Military history



Braves vs. Bluecoats, 1848–1890

IT WAS THE “buffalo trail” that gave the Cheyenne away. On the morning of November 26, 1868, near the Texas border, the Osage Indian scouts found a path in the snow that ran parallel to the stream. Buffalo always went straight for the water and then scattered to graze. So this trail had been made by people.

For the past three days, through falling snow and thick fog, the Seventh U.S. Cavalry Regiment had been on the trail of hostile Indians who had raided settlements in Kansas, killing men, raping women, torching homesteads. Now, deep in “Indian Territory,” today’s Oklahoma, they had their first solid lead. As the troopers rode on, wrote a captain, they found traces of “a plain fresh trail which had obviously been made in the afternoon of the day previous by a war party of from one to two hundred Indians.”

The troopers loaded their Springfield carbines and tested them to make sure they were not frozen. In the evening they rested for an hour, fed their horses and themselves, brewed some coffee, and then mounted up to continue the pursuit. At 1:30 a.m. on Friday, November 27, the Osage scouts reported smelling smoke and hearing faint tinkling sounds in the distance. “Heap Injuns down there,” the Osage chief Little Beaver reported. The regiment’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, crawled to the top of a summit with some of his officers to decide on a course of action. He did not know how many Indians were in the village nestled below him in a bend of the Washita River. Nor did he care. For a daring cavalier like Custer—a man with a cast of mind similar to Robert Rogers’s and Banastre Tarleton’s—there was but one acceptable course of action. He would attack at dawn.

Still only twenty-nine years old, Custer was already a famous war hero, known for his vanity (he sported uniforms of his own design, long golden hair, and an imposing walrus mustache), his reckless courage, and his driving ambition, all of which attracted ardent admiration and perfervid loathing in equal measure. At West Point he had been nearly expelled on more than one occasion and had finished dead last in the class of 1861. Yet so conspicuous was his gallantry as a Union cavalryman that just two years later he vaulted straight from the rank of lieutenant to that of brevet brigadier general at age twenty-three. He ended the Civil War as a brevet major general and a division commander who was celebrated for leading his men from the front and simultaneously criticized for getting so many of them killed or wounded.

Peacetime brought a demotion for the “Boy General,” as he was known in the press, and deployment to the western frontier. But Custer never lost his knack for courting controversy. In 1867 he was convicted by a court-martial for deserting his command in order to meet his beloved wife, Libbie, at a distant fort. When a fresh campaign against the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes beckoned the following year, Major General Phil Sheridan, commander of the Department of the Missouri, cut short Custer’s sentence—a year’s suspension without pay—and recalled him to duty in the expectation that this swashbuckling officer could wage unremitting war as successfully against Indians as he had against Confederates. Sheridan’s confidence would be amply repaid at what became known as the Battle of the Washita, if not on later occasions.

Custer split his seven hundred officers and men into four columns and told them “to get as close as possible to the village without giving any alarm.” No talking, no smoking, no cooking. He even ordered the dogs that had accompanied them to be strangled with ropes or “dispatch[ed] with knives” to prevent them from spoiling the surprise attack. “The silence was oppressive,” wrote a captain. “Even the horses by their rapid gait showed that they, too, nervously partook of the quiet excitement.” The troopers spent “the night in moody meditations,” recalled a lieutenant, “broken occasionally by spasmodic shivers and involuntary shakes.”

As the warming rays of the sun flickered over the horizon, the soldiers could see the “clustered tepees, situated among wide-branching cottonwood trees.” “The hour was so still,” recalled a scout, “that a man could almost hear his watch tick.” Suddenly a shot rang out. The band struck up “Garry Owen,” Custer’s favorite martial tune, although the musicians managed to get out only a few bars before their instruments froze. With a thunderous roar the cavalrymen galloped toward the five hundred Indians assembled before them. As they crashed through the frozen snow, “the Indian village rang with unearthly war-whoops, the quick discharge of firearms, the clamorous barking of dogs, the cries of infants and the wailing of women.”

The teepees belonged to a band of Cheyenne led by Chief Black Kettle, a tragic figure who counseled peace but could not control the depredations of his young braves. These Cheyenne had already suffered grievously from the white man. Four years earlier, while camped under a white flag along Sand Creek in Colorado, Black Kettle’s band was attacked without provocation by seven hundred volunteers under the sanguinary Colonel John M. Chivington. One white witness later recalled that “all manner of depredations were inflicted”—Indians “were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.” The death toll amounted to two hundred people, two-thirds of them women and children.25

Black Kettle survived the Sand Creek Massacre. He would not survive the Washita attack. He was shot off his horse as he was trying to flee. Two of his wives and a daughter were also killed. Many others fell “almost before sleep had left their eyelids.” But other Indians overcame their initial surprise and, as Custer wrote, “seized their rifles, bows and arrows, and sprang behind the nearest trees, while some leaped into the stream, nearly waist deep, and using the bank as a rifle-pit, began a vigorous and determined defense.” One of his officers noted, “The Indian boys and squaws fought as fiercely as did the bucks”—small wonder, given their previous experience of the white man’s brutal way of war.

It took hours to extinguish the last resistance and by then a disconcerting sight was visible on the nearby ridgelines: Indians on ponies, hundreds of them, “gorgeous in war bonnets and paints,” some “armed with guns and some with bows and arrows and gaudy shields.” A cavalry officer noted how “surprising” it was too see “all the hills . . . alive with mounted warriors.” Little did the impetuous Custer, who was undertaking his first Indian campaign, realize when he began the attack that thousands of Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa were camped a few miles downstream. Already they had killed Major Joel Elliott and seventeen troopers who had become separated from the main body of troops while riding in pursuit of fleeing Cheyenne. A war correspondent who visited the battlefield the next month found their naked corpses frozen solid and covered with numerous bullet and arrow holes. Some were missing their heads; others had their throats cut. “There was not a single body,” he reported, “that did not exhibit evidences of fearful mutilation.” The entire regiment only narrowly avoided a similar fate.

Rather than risk a battle against “greatly superior numbers,” Custer did the prudent thing—for once. He decided to retreat after destroying the Cheyennes’ shelters and steeds. Huge bonfires were kindled to burn the seventy-five buffalo-hide tepees and all of their contents. The 650 ponies were harder to eradicate. Initially the men tried to rope the animals and slit their throats, but the poor ponies became so frantic that this plan was abandoned. The troopers spent two exhausting hours firing volley after volley into the moaning and snorting and bleeding animals. As the sun fell behind the snow-covered peaks, the cavalrymen feinted an attack toward nearby Indian villages. This drew off the Indian warriors and allowed the cavalry to march back to its camp as the band played “Ain’t I Glad to Get out of the Wilderness.”

The results of this “nice little fight,” as one officer termed it, would be shrouded in controversy—along with everything else in Custer’s life. Some officers accused Custer of leaving Major Elliott and his men to their fate by not making an attempt to rescue them. The Indians, for their part, accused Custer of grossly exaggerating the casualties he had inflicted among their fighting men. He claimed to have killed 103 warriors. The Cheyenne said they had lost fewer than 20 men and a similar number of women and children. There was no doubt that some “squaws” and their “papooses” were shot down in the chaos of battle. Custer had intervened to save the rest, but he was still accused by some of committing a massacre. There were also allegations that he had taken one of the 53 female captives as his mistress. Everything that Custer did prompted denunciation and defense, both in his lifetime and afterward. Of one aspect of the raid, however, there was little doubt. By destroying their village, their food supply, and their ponies, Custer had dealt a severe blow to the Indians. The campaign was not yet over, but it was through the use of such tactics that the Cheyenne and the other proud, warlike tribes would be brought to their knees.26

THE WARS SURVEYED in the preceding chapter—conflicts fought largely in the forests of the East Coast and on foot against settled tribes of farmers—do not fit the common conception of Indian Wars. The popular stereotype of bluecoats and braves on horseback was forged in the trans-Mississippi West between 1848 and 1890 in clashes such as the Battle of the Washita. Those wars would lead, by a conservative estimate, to the deaths of 1,109 U.S. soldiers, 461 U.S. civilians, and over 5,500 Indians.27

The greatest clashes occurred on the Great Plains against the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and Sioux. Like the nomads of Inner Asia, these superb horsemen ranged across seas of grass in the post–Civil War era following buffalo herds and warring with neighboring tribes. They lived in portable, buffalo-hide teepees and disdained agriculture. Theirs was a warrior society par excellence where sustenance came from the slaughtering of buffalo, deer, and other animals and the plundering of the possessions, especially the horses, of enemy tribes. Bravery was inculcated from birth; boys joined their first war party as young as eleven. “Better to die on the battlefield than to live to be old”: this was the philosophy of the Sioux and other Plains tribes. From their perspective, wrote Royal Hassrick, the foremost student of the Sioux, “courting death” was “as important a part of warfare as victory.” The highest honors, in the form of feathers worn in a war bonnet, were reserved for warriors who “counted coup”—that is, struck an enemy in battle, whether that blow caused any injury or not—because this was an inherently dangerous undertaking. Stoicism was another cardinal virtue. ”Men on war missions or hunting expeditions,” wrote Hassrick, “were noted for their ability to suffer wounds unflinchingly, to experience long periods of hunger and exposure.” Plains Indians neither gave nor expected quarter in battle: for a man, the wages of defeat were death, often accompanied by mutilation. Women and children, by contrast, were spared; typically they were adopted into the tribe that had defeated their menfolk.28

On a man-to-man basis there is little doubt that the individual Indian was a better warrior—tougher, bolder, braver—than the average U.S. Army soldier. But by the midnineteenth century there were only 270,000 Indians in the West, and many of them had already made their peace with the white man. The “hostile” tribes had fewer than 100,000 people—this in a region that would be the destination for 8 million Americans in the four decades following the California gold strike of 1848. Even the mightiest of tribes, the Sioux, numbered fewer than 30,000 in 1866, which meant that they could probably field no more than 7,000 warriors.29 Just as in the East, therefore, the tribes could not make good their losses, while the whites could count on seemingly endless reinforcements.

Settlers’ militias sometimes pursued a genocidal policy against the Indians, as the Sand Creek Massacre showed. The U.S. Army did not. Although the bluecoats were capable of considerable brutality, their goal was not to exterminate the Indians but to move them onto reservations—a strategy known as “concentration” that would be employed by many other counterinsurgents, including, as we shall see, the British in the Boer War. “For whites,” write two leading historians of the West, “concentration offered a happy coincidence of self-interest and noble philanthropy.”30 The self-interest was that Indians could be removed from lands coveted by whites, thereby preventing what the secretary of the interior described in 1873 as “frequent outrages, wrongs, and disturbances of the public peace.” The philanthropic part of the enterprise (“the great work of humanity and benevolence”) was that Indians were supposed to be taught “the arts of agriculture, and such pursuits as are incident to civilization.” In practice, however, Indians were often denied the lands promised to them and taken advantage of by unscrupulous Indian agents. Seldom were these restless hunters happy to settle down as inoffensive farmers. Thus confining Indians on reservations required the constant application of force with, as the secretary of the interior said, “all needed severity.”31

That was a job for a ragtag American army, which by 1874 numbered just twenty-seven thousand officers and men—smaller than the New York Police Department today.32 They were a hard-drinking, hard-bitten group of volunteers characterized, unkindly if not inaccurately, by one newspaper as “bummers, loafers, and foreign paupers.”33 Their assignment was to man a series of forts along the trails taken by pioneers heading west. Contrary to the popular impression fostered by nineteenth-century “dime novels” and twentieth-century movies, forts were rarely besieged by Indians; most did not even have stockades or other defenses. Rather they provided a base from which soldiers could fan out in pursuit of hostile warriors, much as the French army was then doing in North Africa and the British army on the Northwest Frontier. In common with the British and French, the American army’s most effective tactics were to target, as Custer did in 1868, Indian food stores, pony herds, and teepees, especially in wintertime when tribes were less mobile. Given the Indians’ subsistence-level economy, it did not take much to put them on the brink of starvation, giving them no choice but to enter a reservation. In essence tactics had not changed all that much since the seventeenth-century battles between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan.

THE MOST INNOVATIVE and admirable of the post–Civil War Indian fighters was Major General George Crook, a “straight as a lance,” broad-shouldered West Pointer who had fought at Antietam and Chickamauga. He was an avid hunter and a crack shot who stood out in the dissolute postwar army for not drinking alcohol to excess, not smoking, not using profanity, and not gambling. His diary was filled with disapproval, in small, neat handwriting, of all these “vices.” His beverage of choice was milk; his preferred hobby cribbage and other card games played only for “pastime,” never for money.34

“A brilliant strategist,”35 he made an in-depth study of Indian ways and realized that, as an aide put it, “unless savage should be pitted against savage, the white man would be outwitted, exhausted, circumvented, possibly ambuscaded and destroyed.”36 He therefore made extensive use of Indians as scouts and auxiliaries (“the wildest that I could get”) led by officers with “the best physique” and “great patience.”

Crook also realized that it would be hard to catch elusive braves with the ponderous wagon trains favored by the army. So he ditched them in favor of more mobile mules, becoming the leading expert on the military uses of these humble pack animals. Mule packing was such a specialized skill that he thought it could only be undertaken by civilian experts who were “paid liberally”—an early form of military contractor. Crook’s motto was “the trail must be stuck to and never lost.”37

While dogged in pursuit of Indians, Crook also tried to be fair in his dealings with them. He instructed subordinates to “deliver justice to all—Indians as well as white men,” “to make no promises not in their power to carry out,” and not “to become the instruments of oppression.”38 In his diary he recorded his personal creed: “The persons who enjoy the most happiness in this world are those who have the greatest amount of charity for their fellow man.”39 More than most of his contemporaries, he understood that a successful Indian policy had to offer carrots as well as sticks. Unfortunately he had trouble convincing his superiors. They favored a harsher approach.

Crook did not have much success against the Sioux in 1876 on the northern Great Plains. Leading large units was not his strength. He did better employing small, mobile columns against the Paiute of the Pacific Northwest in 1866–68 and against the Apache of the Southwest in 1872–73, 1882–84, and 1885–86. His most notable exploits occurred in 1883 when he routed the famous Apache chief Geronimo out of the forbidding Sierra Madre in northern Mexico by employing a force of 266 mules and 327 men, the largest contingent being friendly Apache. Geronimo was one of the most skilled, dogged, and merciless raiders that any Indian tribe had ever produced. He spent decades terrorizing settlers in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. But the presence of so many of his own people in the enemy camp demoralized even Geronimo and persuaded him to surrender, at least temporarily. He went off the reservation again, literally, in 1885, only to give up the next year after another relentless pursuit overseen by Crook. Yet, after getting drunk on mescal, Geronimo and a few others (20 men, 13 women) reneged on their promise to surrender. This embarrassing setback stained Crook’s reputation and caused him to be relieved of command at his own request.

The honor of capturing Geronimo for the last time fell to Crook’s hated rival, Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles. He sent out a picked force of 55 soldiers, 30 mule packers, and 29 Apache scouts. They finally ran down Geronimo and his small band after one of the most arduous operations in the history of the U.S. Army—a 2,500-mile trek through the mountains of northern Mexico, whose government allowed such American forays into its territory much as Pakistan and Yemen in more recent times have given permission for some U.S. counterterrorist operations on their soil.

To prevent any more escapes, Geronimo and the rest of the Warm Springs and Chiricahua Apache, even those who had worked for Crook as scouts, were transported to captivity in Florida. Crook, who died in 1890, spent the last years of his life campaigning for justice for the Apache, who had been promised that they would be allowed to return to Arizona after a short stay in Florida. Geronimo never did live to see his native land again. As close as he ever got was Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was moved in 1894 and died in 1909. In his last years he became, improbably enough, a celebrity who appeared at the 1904 world’s fair in St. Louis and other events staged by his erstwhile enemies, where he made good money ($2 each) from selling his autographed photograph.40

TODAY BOTH CROOK and Miles—two of the most illustrious generals of the late nineteenth-century army—have been long forgotten. Just about the only Indian fighter who is still widely remembered shared Crook’s aversion to alcohol, tobacco, and cussing but in most other ways was his opposite.41 The “genial, modest and unassuming” Crook disdained “the slightest pomp or parade.”42 A mule packer who served under him wrote, “In the field, except that everyone knew him, he might have been taken for a Montana miner. The only part of the uniform he wore was an old overcoat.”43 George Armstrong Custer, by contrast, with his flamboyant style and cadre of “embedded” reporters, made sure that everyone knew exactly who he was. He would become a legend by leading his command to annihilation.

As even casual students of history know, on the torrid afternoon of June 25, 1876, Custer rode with 597 officers and men of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment against a giant Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana. There were many more Indians than expected—6,000 to 7,000 in all, of whom 1,000 to 2,000 were warriors—and they were led by superb leaders, including the greatest of them all: Crazy Horse. One army officer left a description of him that suggests the awe in which he was held even by his enemies: “In repose, his face and figure were as clear-cut and classical as a bronze statue of a Greek God. When he moved, he was as lithe and graceful as a panther, and on the war-path, he was as bold as a lion, and as cruel and bloodthirsty as a Bengal tiger.”

The Indians had an advantage not only in warrior skill but also in weaponry. Many had Winchester repeating rifles (as well as bows and arrows), while the Seventh Cavalry was equipped with inferior single-shot .45 Colt revolvers and Springfield carbines. The overconfident Custer had refused to take along a battery of Gatling guns (an early machine gun), fearing they would only slow him down. He also split his command prior to the attack, as he had in the Battle of the Washita, confident that the results would be equally satisfactory. Apparently he had forgotten what a near-run thing the Washita had been. He had once declared, “There are not Indians enough in the country to whip the Seventh Cavalry.” That day he learned how wrong he was. “Long Hair” and 262 others—soldiers, scouts, civilians—wound up falling after a furious fight.44

This spectacular setback eclipsed, then and now, other Indian War catastrophes that were more costly, such as the defeat of the British general Edward Braddock at the Monongahela in 1755, where some six hundred soldiers died, or the defeat of the American general Arthur St. Clair in Ohio in 1791, which also led to the death of over six hundred soldiers.45 Most of these disasters were the result of the difficult dilemma that confronted commanders not only in the Indian Wars but in most other guerrilla wars: speed versus size. The bigger the column, the safer it was but also the less likely to catch elusive foes. Custer made the wrong choice, choosing speed over size, and paid the ultimate penalty. It was not, however, as unreasonable a choice as it appears in retrospect, given the success that Custer and countless other officers had enjoyed against more numerous Indian foes in battles such as the one at the Washita River eight years earlier.46

Moreover, for all its fame, in purely military terms the impact of Custer’s Last Stand was negligible: a reality that tends to be slighted in many works of history. All it did was hasten the end of independence for the Sioux and Cheyenne by persuading the “Great Father” in Washington to send more soldiers to their hunting grounds. Focusing on the Little Bighorn, as do a disproportionate number of all books written on the Indian Wars, can give a distorted impression. Such battles were rare. Indians, like all good guerrillas, typically avoided large-scale confrontations. The problem for the U.S. Army was similar to that faced by King Darius of Persia in his war against the Scythians: not defeating the raiders but catching them.

After the Little Bighorn, the star of the pursuit was “Bear Coat”—Colonel Nelson A. Miles, commander of the Fifth Infantry Regiment and George Crook’s great rival in the post–Civil War army. A mere store clerk in Boston in 1861, he had earned by the end of the Civil War a temporary promotion to major general and a Medal of Honor (not awarded until decades later) to go along with four different wounds. Following his service at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, his corps commander described him as “one of the bravest men in the Army; a soldier by nature.” After the war, this nakedly ambitious and exceedingly vain officer—just as talented as Crook but much more self-promoting—stayed in the army and married General William Tecumseh Sherman’s niece. Depicted by an admiring general as “a man of untiring and sleepless energy,” Miles led his five hundred infantrymen (“walk-a-heaps,” the Indians called them) in a relentless pursuit of Custer’s killers from October 1876 to January 1877.

Temperatures sometimes hit sixty degrees below zero Fahrenheit—so unbearably frigid that “the men had to stop in the midst of battles to light fires, to warm their fingers, which were no longer able to work the breech-locks.” Miles and his men were better prepared than their adversaries for such Arctic conditions. They were bundled up in fur-trimmed greatcoats, mittens, buffalo moccasins, and woolen face masks—making them look, Miles thought, “like a large body of Esquimaux.” With his “uncommon talent for fighting battles,” possessed (as one superior noted) of “perfect coolness and self-possession,” he skillfully deployed his artillery to beat off major attacks even when his command was completely surrounded. “He literally gave the savages no rest,” wrote a newspaper correspondent employing the ethnocentric vernacular of the day. The Sioux and Cheyenne who had annihilated the Seventh Cavalry were so disheartened by this “constant pounding” that they either surrendered or fled to Canada.47

Miles would go on to become the commanding general of the U.S. Army in 1895. His foes Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull—two of the greatest Indian leaders in history—would in contrast meet a melancholy end, killed while resisting arrest on the reservation. Sitting Bull’s demise came in 1890, the year that the Indian Wars officially ended with a one-sided shootout at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota that claimed the lives of 25 soldiers and 153 Sioux men, women, and children. It was a fitting conclusion to almost three centuries of relentless slaughter and depravity—as well as considerable heroism and self-sacrifice on both sides.

WHEN THE INDIAN Wars are remembered today, it is with cinematic images of whooping Indians and charging cavalrymen. Those stereotypes are not wrong, but they are incomplete. As important to the final outcome was the boom of hunters’ guns destroying the buffalo, the buzz of telegraph wires summoning reinforcements, the steady clank of pioneer wagons across the prairie, and the toot-toot of trains traversing the transcontinental railroad completed in 1869. The occupation of their hunting grounds by white settlers doomed the Indians as surely as any battle. Often the application of force was actually counterproductive, encouraging the Indians to resist longer than if they had been better treated.

That should not detract, however, from an appreciation of the skills or the ruthlessness exhibited by George Armstrong Custer, George Crook, Nelson Miles, and other notable Indian fighters. Although the U.S. Army always considered Indian fighting an activity of secondary importance and never developed much doctrine designed specifically for this mission, soldiers stumbled through sheer experimentation upon effective techniques to defeat what one of them called “the best fighters the sun ever shone on.”48 The methods they employed—in particular the use of native scouts, attacks on the enemy’s food supplies, and the rounding up of the insurgent population—would play a major part in most successful counterinsurgency campaigns well into the twentieth century. Their Indian adversaries, in turn, showed how to utilize their mobility effectively to evade and hinder more numerous pursuers—and how to fight with great resolution in a doomed cause.

Equal determination would be shown by very different tribesmen fighting a very different sort of empire not in the Wild West but in the even more wild East.

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