General Godfrey’s Recollections of Wounded Knee

I rallied my troop on the hill, dismounted to fight on foot, and posted my men in position.  Large groups were approaching and opened fire on us.

From his retirement home in Cookstown, New Jersey, on May 29, 1931 Brigadier General Edward S. Godfrey, U. S. Army, retired, penned a response to a request from the Chief of the Historical Section of the U.S. Army War College asking for information regarding the engagement at Wounded Knee.  General Godfrey’s letter was printed in full in the January 1935 edition of Winners of the West.  The letter is an outstanding addition to Godfrey’s testimony at the Wounded Knee investigation,  his testimony in the investigation of the killing of a woman and her children near White Horse Creek, and his article, Cavalry Fire Discipline.  Presented below is a portion of the letter in which Godfrey recollects his actual participation in the battle.  I have omitted portions where he summarizes portions of the campaign in which he did not take part.

General Edward Settle Godfrey

Edward Settle Godfrey retired in October 1907 upon reaching the age of sixty-four.  President Roosevelt had reluctantly promoted him to brigadier general earlier in that year, but late enough in Godfrey’s career to ensure he would not be promoted to major general.

At the time of the so-called “Ghost Shirt” or “Ghost Dance” unrest at the Sioux Indian agencies in 1890, I was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as a member of the U.S. Tactical Board.  Our work was nearing completion, and when my regiment, the 7th U.S. Cavalry, was ordered to the field, I made application to be relieved and to join my troop.  The application was granted. Upon my arrival at Chadron Creek, I found a detachment of recruits from Jefferson Barracks for the 7th Cavalry and a wagon train of supplies for the troops, awaiting escort.  I assumed command of the detachment and supply train, and about the middle of December arrived at the Pine Ridge agency, where I joined my troop…. Late in the evening of December 28, “To Horse” was sounded at the headquarters of the 7th Cavalry.  The 2nd Squadron (troops C, D, E, and G) and Hawthorne’s section of Hotchkiss guns of Captain Capron’s Battery, 1st Artillery, under Col. J. W. Forsyth, arrived at Whitside’s camp at Wounded Knee about midnight.  Captain Wallace claimed me as his guest, and from him I learned the events of the day and the dispositions of the troops on guard for the night. About 8:00 A.M. December 29, I received orders to take my troop (D) to position.  En route, I passed where there were a number of Indian warriors squatting between two troops (B and K dismounted) and facing inward about a V-shaped formation, the apex next to the Indian village, near which was a small pile of what looked to me like old guns.  My routing took me by two sides of the village, which lay to my left.  On my right was a high ridge overlooking the village, and on this ridge were posted two troops of cavalry and Hawthorne’s section.  I passed down a ravine on a road that led across another and deeper ravine, which I crossed, then turned to the left and reported to Captain Jackson.  I then formed on his left, facing the village and opposite the ridge on which were posted the two troops, mounted, and the artillery as above mentioned.  The deep ravine lay between our line and the village.  Between the ravine and us were Taylor’s Indian scouts and also some dismounted soldiers, who I understood were the night guards not yet relieved.

Inset of Lieut. S. A. Cloman’s map of the battlefield at Wounded Knee depicting the position of Captain Godfrey’s D troop at the outbreak of hostilities.

After we had been there some time, the quiet was suddenly broken by shot, and after a very short interval there came two or three more shots, followed by a continuous fusillade.  At the first shot, I remarked to Lt. S. R. Tompkins, “I’m afraid there has been a mistake.  Too bad.  Too bad.”  The whole village was in commotion, and in a short time the mass of Indians started in our direction.  The troops on the ridge opposite us opened fire on them with small arms and Hotchkiss guns.  As the mass neared the deep ravine, some bullets ricocheted to our position.  I went to Captain Jackson (behind whose troop was a small field, enclosed by a barbed wire fence) and said we ought to change our position and get out of range of our own troops.  Jackson said he thought of taking his troops back of the field.  I told him I would like to take my troop to a hill on my left and rear.  He said, “All right, go ahead.” I rallied my troop on the hill, dismounted to fight on foot, and posted my men in position.  Large groups were approaching and opened fire on us.  I cautioned the men not to shoot at women and children and gave the order to commence firing.  As soon as firing from the groups ended, I gave the order that firing should cease.  The time between the commands seemed incredibly short–probably not more than five minutes, though some firing continued by Jackson’s men. During the firing, I had observed some Indians escaping up the deep ravine.  I sent Lieutenant Tompkins with half my men to take and hold the ravine at all hazards.  There were no more escapes up that ravine after Lieutenant Tompkins got there.  A large dismounted group, however, had assembled in the ravine bordering the upper flank of the village and made their escape over a ridge. Some time after all firing had ceased, Major Whitside came to my position and said a group of Indians had escaped over the ridge, and that Colonel Forsyth sent his compliments and wished me to take my troop and go in pursuit.  I explained that I had sent Lieutenant Tompkins with half of my men, and as there were occasional shots, it seemed to me the ravine should be guarded.  I then asked if I should leave that detachment or take it with me.  Whitside hesitated a moment and then said, “Do as you please.”  I said I would leave it.  I mounted my men (fourteen) and went in pursuit.  I followed the trail for some time beyond the ridge to a wide, open country, but the group had dispersed, leaving no trace. I marched several miles in the general direction indicated by the trend of the trail toward a partly wooded valley, climbed prominent points for observation but saw nothing to indicate the Indians who had escaped. My return march was down a partly wooded valley containing clumps of bushes with dead leaves on them.  In the blizzard two days after the engagement, the dead leaves were blown off.  I put flankers on each side on the ground.  As we entered one of these clumps, the advance discovered some Indians running to a hiding place.  I at once dismounted to fight on foot and called out, “How, cola! Squaw, papoose, cola!”  Hearing no response, and finding that the men were becoming anxious, lest we get into a trap, I instructed each man to advance until he could spot an Indian, but not to fire till I gave the command.  I kept repeating my phrase, “How, cola! Squaw, papoose, cola!” Getting no response, I commanded, “Ready,” and then “Commence firing.” The firing was a volley and was followed by screams and the order to cease firing.  No man fired more than one shot.  I gave the commands, “Forward, march!” and ran to where I heard the screams.  There I found one squaw and two children in the agonies of death and what appeared to be a man, sprawled face down, clothed with civilian clothes and with coat turned over his head, perfectly quiet, and I supposed dead. Just as I was about to leave, Blacksmith Carey, who was one of the flankers, joined me.  As I turned to join my skirmishers, I heard him exclaim, “This man ain’t dead,” and “Bang!” went his gun.  He had turned back the coat tail, discovered a movement, and shot.  I saw that the body was that of a boy whom I judged to be fourteen or fifteen years old, and that he had been shot in the head.  I told Carey to come along and join the skirmish line.  I was shocked by the tragedy, but thought Carey had acted from fright, and the well-known sentiment in the army at that time was to take no chance with a wounded Indian.  Carey was one of the detachment of recruits that I found at Chadron and which joined the regiment with me.  (After stables the next morning, December 30, I had Carey in my tent to question him as to his motive in shooting the boy.  He was very penitent and began to cry, saying he was scared and only thought of self-defense; that he had been warned not to trust a wounded Indian or taken any chances, and that he shot on the impulse of the moment.  Just then “To Horse!” was sounded, and the troop joined the regiment to go to the Drexel Mission affair.  I was perfectly satisfied that Carey was actuated by sudden fear and the instinct of self-defense). Further search revealed no sight of Indians, and I resumed my return march.  Seeing a group of men and horses on a high point, I directed my march to that place.  I found that it was at the head of the ravine at which I had left Lieutenant Tompkins, about one and a half to two miles from the village, and that the group was Troop C. As I was leaving Captain Jackson, I noticed a mounted Indian riding rapidly from the direction of Pine Ridge to a high hill a couple of miles away.  He circled his horse, and a large number of Indians were galloping to join him.  Then he started in our direction on the run.  Satisfied that Jackson did not sense the danger, I called to him to get his horses under cover and prepare for defense, since I was certain that the Indians were going to attack.  I dismounted and deployed my men.  As the leading warriors neared, Jackson’s men, getting into position, opened fire, and then my men, at command, also began firing.  There were probably one hundred fifty or more warriors in this attack.  Captain Jackson sent a courier to the regiment for help.  Captain Edgerly, with his troop, came up and joined in the firing, and soon afterward the Indians withdrew.  We had no casualties in the encounter.  I understood later that this attack was made by Little Wound. On my return to camp, I reported my movements and results to headquarters.  Late in the afternoon, the command and captives started on the return march to Pine Ridge agency.  The captives were hauled in their wagons, and we detailed as rear guard.  Sometime after midnight we arrived at Pine Ridge, where I turned over my prisoners. In the foregoing, I have endeavored to state circumstances relating to acts and facts connected with my troop, D, 7th Cavalry. I do not believe that there was any wanton killing of women and children.  I did not see or hear of any drunkenness at any time at Wounded Knee.

Respectfully submitted, E. S. GODFREY, Brigadier General, U.S.A., Retired.[1]

Much of the country was outraged at the 7th Cavalry’s conduct at Wounded Knee, and Edward Godfrey’s career, more than of James Forsyth or Samuel Whitside, felt the backlash of that outrage.  An article in the New York Sun in 1907 marking the retirement of General Godfrey detailed how Wounded Knee, and likely the tragedy at White Horse Creek, prevented his promotion to higher rank.

Washington, Oct. 9.–One of the most noted of the Indian fighters and frontier scouts in the United States army went on the retired list to-day when Brig.-Gen. Edward Settle Godfrey reached the age of 64 years. He has the distinction also of being one of the last of the high commissioned officers in the army who saw service in the civil war. He served as a private in the Twenty-first Ohio Infantry before he was appointed a cadet at West Point, where he graduated in 1867 and assigned to the Seventh Cavalry. Most of Gen. Godfrey’s active military service was with that regiment in Indian campaigns. Gen. Godfrey won a medal of honor for “most distinguished gallantry in action” against Nez Perces Indians at Bear Paw Mountain, Montana, on September 30, 1877, leading his command into action when he was severely wounded. He was brevetted a Major on February 27, 1890, for military services. He served at the battle of Wounded Knee and his participation in that engagement nearly cost him his life, and cost him, in the estimation of many of his fellow officers, the rank of Major-General. Certain alleged acts in that engagement, for which President Roosevelt held Gen. Godfrey responsible, made the President his unsparing critic in the late years, and he declared on one occasion that Godfrey should never be promoted under the Roosevelt administration. The President relented after much persuasion on the part of Gen. Franklin Bell, the present Chief of the General Staff, and others who were in the Wounded Knee engagement, and promoted Gen. Godfrey from Senior Colonel of the line to Brigadier-General. This promotion was not made, however, until last January. The charge against Gen. Godfrey was similar to that brought against Gen. John J. Pershing, then a Captain, on account of the Moro campaign–that he permitted the killing of women and children unnecessarily in battle. Gen. Godfrey has been vigorously defended against this charge by Gen. Bell and other participants in the engagements. The friends of Gen. Godfrey had hoped that he might be advanced to the rank of Major-General to succeed Gen. McCaskey, whose active service ended last month, to enable him to retire with that rank which they believed he had earned by his long and distinguished services. It was reported that the President had decided to make the promotion, but Gen. Godfrey’s friends were disappointed, for the promotion went to Brig.-Gen. William P. Duvall. A railroad accident just after the battle of Wounded Knee sent Gen. Godfrey to the hospital badly injured. He never recovered entirely from the accident. He participated in the campaign against the Indians in which Gen. Custer was killed and in the expedition which captured Chief Joseph. He was at the Military Academy from 1879 to 1883 as instructor of cavalry. He was commended for special efficiency by the Inspector-General of the army in 1894. The Seventh Cavalry did not go to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, but remained in Arizona. After the close of hostilities and during the military occupation the regiment was sent there, and Gen. Godfrey accompanied it for a brief service. He is at present in command of the mounted service school at Fort Riley, Kansas.[2]

Brigadier General Edward Settle Godfrey and his second wife, Ida Emley, are buried in section 3 of Arlington National Cemetery.[3]

[1] Peter Cozzens, ed., Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars, 1865-1890, (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2004), 615-619.
[2] Associated Press, “Brig. Gen. Godfrey Retired,” The Sun (New York: 10 Oct 1907), 2.
[3] Anne Cady, “Edward Settle Godfrey,” FindAGrave ( accessed 23 May 2014. Uploaded 9 Dec 2010.

Citation for this article: Samuel L. Russell, “General Godfrey’s Recollections of Wounded Knee,” Army at Wounded Knee (Sumter, SC: Russell Martial Research, 2013-2014,, posted 8 Feb 2014, accessed __________.

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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4 Responses to General Godfrey’s Recollections of Wounded Knee

  1. Keith Kristjanson says:

    I have been attempting to find information on High Backbone (US Scout killed at Wounded Knee), without success. I have found several individuals by that name or “Hump”, none of which trace to a High Backbone, US scout, that was killed at Wounded Knee.
    Do you know of any information on this Scout? Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you,
    Keith Kristjanson


  2. Sam Russell says:

    Mr. Kristjanson… I know of one source from Judge Eli Ricker’s interviews.

    The center of the fight was at the “circle.” One of the Indian Scouts was High Back Bone who was thought to be half crazy. Early in the action he was seen by a soldier to flourish his revolver and whether it was excitement or a bad heart which was his incitement is not known, but his actions being seen, his running around was interpreted to mean that he had turned against the whites, and when he got down by the officers’ tents a soldier shot him down.

    Source: Eli S. Ricker, Richard E. Jensen, ed., Voices of the American West, Vol. 2, The Settler and Soldier Interviews of Eli S. Ricker, 1903-1919, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 4 (Peter McFarland’s Interview).


  3. Keith Kristjanson says:

    Thank you for the prompt response. I will look further into those interviews.
    Keith Kristjanson


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