Battle of the Washita

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Part of our in-depth series exploring the forts of Comancheria

Picture of General Custer

The following story is from the book, Carbine & Lance, The Story of Old Fort Sill, by Colonel W.S. Nye; Copyright © 1937 by the University of Oklahoma Press. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

    Early in November Custer's Seventh Cavalry was ready to march south against the hostile Indians. The Nineteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, not being fully mobilized, was ordered to join Custer later, at the junction of Wolf Creek and Beaver Creek, in the northern part of Indian Territory. This was where General Sully's recent expedition had turned back from its pursuit of the Cheyennes. General Sheridan ordered Sully to build a supply base at that point, from which mobile columns could be sent in search of hostiles.

    Under command of General Sully the Seventh Cavalry, followed by a long wagon train with its infantry escort, moved south from Fort Larned. On the way they crossed the path of a large Indian war party, headed north. Custer wanted to back-track on this trail and attack the village from which it had come, but Sully would not consent. It was learned later that the Indians had come from Black Kettle's camp, from which after being supplied with flour and ammunition by William "Dutch Bill" Griffenstein, a trader, they set forth to raid the settlements. They killed one of Sheridan's mail couriers between Fort Dodge and Fort Larned, and ran off the mules belonging to Clarke's wagon train. Then they moved to the vicinity of Fort Dodge, where they killed and scalped two civilians, one of whom was a hunter named Ralph Morrison.

    Picture of U.S. cavalry led by Custer entering a Cheyenne Village
    U.S. cavalry led by Custer entering a Cheyenne Village. Photo from the book, Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars, by Jerry Keenan.

    On their arrival at the rendezvous on Beaver Creek the men of Sully's command set to work building a stockade fort which was called Camp Supply. Here occurred one of those trivial incidents which illustrates how the course of events often is influenced by the personality of the participants. General Sully was disturbed over the fact that Governor Crawford soon would arrive with the Kansas Volunteers. Crawford was a full colonel of militia. Being on active duty he would rank Sully, whose permanent rank was only lieutenant colonel. Sully sought to avoid this embarrassment by issuing an order assuming supreme command by virtue of his rank as brevet brigadier general. Lieutenant Colonel Custer, not to be outdone where brevet rank was concerned, issued an order assuming command as a brevet major general.

    In a few days General Sheridan arrived. He confirmed Custer's order. Sully was sent back to Kansas.

    As the month wore on, Sheridan became increasingly impatient and anxious over the non-arrival of the Kansas Volunteers. Attached to the expedition were a number of civilian scouts, including Ben Clark, California Joe, Romeo, Jack "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, Jimmy Morrison, and others. They knew full well where the Cheyennes and Arapahoes were camped, and they told Sheridan about it repeatedly. A blizzard swept across the plains from the north, burying the grass under a blanket of snow. Now was the time to strike. The Indians would be lying close in their winter camps. They would not dream that the soldiers would attack in such weather. Appreciating these facts, Sheridan ordered the Seventh Cavalry to march against the hostiles on November 23, prepared for a campaign of two weeks.

    The snow continued to fall on November 22, and all through the night.

    Picture of Custer's Charge at the Battle of the Washita
    Custer's Charge at the Battle of the Washita

    Reveille on November 23 sounded two or three hours before daybreak. The snow was still drifting down in large, lazy flakes. The adjutant of the Seventh Cavalry poked his head out of his tent and surveyed the landscape doubtfully.

    "Fine weather for a campaign," he remarked with heavy sarcasm.

    "Certainly," replied Lieutenant Colonel Custer. "Just what I like. It will keep the Indians from moving around."

    It was still dark when the column formed. When the order to march was given the little mounted band struck up the familiar Civil War marching air, "The Girl I Left Behind Me." The tune was jolly but the words were without significance. There was not a woman in the camp.

    The Osage guides confessed that they could not distinguish landmarks through the storm. The white scouts were equally at a loss. Custer himself set the course by means of a pocket compass.

    Three days later, November 26, the regiment reached the Canadian River. The sun was out, and across the dazzling white plain the low buttes of Antelope Hills stood outlined against a clear sky. Major Joel H. Elliott was sent with three companies of cavalry and a few scouts to search upstream for signs of hostile Indians. The other companies and the wagon train spent the morning floundering through the slush, ice and quicksand to the south bank of the river.

    About noon Scout Jack Corbin returned with the intelligence that Elliott had found the abandoned camp of a large Indian war party. The pony tracks leading from this place pointed south; in the fresh snow it was easy to determine that the trail had been made within the past twenty-four hours. Custer surmised it was that of the band which had gone north some two weeks previously.

    The young commander made a quick decision. He sent orders that Elliott should follow the trail until dark, then halt and await the main column. A bugle assembled the officers at the head of the column. They listened eagerly to what the colonel had to say. All realized that the scent was warm. All felt that the game soon would be flushed.

    Custer directed that the supply train be left on the Canadian, guarded by eighty men under the officer of the day. Seven wagon-loads of ammunition and one ambulance were to accompany the column. Each trooper was to carry one hundred rounds of ammunition, hard tack and coffee for one day, and a ration of grain for his mount.

    Captain Louis McLane Hamilton, a grandson of Alexander Hamilton, was officer of the day. He came to Custer in great distress. Might he not be allowed to go with his troop? The colonel was sympathetic, but would not establish precedent by changing the detail. If Hamilton could get some other officer to exchange places with him it would be all right.

    Lieutenant E. G. Mathey, suffering from snow blindness, agreed to take Captain Hamilton's post with the wagons. No presentiment of any kind came to either young officer. For Louis Hamilton it was the final fork in life's trail. And there were others for whom "Boots and Saddles" had sounded for the last time.

    It was nine o'clock at night before Elliott was overtaken. The men had been in the saddle since four that morning, so fires were made in a sheltered draw, and the men were allowed to boil coffee. They unsaddled and unbitted the horses, and fed them a meager allowance of corn. Then the march was resumed.

    No loud talking was permitted, no smoking nor lighting of matches. The bugle was stilled; commands were transmitted softly and passed from troop to troop. Two Osage trailers led the advance, followed at a little distance by Custer and a few scouts. The rest of the auxiliaries were strung out as connecting files to the main body, a half-mile to the rear. During the day a slight thaw had melted the surface of the snow; but with nightfall came zero weather, forming a crust. Through this the horses' hoofs crunched and squeaked, the sounds being carried for hundreds of yards on the still night air. A great golden moon rolled up over the eastern curve of the earth, casting long shadows beyond the writhing black serpent of troops sliding across the white breast of the prairie.

    Shortly after midnight the point halted. Custer hurried forward to investigate.

    "What's the matter?" he asked.

    "Me don't know, but me smell fire," whispered Little Beaver.

    The colonel sniffed the air skeptically. He directed two of his staff to do the same. They could detect nothing. The advance continued cautiously. Within a half-mile they came upon the smoldering embers of a small fire, evidently left by pony herders. A ripple of excitement went down the column as the news was passed along. In a few moments the guide stopped again at the crest of a little rise. He shaded his eyes from the glare of the moon on the snow.

    Custer dismounted. "What now?"

    "Heap Injuns down there!"

    Indistinctly the commander could make out a large body of animals huddled together in the bottom of a long valley which sloped away from his feet. He expressed the opinion that it might be buffalo.

    "No buffurow. Ponies," insisted the Osage. "Me heard a dog bark."

    At that moment Custer also heard the faint barking of a canine sentinel. Then through the sharp air came the distant tinkle of a bell as a ball-mare moved restlessly in the sharp air.

    "That settles it," Custer decided. "Buffalo are not equipped with bells." And the next instant he heard the wail of an infant, far down the valley.

    The officers were sent for. They were directed to remove their sabers, lest an incautious clanking be carried to the supposed village. Then they joined the commander on the crest, where he explained the situation as he conjectured it to be, and issued orders for the attack. He divided the command into four attack groups of about two hundred men each. Two were to charge the village frontally. A third commanded by Major Elliott was to circle to the east; a fourth under Captain Thompson was to make a circuit to the right for several miles and take the Indians in reverse from the southwest. Custer and his staff, the scouts, the band, and Lieutenant Cook's group of forty selected sharpshooters were to charge with the left center column.

    Picture of Black Kettle
    Black Kettle

    This plan involved an advance over unexplored terrain against an enemy of unknown strength, culminating in a double envelopment. Such a maneuver implies overwhelming superiority of numbers. Custer had no information as to his relative strength. As it turned out, the village which he was about to assault consisted of only fifty-one lodges, with perhaps two hundred warriors under the ill-fated Cheyenne chieftain, Black Kettle. But below this camp, for a distance of fifteen miles, extended the entire winter encampment of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, together with small bands of Kiowas under Woman's Heart, Big Bow, and Kicking Bird. Thus there were present in the immediate vicinity hostile reinforcements numbering into the thousands.

    The danger inherent in a plan calling for such a wide dispersion of forces, especially since no reserve was held out, is quite apparent. It reflected, however, the impetuous nature of its author. This time luck was with General Custer. But on another field, eight years later, his famous star of fortune was to be blotted out. It may well be that his decision on that later field was influenced largely by the favorable outcome of the action of this winter morning on the Washita.

    Apparently Custer and his men were not bothered with any disturbing thoughts as they huddled in the bitter cold awaiting the time of attack. Hard Rope and his Osages were full of misgivings, but said nothing. Not only were they doubtful of the wisdom of attacking on such incomplete information of the enemy, but also they feared that in the confusion they might be taken for Cheyennes and shot down by the troops. They determined to stick close to Custer-a prudent decision.

    Custer notified Lieutenant James Bell to wait with the ammunition wagons until he heard the opening fire. Then he was to come forward with the extra ammunition. On the way he was to pick up the overcoats and haversacks which the men were removing and piling in heaps on the snow.

    As the eastern sky began to lighten, the center columns moved forward slowly, picking their way over the uneven ground, to reach a closer position from which to launch the charge. As he approached the village, Custer could see the untended Indian pony herd drifting away to the south. A furious barking of dogs came from the village. Gray forms of tepees showed here and there through the leafless timber, with wreaths of smoke rising from two or three of the conical tops. Not an Indian was in sight. Could it be that the camp was deserted after all, that the quarry had taken alarm during the night?

    Suddenly the morning quiet was ruptured by a single rifle shot from the edge of the village. A scattering rattle of carbines answered from Cook's sharpshooters. The trumpeters sounded the stirring notes of the charge. At a signal from Custer the band began to play his favorite fighting air, "Gary Owen." After a few bars the instruments froze; but already eight hundred troopers were thundering into the vortex of battle.

    From sundown until just before midnight on the twenty-sixth of November the war drums had throbbed in the village of Black Kettle. A large band of braves had just returned from a successful raid on the Kansas settlements. The Cheyennes were celebrating the scalp dance around the flickering fire. Among the dancers was Eonah-pah (Trailing-the-Enemy), a Kiowa who had turned back from a recent expedition against the Utes, and who, with a companion, had reached the Cheyenne village at dusk. On the way they had crossed a broad trail made by shod horses. When they arrived at the Cheyenne camp they told the Cheyennes about the trail which they had seen, but the Cheyennes only laughed at them. The other Kiowa thought that they ought not to stop at this place; it was too dangerous. Eonah-pah ignored his companion's fears. He had been reassured by the nonchalance of the Cheyennes. Besides, there was going to be a big scalp dance in Black Kettle's village. He could see several very pretty Cheyenne girls making ready for it. He intended to get a partner and participate.

    And so the dance went on. The dancers, alternately young men and women, tied themselves together with rawhide ropes. It was the custom that no one could disengage himself until the dance was over.

    Black Kettle and Little Robe did not take part in the dance. They were extremely uneasy. They sat in the chief's tepee, smoking thoughtfully and discussing the unfavorable result of the visit to Colonel Hazen. Black Kettle thought perhaps it would be safer to move the camp the next day.

    "But before we move we will take other precautions," said Black Kettle.

    "It does not seem possible that soldiers will come so far, or travel in such weather, to attack us. Neither do I think they can find us. But lest so incredible a thing should happen, we will fasten this piece of white cloth to a pole. If soldiers approach it will be the duty of the warrior on guard over the camp to raise the cloth above my lodge, in token that we are peaceful."

    Late into the night the tom-toms boomed. Finally the dance was ended and the weary Indians rolled themselves in their robes and slept.

    Double Wolf went forth to relieve the man who had been on watch since sundown. Everything was still. The bright moon illuminated the surrounding hillsides. A papoose wailed for a moment and was quiet. Soon the insistent, bitter cold penetrated the sentinel's blanket. He stole inside a lodge to warm himself over the dying embers of the fire. In a few moments he too was asleep.

    Early in the morning a Cheyenne woman, troubled with rheumatic pains, went out to get firewood. She saw something shining on the hillside, something moving. Soldiers! Hastily she roused her children, sent them scurrying down the creek. Then she followed, afraid to shout lest the soldiers see her and shoot. The savage barking of camp dogs aroused the negligent Double Wolf. He seized his rifle and went to the edge of the frozen river. A woman ran from the timber where she had gone to get her horse.

    "Soldiers!" she cried.

    Double Wolf listened intently, all faculties alert. Unmistakably there came the noise of many hoofs breaking through the snow, crackling the underbrush. The head of a white man appeared over a fallen tree. Thoughts of the Sand Creek tragedy raced through the Indian's mind; orders about raising the white flag were forgotten. He lifted his gun and fired.

    From the distinctive black tepee of the chief came the old leader, shouting to arouse his people. With trembling fingers he strove to untie his pony, tethered close at hand. He was on its back, with his female tribesperson up behind. As Black Kettle rode to the banks of the Washita a volley of carbine shots rang out from the woods across the stream. Double Wolf fell dead. Black Kettle slithered from his mount and flopped in the icy waters, his body half awash. More shots. The woman dropped dead beside her chief.

    Two minutes after the sounding of the charge Custer, with Hamilton's and West's squadrons, was in and through the village. With him, boot to boot, rode Scout Ben Clark. The troopers fired at every blanketed fleeing figure, hacked savagely at every topknot. Many Cheyennes plunged waist deep in the icy waters of the Washita and then from the shelter of the river bank fired at the soldiers. Others ran south across the sand dunes. Thompson and Meyers drove these back into the village, or chased them south and east along the stream. Women and children cowered within the tepees, taking refuge under piles of buffalo robes; yelling Osages dragged them out by the heels. The snow became stained with blood.

    Captain Meyer's column, impeded by brush and fallen timbers, moved to the right and crossed the river over a little pony ford. They charged through the west side of the village, saw now hostiles, emerged on the sand bluffs to the south and engaged in individual fights with scattered warriors. Two platoons under Lieutenant E. S. Godfrey were detailed to round up the Indian horse herd.

    The Indians who were not shot down in the village fled east along the Washita, wading the chill waters, or dodging along the bank. Some took refuge in gullies or behind logs and trees. With these the sharpshooters kept up a continuous exchange of shots. Seventeen Cheyennes were found dead in one of these hollows.

    Troopers motioned the women and children back into the village. Some obeyed. Others ran east along the river bank.

    While the turmoil was at its height, Major Elliott, seeing a group of Indians escaping down the valley, called for volunteers to make pursuit. Sergeant Major Walter Kennedy and eighteen other men responded. As the detachment moved away Elliott turned to Lieutenant Hale, waved his hand, and called cheerily:

    "Here goes for a brevet or a coffin!"

    The Kiowa visitor, Eonah-ph , was one of those who fled down the river. As he ran he saw little geysers sprouting up all around him in the snow where the bullets were striking. Cheyenne women and children were panting along on either side of him. Now and then one of them would fall in a heap.

    "Scatter out!" shouted the Kiowa. "Don't bunch up so much."

    A squad of blue-clad riders dashed to intercept the fugitives. One of them charged Eonah-pah with drawn saber. The Kiowa stopped short, fitted an arrow to the string, loosed it at the cavalryman. The arrow missed its mark. Dodging the flashing blade, Eonah-pah drove a shaft into the horse. The wounded beast reared abruptly, threw its rider. The Indian was able to gain many yards on his pursuers.

    More of Meyers' and Thompson's men appeared. The low bluffs on either side of the Washita resounded with gun shots, yells, shrill whoops. Women and children screamed in fright and pain. Dogs barked and howled. The valley was a bedlam of noise.

    Soon Eonah-pah's quiver was empty. But he had assisted twenty Cheyenne women to escape the uniformed terror. He ran to the river bank. Down the stream came Little Rock (second in command to Black Kettle), and She Wolf, accompanied by a number of other women, Eonah-pah joined them. Before the fugitives lay a deep pool in the stream. They must climb the bank to avoid it. As they emerged into view they were spied by Elliott and his volunteers. At once the troopers turned that way.

    Pistol shots hurtled into the little group of Indians. The chief fell dead. Eonah-pah seized the Cheyenne's full quiver. He fired several arrows in quick succession, then ran. Soon he was safe in the timber which lay two miles east of Black Kettle's village. Other refugees, farther east, were not so fortunate. Buffalo-Woman fell exhausted in the snow. Elliott detailed a near-by soldier to led her back to camp. This man was Sergeant Major Kennedy. His horse was lame. Kennedy dismounted and motioned the woman to walk back to the village. The rest of the soldiers continued east in pursuit of a group of young Indian boys.

    Suddenly from the river bank to the north appeared a group of Indians, riding hard. Straight at Kennedy they came. He fired once. One of the horses swerved. Then his carbine jammed. Frantically he worked with the mechanism. Bob-tailed Bear led the charge. His hatchet rose and fell. The soldier's body slumped to the ground; his skull was broken in bits. A few yards to the east of where he lay a little creek trickled unheeding on its way to join the Washita. From that day on it has been called Sergeant Major creek.

    East of this creek Elliott was pursuing several half-grown Cheyenne boys. He had not reached the timber when there emerged to his front a swarm of mounted Indians-Cheyennes and Arapahoes arriving from the lower camps. Their scarlet-and-white war bonnets gleamed in the light of the winter sun. It seemed that there were hundreds of them. Elliott's detachment stopped short. Then they turned to withdraw to the main command.

    Too late! Other warriors, fresh from killing Kennedy, appeared in Elliott's rear, on the east side of the tributary. Elliott was cut off. More hostiles were arriving every moment. They were circling the little band of soldiers, riding closer and closer, whooping shrilly, shooting as they flashed past.

    The soldiers moved back slowly until they were within pistol range of the little creek. From its banks could be seen feathered heads bobbing, brown arms signaling to other savages. There were more Indians than eighteen men could handle. Elliott had to make a quick decision. He dismounted his men and turned the horses loose. He ordered his men to lie down in a thicket of tall grass.

    It was the worst thing Elliott could have done. He violated thus the basic principle of defensive combat. He sacrificed a good field of fire. His men could not see out of the thicket; the high banks of the opposite stream dominated the position and furnished shelter to the dismounted Indian riflemen.

    Touching-the-Sky found a place from which he could look right down into the thicket. There in its very center he saw the soldiers lying in a circle with their feet to the inside. Little piles of cartridges lay ready beside each man. The whites were not far away; he commenced shooting at them. It was very easy. He motioned some of his friends to join him. The swelling horde rode round and round the beleaguered cavalrymen, sending showers of arrows and bullets into the weeds. Few shots replied from the thicket. Elliott's ammunition was running low. He only hoped now to hold out until reinforcements came.

    The fight did not last long. Probably not much over an hour. The shots from the tall grass grew more and more infrequent. The yelling revolving mass of Indians drew closer and closer. At length a belated brave arrived from the lower village; he was freshly painted and feathered. It was Smokey (or Tobacco), an Arapaho. He had taken too much time with his ceremonial toilet. Was he too late to win a coup?

    With an earnest yell Smokey thrust himself through the circle of Indians and charged into the thicket. The whole horde followed like flotsam sucked into a whirlpool. There was a brief, terrific tussle; a chorus of shots, thuds, groans. When the heap was untangled, Smokey was found lying at the bottom. He was dead.

    The bluecoats too lay still. The Indians turned them over. There was the young major. Most of them had seen him many times before, at the treaty grounds at Medicine Lodge. Those who had not made coup deliberately fired arrows or bullets into the unresisting bodies. It was good medicine. Then She Wolf led the female tribespeople up from the creek bottom where they had been resting after the pursuit. With knives and hatchets they completed the ghastly work. No enemy must be left in such condition that his spirit could follow the Indians into the night.

    Did Custer know what was happening to Elliott? No one can say for sure. The commander was busy mopping up the village-burning tepees, examining evidences that the Indians had participated in the Kansas raids. Stolen albums of daguerrotypes, unopened mail, household implements from murdered settlers' cabins-all testified of the guilt of the Cheyennes. While this was going on, four soldiers carried Captain Hamilton's body in and laid it tenderly on the round before the colonel. Hamilton had died instantly from a shot through the heart. He had fallen at the head of his squadron, in the first rush to the village. Captain Barnitz too was wounded-seriously. They thought he would die. A number of enlisted men were down. Elliott had not been seen since his detachment rode away to the east.

    Lieutenant Godfrey had rounded up the herd of seven hundNative American ponies against the bluffs south of the village. After completing this task he led his platoon to the north bank and pursued fleeing Cheyennes east along the ridges. Two miles away he topped a high hill and made an alarming discovery. In front of him in the river valley were hundreds of tepees, in front of which, and to either side as far as his vision extended, were groups of mounted, circling warriors. It was the Indian signal for combat.

    Godfrey retired at once. But the Indians had seen him. They rode to attack. The platoon retreated by successive rushes, the odd-numbered files halting to cover the withdrawal of the even-numbered, and vice versa. On the south side of the river Godfrey could hear continuous heavy firing. But the thick timber screened from his sight the tragedy which was being enacted there. At length he reached the safety of the village.

    Custer stood thoughtfully in the center of the ruined camp. Godfrey told him of the big villages which he had seen to the east. Custer was interested immediately. The lieutenant also described the firing which he had heard; he thought that it might be where Elliott was.

    The colonel pondered for a moment, then replied slowly, "No, I don't think so. Colonel Meyers has been down there all morning, and probably would have reported it."

    Increasing numbers of Indians began to appear on the ridges surrounding the valley. Custer became alarmed. The day was growing shorter. Ammunition was running low. He was worried about his wagon train, which had been left on the Canadian, many miles to the north. What if the Indians should learn that it was there, inadequately guarded? Lieutenant Bell had brought the ammunition wagons safely through the hostile ring, but he had been unable to save the overcoats and haversacks. These had fallen into the hands of the Indians. The command was alone in a hostile wilderness, in subzero weather, without food, overcoats, or shelter. They would perish if they lost the wagon train.

    Then there was the question of what to do with the captured horses. Custer would have preferred to take them with him. But the animals were too wild to be managed. The Indians must be punished thoroughly; Custer knew full well that the horse herd represented their principal wealth. So he gave orders to have the animals destroyed. This was a painful duty for the men, but they went to work with pistols. The horses, after being shot, broke away and ran bleeding in all directions. In this way the snow on the great bend of the river was made red with blood. For this reason the Indians call it the "Red Moon."

    Picture of Prisoners from Black Kettle's Village
    A sketch of Custer's troops moving a column of prisoners through heavy snow for the attack on Black Kettle's encampment along the Washita River. Theodore R. Davis' illustration originally appeared in the December 26, 1868 edition of Harper's Weekly.

The watching Indians were wild with rage and grief. But they could do nothing. They dared not fire into the village for fear of striking their women and children held captive there. They could only press anxiously forward, closer to the camp. Custer detailed a squadron to drive them back. The skirmishing continued until late in the afternoon.

The following is from the book, Indian Wars, by Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn.

Washita Story

Washita Story

Washita Story

Washita Story

Washita Story

Washita Story

Battle of the Washita Picture

The above information is from the book, Mark of Heritage, by Muriel H. Wright, courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society.

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