Twilight of the Indian Wars (1865–1890)


The Chiricahua Apache saw many visions of the end. One revealed a thin cloud of blue smoke wafting through a canyon stronghold. As it filtered into a cave, thousands of uniformed soldiers emerged from the smoke. A Chiricahua called Goyahkla, who was also known as Geronimo, never forgot the vision. “The sun rises and shines for a while,” he mused, “and then it goes down, sinking out of sight – and it is lost.” He explained: “So it will be with the Indians.”

It all came to pass for Geronimo's band of Chiricahua, who fled from an Army camp during the summer of 1886. They included 18 warriors, 13 women, and six children. Immediately, the War Department launched a campaign with 5,000 regulars – almost one-quarter of the entire Army. In addition, several hundred Indian scouts accompanied the bluecoats. As fear and loathing spread along the border, thousands of Mexican soldiers marched across Chihuahua and Sonora. After Geronimo's band reached a lair deep in the Sierra Madre Mountains, the troops unsuccessfully scoured the area for four months.

To find Geronimo's band, two Apache scouts, Kayitah and Martine, conducted a secret mission. The former was related to a band member, whereas the latter was once a follower of Juh, a deceased ally of Geronimo. Soon, they picked up the trail and followed it for three days. As they approached the mountaintop, Kayitah's relative invited both to meet with Geronimo. “The troops are coming after you from all directions, from all over the United States,” Kayitah warned his kinsmen, “so I want you to go down with me when the troops come, and they want to come down on the flats and have a council.”

Geronimo gathered a lump of agave and sent it to the American troops as a gift. The 63-year-old warrior then descended the mountain to council with an officer, Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, who brought 15 pounds of tobacco and rolling papers with him. Following a night of deliberation, they reached a decision. On the morning of September 2, 1886, Geronimo's band formally surrendered in Skeleton Canyon.

Figure 8.1 Geronimo, 1886. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


The Army's campaign to capture Geronimo represented one of many conducted after the American Civil War. Military operations focused on securing the western territories, where an armed citizenry coursed recklessly through tribal homelands. The War Department also sent regulars to counter insurgents in the South and to suppress strikers in the North. By the late nineteenth century, however, a steady stream of migrations across the North American continent had eroded the security promised by the federal government to Native communities. Railroad surveys, gold rushes, and overland trails accelerated the flow of traffic even in the most remote locations. Once the Interior Department began setting aside defined areas that excluded settlers, policymakers incorrectly hailed the reservations as a final solution to the “Indian problem.”

Time and again, Indian country became a cauldron of violence. Under threat of prompt military action, the stateless populations tended to remain within their reduced landholdings. Nevertheless, chiefs and warriors considered the changing circumstances and devised new strategies to save their way of life. Their abuse and exploitation by corrupt federal agents caused many to distrust the policies that promised peace. At the same time, the theater of operations remained unstable due to bureaucratic squabbles, poor communication, inadequate planning, and insufficient forces. Even though the nation seemed weary of armed conflict, the Indian wars of North America raged for years in the Trans-Mississippi West.

Preoccupied with the spectacles of the Gilded Age, the nation hoped to fight the Indian wars on the cheap. Washington D.C. disregarded military readiness, while U.S. forces found themselves overstretched, mismanaged, and underprepared. Whether in deserts, mountains, valleys, or plains, service members performed thankless duties. Though reluctant to engage in pointless battles, they played key roles in a deadly game of concentration that limited the freedom of Indian people. It was the final phase of warfare initially caused by American colonization, which began anew after the guns went silent at Appomattox.

Road to Reunion

The U.S. halted the Civil War in 1865. Within the states of the former Confederacy, an occupation by federal troops followed. Army officers assumed responsibilities as governors, commissioners, police, and judges during the reconstruction era. While demobilizing, the American military gradually adjusted its objectives and missions to peacetime.

In spite of the Confederacy's demise, the demobilization of the Army occurred slowly. West of the Mississippi River and south of the Arkansas River, General Philip Sheridan took command of an aggregate force of 80,000 men. With 52,000 bluecoats in Texas, the War Department directed him to intimidate residual Confederate forces. “If I owned hell and Texas,” he told a newspaper reporter, “then I would rent out Texas and live in hell.”

At the same time, Sheridan prepared to respond to the presence of French troops in Mexico. In defiance of the Monroe Doctrine, French emperor Napoleon III had invaded Mexico while the U.S. was embroiled in the Civil War. Still in power in 1865, the puppet regime under Archduke Maximilian of Austria faced diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and internal unrest from the Mexicans. Two years later, French troops departed from Mexico and left Maximilian to die before a Mexican firing squad.

Unhappy with the prospect of a prolonged deployment, Americans in the Army eagerly awaited their discharges. On May 1, 1865, the War Department retained 1,034,064 volunteers in the Army. Six months later, over 800,000 of them were paid, mustered out, and transported home by the Quartermaster Corps. Only 11,043 volunteers remained in uniform the following year. By 1867, most of them had returned home.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the general-in-chief, wanted a permanent force structure of 80,000 regulars. However, both Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Congress disagreed. On July 28, 1866, Congress approved an establishment of 54,302 officers and enlisted men for the regular Army. In 1869, Congress slashed the number of infantry regiments down to 25 and reduced the end strength down to 45,000. By 1876, the numbers had fallen to a total authorized force of 27,442, a figure that remained virtually unchanged for two decades.

The Navy also downsized the maritime forces. With over 700 ships and 60,000 officers and sailors at its peak in 1865, the numbers sank to just 48 ships and 8,000 officers and sailors a decade and a half later. Moreover, almost all of the warships appeared obsolete by European standards. Nevertheless, Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson reported confidently that the U.S. remained safe from potential threats posed by “warlike naval powers.” Although the Navy Department continued to authorize patrols distant from North American shores, the assumptions of continentalism guided strategic thought in Washington D.C.

At home, Union veterans began organizing fraternal bodies such as the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR. Founded by Benjamin F. Stephenson in 1866, the organization complemented the Republican Party by “waving the bloody shirt” during elections. The next year, General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the GAR, actively promoted pension legislation in Congress. Eventually, their lobbying led to the creation of the Old Soldiers' Homes. Reaching a membership close to 500,000 at its peak, the GAR held a “National Encampment” annually from 1866 to 1949.

Meanwhile, policy debates raged about the role of the armed forces in rebuilding the postwar South. In 1865, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau to provide federal assistance to former slaves. Under the auspices of the War Department, it was headed by General Oliver O. Howard and staffed mostly by military personnel. Bureau agents worked to found schools, to operate hospitals, to distribute food, to settle disputes, and to provide representation for freedmen in court. One provision of the law authorized them to divide abandoned and confiscated “Sherman lands” into 40-acre plots for rental and eventual sale. However, President Andrew Johnson ordered Howard to return the lands to the former owners. Grappling with a daunting set of tasks, the Freedmen's Bureau operated with a limited budget until 1870.

During 1867, Congress passed a series of Reconstruction Acts that divided the former Confederate states into five military districts. Under the “Rule of the Major Generals,” the Army took control of each district and administered martial law. Grant directed the commanders to report directly to Congress rather than to Johnson, whose veto of the laws prompted a legislative override. Soldiers handled local problems such as urban riots, horse stealing, moon-shining, and voter registration. While Republican conventions approved revised state constitutions, they helped to organize and to train militia and police forces. Ex-Confederates were removed from state and local offices. African Americans volunteered for military service in southern communities, where they monitored elections. Because most states had completed the reconstruction process by 1871, the War Department organized a Division of the South to administer military affairs thereafter.

While colluding with the War Department, Congress usurped the power of the commander-in-chief. Also passed in 1867, the Command of the Army Act and the Tenure of Office Act stipulated that General Grant and Secretary Stanton retained their administrative positions unless removed with the consent of the Senate. However, President Johnson defied Congress the next year and removed the latter from his post. The House impeached Johnson as a result, but the Senate failed to convict him by a single vote. A few months later, Grant easily won the presidential election of 1868 and proceeded with plans to make a “New South.”

Lawlessness greeted the reconstructed governments of the “New South,” which underscored what one victim called a “reign of terror” by secret societies. The earliest and most famous was the Ku Klux Klan, which ex-Confederate soldiers in Tennessee founded during 1866. Over time, Klansmen committed some of the worst crimes against humanity in American history. To suppress the violence that municipalities often ignored, the Army assisted a handful of federal marshals in an effort to bring the offenders to justice. In 1871, Major Lewis M. Merrill arrived in York County, South Carolina, where he ordered members of the 7th Cavalry to collect information about the insurgency. By the end of the year, he had apprehended close to 700 troublemakers. Within a few years, the Klan abandoned its terrorist campaigns in most southern states.

To end the dispute over the 1876 presidential election, Republicans agreed to withdraw the last federal troops from southern states. African American militia and police forces were disbanded. Although Rutherford B. Hayes, a veteran of the Union army, became the new president, the reconstructed governments soon fell into the hands of the “redeemers.” After the Compromise of 1877, the Democratic Party seized power across the South and began stripping away the reforms initiated by the Army during the reconstruction era.

Peace Policy

Even before reconstruction ended, the management of Indian affairs grew more entangled with government bureaucracy. The War Department attempted to concentrate Native Americans onto the reservations created by the Interior Department, even though concentration seemed entirely inconsistent with the indigenous cultures. The Indian Bureau promised food, clothing, and shelter to the pacified tribes, while the Army fought Indian warriors deemed “hostile” to national interests.

Because the horse made it possible for mounted Indians to traverse extensive hunting grounds, a number of tribes depended upon the most abundant resource of the grass­lands – the buffalo. Calling them “the Indians' commissary,” the Army condoned the destruction of the herds. Railroad companies hired riflemen and scouts to lead large shooting expeditions. Gangs of armed hunters killed for sport, while skinners profited from the lucrative hide market. At the same time, diseases reduced the reproductive and survival rates of the buffalo. Before 1865, at least 15 million head grazed the open ranges. A decade later, fewer than 1,000 survived.

Faced with starvation, Black Kettle and other Cheyenne peace chiefs agreed to camp along Sand Creek in the Colorado Territory. However, young militants began attacking stagecoaches and ranches to obtain forage and plunder. Originally an elite military society, the dog soldiers, or Hotamitaneo, eschewed the comforts of the village and embraced life on the trail. Carrying war medicines into battle, they organized raiding parties and took the war path to achieve honor. With federal troops dispatched elsewhere, violence escalated into the Cheyenne–Arapaho war of 1864–1865.

With the tacit approval of the commander at Fort Lyon, the 3rd Colorado Cavalry fell upon the Cheyenne camps. On November 29, 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington commanded the volunteers in an assault at Sand Creek. “Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice,” Chivington bellowed. At least 163 men, women, and children perished, although Black Kettle escaped with his life. When a congressional committee later investigated what happened, they uncovered evidence that the bodies of pregnant women were cut open. They learned about the severing of private body parts from the corpses of boys and girls. The trophies taken by the soldiers became saddle horns, hat bands, and tobacco pouches. The gruesome items acquired during the Sand Creek Massacre appeared on public display in Denver for years to come.

Outraged by news of the Sand Creek Massacre, war parties of Cheyenne and Arapaho conducted retaliatory raids. On September 17, 1868, they trapped Major George A. Forsyth and a small patrol at an island on the Arikaree Fork of the Republican River. Even though the Indians held an almost 10 to 1 advantage, Forsyth's scouts drove them off with Spencer 7-shot repeating rifles. Soldiers referred to the engagement as the Battle of Beecher Island.

Meanwhile, Navajo raiders stole horses, cattle, and sheep in the deserts of the American Southwest. Colonel Edward S. Canby, Colonel James H. Carleton, and Christopher “Kit” Carson recruited the tribal enemies of the Navajo for a military campaign to stop the pilferage. Before the end of 1864, the defeated Navajo endured a 400-mile trek they called the “Long Walk.” Most arrived in the Pecos River valley at a reservation called the Bosque Redondo, where many Mescalaro Apache suffered in confinement already. Accordingly, concentrating the Navajo near Fort Sumner would create buffer that protected settlers from Comanche raiders out of Texas. The federal government provided limited rations, while the Navajo received farming instructions from the soldiers and the agents. Nonetheless, they struggled through four years of malnutrition, disease, drought, and grasshoppers. On June 1, 1868, the Navajo met with Indian Peace commissioners and signed a new treaty, which allowed them to return to their homeland. They promised to live on a reservation, to stop raiding neighbors, and to become farmers and ranchers.

General William Tecumseh Sherman questioned the prudence of expecting any Indians to keep their promises. Beginning in 1865, he assumed command of the Division of the Missouri, which stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. In addition, he served as a member of the federal peace commission that met with various tribal leaders and negotiated the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Troubled by the persistence of hostilities, he believed that Indian affairs should be directed by the War Department – not the Interior Department. He advocated a strategy of “hard war,” that is, deploying Army regulars in operations to destroy the resources and the morale of the Indians off the reservations. In his official report to Congress on November 1, 1868, he posited that securing peace in the western territories required the sustained use of force. The next year, he became the Commanding General of the Army.

With federal troops fresh from Civil War battlefields, Sherman authorized winter campaigns to punish tribes threatening the corridors of American expansion. While a military operation in cold weather presented serious logistical problems, it offered opportunities for decisive results. If the subsistence of the Indians could be destroyed, then they lived at the mercy of the federal government. The winter campaigns, which amounted to waging war on noncombatants, raised moral questions about warfare against the Indians.

One advocate for winter campaigns was General Sheridan, who transferred to the Department of the Missouri within Sherman's Division. Echoing the views of his predecessor, General Winfield Scott Hancock, he believed that winter conditions severely constrained the range and the mobility of tribes. As snow began to fall during 1868, his troops maneuvered against the Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne. Sheridan called on Colonel George Armstrong Custer, a brevet-ranked general, to lead a regiment into battle. “There are not Indians enough in the country to whip the 7th Cavalry,” the flamboyant Custer once boasted.

On the frigid morning of November 27, 1868, Custer's scouts led him to a Cheyenne village encamped along the Washita River in Indian Territory. The pony tracks stretched to the edge of Black Kettle's village, where four women and children were held captive. Custer's 600 mounted men road through the village, firing their carbines as they charged. A military band struck a tune. Black Kettle died in a volley of fire, while another bullet struck his wife. Custer declared victory, claiming to have killed 103 warriors in the Battle of the Washita. However, Cheyenne survivors said only 11 warriors perished. The rest of the dead, they said, were women and children. While viewing a number of starving Cheyenne and Arapaho coming into the Fort Cobb agency, Sheridan allegedly remarked: “The only good Indian I ever saw was dead.”

During his inaugural address in 1869, President Grant announced the federal “peace policy.” Echoing the sentiments of federal peace commissioners, the commander-in-chief promised to move the Indians toward “civilization and ultimate citizenship.” Encouraging missionaries to serve as agents, he pledged to march Indians on the “white man's road” through patient instruction, moral suasion, and economic incentives. Thereafter, members of the Society of Friends, or the Quakers, actively managed Indian affairs, although other religious sects participated as well. Ely S. Parker, a Seneca who reached the rank of brigadier general on Grant's staff, became the first American Indian appointed to head the Indian Bureau. He improved the distribution of rations, goods, and annuities, but he allowed his office to become a tool for patronage and scandal. Tried by the House of Representatives in 1871 for fraud, he was exonerated but resigned from office.

While the “peace policy” became mired in corruption, the federal government ended the practice of treating the Indian tribes as sovereign nations. In 1871, Congress passed a law that defined them as “wards” of the U.S. Changing “treaties” into “agreements,” the legislative branch began to assume a direct role in determining the welfare of Native communities. As the soldiers stood watch, the Indian agents insisted that the chiefs and the warriors assimilate into American culture.

Conquering the Sioux

Between 1854 and 1890, the Army conducted a series of military operations against the Lakota Sioux and their Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho allies. Also known as the Teton or the Western Sioux, the Lakota were a coalition of seven bands or councils: the Oglala, the Brulé, the Minneconjou, Sans Arcs, Two Kettles, Blackfeet, and the Hunkpapa. They established their dominion from the Minnesota River to the Yellowstone River and from the Republican River across the U.S. border into Canada. Shortly before the Civil War erupted, the Sioux began engaging in raids near the North Platte River.

Faced with increased colonization from the eastern U.S. during 1851, representatives of the Sioux and other Plains Indian tribes signed the first Fort Laramie Treaty. While agreeing to permit the construction of roads and forts, they guaranteed safe passage for settlers on the Oregon Trail in return for the promise of annuities. To provide security on the trails and along the upper Missouri River, the federal government deployed various units from the Army. Three years later, Lieutenant John L. Grattan at Fort Laramie led a small detachment of infantrymen to the Sioux camp of Conquering Bear. He intended to arrest a thief accused of killing an emigrant's cow, but instead one of Grattan's soldiers shot Conquering Bear in the back. In minutes, all 29 of the soldiers were killed by the Sioux, as was Grattan and his interpreter.

The next summer, Colonel William S. Harney commanded more than 600 regulars in a retaliatory attack on a Sioux camp at Ash Hollow. His troops killed as many as 100 men, women, and children and took around 70 captives. Next, they pushed deeper into the western territories and established Fort Randall on the Missouri River. Crazy Horse, a young Sioux arriving at Ash Hollow after Harney's attack, found the bodies of his relatives hacked by swords and mangled by bullets. He vowed revenge, committing himself to war for the rest of his life.

Disputes over promised annuities resulted in a war between the U.S. and the Dakota, also called the Santee or Eastern Sioux. During 1862, Little Crow and his warriors launched an insurgency at the Redwood Agency in Minnesota but were crushed by Colonel Henry Sibley's command at the Battle of Wood Lake. Many of the survivors fled westward to join their kinsmen in the Dakota Territory, while others relocated to the Crow Creek Reservation on the Missouri River. Following a series of war trials, the federal government hanged 38 in a mass execution at Mankato. The violence in Minnesota quickly came to an end.

The violence spread elsewhere, as the Powder River country erupted into another war during 1866. Colonel Henry Carrington's regulars erected three outposts – Fort Reno, Fort Phil Kearny, and Fort C. F. Smith – to protect the overland traffic on the Bozeman Trail. Although not formally a chief until later, Red Cloud wielded enormous influence among the Lakota parties harassing the Americans.

Figure 8.2 The Trans-Mississippi West, 1860–1890


On December 21, 1866, Crazy Horse, one of Red Cloud's followers, encountered a detachment led by Captain William Fetterman near Fort Phil Kearny. He decoyed 80 men into an ambush, killing them all. On August 2, 1867, Captain James Powell and a small force of 31 soldiers from the 9th Infantry survived a five-hour attack by thousands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Known as the Wagon Box Fight, U.S. forces took refuge in a corral formed by laying 14 wagons end to end in an oval configuration.

Red Cloud's raids intensified, forcing the U.S. to agree to the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868. The federal government pledged to abandon the Bozeman Trail and the new outposts. In return, the Sioux pledged to accept a fixed boundary for “the Great Sioux reservation” but retained access to their hunting grounds in the Powder River country. In triumph, Red Cloud torched the abandoned forts on the Bozeman Trail and retired from battle.

Thereafter, Sitting Bull, a powerful holy man, emerged as the primary leader of the Lakota. Joined by Crazy Horse and Gall, he denounced the wasichus, or greedy people, who encroached upon the hunting grounds between the Powder and Yellowstone Rivers. He vowed to defend the Paha Sapa, or the Sacred Black Hills, where military expeditions confirmed the presence of gold in 1874.

Following the discovery of gold in the Sacred Black Hills, officials in Washington D.C. attempted to abrogate the Fort Laramie Treaty. After January 31, 1876, the Grant administration considered the Sioux off the reservation as “hostile” and deemed them subject to attack. Now the commander of the Division of the Missouri, Sheridan ordered a three-pronged offensive to converge on Sitting Bull's camp in the hunting grounds. One column, led by General George Crook, moved north from Fort Fetterman on the Platte River. Under Colonel John Gibbon, another column headed east from Fort Ellis in the Montana Territory. The third column, commanded by General Alfred Terry, marched westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory.

On June 6, 1876, Sitting Bull brought the “hostiles” together for a Sun Dance near the Rosebud Creek. After slashing his arms one hundred times, he received a vision that foretold of an attack by mounted bluecoats “as many as grasshoppers.” He envisioned them descending upside down, but they possessed no ears for listening. Undoubtedly, his vision aroused the fighting spirit of the warriors at the Sun Dance. On June 17, Crazy Horse surprised Crook's column in the Battle of the Rosebud. Crook fell back to Goose Creek, while Sitting Bull and more than 1,000 Lakota and Cheyenne decided to camp at the Little Bighorn River.

At the same time, General Terry ordered Custer and the 7th Cavalry to undertake a reconnaissance along the Rosebud River. He expected Custer to enter the valley of the Little Bighorn from the south, as he and Gibbon entered with the main columns from the north. Unfortunately, Terry's orders also provided Custer a great deal of latitude in regard to his actions “when nearly in contact with the enemy.”

With the help of Arikara and Crow scouts, Custer located Sitting Bull's camp on June 25. Directing his 750 men through a divide in the Wolf Mountains, he appeared over-anxious to engage the “hostiles” before they scattered. Like most of his fellow officers, he believed that the Indians would not stand and fight. The military problem, he assumed, would be catching, gathering, and marching them to the reservation. Because he feared that his command had been spotted and that the camp had begun to disperse, he decided to attack in broad daylight rather than to wait another day. Custer reformed the troops into three battalions, personally leading the largest with five companies toward the north end of the camp.

Major Marcus Reno commanded a smaller battalion, which hit the camp on the south end to drive the Lakota and Cheyenne northward. His troops soon retreated, though many tried to make a stand in the timber along a bend in the river. A headlong rush across the river followed, in which a number perished before the rest reached the heights on the other side.

Maneuvering on the left flank, Captain Frederick Benteen commanded another battalion. After scouting for villages down the valley, he returned to the heights in time to find Reno and his troops badly rattled. Despite hearing heavy gunfire to the north, they remained on “Reno's Hill” until June 26. No attempt to reinforce Custer's battalion followed.

The Lakota and Cheyenne fought in small teams against Custer's battalion, which deployed in open skirmish order. U.S. soldiers carried single-shot Springfield Model 1873 carbines, but the Indian warriors fired muzzle-loaders and Sharps carbines with repeating action. A few employed Henry repeaters as well. Many brought traditional weapons such as bows and arrows, which permitted plunging fire over obstacles and into ravines.

Custer committed a cardinal error in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, for he failed to gather sufficient intelligence about the numbers and the disposition of the enemy. Consequently, at least 268 of the bluecoats died and another 62 were wounded. Once Terry's column arrived on the morning of June 27, they found bodies stripped of clothing and mutilated. On the “Last Stand Hill,” they found the corpse of Custer with bullet wounds to his chest and to his head.

The nation celebrated the centennial of American independence during the summer of 1876, even as the news about the “Last Stand” became public. In retaliation, Congress authorized Sheridan to launch a punitive expedition against the tribes. On September 9, Crook struck a Sioux village near the Black Hills and prevailed in the Battle of Slim Buttes. The Dull Knife Fight occurred on November 25 along the Red Fork of the Powder River, where Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie attacked the camp of a Cheyenne war party. As the regiments funneled into the war zone, they battered almost every Indian village they found.

Although the Lakota and Cheyenne scattered, Colonel Nelson A. Miles relentlessly pursued them in a winter campaign. Miles began his military career as a volunteer infantryman during the Civil War, but he served thereafter in most major campaigns against the Indians. At the Tongue River, he attempted to negotiate an end to the fighting, but his Crow scouts attacked a party of Sioux on their way to the council. He marched his regulars to the foothills of the Wolf Mountains, establishing a defensive perimeter on a ridge line. On January 8, 1877, Crazy Horse charged against the blue-clad regiments in a futile attack. Miles skillfully shifted his reserves and ordered an advance, which secured a vital ridge for a successful artillery barrage in the Battle of the Wolf Mountains. Crazy Horse withdrew from the field of battle, as weather conditions worsened.

The days of battle in the Great Sioux War came to an end. Many of Crazy Horse's allies began dispersing or submitting to federal authorities. On May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse surrendered at Camp Robinson, where four months later he died following a bayonetting in the back. By the end of summer, most of the “hostiles” had capitulated. Nevertheless, Sitting Bull and about 2,000 followers fled beyond the reach of the Army into Canada. Suffering from hunger and cold, Sitting Bull eventually returned to the U.S. and surrendered at Fort Buford on July 19, 1881. Dispatched to Fort Yates and then to Fort Randall, he remained a prisoner of war for nearly two years before resettling on the Standing Rock reservation. Owing to the efforts of the Manypenny Commission, Congress seized millions of acres from the Lakota Sioux and annexed the Sacred Black Hills. The American military made certain that the Sioux never regained their power.

The Old Army

Given the constraints imposed by Washington D.C., the armed forces struggled to maintain readiness. The federal government resolved to cut taxes, to reduce spending, and to balance budgets, which lowered expenditures for military affairs. At the same time, the War Department assigned more tasks to Americans in uniform than they could possibly handle. The regular Army faced a state of crisis, because an old organization had withered away but a new one was yet unborn.

During 1877, strikes and disturbances in the North necessitated Army intervention. President Hayes sent nearly 2,000 regulars to quell the labor unrest, particularly when the disruption of railroad service affected mail delivery. The next year, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act to prevent military personnel from acting as law enforcement agents. States continued to call out the militia and erected large and elaborate armories, often built to resemble medieval castles. Founded in 1879, the National Guard Association appealed to Congress for federal funds to train the best units as reserve forces. Although the War Department discounted them, the National Guard evolved into an “at the ready” force for use domestically. State legislatures began to revise the militia codes to draw new enlistments from the middle class. A decade later, more than 100,000 men served in the National Guard – a figure that surpassed the size of the regular Army at the time.

The conditions for the officers and enlisted men in the regular Army grew woeful. Few encountered an Indian in battle while performing tedious duties in the western territories. In addition to policing Indian reservations, the Army deployed regiments to range over federal properties such as Yellowstone Park. Typically, the regulars slept in crowded, unsanitary barracks. Commanders organized small detachments for operating in the field. Families often traveled with the officers to remote outposts and on long campaigns. Given the social obligations of domesticity, wives accepted the directives, customs, and hardships of military service along with their husbands.

The rank and file of the Army included recent immigrants, although some became naturalized citizens. Fugitive criminals or unemployed drifters served side by side with patriotic volunteers. They performed manual labor, building or repairing fortifications, roads, and bridges. They earned around $13 a month for their toil. Their diet consisted of beef, beans, stew, bacon, and hardtack. Morale was low. Desertion rates were high. For relief from depression, troopers all too often resorted to watered whiskey and wayward women.

Figure 8.3 C Troop at supper, 1895. Indian War Widows Project Records Collection, U.S. National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial


On duty, troopers operated weaponry designed for ruggedness and efficiency. Many bore single-shot small arms. While the infantry carried rifles, the cavalry was issued the 0.45-inch caliber breech-loading Springfield carbines. Additionally, cavalrymen carried 0.45-inch caliber Colt or Schofield revolvers. For the major campaigns, the artil­lery consisted of 12-pounder mountain howitzers, 12-pounder Napoleon cannons, M1851 ordnance rifles, and Gatling guns. Eventually, regiments fielded 1.5-inch caliber breech-loading Hotchkiss cannons. The superiority of U.S. firepower assured success in most fights against Indian tribes, although some warriors acquired repeaters such as the Winchester.

According to legend, Indian tribes referred to a handful of regiments in the American West as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” After 1869, African Americans served in the 9th and 10th Cavalry and in the 24th and 25th Infantry. Blacks sought new opportunities for social and economic advancement in the Army, although discrimination barred most from the officer class. By 1877, Henry O. Flipper of Thomasville, Georgia, became the first African American graduate of West Point. With 13 recipients of the Medal of Honor among the enlisted ranks, the four black regiments of the Army earned high regard for their service.

Initially organized during the Civil War, the Signal Corps continued to serve with distinction in the American West. Noted for developing a visual communications system called “wig-wag,” or aerial telegraphy, they utilized electric field telegraphy after 1867. They devised a new flying or field telegraph train, using batteries, sounders, and insulated wire. Fulfilling a congressional mandate, they provided facilities for transmitting weather reports nationally. By the 1880s, the Signal Corps maintained and operated more than 5,000 miles of telegraph lines that connected the isolated military posts.

While isolated from the main currents of American life, many Army officers embraced the prevailing trends toward professionalism. In 1881, the School of Application for Cavalry and Infantry was established at Fort Leavenworth. It began as a training school for lieutenants stationed at the Army's scattered garrisons and evolved later into the Command and General Staff College. By employing new and innovative methods of instruction, the map and tactical exercises stressed analytical approaches to military operations at the unit level. The Leavenworth schools helped to make postgraduate education the principal means by which officers developed professional expertise.

The emergence of associations and journals represented another significant aspect of professionalization. Founded in 1878, the Military Service Institution constituted a professional society for officers with a common interest in discussing specialized knowledge. To disseminate news, articles, and information regarding military affairs, the Institution began publishing a journal. Moreover, it facilitated the creation of branch associations for the infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Though largely divorced from civil society, the nascent publications of the “Old Army” helped to bind the men in uniform together to form a common professional fraternity.

No individual influenced military professionalism more than Emory Upton, who desired to transform the “Old Army” into a force more powerful than a frontier constabulary. An 1861 graduate of West Point, he mastered all three combat arms on the front lines of the Civil War. Colleagues observed that he possessed “a real genius for war.” Remarkably, he received the brevet rank of major general before reaching the age of 25. He wrote Infantry Tactics (1867), which the War Department adopted as a guidebook. From 1870 to 1875, he served as the commandant of cadets at West Point. To study foreign military organizations, he toured overseas. Upon his return to the U.S., he authored The Armies of Asia and Europe (1878). Appointed as the superintendent of theoretical instruction for the Artillery School of Practice at Fort Monroe, he taught combined arms tactics. He then took command of the 4th Artillery stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco, California, where he crafted his most significant work.

Although his earlier works merited attention, none stirred as much controversy as his unpublished manuscript called “The Military Policy of the United States.” Excessive civilian control over military affairs constituted a fundamental flaw of the armed forces, or so Upton opined. He admired the German military system, but he lamented that Americans paid a heavy price for neglecting military policy until wartime. In particular, he noted the absence of strategic thought in the U.S. high command. As he revised the pages of his manuscript for publication, he suffered from severe headaches – possibly caused by a brain tumor. On March 15, 1881, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Posthumously, the pages of his manuscript circulated widely among Army officers before eventual publication in 1904.

Fight or Flight

Across the American West, the U.S. responded forcefully to a different kind of civil war. To support the goals of the Indian Bureau in the Interior Department, military personnel endeavored to keep tribes docile and to track down renegades. Whenever fighting erupted, the Army maneuvered columns to trap the war parties or to create a decisive battle.

Lacking the regiments, weaponry, and supplies of the Army, Indians employed surprise attacks and sudden withdrawals in an armed conflict. The practice of “counting coup” remained paramount, which meant that a warrior achieved honors by striking or touching an enemy without taking losses. Since sustained or symmetrical engagements rarely occurred, skirmishes often seemed nasty, brutish, and short. Avoiding direct combat, Indians preferred guerrilla tactics to frontal assaults.

Near Tule Lake along the California and Oregon border, the Modoc demonstrated the effectiveness of guerrilla tactics against Army regulars. Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack, led his band of Modoc to the Lost River valley, where he attempted to extort food and money from settlers in the area. He briefly returned to the reservation in 1869 but left again in 1870. Soldiers tangled with his band during late 1872. After an exchange of fire, the Modoc took refuge in lava beds south of Tule Lake. They remained in the Stronghold, a rocky fortress honeycombed with outcroppings, caves, and caverns. Although the Modoc band numbered fewer than 60, they were surrounded by more than 1,000 troops.

In the lava beds, the Modoc band held off the troops for seven months. In early 1873, Columbus Delano, the Secretary of the Interior, appointed a peace commission to meet with Captain Jack. General Edward S. Canby, commander of the Department of the Columbia, joined the councils under a flag of truce. On April 11, 1873, Captain Jack murdered Canby, who became the highest-ranking U.S. officer to die in the Indian wars. With a larger column enveloping the fleeing Modoc, Captain Jack finally capitulated that summer. The Modoc War prisoners initially experienced confinement in Fort Klamath, but Sherman later scattered them in Indian Territory “so that the name of the Modoc should cease.” Along with three other Modoc, Captain Jack stood trial before a military commission and was hanged. Their heads were severed from their corpses and sent to the Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C.

The Army continued to build forts and to provide garrisons that watched over the occupants of Indian Territory. Built in 1869 near the Wichita Mountains, Fort Sill represented a key installation within the heart of the Kiowa and Comanche homeland. While the Indian agencies operated at or near the military outposts, Indian warriors launched a series of strikes against wagon trains, trading posts, and camp sites in the area. The Comanche primarily followed Quanah Parker, while Lone Wolf organized many of the Kiowa parties. Joined by militant bands of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, the coalition attacked buffalo hunters camped at Adobe Walls during the summer of 1874.

With the outbreak of violence around Indian Territory, the War Department ordered the regulars to take action. With more than 3,000 troops in the field, 14 pitched battles ensued during the Red River War. Colonel Miles maneuvered his forces to destroy Indian encampments in Kansas. That September, Colonel Mackenzie and the 4th Cavalry converged on the “hostiles” camped in Palo Duro Canyon in western Texas. They slaughtered horses, seized weapons, and destroyed supplies, leaving the Indians to face the winter in dire straits. Back on the reservation by the spring of 1875, the refugees flooded into prison camps hastily erected at the agencies. Because the Grant administration determined that the “wards” could not be tried before a military commission on criminal charges, Sherman needed a suitable place to detain them indefinitely without trial.

At Fort Sill, Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt gathered 72 of the resistance leaders. He escorted them eastward and incarcerated them for three years at Fort Marion in Florida. Risking his commission as a cavalry officer, he pledged to rehabilitate the war prisoners in his hands. His educational experiment with the chiefs and warriors garnered attention nationwide. Many of the ex-prisoners returned to the reservations three years later. After he received an appointment to “Indian educational duty,” Pratt took charge of a newly established institution in Pennsylvania at the Carlisle Barracks, an abandoned Army post. Officially, the Carlisle Indian School opened its doors for the schooling of Indian children on November 1, 1879.

Living between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Mountains, the Nez Percé generally maintained warm relations with the Americans. They enjoyed salmon-rich streams and the horse-grazing pastures along the Snake River and the Wallowa River, but the government forced them to reside on a tiny reservation at Lapwai. During 1877, a band led by Thunder Rolling from the Mountains, or Chief Joseph, refused to leave their homeland. Following a fight at White Bird Canyon, his band of Nez Percé prepared for a flight to Canada. Beginning on July 16, over 800 men, women, and children commenced their great trek. Under the command of General Howard, columns of infantry, cavalry, and artillery pursued them.

Once they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains, the Nez Percé warriors clashed with the pursuing columns in the Battle of the Big Hole. They repulsed or evaded the bluecoats at every turn until they reached Snake Creek, less than 40 miles from Canada. In late September, Colonel Miles launched a siege of their camp. While nearly 300 slipped through the lines and reached Canada, Chief Joseph decided to surrender at the Bear Paw Mountains on October 5. After fleeing 1,321 miles in only 75 days, the journey ended. “From where the sun now stands,” Chief Joseph reportedly said, “I will fight no more forever.” Although Miles promised him that the Nez Percé would go to the Lapwai reservation, officials in Washington D.C. decided to send them to Indian Territory.

Several bands of Ute occupied a bountiful reservation along the White River in Colorado Territory, but silver prospectors wanted their land. Colorado statehood in 1876 fired a desire among the armed citizenry to join in the call: “The Utes Must Go!” Thereafter, agent Nathan Meeker attempted to stop the Indians from gambling by plowing up their racetrack. He fell among the initial casualties of the Ute War, which began in 1879.

On September 29, 1879, Major Thomas Thornburgh led three cavalry companies to the White River Reservation at the request of the Indian agency. The Ute warriors, though outnumbered, managed to hold the troops at bay in the Battle of Milk Creek. Thornburgh died along with 13 other soldiers, while more than 40 were wounded. Eventually, over 4,000 soldiers swept through the reservation in a swift counteroffensive. Though a small number of families were permitted to remain in Colorado, the Ute War resulted in mass deportations to desolate reservations in Utah Territory.

As a direct result of the small wars against the Indians, the federal government opened additional tribal lands for mining, farming, ranching, and railroads. While American troops defended the Indian agencies, they conducted long and arduous campaigns that local newspapers trumpeted. Unfortunately, inexperienced officers seldom lived long enough to learn that Indian fighting differed from the diagramed exercises at West Point.

Apache Resistance

Distinguished by their ferocity in war, the Apache of North America resisted conquest for decades. Maps long referred to their homeland as Apacheria, which encompassed millions of acres from the Verde River to the Rio Grande River. The major divisions of the Apache included the Western, Chiricahua, Mescalaro, Jicarilla, Lipan, and Kiowa Apache. They subsisted by hunting, gathering, and raiding, although a number planted corn, beans, and pumpkins. To blend into the desert landscape, the warriors rubbed their bodies with clay and sand. They traveled quickly and quietly between water holes, living off wild honey, berries, and cactus fruit. Enhanced by the horses and firearms acquired through raiding, the Apache constituted a resilient guerrilla force.

The first U.S. soldiers arrived in Apacheria to occupy the American Southwest after the Mexican War. Miners and settlers in the region soon complained about the incessant raiding, which prompted military operations against several bands. The Chiricahua largely avoided hostilities with the Americans, because they preferred to focus their raiding almost exclusively on Mexican targets to the south. Their two great leaders, Mangas Coloradas of the Eastern Band and Cochise of the Central Band, resolved to peacefully coexist with the newcomers to the north. However, policymakers in the War and the Interior Departments wanted to subdue all of the Apache. The administration of Indian affairs was handled by federal agents within the latter, while the constabulary forces to provide security received orders from the former. Neither proved successful at developing strategies and tactics to pacify the scattered bands of insurgents.

In 1861, insurgents seized livestock and abducted a boy from a ranch along Sonoita Creek. Lieutenant George N. Bascom and a detachment of the 7th Infantry pursued them to Apache Pass. He took Apache hostages to exchange for the boy, although his senseless actions resulted in more reprisals. Cochise continued to frustrate the blue-clad regiments, but they seized Mangas Coloradas under a flag of truce and murdered him in 1863. His band fragmented into groups led by Nana and Victorio. For more than a decade, the Apache continued to strike ranches, mines, and settlements before escaping to their mountain sanctuaries.

During one of the costliest Indian wars in American history, the Army conducted a series of campaigns that succeeded in inducing most of the Apache to capitulate. From Fort Sumner to Fort Apache, the pacified bands received rations, clothing, and supplies. By the 1870s, troops had forced them onto several reservations in the New Mexico and Arizona Territories. The Indian agents insisted on concentrating the Chiricahua at the San Carlos Reservation on the Gila River, an unhealthy spot for mountain Indians. Because overcrowding, disease, and starvation plagued “Hell's Forty Acres,” a number of the bands returned to raiding settlements and ranches in the area. On April 30, 1871, local vigilantes massacred as many as 150 Apache at Camp Grant. Horrified by the news, President Grant referred to the violence as “purely murder.”

In 1871, Grant dispatched Lieutenant Colonel George Crook to command the Department of Arizona for the Army. Crook discarded standard campaign tactics and devised unconventional ones. He trained his troops to operate with mobility in smaller units. He also relied on Apache scouts, who were desperate to support their families on the reservations and appeared eager to settle old scores with rival bands. The most spectacular clash of his campaign occurred on December 28, 1872, at Skull Cave, where approximately 75 Yavapais perished. By the next spring, most of the remaining Apache had ceased fighting. Consequently, Crook received an advancement in rank to brigadier general, which angered several full colonels next in line for promotion.

On August 30, 1881, Colonel Eugene A. Carr led a force of 85 regulars and 23 Apache scouts to a village on Cibecue Creek. He responded to reports about a medicine man named Nochedelklinne, who hosted sacred ceremonies that involved dancing and the use of hallucinogenic plants. The Apache venerated him as a prophet with the sacred power to initiate a spiritual revitalization among his kinsmen. When Carr arrested him, a firefight erupted that killed Nochedelklinne. Shocked by the death of the medicine man, nearly all of the Apache scouts mutinied in the Battle of Cibecue. Although Carr escaped to Fort Apache, the mutiny confirmed the worst fears of many officers about the reliability of the scouts.

The killing of the medicine man confirmed the worst fears of Geronimo, a popular Chiricahua warrior at San Carlos. Though never a chief, the warrior appeared to possess special powers bestowed upon him by Usen, the Apache god. A month after the Battle of Cibecue, he and the Chiricahua fled the reservation in the night. Thus began their desperate bid for freedom, fighting soldiers on both sides of the Mexican border.

General Crook returned to the Department of Arizona during 1882. He pursued the Chiricahua with 5,000 soldiers and hundreds of Apache scouts, who wore red headbands for identification. The converging columns forced the holdouts to surrender during 1883, although Geronimo delayed his return until the following year. They settled on Turkey Creek, a tributary of the Black River on the Fort Apache Reservation. To the dismay of some, Crook forbade the Apache from brewing an intoxicating drink, tizwin, and from physically abusing their wives. On May 17, 1885, the disgruntled Apache departed for Mexico. Fearing imprisonment and execution, Geronimo joined them during their exodus. They left a trail of plundered ranches and mutilated bodies across the desert.

The Army launched another campaign against the Apache, cooperating with Mexican officials while crossing the international boundary. Crook's campaign in the Sierra Madre Mountains depended largely upon the Apache scouts, who were commanded by experienced officers such as Captain Emmet Crawford, Lieutenant Britton Davis, and Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood. Instead of cavalry horses, they employed pack trains. The scouts knew the secrets of the ranges, making the rugged terrain no longer impassable to the bluecoats. In a ravine, Crook personally met with Geronimo and the Apache on March 25, 1886, saying: “I'll keep after you and kill the last one, if it takes 50 years.” Two days later, the Apache agreed to return to the U.S. “Once I moved about like the wind,” announced Geronimo, but “now I surrender to you, and that is all.”

While being escorted back into the U.S., Geronimo changed his mind. Along with 39 Chiricahua, he outmaneuvered his escorts and bolted from custody once again. In April, he eluded patrols along the border and raided as far north as Ojo Caliente. After re-entering Mexico, he attacked and killed hundreds in Sonora. Later, the Chiricahua swore that he sang to delay the dawn, which permitted his band to cross an open basin without detection by his pursuers. When the War Department reprimanded the commander for permitting Geronimo to escape, Crook asked to be relieved.

Following a promotion, General Miles replaced him in command. A long-time rival of Crook, he refused to use Apache scouts initially. He opined that they performed unreliably and that Crook's extensive use of them represented a mistake. He also established a heliographic communications network – large, movable mirrors that used the sun to flash signals in Morse code. To find Geronimo, he sent Captain Henry W. Lawton with a team of 35 regulars from the 4th Cavalry and 20 more from the 8th Infantry. However, their initial forays during the summer of 1886 forced Miles to change his plans. He reluctantly sent Lieutenant Gatewood and two Apache scouts, Kayitah and Martine. Both scouts were promised a bonus if they found the fugitives, although they never received it.

On September 4, 1886, Geronimo surrendered for the third and final time at Skeleton Canyon. Troops and scouts escorted him on a 60-mile journey to Fort Bowie. Gazing upon the Chiricahua Mountains, he met with more Army officers and heard more promises. Accepting his fate, he boarded a passenger car at the railroad stop for his first ride on the “iron horse.” As the eastbound train departed the station, the soldiers began to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

As part of a plan for wholesale exile, hundreds of men, women, and children departed their homeland and traveled to strange and distant places. Irrespective of their military service in the campaigns, the Apache scouts and their families suffered in exile as well. The Chiricahua endured confinement for 27 years in Florida, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Following a bout of pneumonia, Geronimo died at Fort Sill in 1909.

Wounded Knee

In spite of the odds against them, the Sioux resisted the U.S. for nearly a half-century. While military actions contributed to the outcome of the long war, the economic development of the North American interior and the virtual extermination of the roaming buffalo herds primarily caused their demise. Consequently, the end of Sioux resistance brought to a close the Army's role in Indian fighting.

Because of disappearing buffalo herds and intense summer droughts, many Sioux faced bleak circumstances while walking the “white man's road.” Bureaucrats in Washington D.C. contributed to their physical deterioration and culture shock. Passed by Congress in 1887, the Dawes Act began the severalty and allotment of remaining Indian lands. Through subdivision, the federal government intended to force them to assimilate. At Standing Rock, Sitting Bull denounced the wrenching measures that opened half of the Sioux holdings to settlement and divided the rest into six separate reservations. “I would rather die an Indian,” he prophetically stated, “than live a white man.” Indeed, he received a vision of a meadowlark telling him that he would die at the hands of his own people.

Meanwhile, the Army recruited “wolves,” that is, indigenous auxiliaries for military service. With a general population estimated at 15,000, Indian scouts in Sioux country numbered more than 2,000 by 1890. Likewise, translators, police, and guides formed an indispensable corps of cultural brokers. They included such prominent individuals as Hump, who donned a uniform as a scout. Driven by a variety of motives, they helped to keep peace at the Indian agencies.

A number of the Sioux joined a rising insurgency, which swept over the American West. Some made pilgrimages to Nevada in order to meet a prophet, who promised to help end the oppressive rule of the Indian Bureau. Wovoka, a Paiute “Messiah,” predicted a great cataclysm in the offing. Cued by hypnotic songs and sacred ceremonies, he promised that the buffalo would soon return with the spirits of ancestors. He began teaching his followers the secrets of what many disciples called the Ghost Dance. Kicking Bear, a Sioux, brought the Ghost Dance to the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock reservations, announcing that protective shirts would repel bullets.

During 1890, President Benjamin Harrison ordered the Army into the field to counter the insurgency. With the regiments deployed strategically to protect the agencies, the Indian Bureau banned the Ghost Dance. General Miles, the commander of the Division of the Missouri, hoped to control the Ghost Dancers without an incident. He called for increasing the distribution of rations at the agencies and ordered the soldiers to intercept troublemakers off the reservations. The campaign lasted from November 17, 1890, until January 21, 1891, with multiple columns conducting operations in Nebraska as well as in North and South Dakota. Over 5,500 bluecoats participated in the concerted effort, which produced a handful of skirmishes that resulted in the killing and wounding of several Indians. The troops grew particularly alarmed by the sermon of Short Bull, a “prophet of the Messiah,” who called upon the Sioux to “kill all the soldiers.”

Though skeptical of the “Messiah” at first, Sitting Bull planted a prayer tree outside his cabin at Standing Rock. He began dancing while wearing a shirt with a painted red cross. Agent James McLaughlin, who feared that Sitting Bull would foment an outbreak of violence, demanded his arrest. When entering his cabin on December 15, 1890, a Sioux policeman on the agency payroll shot him in the head. Alas, his final vision came to pass.

Many of Sitting Bull's grieving followers fled in fear and joined a band led by Big Foot, a former Ghost Dancer. Miles instructed his officers to be wary of Big Foot but gave no orders to shoot first. “If he fights,” the general warned, “destroy him.” At the direction of the military, Big Foot's camp paused at Wounded Knee Creek on Pine Ridge. Under Colonel James W. Forsyth, troopers from the 7th Cavalry on December 29 began moving from tipi to tipi in search of weapons. When a shot rang out, the regulars opened fire with rifles, revolvers, and Hotchkiss guns. In the crossfire at Wounded Knee, as many as 300 Sioux were killed or mortally wounded.

Immediately after the fateful day, Miles angrily relieved Forsyth of his command. With 25 soldiers killed in action and 39 wounded, the Battle of Wounded Knee marked the most controversial engagement of the campaign. In 1891, the War Department conducted an investigation that eventually exonerated the regulars. Congress awarded Medals of Honor to 20 of them, though several lacked merit. As a legal matter, a federal court declared that a state of war existed during the outbreak of 1890.

For the remainder of his career, Miles continued to call for recompense to the families of those killed at Wounded Knee. Thanks to a distinguished record of military service, he eventually became the Commanding General of the Army. By the time he retired in 1903, no Indian lived freely in North America.


What had been labeled as the “permanent Indian frontier” in North America was transformed by the armed forces into an archipelago of communities, territories, and states. As the federal government reconstructed the defeated South, the regular Army confronted a series of Indian insurgencies west of the Mississippi River. Mounted warriors posed a formidable challenge to American troops, especially during the centennial campaign of 1876. The wide range of military operations strained the War Department, which tried to promote professionalism throughout the ranks. While pressuring Indians to remain on the reservations, U.S. soldiers campaigned in the coldest winters. They also crisscrossed treacherous borderlands in hot pursuit of wily guerrillas. Though sporadic and localized, the fighting exacted a heavy toll upon noncombatants. Non-state actors struggled to survive on ever-shrinking islands of space surrounded by rushing waves of migrants. The Indian wars ended by 1890 with countless resistance leaders imprisoned, exiled, or dead.

Americans remembered the Indian wars as the finale of an epic to conquer the North American continent. The close encounters in the Trans-Mississippi West contributed to the frontier myth, which inverted historical narratives by frequently depicting the aggressors as the victims of the violence. An expanded railway system enabled the American people to occupy the region, but new technology did not always give one side a decisive advantage over the other. The buffalo herds that sustained many Indians vanished, as starving men, women, and children grew dependent upon the federal government for subsistence. Seeking support for the American military, savvy officers persuaded a handful of young warriors to join their forays. Indian scouts in uniform wore an insignia of crossed arrows, which the first commando units of the Army later appropriated for themselves. Although sectional tensions subsided during the Gilded Age, there was no road map for peace that provided a homeland for Indians.

The dispossession of the Indians in the American West reflected a process similar to colonization in other regions of the world at the time, whereby settlers moved inland in the effort to occupy territories. With the proliferation of settler societies, they quickly outnumbered and displaced the original inhabitants of the land. The meeting of cultures produced conflict and bloodshed, but the prolonged struggle rarely impacted military doctrines, organization, and planning. During the last half of the nineteenth century, the Army engaged in over 1,200 battles, large and small. Accordingly, more than 1,300 officers and enlisted men were killed or wounded while fighting the Indians. At the same time, more than 2,000 Indians died at the hands of Americans. The lesson of the Indian wars was that military action seldom spread good will, because the Army possessed the means to put down but not to win over foes.

While ensuring compliance with the writs of Washington D.C., the Army operated in threat environments attuned to experimental tactics and advancing technologies. Although troops expressed misgivings about major offensives, they diligently carried out their orders in deserts, mountains, valleys, and plains. Whatever good deeds they performed, the most publicized – and sometimes exaggerated – mistakes tended to overshadow them. All too often, their efforts to pacify and to control Indian people ended in tragedy. Despite the miscalculations and the misunderstandings, they conducted challenging missions deemed essential to the nation's attainment of security and power. As a brotherhood of arms, they developed military bearings appropriate for small units serving cohesively together in difficult circumstances. The constabulary experiences of the American military prepared a cadre of veterans to face the next theater of operations beyond the continental U.S.

Essential Questions

1 How did the Indian wars of the American West resemble a civil war?

2 What was the Army's attitude toward Indian people in the region?

3 Who was most responsible for Wounded Knee? Why?

Suggested Readings

Adams, Kevin. Class and Race in the Frontier Army: Military Life in the West, 1870–1890. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.

Ambrose, Stephen E. Upton and the Army. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.

Coffman, Edward M. The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784–1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Dunlay, Thomas W. Wolves for the Blue Soldiers: Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860–1890. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Hutton, Paul Andrew. Phil Sheridan and His Army. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Leckie, William H. Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

Lookingbill, Brad D. War Dance at Fort Marion: Plains Indian War Prisoners. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.

Marshall III, Joseph M. The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn: A Lakota History. New York: Penguin, 2007.

Nacy, Michele J. Members of the Regiment: Army Officers' Wives on the Western Frontier, 1865–1890. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Rickey, Don. Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.

Roberts, David. Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Sefton, James E. The United States Army and Reconstruction, 1865–1877. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967.

Smith, Sherry L. The View from Officers' Row: Army Perceptions of Western Indians. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990.

Tate, Michael. The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Utley, Robert M. Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Utley, Robert M. Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1891. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Wooster, Robert. The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865–1903. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Wooster, Robert. Nelson Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

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