A History of the Sioux War, and a Life of Gen. George A. Custer, with a Full Account of his Last Battle/Chapter 16

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In July, 1866, Custer received from Andrew Johnson, a commission as Lieut. Col. of the 7th Cavalry—a new regiment; and after accompanying the President on his famous tour through the country, he proceeded to Fort Riley, Kansas.

In the spring of 1867, an expedition under Gen. Hancock marched from Fort Riley to Fort Larned near the Arkansas River, and the 7th Cavalry, under Lieut. Col. Custer, accompanied it. The dissatisfied Indians had been invited by the Indian agent to meet Hancock in council at Fort Larned, and had agreed to do so; but as they failed to appear at the appointed time, Hancock started for a village of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, distant some 30 miles from the fort. On the way he met several of the chiefs, and they agreed to hold a council at Hancock's camp on the next day, April 14th. As none of the chiefs came, as promised, Hancock again started for their village, and soon came upon several hundred Indians drawn up in battle array directly across his path. The troops were immediately formed in line of battle, and then the General, with some of his officers and the interpreter, rode forward and invited the chiefs to a meeting between the lines, which were half a mile apart. The invitation was accepted; several chiefs advanced to the officers, and a friendly interview was holden—all seeming pleased at the peaceful turn things had taken. The result of the "talk" was an arrangement for a council to be held at Hancock's headquarters after he had camped near the Indian village, toward which both parties then proceeded. It was ascertained on reaching it that the women and children had been sent away; and during the night the warriors, unobserved by the white men, also fled, leaving their lodges and stores.

Mistrusting something of the kind, Custer, with the cavalry, had during the night stealthily surrounded the village, and on entering it later found it deserted. Pursuit of the Indians was commenced, but their trail soon scattered so it could not be followed. After burning the deserted village, the expedition returned to Fort Hayes, where the 7th Cavalry wintered.

The next summer, Custer with several companies of his regiment and 20 wagons, was sent on a long scouting expedition to the southward in search of Indians. Leaving Fort Hayes in June, he proceeded to Fort McPherson on the Platte River, and thence to the forks of the Republican River in the Indian country. From this place he sent Major J.A. Elliott, on the 23d of June, with ten men and one guide, to carry despatches to Gen. Sherman at Fort Sedgwick, 100 miles distant. The wagons, escorted by cavalry, were also started the same day to procure supplies from Fort Wallace, about the same distance away in an opposite direction.

Early the next morning, an attack was made on the camp, but the soldiers rallied so promptly and effectively that the Indians soon withdrew. Interpreters were then sent toward them, who arranged for a council which was held near by. After an unsatisfactory interview, Custer returned to his camp and started in pursuit of the Indians, but was unable to overtake them.

On the fifth day after his departure, Major Elliott returned in safety to the camp. He had traveled only by night, and had seen no Indians. The wagon train was not so fortunate. It reached Fort Wallace safely, and started to return escorted by 48 troopers. On the way it was attacked by a large number of Indians, who for three hours kept up a running fight around the circle. The wagons moved forward in two strings, with the cavalry horses between them for safety, and the dismounted soldiers defended them so successfully that their progress forward was uninterrupted. Meanwhile Custer, fearing for the safety of the train, had sent out cavalry to meet it; and their approach caused the Indians to cease from their attack and withdraw. The balance of the journey was safely accomplished.

Resuming his march, Custer again struck the Platte, some distance west of Fort Sedgwick. Here he learned by telegraph that Lieut. Kidder with ten men and an Indian scout had started from Fort Sedgwick, with despatches for Custer directing him to proceed to Fort Wallace, shortly after Major Elliott had left the fort. As Kidder had not returned and Custer had not seen him, fears for his safety were entertained, and Custer immediately started for his late camp at the forks of the Republican. On the way thither some of his men deserted, and being followed and refusing to surrender, were fired upon, and three were wounded.

On reaching the camp, an examination was made by the Indian guide, and it was ascertained that Kidder's party had arrived there in safety, and continued on towards Fort Wallace, over the trail made by the wagons. In the morning Custer started in pursuit, and by noon it became evident by the tracks of their horses, that Kidder's party had been hard chased for several miles. Further on one of their horses was found, shot dead; and at last the mutilated and arrow-pierced bodies of the 12 men were found lying near each other. They had been chased, overtaken, and killed by the savages. They were buried in one grave, and the troops proceeded to Fort Wallace.

Custer had been ordered to report to Gen. Hancock at Fort Wallace, and receive further orders from him; but on arriving there he found that the General had retired to Fort Leavenworth. The location of Fort Wallace was isolated and remote from railroads, and as the stock of provisions was low, Custer decided to go for supplies. He started on the evening of July 15th, with 100 men, and arrived at Fort Hayes on the morning of July 18th, having marched 150 miles, with a loss of two men who had been surprised by Indians. He then proceeded to Fort Harker, 60 miles further on, and after making arrangements for the supplies, obtained from Gen. Smith permission to visit his wife, who was at Fort Riley, 90 miles distant by rail.

Soon after this Custer was arraigned before a court-martial, charged with leaving Fort Wallace without orders, and making a journey on private business, during which two soldiers were killed; also for overtasking his men on the march, and for cruelty while quelling a mutiny. After trial, he was pronounced guilty of a breach of discipline in making a journey on private business (which he earnestly denied) and acquitted of the other charges. His sentence was a suspension of pay and rank for a year, during which period he remained in private life, while his regiment was engaged in an expedition under Gen. Sully.

In October, 1868, Custer was recalled into service, and joined his regiment at Fort Dodge on the Arkansas River. Early in Nov., a winter campaign against the Indians was commenced. Gen. Sully, with the 7th Cavalry, detachments of infantry, and a large supply train, marched to the borders of the Indian country and established a post called Camp Supply.

On the 23d of Nov., Custer with his regiment of about 800 men started out in a snow storm on a scout for the enemy. The next day a trail was discovered and pursued, and at night the troops were in the valley of the Washita River, and near an Indian village which had been seen from a distance. The village was stealthily surrounded, and at daybreak an attack was made simultaneously by several detachments.

The Indians were taken entirely by surprise. The warriors fled from the village, but took shelter behind trees, logs, and the bank of the stream, and fought with much desperation and courage, but were finally driven off. The village was captured with its contents, including 50 squaws and children who had remained safely in the lodges during the fight. Some 800 ponies were also captured. On questioning the squaws, one of them said that she was a sister of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, that it was his village that had been captured, and that several other Indian villages were located within ten miles—the nearest one being only two miles distant.

Before Custer had time to retreat, hostile Indians—reinforcements from the other villages—arrived in such numbers as to surround the captured village, which Custer and his men occupied; and an attack was begun which continued nearly all day. The Indians were finally driven away. The village and its contents were burned. The captives were allowed to select ponies to ride on, and the balance of the drove were shot. The retreat was begun by a march forward, as if to attack the next village. The Indians fled; and after dark Custer moved rapidly back toward Supply Camp, taking the captives along as prisoners of war.

In this engagement, known as the Battle of the Washita, Major Elliott, Capt. Hamilton, and 19 privates were killed, and three officers and 11 privates wounded. Captains Weir, Benteen, T.W. Custer, and Lieut. Cook, participated in this fight. It was estimated that at least 100 Indians were killed, among whom was the noted chief Black Kettle.

The death of Black Kettle was much regretted by many white people. Gen. Harney said respecting him:—"I have worn the uniform of my country 55 years, and I know that Black Kettle was as good a friend of the United States as I am." Col. A.G. Boone, a member of the recent Indian Commission, who had known Black Kettle for years, said tearfully:—"He was a good man; he was my friend; he was murdered."

Early in Dec., the 7th Cavalry and a Kansas cavalry regiment, accompanied by Gen. Sheridan and staff, again started out to look for Indians. The recent battle-ground was revisited, and then the force proceeded along the valley of the Washita, finding the sites of several villages which appeared to have been lately and hastily removed. Large numbers of lodge poles, and robes, utensils, and stores were left behind; and a broad trail, leading down the river toward Fort Cobb, 100 miles distant, showed the direction their owners had taken when frightened away from their winter retreat. A pursuit of the trail was commenced, but it soon branched. The troops continued on, and when within 20 miles of Fort Cobb, Indians appeared in front with a flag of truce. They proved to be Kiowas led by Lone Wolf, Satanta, and other chiefs.

A council was held, and both parties agreed to proceed together to Fort Cobb; and the Indians agreed that they would then remain on their reservation. On the way to the fort, many of the Indians slipped away, and as Custer then supposed (erroneously) that Lone Wolf and Satanta had been engaged in the recent battle and might also escape, he placed them under guard and took them to Fort Cobb, where they were held as hostages for the return of the roaming Kiowas, who finally came in on learning that Sheridan had determined to hang their chiefs if they failed to do so.

Soon after this, Little Robe—a Cheyenne chief, and Yellow Bear—a friendly Arapahoe, were visiting at Fort Cobb, and at Custer's suggestion Sheridan permitted him with a small party to go with these chiefs as a peace ambassador. The mission was successful as far as the Arapahoes were concerned, and as its result the whole tribe returned to their reservation.

The effort to arrange with the Cheyennes proving unavailing, Custer with 800 men started, March, 1869, in pursuit of them. On the 13th of March he arrived in the vicinity of several Cheyenne villages, one of which belonged to Little Robe. Several councils were held with the chiefs; and it was ascertained that two white women who had been recently captured in Kansas were held as captives in one of the villages. For this reason Custer could not attack the Indians, who were still intractable, and had to continue negotiations with them. They refused to release the women unless a large ransom was paid.

Custer subsequently seized four of the chiefs, and threatened to hang them if the white women were not given up unconditionally. This threat produced the desired effect, and the women were surrendered. Custer then marched to the supply camp, taking with him the captured chiefs, who begged for freedom as the white women had been given up. Their friends also entreated for their release; but Custer assured them that the Washita prisoners and the captive chiefs would not be liberated until the Cheyennes returned to their reservation. This they promised to do, and subsequently kept their word.