Army Leadership on Wounded Knee

Big Foot, ordered all the Indians belonging to the ghost dance to procure all the guns and cartridges possible to obtain and to stay together in one camp. There is no longer any doubt that the Indians are all well supplied with the best make of guns and cartridges, and in addition to rifles a large majority of them have revolvers.
–Indian Agent P. P. Palmer, Cheyenne River Agency

It may be best to have a force of soldiers sufficient to arrest and watch these Indians for a time, but if it is attempted, it should be done with firmness and power so great as would overwhelm the Indians from the beginning.
–The Honorable John W. Noble, Secretary of the Interior

The authority and discipline of the Agents must be maintained, and adequate and early steps taken to prevent any outbreak that may put in peril the lives and homes of the settlers in the adjacent states. You will, therefore, assume the direction and responsibility for such steps as may be necessary to these ends. You will see that the troops whose services will be in requisition in case of an outbreak are in a state of quick readiness to take and remain in the field, and that any movement is supported by a body of troops sufficiently large to be impressive; and, in case of resistance, quickly and thoroughly efficient.
–President Benjamin Harrison to Secretary of War Redfield Proctor

General Miles will take such action as, in his judgment, may be necessary in view of the existing situation, the object being first to prevent an outbreak on the part of the Indians which shall endanger the lives and property of the people in the neighboring country, and second to bring to bear upon the disaffected Indians such military force as will compel prompt submission to the authority of the Government; the arrest of such of the leaders may be necessary to insure peaceful conduct of the tribes and such other measures as may hereafter be necessary to prevent the occurrence of like difficulties.
–Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, Commanding the Army

I regret exceedingly to say that Big Foot has eluded Sumner and is now going south in light order on ponies. Will probably join those in the Bad Lands. Carr has been notified to endeavor to intercept them. If a command were to move quickly from Pine Ridge a little north east and thence down Porcupine or in that vicinity, it might possibly intercept them. They need not disturb any that may be coming from the Bad Lands. We must now close up all possible avenues of escape, shorten the line and enclose them. Big Foot has one hundred men.
–Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, Div. of Missouri,
to Brig. Gen. John R. Brooke, Dept. of Platte

I do not think there will be any mistake made with Big Foot if we get him. My orders are to dismount him and destroy his arms and hold him when caught for my orders. He is near, certainly, and if he eludes Whitside I have another battalion ready and scouts are well out on his probable track. If the First Infantry could be held at Hermosa to come down the road when ordered it would be a good thing to send this party to Omaha, if caught.
–Brig. Gen. Brooke to Maj. Gen. Miles

I hope you will round up the whole body of them, disarm and keep them all under close guard…
Big Foot is cunning and his Indians are very bad….
It is very important to secure the men with Big Foot with as little delay as possible…
I have no doubt your orders are all right, but I shall be exceedingly anxious till I know they are executed; whoever secures that body of Indians will be entitled to much credit.  They deceived Sumner completely, and if they get a chance they will scatter through the entire Sioux camp or slip out individually.
–Maj. Gen. Miles to Brig. Gen. Brooke

Big Foot’s party must be in your front somewhere… you must make every effort to find him and then move on him at once, and with rapidity….  Find his trail and follow, or find his hiding place and capture him.  If he fights destroy him.
–Brig. Gen. Brooke to Maj. Samuel M. Whitside, 7th Cavalry

I have just arrested Big Foot and 120 Indians, all well armed and plenty of ammunition in their belts. About 250 women and children are in the party. The entire outfit are now en-route to Wounded Knee P.O., guarded by my battalion. Big Foot is sick and is riding in my ambulance. I have not disarmed the bucks and do not think it prudent to do so until after they reach camp this evening. I respectfully request that the 2nd battalion of the 7th Cavalry be sent to report to me by daylight to-morrow morning, which will enable me to have sufficient force to disarm the Indians without accident.
–Maj. Whitside to Brig. Gen. Brooke

Major Whitside reports capture of Big Foot. One hundred and twenty men, two hundred and fifty women and children. Will endeavor to make this sure. I send another battalion to reinforce him. Will send them to railroad at Gordon if you so desire. If send them to Omaha will send part of Second Infantry as guard.
–Brig. Gen. Brooke to Maj. Gen Miles

I reached here with my command at 8:30 p.m. Found everything in perfect condition. The Commanding General’s orders will be carried out in the morning, and as soon thereafter as possible I will report back to him with the battalion I brought out with me. Rations for 400 Indians should be sent here to-morrow as early as possible with the forage train the General said he intended to send. I find that Major Whitside has been obliged to call in from the troops rations to feed these Indians to-day. I trust that the ration and forage train will be pushed here rapidly to-morrow morning. I can not now say at what hour I will reach the agency on my return to-morrow, but no time will be lost.
Col. James W. Forsyth, 7th Cav., to Brig. Gen. Brooke

I have a great many rumors of a fight with Big Foot’s party but nothing authentic.  Will hear in a short time.
–Brig. Gen. Brooke to Maj. Gen. Miles

On attempting to disarm the persons of the bucks they made a break, which resulted in a hot fight lasting from about 9:15 until about 9:45.  About fifteen soldiers are wounded and a few killed.  The number of Indians killed and wounded not known, but believed to exceed the loss on our side.  The ones who escaped have fled up the ravines to the west, pursued by three troops. Lieut. Garlington is shot through the arm, not a dangerous wound.  This dispatch is indefinite, but is as accurate as I can give, as we are still engaged in cleaning out the adjacent ravines.
–Col. Forsyth to Brig. Gen. Brooke

Big Foot’s band is practically destroyed. Captain Wallace killed. Lieut. Garlington wounded.  20 soldiers killed and wounded.  Indians fired in troops while being disarmed.
–1st Lieut. Charles W. Taylor, Oglala Indian Scouts, to Brig. Gen. Brooke

…the search through their camp having proved almost fruitless, I gave orders to search the persons of the bucks—again telling them that they must do as white men always do when surrendering—that is give up their arms.  At the first move to carry out the order last referred to, the bucks made a break, which at once resulted in terrific fire and a hot fight lasting about twenty minutes, followed by skirmish firing of about one hour.
–Col. Forsyth, official report

As soon as the Indians crossed the ravine, perhaps two hundred yards distant, and attempted to escape on the Agency road, I gave the command, ‘Commence firing!’… They [the troopers] fired rapidly but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies and dogs–for they were all mixed together–went down before that unaimed fire, and I don’t think anything got nearer than a hundred yards. I believe over thirty bodies were found on our front.
–Capt. Edward S. Godfrey, 7th Cav.

Forsyth is just in and reports that Big Foot’s party has practically ceased to exist.  About seventy killed and wounded.  Particulars will be sent you in the morning.
–Brig. Gen. Brooke to Maj. Gen. Miles

These Indians under Big Foot were among the most desperate. There were 38 of the remainder of Sitting Bull’s following that joined Big Foot on the Cheyenne River, and 30 that broke away from Hump’s following when he took his band and the Sitting Bull Indians to Fort Bennett, making in all nearly 160 warriors. Before leaving their camps on the Cheyenne River, they cut up their harness, mutilated their wagons and started south for the Bad Lands, evidently intending not to return but to go to war. Troops were placed between them and the Bad Lands, and they never succeeded in joining the hostiles there. There all their movements were intercepted, and their severe loss at the hands of the 7th Cavalry may be a wholesome lesson to the other Sioux, but the effect at present no one can anticipate; the fact the other Indians who were pretending to be friendly, going to their assistance or rescue, indicates how little reliance can be placed upon them.
–Maj. Gen. Miles to Maj. Gen. Schofield

Give my thanks to the brave 7th Cavalry for their splendid conduct.
–Maj. Gen. Schofield to Maj. Gen. Miles

Your telegram of congratulations to the 7th Cavalry received, but as the action of the Colonel commanding will be a matter of serious consideration, and will undoubtedly be the subject of investigation, I thought it proper to advise you.
–Maj. Gen. Miles to Maj. Gen. Schofield

I have the honor to report that I have examined the ground where the fight with Big Foot’s band occurred, and counted the number of Indians killed and wounded, also number of ponies and horses with the following result:
82 bucks and 1 boy killed, 2 bucks badly wounded, 40 squaws killed, 1 squaw wounded, one blind squaw unhurt; 4 small children and 1 papoose killed, 40 bucks and 7 women killed in camp; 25 bucks, 10 women and 2 children in the canon [sic] near and on one side of the camp; the balance were found in the hills; 58 horses and ponies and 1 burro were found dead.
There is evidence that a great number of bodies have been removed. Since the snow, wagon tracks were made near where it is supposed dead or wounded Indians had been lying. The camp and bodies of the Indians had been more or less plundered before my command arrived here.
–Capt. F. A. Whitney, 8th Infantry

By direction of the President, you are hereby relieved from your present command, pending the inquiry to be made concerning the affair on Wounded Knee.
–Maj. Gen. Miles to Col. Forsyth

Forsyth’s actions [are] about the worst I have ever known. I doubt if there is a Second Lieutenant who could not have made better disposition of 433 white soldiers and 40 Indian scouts, or could not have disarmed 118 Indians encumbered with 250 women and children.
–Maj. Gen.  Miles, personal letter

The settlement of the Indian trouble has been a failure according to the plans arranged by Gen. Miles, and now some one must shoulder the responsibility and be sacrificed and from appearances Gen. F[orsyth] is the man selected,  for other people to unload on.
–Maj. Whitside, personal letter

If Forsyth was relieved because some squaws were killed, somebody had made a mistake, for squaws have been killed in every Indian war.
–Lieut. Gen. William T. Sherman, U.S.A. retired, personal letter

I have been under such a mental strain for the past month that I feel about used up, and now comes this attack upon my life’s record, by this man, Miles. From the time I got here I knew that some one would be selected as a scapegoat, for the character of the general officer running this thing indicated this, but I did not believe that I was to be selected by Providence to carry the load.
–Col. Forsyth, personal letter

While I do not now consider that Big Foot’s band of Indians was held at a safe distance from Colonel Forsyth’s command, I give Colonel Forsyth credit for his evident belief that the display of such a force would result in safety to all, to the Indians as well as to his (Colonel Forsyth’s) command. It seems impossible to me that he could then calculate that the Indians would deliberately plan their own self-destruction.
–Maj. J. Ford Kent, 4th Inf., official findings

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.
….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.
–Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, Commanding the Army

…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.
….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.
….By direction of the President, Colonel Forsyth will resume the command of his regiment.
–The Honorable Redfield Proctor, Secretary of War

Photograph by L. T. Butterfield of Chadron, Nebraska. From the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

“Officers of the 7th Cav at P.R. Age S.D.” Photograph by L. T. Butterfield of Chadron, Nebraska. From the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Citation for this article: Samuel L. Russell, “Army Leadership on Wounded Knee,” Army at Wounded Knee (Sumter, SC, and Carlisle, PA: Russell Martial Research, 2013-2017, updated 20 Feb 2017, accessed date __________.


3 Responses to Army Leadership on Wounded Knee

  1. Ed says:

    I am a staunch supporter of our military people, but this entire affair reeks of mismanagement followed by cover up. It amazes me to this day the the Garryowen considers this an affair of honor. Particularly given their state of mind following their annihilation in Little Big Horn. The MoH’s handed out for this campaign are of extreme curiosity to me, also. Reading between the lines of the various campaign letters I have come across, it is easy to develop a perception of an army cold, tired, pissed off, certainly with access to alcohol and with cited alcohol related issues, with this last piece of Indian “resistance” before them preventing a return to warmer climes and/or family, and not a little racism. I would certainly welcome any information or insights that would dissuade me from this position.


    • Sam Russell says:

      Ed… Thank you for you comments, and your perception of Wounded Knee is the most widely held view of that affair. Certainly there is ample evidence to support your view. One of the many posts on this site includes an argumentative discussion of Wounded Knee. It provides candid discussion among several historians and authors. For an in depth historical analysis I recommend–in addition to the pages on this site–Jerome Greene’s American Carnage, published earlier this year.


      • Ed Pena says:

        Thank you, Sam. I will read that promptly. In most things in life, I have found that the truth more often resides two polar extremes. Hopefully this book will help me clarify what that truth may be. Kudos on your site, BTW. Excellent historical reference.


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