Battle of Washita River Historical Marker
This historical marker shares the story of a battle that took place in November of 1868, three years after the Civil War ended. The battle was fought at the Washita River in Oklahoma. In response to attacks and incursions on their land, members of the Cheyenne tribe raided a white settlement in Kansas, killing fifteen settlers, wounding many more, and raping the women after taking them as prisoners. Lt. Col. George 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.
Backstory and Context
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 Nov. 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 Nov. 27, 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)
(1): (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4m7RPjQxjmA) (2): (http://custerlives.com/7thcav7.htm) (3): (http://blog.nrcprograms.org/treaties-made-treaties-broken/)