The Indians broke in the general direction of their village and endeavored to penetrate the line of Troops “B” and “K”, but the soldiers stood their ground and returned the fire to the best of their ability.
[Note: In December 1890, Loyd Stone McCormick was serving as a First Lieutenant and the 7th Cavalry’s Regimental Adjutant, at Wounded Knee. McCormick wrote this unpublished manuscript in 1904 while serving as a Major in the 7th Cavalry. Some years after writing this manuscript McCormick stated, “I did this more to get the result of the investigation of General Forsyth (then Colonel of the regiment) in a tangible shape than for any other reason.” Based on that statement McCormick likely had access to and used the reports and correspondence associated with the investigation as the basis of his manuscript. However, as he did not cite sources, did not publish the manuscript in any professional journal or magazine, and wrote it fourteen years after the battle, I have categorized this account as Reminiscences. I originally posted McCormick’s account in three parts in January 2014. It is posted now in its entirety.]
WOUNDED KNEE and DREXEL MISSION FIGHTS.
December 29th and 30th, 1890
An account of the conditions and events which precede the collecting of United States forces at several places in South Dakota during the fall and winter of 1890-91, will be necessary in order that the reader may understand the peculiarities of the problem which was presented for solution, and the difficulties to be encountered in a real effort to meet the emergency.
During the late summer and fall of 1890, the Indians throughout the country, but particularly those at the agencies in North and South Dakota, had shown signs of unrest. In many cases they had refused to obey their agents and, generally, had adopted a very arrogant bearing. The cause of this change was not at first apparent, and the authorities, as a rule, were puzzled to account for it. Although it was known in a general way that the Indians were engaging in some unusual ceremonies, it was well into the fall before the more serious aspects of the matter appealed to the military authorities. By this time fanatic zeal had so possessed a large number of Indians that there was a general belief that a Messiah was soon to appear, and that with him would be a return of the buffalo, a resurrection of dead Indians, and the annihilation of the white man. A feverish excitement pervaded most of the agencies, and different Medicine Men took advantage of this condition to so play on the feelings of the savages as to convince a large percentage that the rule of the white man could easily be terminated. Such a desirable change appealed strongly to their superstitious natures, and when the Indians had been worked up to the top notch of ardor, the announcement was made that the bullets of the white men could not harm them if they would wear the “Ghost Shirt.” The material of which these were made was the unbleached muslin issued to the Indians at the agencies; but the shirt must be made up by certain squaws designated by the Medicine Men of each band. These shirts sold for five dollars each, and it was thought by not a few that the trade in shirts was sufficient stimulae to unusual efforts in convincing the deluded savages that by means of the shirt alone could they hope to reap the benefits to accrue as soon as the Messiah should appear.
With such a sentiment prevailing, it is not to be wondered at that agents, who had had little or no experience in handling Indians should be amazed at their surly and impudent demeanor; and that some of them should jump to the conclusion that a general war was to be proclaimed by the Red Man. A few of the agents had the nerve to meet the emergency in a partly effective manner, but many of them seemed helpless and at a loss to institute any measures to counteract the tendencies. And it is a question whether these could have been wholly overcome, and a more or less serious conflict averted. The religious element was the most potent factor in this fanatic zeal and ardor; and it is well known that, from the earliest times, such a disturbance has been the most difficult to overcome.
Although this feverish unrest had, to a certain extent, taken possession of the Indians at all the agencies of the country, those in the northwest had been much more generally affected than those south of the Union Pacific Railroad–due possibly to the less interrupted communication. There is kept up between all of the northern agencies an almost continual connection by means of Indian runners, and so-called hunting parties. This disaffection was rapidly reaching an acute stage, when the agent at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, deserted his post and asked for military protection, asserting that the Indians at his agency had become intractable. This was one of the largest agencies, and was located about thirty miles north of Rushville, Nebraska. The Indians here were Sioux, and a more unfavorable place for the agent to fall down could not have been selected, as the Sioux is a warlike and turbulent tribe, more easily aroused than quieted.
The forces at several military posts had, in the meantime, been directed to hold themselves in readiness for field duty, so we were not surprised when the telegraphic order arrived at Fort Riley, Kansas for the Headquarters and eight troops of the Regiment, stationed at that post, to proceed at once by rail to Pine Ridge and report for duty to Brigadier General John R. Brooke, who had arrived a few days before and was personally in charge of the military preparations. The officers who accompanied the command were:–
Colonel James W. Forsyth, 7th Cavalry, Commanding,
Major Samuel M. Whitside, ” Commanding 1st Squadron,
Captain Charles S. Ilsley, ” Comdg. Troop E & 2s Sqd.
1st Lieut. L. S. McCormick, ” Regimental Adjutant,
Capt. & Asst. Surgeon J. Van R. Hoff, Med. Dept., Surgeon,
1st Lt. & Asst. Surgeon James D. Glennan, Med. Dept.
1st Lieut. Joseph E. Maxfield, Signal Dept., Signal Officer,
Capt. Myles Moylan, 7th Cavalry, Comdg. Troop A,
1st Lieut. Ernest A. Garlington, ” with ”
Capt. Charles A. Varnum, ” Comdg. Troop B,
1st Lieut. John C. Gresham, ” with ”
2nd Lieut. Edwin C. Bullock, ” with ” and acting Quartermaster
Captain Henry Jackson, ” Comdg. Troop C,
1st Lieut. Luther R. Hare, ” with ”
2nd Lieut. T. Q. Donaldson, jr., ” with ”
1st Lieut. W. W. Robinson, jr., ” Comdg. Troop D,
2nd Lieut. S. R. H. Tompkins, ” with ”
1st Lieut. Horatio G. Sickel, ” with Troop E,
2nd Lieut. Sedgwick Rice, ” with Troop E,
Capt. Winfield S. Edgerly, ” Comdg. Troop G,
1st Lieut. William J. Nicholson, ” with Troop I,
1st Lieut. Edwin P. Brewer, ” with Troop G,
Capt. Henry J. Nowlan, ” Comdg. Troop I,
2nd Lieut. John C. Waterman, ” with ”
Capt. George D. Wallace, ” Comdg. Troop K,
1st Lieut. James D. Mann, ” with Troop K.
Veterinary surgeon Daniel Lemay, 7th Cavalry, accompanied the command. 1st Lieutenant Ezra B. Fuller, Regimental Quartermaster, was left back a few days to turn over the public property at the post, but joined and relieved Lieutenant Bullock of his duties as Quartermaster before the first fight. Captain Edward S. Godfrey joined from detached service soon after we arrived at Pine Ridge, and was present in command of his troop (D) in both fights. 2nd Lieutenant Herbert G. Squiers joined from detached service, but was ordered to appear for examination for promotion before a board sitting at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 2nd Lieutenant J. F. Bell joined from detached service. Lieutenants Hare and Bullock were sent back to Fort Riley, Kansas on account of sickness. The four last named officers were unfortunate in not being able to take part in the fights. From Fort Riley also went as part of the command, Light Battery “E” 1st Artillery, with the following officers: Captain Allyn Capron, 1st Lieutenant Albert Todd, and 2nd Lieutenant Harry L. Hawthorne.
The railroad trip from Fort Riley to Rushville, Nebraska, was noteworthy only in the poor service rendered by the company, both as to speed and accommodations for men and animals. After many and unaccountable delays we reached Rushville about daybreak on the 24th of November, detrained, and marched about eight miles and went into camp. While on the way to the agency next day almost continual firing was suddenly heard to the right front. This firing was at a distance, and the only explanation seemed to be that a fight was in progress between the Indians and the few troops already at the agency; although the absence of any word from General Brooke, who had been apprised by telegraph of our approach, left this in doubt. Two troops were sent at a gallop in the direction of the firing, and the remainder of the command took the trot. After marching nearly two miles at these gaits, word was received from the two troops in advance that the firing was caused by the Indians killing the cattle as they were issued to them. This information was a great relief, as every one knew that the small force at the agency could not hold out very long, if hostilities had begun.
We arrived at the agency about noon, November 25th without further incident, and by General Brooke’s direction went into camp in the bottom south of the agency. There remained in and around the agency a large number of Indians, but a great many bucks had left and were camped in the Bad Lands about thirty miles north; and with these Bucks, General Brooke had been negotiating. Their camp was known as “the hostile camp,” and in it were also several disaffected bands from other points. The Indians who had remained at the agency were not considered, by officers who had had much experience in such matters, any more inclined to peace than those in the hostile camp; and this belief was confirmed, when the first actual conflict occurred later at Wounded Knee, by nearly every Indian hastily leaving for the hostile camp; and firing into the agency as he went. However, these negotiations were continued by General Brooke with a view to getting all the Indians to come from the hostile camp to the agency–the idea apparently being that this would settle the question. Almost daily communication was kept up, but with true Indian cunning, very little was accomplished toward committing the Indians to a peaceful acquiescence. One day the report would be very favorable, the next, matters would be at a standstill.
This backing and filling continued until the killing of Sitting Bull near Standing Rock Agency, December 15th 1890. Sitting Bull was a chief and the head Medicine Man of the Sioux, who had for years devoted himself in every possible way to stirring up discontent. To curb this dangerous influence, his arrest was ordered, and accomplished; but within a few moments thereafter, he uttered a signal shout to which his band at once responded, and in the fight which followed, he, with several others on each side, was killed. This event, however beneficial it ultimately proved to be, caused a suspension of Brooke’s negotiations, and for a few days it looked as if nothing short of force would accomplish any desired results. The negotiations were, however, soon resumed.
There were several bands of Indians out from the Missouri River agencies, and troops from different posts were in the field watching them. One of these bands was under Big Foot, a very surly and treacherous Indian. His camp was on the Cheyenne River, and after Sitting Bull’s death his following was very much increased by small parties of bucks from different points. During the night of December 22d, Big Foot and his band escaped from the force whose duty it was to control him. to prevent his joining the hostile camp north of Pine Ridge was of the utmost importance; and for this purpose General Forsyth, under orders from General Brooke, sent Whitside on December 26th, with his squadron (Troops A, B, I, K) and two Hotchkiss guns under Lieutenant Hawthorne, to the Wounded Knee Post Office to intercept Big Foot if possible. Assistant Surgeon Glennan accompanied this command.
Major General Nelson A. Miles, Commanding the Division, was at Rapid City, South Dakota, exercising command of all the forces in the field. He had more than once, since Big Foot’s escape, forcibly reminded Brooke of the danger attending his freedom, and of the absolute necessity of again having him under control. This was the tenor of all the orders and instructions given regarding Big Foot. Whitside captured Big Foot December 28th, about six miles from Wounded Knee, and brought the entire party in to his camp. He sent a request to Brooke at Pine Ridge for the remainder of the 7th Cavalry, and the battery. This request was complied with, and at 8:45 that night the entire Fort Riley Contingent (excepting a small camp guard) and a Company of Indian Scouts under 1st Lieutenant Charles W. Taylor and 2nd Lieutenant Guy H. Preston, 9th Cavalry, were at Wounded Knee Post Office, eighteen miles from the agency. Whitside had already located the Indian village on the flat about one hundred and fifty yards southwest of his camp; he had counted the band and two hundred and thirty women and children, and one hundred and twenty bucks, and issued rations to them. He had detailed Troops “A” and “I” as guard for this night, dividing them into three reliefs with an officer in charge of each relief. The two Captains divided the night in the duties of Officer of the Day. Forsyth’s force joined Whitside’s with as little commotion as possible, and as it had no baggage of any kind it bivouacked for the night and no change was made in Whitside’s dispositions.
Brooke’s order to Whitside was to “find Big Foot move on him at once and with rapidity, capture him, and if he fought, to destroy him.” Those elements of the order without condition, had been completely executed. Capture by United States forces had never inspired Indians with very much terror. It is always followed by an issue of rations, which is repeated at regular intervals, and finally terminated, as a rule with liberty and forgiveness for all crimes and disorders, no matter how serious have been the consequences. On Forsyth, as will be seen, was imposed the ticklish business of disarming this band of fanatics; and this has always been the critical stage in dealing with captured Indians—even when not inflamed to the point of insanity by religious zeal. In fact, complete disarmament has been so rare that the rules of chance have not yet presented any variety of results. A fight will always take place, and it is absurd, to even hope for the contrary. To the Indian a gun is the most cherished of all earthly possessions. The cost almost precludes the possibility of any one Indian buying more than one gun during a lifetime. How persistently would the civilized white man cling to any of his treasures if he saw no prospect of replacing them! The Indian recognizes the superiority of the white man’s gun over his own bow and arrow for hunting purposes; and as his hunting is for subsistence alone, and is not for the mere fun of seeing animals die, it is not hard to understand this intensity of feeling. It would be instructive to see the workings of a law (assuming that it would be constitutional) requiring the citizens of this country to surrender their sporting guns; and to note the protestations, concealments, lies, and even forcible resistance which those executing such a law would encounter. The noble Red Man himself could pick up points; yet we like to consider him as the culmination of all that is troublesome, unreliable, and treacherous. And this band did possess all of these attributes in a marked degree.
Whitside hoped to so overawe its members by numbers as to convince them that resistance, to the demand that was to follow, would be useless; and thus accomplish the purpose without loss of life. Believing as they did, that their ghost shirts would protect them from the bullets of the soldiers, he might as well have tried to overawe so many lions. Forsyth’s orders from Brooke were “to disarm the Indians where they were camped, to, under no circumstances, allow any of them to escape, and to destroy them if they resisted.” The difficulties coincident with the execution of this duty have been partially explained; and no subordinate ever had a more delicate service to perform. In this connection it must be remembered that Forsyth could not take the initiative in actual conflict with the Indians. Had such a course been in accord with the policy of the government, he could have announced his ultimatum of immediate surrender of arms, or destruction, and governed himself accordingly. Instead, by the limitations of this policy, he was chiefly occupied in an endeavor to obey his order “to disarm,” without resorting to the alternative “to destroy”—though at the same time taking the necessary precautions to meet what all feared would follow.
Early in the morning of December 29th, Forsyth made his dispositions for the coming contest in diplomacy, it was hoped; but in force, it was feared. Whitside’s sentinels from Troops “A” and “I”, and the remainder of the guard, were left as morning found them—one third on post around the village, and the other two thirds stationed at suitable points from which to support the sentinels in case of necessity. Troops “B” and “K” were held in reserve, to be used as occasion demanded. These four Troops remained dismounted, their horses being left at the picket lines in camp. Troops “C”, “D”, “E”, and “G” were mounted and stationed at such sheltered positions as were available around and at some distance from the flat on which the village was located. The artillery was placed on a rise of ground north of and over looking and controlling the flat, with Troop “E” near at hand. All were cautioned to avoid doing anything to excite suspicion on the part of the Indians. When these arrangements were completed, Forsyth called a council, and took his place on the flat between Whitside’s camp and the village. Only a part of the bucks responded, and, after showing themselves, they returned to the village. This constant moving back and forth continued for half an hour or more, the bucks paying no attention to Forsyth’s instructions to listen to what he had to say. Finally, Big Foot, who was ill with pneumonia, was brought from the tent which had been pitched for his comfort and treatment, and in front of which Forsyth stood, and was persuaded to cause his bucks to assemble. Even then they paid little or no attention to the purpose of the council, and many of them returned to the village in defiance of every effort to restrain them. It then became necessary to adopt some method by which they could be held until Forsyth could explain what he had been ordered to demand of them. For this purpose, Troops “B”, and “K” were moved to the flat between the village and the place of council, and placed in effective position. Several bucks, at different times, tried to push themselves through these lines toward the village, and it required the greatest forbearance on the part of the officers and men to prevent an outbreak.
After the placing of these two troops to hold the bucks, Forsyth plainly told them that he was ordered by higher authority to secure their arms; and tried to impress them with the fact that the government would deal fairly and kindly with them. Just here is where the real trouble began. His announcement was received with the sullen defiance so often displayed by strikers during labor troubles—with this effective difference, that the Indians believed themselves to be absolutely safe from all attacks by white men. It was surprising to see the perfect confidence they had in their ghost shirts. Big Foot gave some instructions, and as a result a few broken and worthless guns were brought over from the village. He was then informed that those few guns could not be taken as a compliance with the orders of the government. He [Big Foot] replied that his people had no more guns, that they had been burned by the troops on the Cheyenne River. His statement was not believed, and it was apparent that to get any serviceable arms we would have to find and take them. Forsyth then ordered Whitside to have the village searched. The Captains of Troops “B” and “K” (Varnum and Wallace) with small details, were designated for this duty—Wallace starting on the flank of the village farthest from our camp, and Varnum on the other flank, each working toward the center. The Indians had evidently expected this search, and had taken every possible precaution. Several tepees on each flank had been searched without result, when someone noticed a squaw sitting on the ground with her clothes spread out more than usual. She would not get up when told to do so, and it was necessary for two soldiers to take her by the hands and raise her to her feet, disclosing two guns which had been very cleverly concealed. The search was resumed, and. under nearly every squaw and child was found some sort of a weapon. Wallace and Varnum were cautioned against allowing their details to use any more force than necessity demanded in making these searches. A number of knives, war clubs, and about forty guns, many of which were unserviceable, were taken out of the village. Forsyth was satisfied that full results had not yet been obtained, and again demanded from Big Foot a compliance with the orders, calling his attention to the fact that every buck had a gun at the surrender the day before. Big Foot simply repeated his former assertions about having been deprived of his guns on the Cheyenne River. Every place had been searched except the persons of the bucks, and Forsyth could not feel that he had fully executed his orders to disarm this band, if any place was left unsearched; so, instructions were given for each buck to be examined. To properly accomplish this, the Indians were told to return to their village by passing through the interval between Troops “B” and “K”, and to allow the details at that point to search them for arms and ammunition.
It was then about half past nine o’clock in the morning, and the Medicine Man of the band had been indulging in an almost continuous harangue. Little attention had been given to this by Forsyth until Interpreter P. F. Wells of Lieutenant Taylor’s company of Scouts, who had been acting as interpreter in the council, informed him that the Indian had suddenly changed the tenor of his address, and was then trying to induce his comrades to resist the personal search, claiming that they could not be harmed by the bullets of the soldiers. Forsyth had a great deal of trouble in causing this man to cease his efforts in this direction, but finally he sat down although his manner plainly indicated that he was still determined to carry his point if possible. Father F. M. J. Craft, a Catholic priest from the agency, had been present at the council doing all he could to persuade the Indians to submit. The personal search began, and about half a dozen of the older Indians had passed through the interval designated , and allowed the details to search under their blankets, when the Medicine Man reached down, gathered a handful of dust, and threw it into the air. Captain Varnum, although some little distance away assisting in the search, saw this sign, recognized it, and called—“Look out! they’ve broken.”
Although the blankets fell from the Indians as suddenly as a fireman is deprived of his bedding when an alarm is turned in, and every buck began to use his gun as rapidly as possible, Captain Varnum’s warning no doubt brought to many a young soldier a realization of the fact that he was in his first fight, and gave him a bracer in the knowledge that all of his comrades had heard the warning and were with him to the end. The Indians broke in the general direction of their village and endeavored to penetrate the line of Troops “B” and “K”, but the soldiers stood their ground and returned the fire to the best of their ability. It should be remembered that every shot fired by the Indians at this stage, was toward their own village in which were their women and children, and that not a single soldier was so placed as to fire in that direction, but exactly the opposite.
About the time the order was given to prepare for the personal search, it was noticed that the squaws and children were saddling ponies, hitching their teams and loading considerable plunder in their wagons. When asked for an explanation of this the bucks said they were simply getting ready so that they would not delay the command. At the first shot the squaws leaped in the wagons and drove out of their village and took an old road leading along the base of the hill on which the artillery had been located. The bucks soon scattered around the flanks of Troops “B” and “K” and endeavored to follow their families, some of which had been unable to reach the old road and had then crossed a deep ravine which was the southern limit of the flat. No wagons escaped in this direction, and the number of bucks was not large, although several followed up the ravine and in that way tried to reach the foot hills. Those Indians who were not killed in the first clash and who succeeded in getting in rear of their women and children, necessarily now drew our fire in their direction. Troops “B” and “K”, in order to allow the other Troops to open fire, gradually changed their position to the hill where the Artillery was. Troops “A” and “I” (these were the Troops that furnished the sentinels and supports) held the positions they occupied, and on them the sentinels assembled. The Artillery had not yet had a chance to take part without endangering our own men, but was ready and watching for the first opportunity. The Indian Scouts disappeared early in the action. The mounted Troops (“C”, “D”, “E”, and “G”) dismounted at the first shot, and after placing their horses as safely as possible, waited for orders. The Troop Commanders allowed a few of their sharpshooters to fire at certain Indians, but the rest of the men were kept ready for any call.
This fight on the flat was very hot, and by the time Troops “B” and “K” had changed their positions to the hill, not many bucks were possessed of motive power; and a number of those who had escaped around the flanks of the line had been killed by the sharpshooters of Troops “C”, “D”, “E”, and “G”. Several had, however, succeeded in reaching the foot hills and the dense brush growing in the ravines. Whitside’s squadron had borne the brunt of the fight and had, in less than an hour, permanently disposed of most of the bucks. Forsyth sent orders to Troops “C”, and “D”, and “G” of the other squadron to pursue those Indians who had escaped and, to capture and kill the men, and to capture the women and children. The three troops mounted and set out at a gallop, and a running fight took place with these Indian bucks for two or three miles, when all who had not been killed were captured. During this time, the killed and wounded were being collected, and the latter attended to in the best possible manner by Captain Hoff and Lieutenant Glennan. The results of Captain Hoff’s continued and efficient instructions of the company bearers of the regiment were so marked as to produce general praises. He received several bullets through his clothing while dressing wounds on the field.
Instead of fleeing to the hills, two or three bucks had secreted themselves in the brush near the head of the deep ravine south of the flat, and by moving about had escaped destruction, although a Hotchkiss gun under Lieutenant Hawthorne, and detachments of Troop “H” had been trying to dislodge them. It was while on this duty with his gun advanced to short range in order to get better control of the brush, that Lieut. Hawthorne received a severe [wound] in the groin. Earlier in the action Captain Wallace had been killed, and Lieutenant Garlington severely, and Lieutenant Gresham slightly wounded. 1st Lieutenant John Kinzie, 2nd Infantry, present but not on duty of any kind, was shot through the heel. Father Craft had been stabbed through the body from behind; and Interpreter Wells’ nose had been almost severed from his face. Capt. and Assistant Surgeon C. B. Ewing was present but not on duty with any organization.
In the meantime Captain Jackson’s Troop had captured a number of Indians, principally women and children, in the foot hills, when he was confronted by a about a hundred bucks who had come out from the agency (whom the authorities had supposed to be peaceful Indians) and had, sent back for reinforcements. Troops “D” and “G” were ordered to move from their work in the adjacent hills to Jackson’s assistance; and Troop “H” was assembled and was about to go to the same point when Jackson sent word that the agency Indians had retired. A counting of dead bucks had been going on for some time, and as all but two or three of Big Foot’s band were accounted for, every effort was directed towards the care of our dead, and the wounded of both sides. About this time a train of ten or fifteen wagons appeared on the scene loaded with rations and forage from the agency, and intended for Whitside’s squadron in escorting Big Foot’s disarmed band, to a station on the railroad, whence they were to be taken to some reservation at a distance.
Up to this time the transportation present was so limited that moving the dead and, wounded was an impossibility; and a beginning had been made to construct temporary entrenchments on the hill north of the flat, as it seemed a foregone conclusion that we would have to remain there until such time as means for moving the wounded were sent to us. The hostile camp was not a great distance west of us, and an attack from that quarter was not at all unlikely, as soon as news of our fight could reach it; and the temper of the agency Indians was very apparent from Jackson’s encounter in the hills. The arrival of this train offered a solution. The wagons were unloaded and a layer of sacked oats placed in the bottom, over which was spread a thick layer of hay; and in these wagons the dead and wounded were taken to Pine Ridge that night, in order to get them where they could be properly cared for. After all our wagons were loaded there were four or five wounded Indians not provided for. One of the Indian wagons was secured for these, and by gathering pieces of harness from different parts of the field, we finally had all ready for the terrible ride of eighteen miles. There were two ambulances, and in one of them Lieutenants Garlington and Hawthorne were placed; and in the other Father Craft and a non-commissioned officer. The transportation for these four was bad enough, but it was heavenly when compared with the springless jolts of the freight wagon. It took us from five o’clock until a about half past eleven to march in—the rate being regulated by that of the wagons.
To recapitulate, we started with the bodies of one officer and twenty-four enlisted men of the 7th Cavalry, and one hospital Steward; and of wounded, one officer and thirty three enlisted men of the 7th Cavalry, one officer of the 1st Artillery and one of the 2nd Infantry, one interpreter, and one civilian. Three of the wounded enlisted men died in the wagons, and five afterwards as a result of their wounds. As it was impossible to bury the dead Indians, they were left on the field; but all wounded Indians were given the best attention possible and taken with us to the agency. A party was sent out in a few days and buried one hundred and forty-six on the field. With very few exceptions all the bucks were still there.
When we arrived at the agency Forsyth stopped and made a verbal report to General Brooke. The regiment and battery went to their camps, cared for their horses, and speedily sought their blankets. A great many of the Indians, who had been living at the agency and who had by some been considered as friendly, had disappeared in the direction of the hostile camp. Just when they would appear again, and whether as an attacking force or as ration receivers, was a question; and there was necessarily considerable excitement among the troops, which prevented much sleep. Immediately after reveille next morning, December 30th, we were summoned to go to the help of the train of a squadron of the 9th Cavalry, which was following that squadron to its camp at the agency. Major Guy V. Henry, Commanding, had come in ahead with three of the Troops, leaving one troop as a guard to the train. It had been attacked by Indians, and one corporal had been killed. This squadron had made quite a long march, and the 7th Cavalry was considered in better condition for the work. After a gallop of about three miles, we found the train and escorted it to the agency.
Within an hour the 7th Cavalry and Light Battery “E”, 1st Artillery, were again called for to go to the Drexel Mission, about four miles away, on the report that Indians were burning the Mission. Arriving there we found the report a mistake, although they had fired a log school house, located at a little distance from the Mission. An interview with those in charge convinced Forsyth that the Mission was in no danger, and he had given orders to return to the agency, when a report came in from the advance guard that one of the scouts claimed that he heard the firing of heavy guns from the direction of the hostile camp. Forsyth had already executed the orders under which he had been sent to the Mission, but could not well turn back in the face of this report, particularly as it was quite possible that a fight was in progress in his front between the forces known to be in that direction and the unknown number of Indians. Deciding to investigate matters a little more, he sent a report to General Brooke with request for the 9th Cavalry squadron to join him, and continued his march down the valley. The advance guard developed and drove back a small party; but soon afterwards a very much larger force was opposed to us. Proper dispositions were made on commanding ground about two miles below the Mission. There was nothing to indicate that there was any fight in our front, and as Forsyth was not expected to bring on an unnecessary engagement, and, as our men had practically been without food for forty-eight hours, he gave orders for the return to camp, withdrawing Whitside’s squadron and the Artillery first, and leaving Ilsley’s squadron in position until Whiteside could occupy one in rear, when Ilsley was to withdraw to the rear of Whitside.
Whitside’s squadron was approaching its position when a sharp fire was directed against it from the hills on its right flank. Part of the squadron was formed toward the right and occupied a crest which controlled the situation. As Ilsley’s squadron retired it was so utilized as to aid in the withdrawal. About this time Henry’s squadron of the 9th Cavalry arrived from the Agency, and under Forsyth’s direction was used for the same purpose. One enlisted man was killed in this affair, and 1st Lieutenant James D. Mann and six enlisted men were wounded. Lieut. Mann afterwards died as a result of this wound. The loss to the Indians was never known. The command arrived at the agency about four o’clock in the afternoon.
As a sequel to these two fights, Colonel Forsyth was relieved from command of his regiment by General Miles and subjected to an investigation of his conduct of the two engagements. The following endorsements show the action taken by the Major General commanding the Army, and the Secretary of War, on the reports of the investigation.
February 4, 1891.
Respectfully submitted to the Secretary of War.
The interests of the military service do not, in my judgment, demand any further proceedings in this case, nor any longer continuance of Colonel Forsyth’s suspension from the command of his regiment.
The evidence in these papers shows that great care was taken by the officers and generally by the enlisted men to avoid unnecessary killing of women and children in the affair at Wounded Knee, and shows that the conduct of the 7th Cavalry, under very trying circumstances, was characterized by excellent discipline, and in many cases, by great forbearance. In my judgment the conduct of the regiment was well worthy of the commendation bestowed upon it by me in my first telegram after the engagement.
Signed J. M. Schofield,
Major General, Commanding.
Office of the Secretary,
Washington, February 12, 1891.
Respectfully returned to the Major general Commanding.
From the testimony taken by Major Kent and Captain Baldwin, two officers of General Mile’s Staff, ordered by him to investigate the fight at Wounded Knee, it appears that before the action, Big Foot’s band had been joined by Sitting Bull’s following, and these bands embraced the most fanatical and desperate element among the Sioux. They surrendered because of the necessities of their situation rather than from submissive spirit. It was the sullen and unwilling yielding of a band of savage fanatics, who were overmatched and out of food, to superior force. It was not in good faith on the part of the younger braves, at least, but yet not with any definite prearranged plan of treachery.
It was manifestly an imperative necessity to prevent the escape of any of these desperadoes during the process of disarming or as a consequence of the attempt to disarm them, for such escape would probably have resulted in a destructive raid upon the settlements. The troops appear to have been well disposed to prevent an outbreak which was not and could hardly have been anticipated by any one, under the circumstances, even in dealing with Indians, and the dispositions made appear to have had the desired effect of convincing at least a majority of the Indians of the futility of any attempt to escape. If treachery was premeditated by any of the Indians, which seems extremely improbable, the majority of them were deterred from attempting to execute it, until incited by the speech of the ghost dancer.
The disarmament was commenced and it was evident that the Indians were sullenly trying to evade the order. To carry out this order the men had been ordered out from their camp, to separate them from their women and children, and were formed about a hundred yards away, and Troop “K” and “B” were posted midway between them and their tepees. When ordered to surrender their arms they produced two broken carbines and stated that was all they had, but when the partial search of the tepees was made before the firing commenced, about forty arms were found, the squaws making every effort to conceal same by hiding and sitting on them, and in various other ways evincing a most sullen mien. The disarmament was much more thorough than they expected, and when they found that the arms were to be taken from their tepees, and those they had concealed under their blankets were to be taken away also, they were carried away by the harangue of the ghost dancer, and, wheeling about, opened fire. Nothing illustrates the madness of their outbreak more forcibly than the fact that their first fire was so directed that every shot that did not hit a soldier must have gone through their own village. There is little doubt that the first killing of women and children was by this first fire of the Indians themselves. They then made a rush to break through and around the flanks of Troop “K”, commanded by the gallant Captain Wallace, and reached their tepees, where many of them had left their arms with the squaws, and they continued the firing from among their own women and children, and when they started from their camp, their women and children were mingled with them. The women and children were never away from the immediate company of the men after the latter broke from the circle. Many of the men and women got on their ponies, and it is impossible to distinguish buck from squaw at a little distance when mounted. The men fired from among the children and women in their retreat. Cautions were repeatedly given by officers and non-commissioned officers not to shoot squaws or children, and the men were cautioned individually that such and such Indians were squaws. The firing by the troops was entirely directed on the men in the circle and in a direction opposite from the tepees until the Indians, after their break, mingled with their women and children, thus exposing them to the fire of the troops, and as a consequence, some were unavoidably killed and wounded, a fact which was universally regretted by the officers and men of the Seventh Cavalry. This unfortunate phase of the affair grew out of circumstances for which the Indians themselves were entirely responsible. Major Whitside emphatically declares that at least fifty shots were fired by the Indians before the troops returned the fire. Several special instances of humanity in the saving of women and, children were noted.
That it resulted in the loss of the lives of many good soldiers and the wounding of many others, as well as the almost total destruction of the Indian warriors, was one of the inevitable consequences of such acts of insane desperation.
The bodies of an Indian women and three children who had been shot down three miles from Wounded Knee were found some days after the battle and buried by Captain Baldwin, of the 5th infantry, on the 21st day of January; but It does not appear that this killing had any connection with the fight at Wounded Knee, nor that Colonel Forsyth is in an way responsible for it. Necessary orders will be given to insure a thorough investigation of the transaction and the prompt punishment of the criminals.
No doubt the position of the troops made it necessary for some of them to withhold, their fire for a time in order that they might not endanger the lives of their comrades, but both Major Kent and Captain Baldwin concur in finding that the evidence “fails to establish that a single man of Colonel Forsyth’s command was killed or wounded by his fellows.” This fact, and, indeed, the conduct of both officers and men through the whole affair demonstrates an exceedingly satisfactory state of discipline in the 7th Cavalry. Their behavior was characterized by skill, coolness, discretion and forbearance, and reflects the highest possible credit upon the regiment, which sustained a loss of one officer, and twenty-four enlisted men wounded.
The situation at Wounded Knee Creek was a very unusual and a very difficult one, far more difficult than that involved in an ordinary battle, where the only question is of gaining a victory without an effort to save the lives of the enemy. It is easy to make plans when we look backward, but in the light of actual conditions, as they appeared to the commanding officer, there does not seem to be anything in the arrangement of the troops requiring adverse criticism on the part of the Department.
I therefore approve of the endorsement of the Major General Commanding, that the interests of the military service do not demand any further proceedings in this case. By direction of the President, Colonel Forsyth will resume the command of his regiment.
Signed Redfield Proctor,
Secretary of War,
I enjoyed this post, and hope to follow your work. What do you think of the conduct of Godfrey? I am engaged in research (but not blogging on it) on a member of the 7th who fought at Little Big Horn and was discharged in 1880.
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