This was the first campaign to force the Cheyenne into reservations. The battle took place in November of 1868, three years after the Civil War ended. The battle was fought at the Washita River in Oklahoma. The Cheyenne Indians had raided a white settlement in Kansas killing ended with fifteen settlers, wounding many more and raped the women were raped after taking them prisoner. Lt. Col. Custer was ordered to go out and find the tribe responsible for what happened to the settlers.
A small percent of the raiders were from a Cheyenne chief, Black Kettle’s tribe, but not all. Black Kettle was known to most as the peaceful leader who did not want to fight with the U.S. Army.
General Philip Sheridan decided to launch a winter
military campaign because he knew that during the winter the Cheyenne would be
hunkered down in their homes, and it would be an opportune time to strike. As
General Sheridan had planned for this strike, Black Kettle found out the plans
of an attack, and he held a council meeting with all the warriors and elders in
the tribe that lasted the whole night on November 26th. They decided
send out some of their men to go to the fort where General Sheridan was to
explain there has been a misunderstanding, and all Black Kettle wanted was
peace, but they were going to have to wait for some of the snow to clear before
they were able to go out. They had no time because the next day they would be
attacked by Lt. Col. Custer.
On November 26, Lt. Col. Custer and
the 7th U.S. Cavalry found the Indian camp. They were able to follow
a hunting trail that was spotted by the Indian Osage scout that the village
made. Custer was able to follow the trail all the way to the village and he had
the element of surprise. When the sun came up on November 27th, the
only thing the Cheyenne’s heard were the galloping horse, gun fire, and Lt.
Col. Custer’s favorite tune, “Garry Owen” (1) which started the attack. Custer had caught Black
Kettle’s warriors by surprise, and more than 700 Cavalry soldiers rode in and
attacked the village. This was a slaughter! Not one Cheyenne survived. Custer’s
men cut down women and children. The Indians would not go down without a fight,
they started to pick up their weapons and fired back at the charging 7th
Cavalry. Captain Louis Hamilton was killed during the engagement and Captain
Albert Barnitz was wounded.
As Custer rode through the village
he killed many of the tribe’s warriors, but he did not stay in the village he
kept going and finally stopped on a hill that was a quarter mile away from the
village so he could look back and command his troops from there. Before the
shooting started, Custer had split his regiment into three different groups.
Major Joel Elliot led groups G, H, and M who were ordered to enter the village
from the north; Captain William Thompson led groups B, and F who were to attack
the village from the south, and Captain Edward Myers who led groups E and I, attacked
the village from the west. This left Custer in charge of the larger group.
Captain Thompson arrived last to the village, leaving a hole on the left in the
charge, allowing many of the Cheyenne able to escape.
The 7th Cavalry was able
to take the village in less than ten minutes. That did not mean the fighting
was over, many Cheyenne were still putting up a resistance in the nearby woods.
Major Elliot went to Custer on the ridge, where he stayed until he noticed a
group of Cheyenne trying to run away. Major Elliot took seventeen men to go
after them. Elliot did not return. Custer sent out another group to see if they
could find them, but they were not able to do so. Custer ended up leaving them
behind because it was too risky with all the other villages out there. Captain
Frederick Benteen was angry with Custer for leaving Major Elliot behind, and
that may have showed itself during the Battle of Little Bighorn. Elliot and his
men ran into a large
party of Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho warriors who were rushing from villages
up the river to aid Black Kettle's encampment. The Indians quickly overran
Elliot’s men with no survivors, mutilating the corpses afterwards.(2)
This was a very one-sided battle; Custer and his men
slaughtered everyone in the village, including Black Kettle. This was one of
many army raids on the Native Americans, as more homesteaders were moved west,
the Indians were losing more and more of their land every day. Every treaty
signed with the government, purportedly to protect the Indians, was broken, as
soon as needed resources were discovered on their guaranteed lands.(3)