The Opening of the Fight at Wounded Knee

There was an instant, and then we heard sounds of firing in the centre of the Indians. ‘Fire!’ I shouted, and we poured it into them.
–Lieutenant J. D. Mann–

The Opening of the Fight at Wounded Knee

Frederic Remington drew this sketch of the opening shots at Wounded Knee based on conversations he had with the officers and troopers of the 7th Cavalry several days after the battle. It appeared in the 24 January 1891 edition of Harper’s Weekly.

Like most correspondents, he was not present at Wounded Knee on 29 December, believing that Big Foot’s surrender and the disarming of his warriors would be without incident and less newsworthy than the much larger band of Brule Indians reportedly coming into the Pine Ridge Agency from the Stronghold in the Bad Lands. Remington also missed the opportunity to observe the burial party that traveled back to Wounded Knee on 3 January. He felt compelled to explain to the readers of Harper’s Weekly why he was not at either key event.

We discussed the vague report of the Wounded Knee fight in the upper camps of the cordon, and old hands said it could be no ordinary affair because of the large casualty. Two days after I rode into the Pine Ridge Agency, very hungry and nearly frozen to death, having ridden with Captain Baldwin, of the staff, and a Mr. Miller all night long. I had to look after a poor horse, and see that he was groomed and fed, which require considerable tact and “hustling” in a busy camp. Then came my breakfast. That struck me as a serious matter at the time. There were wagons and soldiers–the burial party going to the Wounded Knee to do its solemn duty. I wanted to go very much. I stopped to think; in short, I hesitated, and of course was “lost,” for after breakfast they had gone. Why did I not follow them? Well, my natural prudence had been considerably strengthened a few days previously by a half-hour’s interview with six painted Brulé Sioux who seemed to be in command of the situation. To briefly end the matter, the burial party was fired on, and my confidence in my own good judgment was vindicated to my own satisfaction.
I rode over to the camp of the Seventh United States Cavalry, and met all the officers, both wounded and well, and a great many of the men. They told me their stories in that inimitable way which is studied art with warriors. To appreciate brevity you must go to a soldier. He shrugs his shoulders, and points to the bridge of his nose, which has had a piece cut out by a bullet, and says, “Rather close, but don’t amount to much.” An inch more, and some youngster would have had his promotion.
I shall not here tell the story of the Seventh Cavalry fight with Big Foot’s band of Sioux on the Wounded Knee; that has been done in the daily papers; but I will recount some small-talk current in the Sibley tepees, or the “white man’s war tents,” as the Indians call them.
Lying on his back, with a bullet through the body, Lieutenant Mann grew stern when he got to the critical point in his story. “I saw three or four young bucks drop their blankets, and I saw that they were armed. ‘Be ready to fire, men; there is trouble.” There was an instant, and then we heard sounds of firing in the centre of the Indians. ‘Fire!’ I shouted, and we poured it into them.”
“Oh yes, Mann, but the trouble began when the old medicine-man threw the dust in the air. That is the old Indian signal of ‘defiance,’ and no sooner had he done that act than those bucks stripped and went into action.  Just before that some one told me that if we didn’t stop that old man’s talk he would make trouble. He said that the white men’s bullets would not go through the ghost shirts.”
Said another officer, “The way those Sioux worked those Winchesters was beautiful.” Which criticism, you can see, was professional.
Added another, “One man was hit early in the firing, but he continued to pump his Winchester; but growing weaker and weaker, and sinking down gradually, his shots went higher and higher, until his last went straight up in the air.”
“Those Indians were plumb crazy. Now, for instance, did you notice that before they fired they raised their arms to heaven? That was devotional.”
“Yes, captain, but they got over their devotional mood after the shooting was over,” remonstrated a cynic. “When I passed over the field after the fight one young warrior who was near to his death asked me to take him over to the medicine-man’s side, that he might die with his knife in the old conjurer’s heart. He had seen that the medicine was bad, and his faith in the ghost shirt had vanished. There was no doubt but that every buck there thought that no bullet could touch him.”
“Well,” said an officer, whose pipe was working into a reflective mood, “there is one thing which I learned, and that is that you can bet that the private soldier in the United States army will fight. He’ll fight from the drop of the hat anywhere and in any place, and he’ll fight till you call time. I never in my life saw Springfield carbines worked so industriously as at that place. I noticed one young fellow, and his gun seemed to just blaze all the while. Poor chap! he’s mustered out for good.”
I saw the scout who had his nose cut off. He came in to get shaved. His face was covered with strips of court-plaster, and when informed that it would be better for him to forego the pleasure of a shave, he reluctantly consented. He had ridden all day and been in the second day’s fight with his nose held on by a few strips of plaster, and he did not see just why he could not be shaved; but after being talked to earnestly by a half-dozen friends he succumbed.
“What became of the man who did that?” I asked of him.
He tapped his Winchester and said, “Oh, I got him all right!”
I went into the hospital tents and saw the poor fellows lying on the cots, a little pale in the face, and with a drawn look about the mouth and eyes. That is the serious part of soldiering. No excitement, no crowd of cheering comrades, no shots and yells and din of battle. A few watchful doctors and Red Cross stewards with bottles and bandages, and the grim spectre of the universal enemy hovering over all, and ready to dart down on any man on the cots who lay quieter and whose face was more pale than his fellows.
I saw the Red Cross ambulances draw up in line, and watched the wounded being loaded into them. I saw poor Garlington. His blond mustache twitched under the process of moving, and he looked like a man whose mustache wouldn’t twitch unnecessarily. Lieutenant Hawthorne, who was desperately shot in the groin while working the little Hotchkiss cannon, turned his eyes as they moved Garlington from the next cot, and then waited patiently for his own turn.
I was talking with old Captain Capron, who commanded the battery at the fight–a grim old fellow, with a red-lined cape overcoat, and nerve enough for a hundred-ton gun. He said: “When Hawthorne was shot the gun was worked by Corporal Weimert, while Private Hertzog carried Hawthorne from the field and then returned to his gun. The Indians redoubled their fire on the men at the gun, but it seemed only to inspire the corporal to renewed efforts. Oh, my battery was well served,” continued the captain, as he put his hands behind his back and looked far away.
This professional interest in the military process of killing men sometimes rasps a citizen’s nerves. To the captain everything else was a side note of little consequence so long as his guns had been worked to his entire satisfaction. That was the point.
At the mention of the name of Captain Wallace, the Sibley became so quiet that you could hear the stove draw and the wind wail about the little canvas town. It was always “Poor Wallace!” and “He died like a soldier, with his empty six-shooter in his right hand, shot through the body, and with two jagged wounds in his head.”
I accosted a soldier who was leaning on a crutch while he carried a little bundle in his right hand. “You bet I’m glad to get out in the sunlight; that old hospital tent was getting mighty tiresome.”
“Where was I shot?” He pointed to his hip. “Only a flesh wound; this is my third wound. My time is out in a few days; but I’m going to re-enlist, and I hope I’ll get back here before this trouble is over. I want to get square with these Injuns.” You see, there was considerable human nature in this man’s composition.
The ambulance went off down the road, and the burial party came back. The dead were for the time forgotten, and the wounded were left to fight their own battles with stitches and fevers and suppuration. The living toiled in the trenches, or stood out their long term on the pickets, where the moon looked down on the frosty landscape, and the cold wind from the north searched for the crevices in their blankets.

Source: Frederic Remington, “The Sioux Outbreak in South Dakota,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXXV, No. 1779, January 24, 1891, 58 – 65.

About Sam Russell

I am a fifth-generation retired Army officer with twenty-nine years of commissioned service. I have been researching the frontier Army for over eighteen years and am interested in documenting the lives of the soldiers that participated in the battle of Wounded Knee using primarily official reports, diaries, letters, newspaper articles and other primary source documents. My interest in Wounded Knee stems from my kinship to one of the principal participants. I am the great-great-grandson of Samuel M. Whitside, who was a major and battalion commander at the battle. I welcome and encourage comments on posts and pages and am always interested in any new primary sources. If you have copies of letters, diaries, etc, from participants and are willing to share, please contact me. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are strictly my own, and should in no way be construed as official Army or U.S. Government positons.
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2 Responses to The Opening of the Fight at Wounded Knee

  1. Mitchel Spencer says:

    I am currently researching The Ghost Dance War, which I am currently finding tons of secondary sources to help with this research. I am having problems finding primary sources that I can cite and read online or in my library. If you could so much as point me in the right direction of finding these articles, letters, or accounts of this conflict it would be much appreciated.

    Much Thanks,
    Mitchel Spencer


    • Sam Russell says:

      Review the sources in each secondary source. For primary sources I recommend starting with the Correspondence from the Sioux Campaign and Wounded Knee Investigation, and the Eli Ricker Indian and Settler Interviews.


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