnoissance in person, accompanied by his principal officers. So, sending back word to halt the cavalry, he directed the officers to ride forward with him; then dismounting, the entire party crept cautiously to a high point which overlooked the valley, and from where, by the bright moon then shining, they saw just how the village was situated. Its position was such as to admit of easy approach from all sides. So, to preclude an escape of the [463] Indians, Custer decided to attack at daybreak, and from four different directions.

The plan having been fully explained to the officers, the remaining hours of the night were employed in making the necessary dispositions. Two of the detachments left promptly, since they had to make a circuitous march of several miles to reach the points designated for their attack; the third started a little later; and then the fourth and last, under Custer himself, also moved into position. As the first light grew visible in the east, each column moved closer in to the village, and then, all dispositions having been made according to the prearranged plan, from their appointed places the entire force — to the opening notes of “Garry Owen,” played by the regimental band as the signal for the attackdashed at a gallop into the village. The sleeping and unsuspecting savages were completely surprised by the onset; yet after the first confusion, during which the impulse to escape principally actuated them, they seized their weapons, and from behind logs and trees, or plunging into the stream and using its steep bank as a breastwork, they poured upon their assailants a heavy fire, and kept on fighting with every exhibition of desperation. In such a combat mounted men were useless, so Custer directed his troopers to fight on foot, and the Indians were successively driven from one point of vantage to another, until, finally, by 9 o'clock the entire camp was in his possession and the victory complete. Black Kettle and over one hundred of his warriors were killed, and about fifty women and children captured; but most of the non-combatants, as well as a few warriors and boys, escaped in the confusion of the fight. Making their way down the river, these fugitives alarmed the rest of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, and also the Kiowas and Comanches, whose villages were in close proximity — the nearest not more than two miles off.

Then of course all the warriors of these tribes rallied to attack Custer, who meantime was engaged burning Black Kettle's camp and collecting his herds of ponies. But these new foes were rather wary and circumspect, though they already had partial revenge in an unlooked for way by cutting off Major Elliott and fifteen men, who had gone off in pursuit of a batch of young warriors when the fight was going on at the village. In fact, the Indians had killed Elliott's whole party, though neither the fate of the poor fellows, nor how they happened to be caught, was known till long afterward. It was then ascertained that the detachment pursued a course due south, nearly at right angles to the Washita River, and after galloping a couple of miles over the hills, crossing a small branch of the Washita on the way, they captured some of the fugitives. In bringing the prisoners back, Elliott was in turn attacked on the open prairie by a large number of savages from farther down [464] the Washita, who by this time were swarming to the aid of Black Kettle's village. The little band fought its way gallantly to within rifle-range of the small creek referred to, but could get no farther, for the Indians had taken up a position in the bed of the stream, and from under cover of its banks Elliott and all his remaining men were quickly killed. No relief was sent them, for Custer, not having seen Elliott set out, knew nothing of the direction taken, and, besides, was busy burning the villages and securing the ponies, and deeply concerned, too, with defending himself from the new dangers menacing him. Elliott and his brave little party were thus left to meet their fate alone.

While Custer was burning the lodges and plunder and securing the ponies, the Indians from the villages down the Washita were gathering constantly around him till by mid-day they had collected in thousands, and then came a new problem as to what should be done. If he attacked the other villages, there was great danger of his being overwhelmed, and should he start back to Camp Supply by daylight, he would run the risk of losing his prisoners and the ponies, so, thinking the matter over, he decided to shoot all the ponies, and keep skirmishing with the savages till nightfall, and then, under cover of the darkness, return to Camp Supply; a programme that was carried out successfully, but Custer's course received some severe criticism because no effort was made to discover what had become of Elliott.

Custer had, in all, two officers and nineteen men killed, and two officers and eleven men wounded. The blow struck was a most effective one, and, fortunately, fell on one of the most villanous of the hostile bands that, without any provocation whatever, had perpetrated the massacres on the Saline and Solomon, committing atrocities too repulsive for recital, and whose hands were still red from their bloody work on the recent raid. Black Kettle, the chief, was an old man, and did not himself go with the raiders to the Saline and Solomon, and on this account his fate was regretted by some. But it was old age only that kept him back, for before the demons set out from Walnut Creek he had freely encouraged them by “making medicine,” and by other devilish incantations that are gone through with at war and scalp dances. When the horrible work was over he undertook to shield himself by professions of friendship, but being put to the test by my offering to feed and care for all of his band who would come in to Fort Dodge and remain there peaceably, he defiantly refused. The consequence of this refusal was a merited punishment, only too long delayed.

I received the first news of Custer's fight on the Washita on the morning of November 29. It was brought to me by one of his white scouts, “California Joe,” a noted character, who had been experiencing [465] the ups and downs of pioneer life ever since crossing the Plains in 1849. Joe was an invaluable guide and Indian fighter whenever the clause of the statute prohibiting liquors in the Indian country happened to be in full force. At the time in question the restriction was by no means a dead letter, and Joe came through in thirty-six hours, though obliged to keep in hiding during daylight of the 28th. The tidings brought were joyfully received by everybody at Camp Supply, and they were particularly agreeable to me, for, besides being greatly worried about the safety of the command in the extreme cold and deep snows, I knew that the immediate effect of a victory would be to demoralize the rest of the hostiles, which of course would greatly facilitate and expedite our ultimate success. Toward evening the day after Joe arrived the head of Custer's column made its appearance on the distant hills, the friendly Osage scouts and the Indian prisoners in advance. As they drew near, the scouts began a wild and picturesque performance in celebration of the victory, yelling, firing their guns, throwing themselves on the necks and sides of their horses to exhibit their skill in riding, and going through all sorts of barbaric evolutions and gyrations, which were continued till night, when the rejoicings were ended with the hideous scalp dance.

The disappearance of Major Elliott and his party was the only damper upon our pleasure, and the only drawback to the very successful expedition. There was no definite information as to the detachment, and Custer was able to report nothing more than that he had not seen Elliott since Just before the fight began. His theory was, however, that Elliott and his men had strayed off on account of having no guide, and would ultimately come in all right to Camp Supply or make their way back to Fort Dodge; a very unsatisfactory view of the matter, but as no one knew the direction Elliott had taken, it was useless to speculate on other suppositions, and altogether too late to make any search for him.

I was now anxious to follow up Custer's stroke by an immediate move to the south with the entire column, but the Kansas regiment had not yet arrived. At first its non-appearance did not worry me much, for I attributed the delay to the bad weather, and supposed Colonel Crawford had wisely laid up during the worst storms. Further waiting, however, would give the Indians a chance to recover from the recent dispiriting defeat, so I sent out scouting parties to look Crawford up and hurry him along. After a great deal of searching, a small detachment of the regiment was found about fifty miles below us on the North Canadian, seeking our camp. This detachment was in a pretty bad plight, and when brought in, the officer in charge reported that the regiment, by not following the advice of the guide sent to conduct it to Camp [466] Supply, had lost its way. Instead of relying on the guides, Crawford had undertaken to strike through the cafions of the Cimarron by what appeared to him a more direct route, and in the deep gorges, filled as they were with snow, he had been floundering about for days without being able to extricate his command. Then, too, the men were out of rations, though they had been able to obtain enough buffalo meat to keep from starving. As for the horses, since they could get no grass, about seven hundred of them had already perished from starvation and exposure. Provisions and guides were immediately sent out to the regiment, but before the relief could reach Crawford his remaining horses were pretty much all gone, though the men were brought in without loss of life. Thus, the regiment being dismounted by this misfortune at the threshold of the campaign, an important factor of my cavalry was lost to me, though as foot-troops the Kansas volunteers continued to render very valuable services till mustered out the next spring.

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