On the Staked Plain, following the Battle of the Washita, George A. Custer's greatest victory was a negotiated one.
By Louis Kraft
ON NOVEMBER 27, 1868, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer's 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked and destroyed Black Kettle's Cheyenne village on the Washita River in what is now western Oklahoma. Part of Major General Philip H. Sheridan's three-pronged winter campaign to force the recalcitrant southern tribes into submission, this action would not only serve as the basis for the 7th's status as the premier Indian-fighting unit on the frontier, but also as the final straw that divided it into two distinct factions.
Scout Ben Clark claimed 103 Indians died that fatal snowbound morning: 75 men and 28 women and children. These figures would not go uncontested. J.S. Morrison wrote Indian agent Ned Wynkoop, stating the death-count percentages should be reversed. However, Clark's estimate is generally accepted.
Custer had scored a swift victory. But as he took control of the village, gathered prisoners, and began to destroy Indian property, it became obvious he had attacked only the first of a string of villages along the Washita. Indians began appearing on the surrounding bluffs. To stave off a counterattack, that night a feint was made downriver. As the Indians raced to defend their villages, the 7th reversed its march and retreated back to Camp Supply and safety. Except for Major Joel Elliott and 17 troopers who were missing, Army casualties were light.
Captain Frederick W. Benteen, who never seemed to miss a chance to tear into Custer, charged that his commander abandoned Elliott to his fate. But did he? Elliott saw some women and children racing for freedom and set out in pursuit. His last words were, "Here goes for a brevet or a coffin." He got the latter. Although Benteen accused Custer, he had this to say: "Elliott like myself, was 'pirating' on his own hook; allowed himself to be surrounded and died like a man." Benteen approached scout Ben Clark and asked him to make a public statement that a search wasn't made for Elliott. Clark refused. But the controversy was far from over. George Bent wrote that he heard that Clark heard that Custer ordered Elliott to "drive the Indians out of the creek." Hearsay at best. Benteen, still not willing to let the matter drop, wrote a scathing letter to his friend William J. DeGresse, and asked that it be published anonymously.
For the 7th, the fighting was over for the time, but the battle didn't mark the end of the winter campaign--rather the beginning. Two cultures, at different levels of evolution, were at loggerheads...and only one would survive. New York Herald reporter S.F. Buckley described the Indian as a "glory of paint, rags, deerskin leggings, vermin-covered blankets and dirty bodies." Indeed, the East viewed him as a poor aborigine who was being destroyed by the greed of Manifest Destiny. Not so the pioneers on the frontier; they lived in terror and derogatorily referred to him as "Lo, the poor Indian."
The 19th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry came from this second camp of thought. Organized in October 1868, for the sole purpose of fighting Indians, the unit had one goal: revenge. But the 19th had already missed out. The volunteers were supposed to join the 7th before it moved against the hostiles, but had become lost and only arrived at Camp Supply in time to witness the 7th's victorious return on December 1.
Although Elliott's demise was a given, Sheridan wasn't satisfied. The troopers' deaths had to be confirmed. He ordered a march back to the battlefield as soon as the 19th had recovered enough to make the journey. There, Elliott and his men were found two miles below the village. The officer's body was removed for burial elsewhere, as were those of a white woman and her child.
Sheridan wanted to retain a tighter reign over the troops in the field and decided to accompany them. However, he apparently knew Custer's ego was bruised after the devastating campaign in 1867 had resulted in his court-martial and subsequent dismissal from active duty for one year. Most likely, Sheridan resolved to give his young subordinate as much freedom as possible during the coming months.
After leaving the battlefield, the troops followed the Washita River south toward Fort Cobb--the area designated as a safe zone for the southern tribes not deemed warlike. The soldiers, some 1,500 strong, presented an impressive force. Still, the first 12 miles through the hastily deserted campsites of the various tribes strung out along the river must have given those who were there that fateful November 27 morning plenty of ominous signs to mull over.
On December 17, 1868, a message dated December 16 and addressed to the "commander of troops in the field" from Fort Cobb commandant Lt. Col. William B. Hazen reached the 7th. It read: "All camps this side of the point reported to have been reached are friendly, and have not been on the war-path this season." Hazen was referring to the Kiowas. But was he confused? On December 7, nine days before writing the letter of safe conduct, he wrote that Satanta's Kiowas were hostile and that if they finally got "a drubbing with the rest, it will be better for everybody." The note, effectively tying Custer's hands, couldn't have been better timed as he was about to make contact with the beneficiaries of it. Purporting peace, the Kiowas were decked out for battle. Custer had little doubt they had been on the Washita the previous month.
DeB. Randolph Keim, a reporter traveling with Sheridan, described the first contact with the Kiowas: "A gallop of three miles brought [us] within six hundred yards of the savages, who stood in the broad valley in front. Among the trees along the banks of the Washita a number of warriors in battle array, dashed about, brandishing their spears, and assuming various menacing attitudes."
Custer led a small group forward. No one knew what would happen. Then Kiowa chieftain Satanta introduced himself...to the wrong man--Sheridan's aide, Lt. Col. J. Schuyler Crosby, who refused to answer. This angered the Indian leader, who then stated: "Me Kiowa!" Silence. Both sides had to be nervous, on edge, perhaps a mite trigger happy. Satanta knew what was at stake--the survival of his people--and moved on to Custer and repeated the introduction, extending his hand. Custer coolly rejected him, saying, "I never shake hands with any one unless I know him to be a friend."
Despite this awkward beginning, Hazen's safe conduct would be honored. However, Satanta was told to release a white courier held captive and ordered to return to Fort Cobb immediately. Satanta agreed and offered to accompany the white troops on the journey. Rations were distributed to the tribe and the march resumed. But the next morning the Indians were gone--all save three chiefs. That night, Cobb was reached, and Satanta and Lone Wolf were held under strong guard. The third chief would act as messenger.
The captive chiefs swore confidently that their people were coming in. However, reports stated the opposite; the tribe was heading in the other direction. Sheridan tersely commented: "I am ordered to fight these Indians, and General Hazen is permitted to feed them." And perhaps his anger was justified. Philip McCusky, U.S. interpreter for the Kiowas and Comanches, reported the details of Major Elliott's demise in a letter dated December 3. His informant was another Kiowa chieftain, Black Eagle, who was at the battle. Sheridan wasn't alone in his desire to punish. The 19th Kansas would have liked nothing better than to have torn into the Kiowas. Sheridan couldn't attack, but all wasn't lost. He did have Satanta. With patience worn thin, he told Custer to tell Satanta that if his people did not arrive by the 20th, he and Lone Wolf would be hanged. It is often overlooked that in his official report Custer took credit for the threat of hanging the Kiowas. Satanta, when informed, again said his people were coming in. However, he must have realized his words weren't believed as he began chanting his death song. Time was up; a deadline was set. But, surprisingly, the threat worked, and the next day several chiefs arrived to say that the tribe was on the move. And they began to appear two days later.
By the end of December, Plains Apaches, Comanches and Kiowas located around Fort Cobb. And on the 31st, responding to Custer's Indian emissaries in the field, Cheyenne and Arapaho spokesmen appeared on foot. There weren't any buffalo, their people were starving, and they wanted to come in. Shortly thereafter, Custer wrote his wife, Libbie, that he held council with head men from these five tribes. From this meeting he learned that the Arapaho and Cheyenne villages were 100 miles distant. All were supposedly moving toward Cobb, but bad roads and high water undermined travel. This continual waiting prompted Custer to comment: "I am as impatient as a crazed animal to have them come in, so that I can start on my homeward journey rejoicing."
The southern plains experienced a mild Christmas that year. Forage was plentiful, filling most bellies, but supply lines were inadequate. Nothing new. Supplies always seemed to be a problem of the Indian-fighting army. Whether this was caused by faulty communications or corrupt officials, there was only one bottom line--men and livestock suffered. Hardship and exposure took a heavy toll. Horses died daily, even during the easy three-day march south from Cobb--which was being abandoned--to what would eventually become Fort Sill. But the real news during this time was criticism by the Eastern press against the winter campaign. Leading the way was the 7th's own Benteen. His letter had been printed anonymously, as requested, and his sarcastic words rocked Custer in his boots. Officers' call was sounded and Custer vented his anger, going so far as to threaten to horsewhip the culprit. Benteen must have relished the moment as his words will testify:
"Being right at the door [of Custer's tent], I stepped out, drew my revolver, turned the cylinder to see that 'twas in good working order, returned it lightly to holster, and went within. At a pause in the talk I said, 'General Custer, while I cannot father all of the blame you have asserted, still, I guess I am the man you are after, and I am ready for the whipping promised.' He stammered and said, 'Colonel Benteen, I'll see you again, sir!' Doubtless you can imagine what would happen had the rawhide whirred!"
Custer did nothing, just going about business as usual-- perhaps remembering what he had once written to Libbie: "You should not hurt my feelings by showing animosity and dislike to a man whose hair is already grey." Meaning, obviously, the pestiferous Benteen.
January became February. The Cheyennes and Arapahos were still missing. Two more weeks of inactivity passed. Custer asked Sheridan if he could set out on a mission of peace.
He believed that if he could locate the missing recalcitrants, he could "convince them of the friendly desire of the government. . . " Hancock's ineffective attempt at peace with a show of force in 1867 had garnered a hard lesson, especially for Custer, who chaffed at the enforced inactivity and had complete confidence in his ability to succeed.
Once granted permission, Custer would take 40 men. His reason for the small detachment: "a large force would surely intimidate the Indians and cause them to avoid our presence." Besides, Indians didn't fight large-scale pitched battles if they could be avoided. Life was too precious. Although Custer maintained that 40 men would be enough, Benteen disagreed--most likely speculating that his commander would soon be dead. As Custer prepared to enter the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, a desolate area in the Texas Panhandle, Benteen offered him a derringer. The implication was obvious: "Save the last bullet for yourself" was a common expression on the frontier. Custer refused the offer, but he did make sure his few men were crack shots.
The small force marched westward, skirting the Washitas, and found nothing. Little Robe, a Cheyenne, and Yellow Bear, an Arapahoe, sent smoke signals from the soldiers" camp, but there wasn't an answer. One night, around the campfire, the Indians informed their companions that two white women-- Sarah White and Anna Belle Morgan--were held captive in one of the villages they sought.
Supplies ran out. Custer sent for more and pressed forward.
Finally, on the fifth day, the detachment found the missing Arapahos. Little Raven's band was in no shape to fight, could offer little resistance, and readily agreed to go in. Custer described them as "half starved, the people naked, and the whole outfit poverty stricken in every particular." Custer allowed Little Robe to continue the search for the Cheyennes while he awaited supplies. When the supplies finally arrived, he followed Little Robe's trail until he lost it. Supplies ran out again and there wasn't any game. Everyone survived on parched corn and horseflesh from animals that had died from sheer exhaustion.
Despite the hardship, Custer, as always, seemed to love every moment of the excursion. An example: "I had buffalo robes for my bed, slept soundly and comfortably on the ground, with no shelter except the large rubber blanket spread over me from head to foot, and the rain pouring down." On one occasion, when his bedding didn't catch up, his reaction was, "I had to sleep all night without [my gear], but I enjoyed it..."
Benteen's foretelling of Custer's demise wasn't to be. After 16 days in the field, the men were forced to return to Fort Sill, arriving on February 7. They had traveled 400 miles. Custer was surprised to learn the Arapahos hadn't reached Fort Sill yet. They were still 20 miles distant and not enthusiastic about giving up their freedom. Sheridan sent a detachment to hurry them along.
By February 16, the Kiowas were all at Fort Sill. Sheridan met with them and demanded they live peaceably. Satanta and Lone Wolf agreed. The chiefs were finally released after two months of confinement. Amnesty was granted.
By February 18, the weather was "nice, warm and very pleasant...." But all was not well. Desertion, one of the plagues of the frontier army, threatened to decimate the warlike 19th Kansas. Mutiny was at hand as the men hadn't been paid since enlisting. Many in the 19th were now hoping the War Department would come up with back pay before they were mustered out in two months. When pay wasn't the culprit, lack of food was. David L. Spotts, a trooper in the 19th, recorded in his diary, "Of course our officers cannot help it for they are as short of provisions as we." The troopers weren't the only ones complaining. Custer wrote Libbie on February 9, "Have I told you how shamefully the Commissary [Department] has treated the command?"
The Cheyennes were still missing but were expected--all except a band led by Stone Forehead. With each passing day, Custer's command became less and less able to take the field. He had to be wondering if he was destined to fail. Sheridan suggested to Custer that he head East for a vacation. Custer flatly refused.
Ulysses S. Grant took office as president of the United States and William T. Sherman replaced him as commander-in-chief of the army. Following the string of advancement, Sheridan was promoted to lieutenant general and left on February 23 to assume his new duties. His parting to Custer was simple: finish the job.
Custer would do so. Although the weather was decidedly cold, everyone knew they would soon be in the field, and on March 2, Custer led his entire force away from camp on Medicine Bluff Creek. When the command reached the North Fork of the Red River, Custer divided his men, keeping 800 of the most able-bodied with him. The rest would march to the Washita River and await further orders.
Custer headed west on the 6th, striking a fresh trail of one lodge about noon. This he followed for the next three days. On the afternoon of the 9th, Custer surprised his quarry on a tributary of Salt Fork as the nine Cheyennes of the lodge attempted to shelter themselves from rain. However, the Cheyennes escaped into a ravine. Custer believed the braves were scouts for the recalcitrants and were heading back to their people to report that soldiers were again on the move.
Now in Texas, Custer continued west. Water was running low, so the men camped near a freshly discovered source. On the 11th, the troops headed southwest, crossing Mulberry Creek, and pressing on until they reached the Red River. Here a one-month-old lodge trail was discovered. It was the first seen in days and they followed it northwest, hoping it would lead to others. It did. By nightfall, there were signs that 11 other lodges had joined the procession.
That night, Custer camped in an old Indian campground, feeling that success was within his grasp. His prey had no knowledge of pursuit, and he felt he could overtake the lodges before they became aware of his presence. He wrote: "Thanks to their superior geographical knowledge, I was not troubled by routes, water, nor camping grounds. The trail led [us] by easy marches to good water, plenty of timber, and the best camping grounds that could be selected."
The tracks continued to multiply. By noon on the 12th, Custer's scouts counted 42 lodges, and this figure would grow to over 100 by nightfall. Signs grew fresher, indicating that perhaps only a week now separated the two parties. The pursuit grew easier for the simple reason that the Indians sometimes remained as long as a week at one spot before moving a short distance to the next campsite.
But the journey was not without cost. Livestock perished, and supplies such as tents, excess clothing and blankets were destroyed as there wasn't any way to transport them. Men slept where the march halted each night.
Caution became the order of the day as the trail warmed. Bugle calls and shooting were prohibited; fires were allowed only at night. Custer stepped up the pace. This time he had no intention of losing the quarry. He reached a two-day-old campsite on the morning of March 15. The hunt was on. Custer took his staff and was off. The command would follow as best it could. Another 20 miles were covered by noon. Suddenly, to the front, about one mile beyond, a pony herd was sighted. At the same time, the herders saw the troops and drove the ponies toward a timbered stream some three miles distant. The terrain was sandy and the soldiers' horses were exhausted; there wasn't any way they would be able to assemble in time. Custer sent Lieutenant William W. Cooke, who was quickly becoming his right-hand man, back to the column with orders to close up at a moderate gait.
Historian Gregory J.W. Urwin wrote: "Custer was no grand strategist or profound theorist; he was an improviser. He knew how to roll with the punches without surrendering the initiative." Custer contemporary Colonel Alfred B. Nettleton adds: "He never ordered his men to go where he would not lead, and he never led where he did not expect his men to follow." This perhaps describes the real Custer, acting on the spur of the moment--almost as if on impulse.
He didn't know where the village was and immediate action was needed to prevent its scattering. Custer dashed forward with his small group. After a two-mile race, Indians could be seen in the surrounding sandhills, watching and waiting. Although Custer wanted to press on, he prudently halted. But he did take immediate action. Taking only his orderly, he advanced once again, and began signaling that he wanted to parlay. He did this by riding in a circle and then advancing in a zigzagging manner. Time passed. Just when it looked as if he would be ignored, eight Indians came forward.
Through sign language, Custer learned that these were, indeed, the missing Cheyennes. Some 260 lodges were spread over the next 10 miles. This even included Little Robe, who had slipped away from Army control to join his band. The situation was remarkably similar to that encountered on the Washita, where Custer had hit only the first of a number of villages. Typically,, he again was thinking attack. But Custer was aware that if he hit the village now at hand, he was certain to lose the rest. He was also aware that somewhere were two white hostages. While Custer talked with the delegation, small groups of warriors closed in. Soon the odds against the white negotiators blossomed to perhaps 40 to 2. The braves were antagonistic, and openly threatened violence. Custer wisely kept the Cheyennes he was talking with between himself and the others. The only thing that held the warriors in check was that Custer's superior force was plainly visible in the distance--he boldly claimed that it consisted of 1,500 men. The threat of genocide was evident. Stone Forehead joined the group. Both sides were apprehensive. It is probable that Stone Forehead, like Custer, was weighing all possibilities. The Indians couldn't run, and they didn't dare kill the white leader.
Stone Forehead invited--perhaps dared--Custer to enter the village and demonstrate his peaceful intentions. Custer agreed. Cooke had rejoined him by this time, and Custer sent his orderly back with orders that no shots were to be fired. Still, his first impulse was to attack--so he also sent word that the village was to be surrounded. This left an offensive option available if needed. As Custer entered the village, it became obvious that noncombatants were packed and ready to flee. Custer realized then that if he did attack, as he put it, "it is doubtful whether, with the timely warning they had received, and considering the jaded condition of my animals, we could at that time have inflicted any. . . serious injury beyond the capture of their lodges."
Custer probably remembered Hancock's order in 1867 to capture the village on the Pawnee Fork of the Arkansas River. He had been successful, but the lodges were empty. Custer also guessed that the two missing white women were in this camp. As he put it: "It was then out of the question to assume a hostile attitude, at least until the captives were in our possession, or until every peaceable means for their recovery had been exhausted."
As Custer probed for a solution with the Indians, his troops, who were now dangerously close, saw the situation in a completely different light. First Sergeant James A. Hadley of the 19th Kansas recalled: "As the thought of cold and hunger, of the hardships of the winter, passed before these men, and the ample causes they had for reprisals on these enemies, there was one picture that loomed before all else and eclipsed all else in the heart of every man in that long, ragged, faded line from Kansas." Everyone in the combined force now knew what lay directly ahead. When the order, "On left front into line," was given, troopers jumped to obey. Their moment of reckoning had arrived. Then they heard Custer's relayed order, "Don't fire on those Indians."
It has been said that Custer never knew how close he came to being the unwitting commander of a massacre. Officers did everything they could to restrain the troops. One false move would have, as Hadley aptly recorded it, "precipitated a killing that could not have been stopped...." Needless to say, Custer later was termed in some quarters a coward and traitor.
As the soldiers waited in vain for the signal to attack, Custer met with the Cheyenne leaders in Stone Forehead's lodge. A pipe was smoked, attended by much ceremony. Custer was fascinated by the proceedings, but admittedly was at a loss as to what the events actually meant. It was at this meeting that an incident may or may not have, in fact, happened. After Custer smoked, the account goes, Stone Forehead dropped the contents of the pipe onto the white leader's boots. He then said: "Thus will the Great Spirit destroy the White Soldier Chief if ever he walks contrary to the peace pipe again." Custer never mentioned the incident in his writing, but it has become a part of Cheyenne lore, reaching fruition seven and a half years later when he lost his life on the bloody "Greasy Grass."
When Custer entered the encampment he succeeded in gaining his objective: time. His troops were now in position; the 19th at the upper end of the village, and the 7th the lower. Troopers clung to their carbines, hoping they would still get that one thing they desired--the order to attack. Stone Forehead then led Custer to a campsite that was three-quarters of a mile from the village. Close enough. However, there was one problem. The village couldn't be seen from the suggested bivouac. Custer suspected something was afoot and located scouts strategically.
As was probably expected, the villagers began to flee later that afternoon. To cover the subterfuge, a delegation of perhaps 100 chiefs and warriors entered the white camp. It was announced that some musicians would soon arrive to perform. The ruse was obvious and Custer alerted his men. He was playing with fire and knew it. One false move and the white women would be dead. But it wouldn't stop there; many villagers would also be killed. He couldn't afford another 1867. Sheridan had given him a reprieve, but now only results counted. When confronted about the deception, the warriors bolted. Custer's men were armed and ready, but he gave the order not to shoot. Four prisoners were taken, but the rest escaped unharmed. In Custer's official report, he doesn't mention the subterfuge, merely stating that four principal men, two of whom were Dog Soldiers, were seized. Although the situation remained a standoff, he now had something to bargain with. One of the prisoners was chosen to act as messenger.
Fearing the Cheyennes would disperse, Custer asked them to return and to take their lodges with them. If they would all agree to encamp near Little Robe and his band, Custer would not disturb their abandoned village until the lodges had been removed."
Little Robe was invited to visit with a promise of safe conduct. He came and offered to do all he could to bring about a peaceful end to the problem. But Custer failed to learn anything of Cheyenne intentions, nor could he secure the release of the white women. Before Little Robe left, Custer forewarned him that he was going to move his command to a better campsite, closer to the Indian village, but not so close as to be threatening.
Indians entered the white encampment the second night after the move. Both sides negotiated, but neither gained a thing. Custer could go no further. His situation was weakening daily, he couldn't stay in the field much longer, and soon his entire command would be unfit for battle. The threat to hang Satanta had worked. Would it again? He was at wit's end and the waiting game would ultimately be a losing game. He had to bring negotiations to an end. And soon. He saw no course other than the one followed with Satanta. He gave the Cheyennes one more day to hand over the white women. If this didn't happen, he would hang the three prisoners at sunset the next day and attack the following morning. But perhaps this was pure bluff, as William P. Street of the 19th Kansas suggested, since Custer couldn't have mustered 50 horses capable of marching 15 miles.
Hour after slow hour ticked by. The Cheyenne prisoners were marched out to see the tree from which they would hang. Hadley claims one of the captives, Dull Knife, actually had the noose tightened about his neck. And still the Indian response remained the same: "Want to talk some more." Would the women be released? The chiefs hanged? Both sides must have sensed a climax was near.
After a tense night, warriors came into camp the next morning. But still, nothing happened. As the time of reckoning neared, the three chiefs became visibly anxious, most likely contemplating their execution. About 3 p.m., several Cheyennes approached--though they wouldn't cross the white lines--and offered to swap the white women for the three prisoners. This time Custer refused. The Cheyenne were led to believe that the white leader had decided to attack. The risk was too great. They would give up what he wanted: a horse with the two women appeared in the distance. Custer had won. He had outlasted his adversaries in the grim contest of wills.
Custer retained the three prisoners against the good behavior of the tribe and to guarantee it would do as requested. Upon returning to Camp Supply, Fat Bear, Dull Knife, and Big Head joined the 53 prisoners taken at Washita.
The recalcitrant Cheyennes eventually came in to the reservation. But tragedy would strike before the three chiefs were released. Rumors circulated that a rescue attempt would be made. Add the suspicion fed by cultures in conflict, and it was decided that the three captives might be better located in the guardhouse. During the transfer, a scuffle erupted and two were killed. If we can believe Libbie Custer's version, her husband arrived on the scene just in time to prevent total panic amongst the remaining captives, who were certain they, too, would be killed.
It was a sad end to the peaceful campaign that followed the violence on the Washita.
Louis Kraft is the author of the 1993 book Custer and the Cheyenne: George Armstrong Custer's Winter Campaign of the Southern Plains (Upton and Sons Publishers, El Segundo, Calif.). He suggests the following books for further reading: Stan Hoig's Battle of the Washita; George Armstrong Custer's My Life on the Plains; Paul Andrew Hutton's Phil Sheridan and His Army; and DeB. Randolph Keim's Sheridan's Troopers on the Borders.