Well I figured I might as well get the most controversial Indian battle out here first, Washita. The Battle of Washita took place on November 27, 1868 when the 7th Cavalry attacked Black Kettle’s camp on the Washita River, near present day Cheyenne, Oklahoma.

In summer 1868, white settlements in Kansas, Colorado, and Texas were raided from war parties of Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, Northern Cheyenne, Lakota, and Pawnee Braves. One raid in particular got the white settlers in a state of near frenzy. On August 10, 1868, at least 15 white settlers were killed, several wounded, and women raped or taken captive in Kansas. Some of the men responsible for the raid came to Black Kettle's camp, and it was these men that the Indian Agents wanted to have delivered to white authorities. Overall, a total of about six thousand Indians were in winter camp along the upper Washita River, most of them innocent of the raiding parties. Black Kettle was known as a "peace chief", not wanting war with the whites.

 

On November 20, 1868, a party headed by Black Kettle, Little Robe (Cheyennes) , Big Mouth and Spotted Wolf (Arapahoes) arrived at Fort Cobb to come and talk with General William B. Hazen about making peace and food provisions, along with munitions, being distributed out of compliance with the Medicine Lodge Treaty.

General Hazen told the four chiefs that he couldn't make peace with them and that they must not come to Fort Cobb, which would jeopardize the peace of the Kiowas and Comanches already camped there. Hazen's orders came from General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the Military Division of the Missouri. General Hazen knew that General Philip Sheridan had declared the Cheyennes and Arapahos to be hostile, and that he was going to invade their reservation to pursue the hostile Indians. General Hazen told the four chiefs "I am sent here as a peace chief; all here is to be peace, but north of the Arkansas is General Sheridan, the great war chief, and I do not control him; and he has all the soldiers who are fighting the Arapahos and Cheyennes. Therefore, you must go back to your country, and if the soldiers come to fight, you must remember they are not from me, but from that great war chief, and with him you must make peace." Hazen reported to General Sherman that the chiefs seemed sincere, but that Kiowas and Comanches at Fort Cobb said the young braves who traveled the chiefs were pleased that peace had not been made and had boasted that the Sioux and other northern bands would come down the following spring to "clean out the entire country of whites."

Black Kettle and the chiefs departed Fort Cobb on about November 21 with provisions supplied by the fort trader, traveled through storm conditions and reached their villages on the Washita on the evening of November 26th. The previous evening, a war party of approximately 150 warriors which included young men of the camps of Black Kettle, returned to the Washita camps from raiding. It was their trail, that the 7th Cavalry followed, that led to Custer’s raid. On the evening of November 26, Black Kettle held a council in his lodge to convey what he had learned at Fort Cobb about Sheridan's war plans. Discussion lasted into the early morning hours of November 27. The council decided that after the deep snow cleared, they would send out runners to talk with the soldiers to try to clear up miscommunications and make it very clear that Black Kettle's people wanted peace.

General Philip Sheridan had decided upon a winter campaign against the Cheyenne raiders. The Army had learned that if the Indians’ shelter, food, and livestock could be destroyed or captured during a winter raid, not only the warriors but their women and children were at the mercy of the Army and the elements, and there was little choice but surrender or starvation and freezing to death. The 7th Cavalry under Lt. Colonel George A. Custer found the Indians on the Washita River on November 27, 1868.

US Army Indian Osage scouts located the trail of an Indian war party. Custer followed this trail all day without break until nightfall, and starting up again when there was sufficient moonlight to continue. Custer divided his troopers into four parts, each positioning themselves so at first daylight they could all simultaneously attack the village. At daybreak the attack commenced. Double Wolf awoke and fired his gun to alert the village and he was possibly the first to die in the charge. Others believe Black Kettle was the first to die but I find that unlikely. The Indian braves left their lodges to take cover behind trees, in the riverbeds, and in the forest. Custer’s troops took control of the village quickly, but it took quite a bit longer to quell the braves who had fled it. Black Kettle and his wife died while fleeing on a pony, shot in the back.

As the fighting wound down Custer noticed rather large groups of mounted Indians gathering nearby on the hilltops. He discovered that Black Kettle's village was only one of many Indian villages camped along the river. Some of his men took defensive positions, while the others gathered the Indian belongings and horses. What the Army did not want or could not carry, they destroyed. About 200 horses were given to the prisoners to ride. Custer was fearful the gathering Indians would attack, so near nightfall he began marching toward the other Indian camps in an attempt to feign attack. The ruse worked, the Indians retreated to protect their families from a fate similar to that of Black Kettle's village. Custer turned around and headed back toward his supply train and prisoners, and when he reached them the Battle of Washita was over.

The number of Indian casualties, and the their makeup, continues to be a hotly contested point to this day. I’m confident the number was between one hundred and fifty. Author Jerome Greene compiled a list, from Indian sources, of all unique names of victims, for a total of 40 men, 12 women (of whom 11 are unidentified), and six unidentified children.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History, believes the 7th Cavalry lost 21 officers and troopers killed and 13 wounded in the Battle of the Washita, with the Indians losing perhaps 50 killed and as many wounded. Twenty of the soldiers killed were part of a detachment commanded by Major Joel Elliott, who had departed without Custer's approval and cried out "Here's for a brevet or a coffin!" to chase escaping Indians. Major Elliott and his entire group got the coffin. Major Elliott and his men ran into a mixed party of Braves from villages who were rushing to Black Kettle's aid. The soldiers were annihilated in a single charge. Some say General Custer withdrew without determining the fate of Elliott and the Troopers, creating a deep resentment within the 7th Cavalry that never healed and I believe helped seal his fate at the Little Big Horn (a future article rest assured).

The attack was hotly debated in the press, in early December. Newspapers were divided as whether the attack was warranted or not and whether it was a massacre or not. Some local newspapers took the unwarranted attack theme but the most vocal opponents were out east. The further east one looked, the more harshly the Army was condemned. The western papers viewed the battle far more warranted, to subdue the Indians. Few official military reports mentioned casualties among the Indian women and children. Custer stated in his report that "In the excitement of the fight, as well as in self-defence, it so happened that some of the squaws and a few of the children were killed and wounded....". Custer mentions that some women took weapons and were subsequently killed. The 7th did leave Washita with women and children prisoners, so he did not simply kill every Indian in the village. He admitted that his troops couldn't avoid killing a few women in the middle of the hard fight. I think Custer takes the rap for another failed US government Indian policy . The Army must follow the orders of the president, their commander-in-chief. Custer’s troops were under General Sheridan’s command, who reported to General Sherman. General Sherman held the Indians in an extremely poor light and was believed to be a disciple of "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" philosophy that was far too prevalent at that time. General Sherman was famed for his scorched earth policy against the southern civilians in the US Civil War during his March To The Sea campaign. I seriously doubt that he wanted much leniency given to the Indians at Washita based on his personal performance in Georgia, amongst others. Historian Jerome Greene wrote a book about the battle in 2004, for the National Park Service, concluding: "Soldiers evidently took measures to protect the women and children.". One of my personal favorites, historian Paul Hutton: "Although the fight on the Washita was most assuredly one-sided, it was not a massacre. Black Kettle's Cheyennes were not unarmed innocents living under the impression that they were not at war. Several of Black Kettle's warriors had recently fought the soldiers, and the chief had been informed by Hazen that there could be no peace until he surrendered to Sheridan. The soldiers were not under orders to kill everyone, for Custer personally stopped the slaying of noncombatants, and fifty-three prisoners were taken by the troops.".

I certainly wish the battle could have been avoided, and a peaceful solution attained, but the past is the past. No amount of hand wringing or "new thought" or anything else is going to change it. Only our perceptions change. With the wacky TV and movie drivel mentality (if it’s on TV or in a movie it’s gotta be true - yeah right) countless numbers of people have opinions and perceptions based totally on their viewing habits. Do yourself a favor, read books from several eras on the battle, and from both points of view. Develop an educated version of the battle and let yourself be the judge. Always be fair and open minded about the battle and it’s participants. I have great respect for the brave Troopers heading into battle and great respect for the brave Indians fighting to maintain their way of life. Above all do not judge the actions of either side through 21st century eyes. Our ideals and values do not apply in that distant time. Try to envision the events through 19th century eyes and you may be amazed at what new emotions awaken in you.

Click here to see some outstanding photos of the Washita Battlefield supplied by a visitor to Custer Lives!

 

General Custer and the 7th US Cavalry make their way to Black Kettle's camp in harsh snowy conditions.

 

The 7th US Cavalry escorts captive Indians back to government camps in the harsh winter weather.

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