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Colonel George Custer massacres Cheyenne on Washita River

Colonel George Custer massacres Cheyenne on Washita River

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Without bothering to identify the village or do any reconnaissance, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer leads an early morning attack on a band of peaceful Cheyenne living with Chief Black Kettle.

Convicted of desertion and mistreatment of soldiers earlier that year in a military court, the government had suspended Custer from rank and command for one year. Ten months into his punishment, in September 1868, General Philip Sheridan reinstated Custer to lead a campaign against Cheyenne Indians who had been making raids in Kansas and Oklahoma that summer. Sheridan was frustrated by the inability of his other officers to find and engage the enemy, and despite his poor record and unpopularity with the men of the 7th Cavalry, Custer was a good fighter.

Sheridan determined that a campaign in winter might prove more effective, since the Indians could be caught off guard while in their permanent camps. On November 26, Custer located a large village of Cheyenne encamped near the Washita River, just outside of present-day Cheyenne, Oklahoma. Custer did not attempt to identify which group of Cheyenne was in the village, or to make even a cursory reconnaissance of the situation. Had he done so, Custer would have discovered that they were peaceful people and the village was on reservation soil, where the commander of Fort Cobb had guaranteed them safety. There was even a white flag flying from one of the main dwellings, indicating that the tribe was actively avoiding conflict.

Having surrounded the village the night before, at dawn Custer called for the regimental band to play “Garry Owen,” which signaled for four columns of soldiers to charge into the sleeping village. Outnumbered and caught unaware, scores of Cheyenne were killed in the first 15 minutes of the “battle,” though a small number of the warriors managed to escape to the trees and return fire. Within a few hours, the village was destroyed—the soldiers had killed 103 Cheyenne, including the peaceful Black Kettle and many women and children.

Hailed as the first substantial American victory in the Indian wars, the Battle of the Washita helped to restore Custer’s reputation and succeeded in persuading many Cheyenne to move to the reservation. However, Custer’s habit of charging Native American encampments of unknown strength would eventually lead him to his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

History & Culture

Congress established Washita Battlefield National Historic Site as a unit of the national park system on November 12, 1996.

This site recognizes the attack by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th U. S. Cavalry on the Cheyenne encampment of Peace Chief Black Kettle as a nationally significant element of the United States Government Indian policy and the struggles of the Cheyenne to maintain control of their traditional homelands.

In the decades before the Civil War the U.S. government regarded Indian tribes as sovereign and independent nations and sought ways to remove them from coveted lands as well as protect them against white encroachment. Congress devised a reservation policy that called for concentrating the Indians on small, well defined tracts of land that legislators believed would be free from white intrusions. Some Plains tribes accepted life on reservations others did not, continuing to hunt and live on traditional lands outside the reservations. This choice produced little conflict until the 1860s, when the harsh realities of Manifest Destiny saw more and more gold-seekers and land-hungry settlers penetrate the Plains and encroach on tribal hunting grounds. Unable to retreat beyond the reach of whites, many tribes, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho, decided to defend their freedom rather than submit to reservation life.

This led to attacks on wagon trains, stagecoaches, mining camps, and settlements, creating conditions that brought about the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. Although the government repudiated Sand Creek and promised reparations to the Cheyenne in the Treaty of Little Arkansas (1865), both sides changed violations, and hostilities continued. When the Treaty of Medicine Lodge (1867) failed to end widespread Indian raids, Maj. General Philip H. Sheridan, commanding the Department of the Missouri, prepared a bold and inventive winter campaign designed to catch the Indians when least mobile and most vulnerable. Among those targeted for destruction were the allied Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa tribes reported to be encamped in the Washita River valley.

Photo courtesy of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and the Oklahoma Historical Society

"Punishment Must Follow Crime:" Prelude to the Attack

Events leading to the attack at Washita River began on November 29, 1864, when troops under the command of Col. John Milton Chivington attacked and destroyed Black Kettle's village on Sand Creek, 40 miles from Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory. At the time, Black Kettle had been pursuing a policy of peace with whites and believed his village to be under U.S. Army protection. Black Kettle survived the attack, but at least 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children were killed and horribly mutilated. It came to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre and resulted in a massive public outcry as well as months of retaliatory raids by Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota warriors.

When the army failed to end the raids, a federal commission was created to make peace with the raiding tribesmen. By the terms of the Treaty of Little Arkansas , signed on October 17, 1865, and the Treaty of Medicine Lodge of October 1867, the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes agreed to stop their raiding and settle on reservations in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). There they were to receive permanent homes, agricultural implements, weapons and ammunition for hunting, and annuities of food, blankets, and clothing. The treaties did not bring peace. Many tribal officials refused to sign. Some who did sign had no authority to compel their people to comply with such agreements. And Congress was slow to ratify the treaties and annuities often failed to arrive. Warrior societies, mostly young men violently opposed to reservation life, continued hostilities.

Sheridan, commanding the Department of the Missouri, adopted a policy that "punishment must follow crime." Frustrated that more traditional campaigning methods failed to defeat the Plains warriors in the field, he prepared a winter campaign when Indian horses would be weak and unfit for all but the most limited service.

To this end, on November 23, 1868, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer set out from Camp Supply in Indian Territory with 689 7th U.S. Cavalry troopers and a dozen Osage scouts. His objective: the Washita River Valley where some 6,000 - 8,000 Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache had laid out winter camps. Traveling through a foot of new snow, the command reached the Washita valley shortly after midnight on November 27 and silently took up positions near an Indian encampment the scouts had discovered at a bend in the river. Coincidentally, the village was that of Black Kettle, who had survived Sand Creek and who had tried so diligently to avoid conflict.

On the morning of November 27, 1868, the fight began with a rifle shot, a bugle sounding "Charge!" and a band playing the opening strains of "Garry Owen." In a moment all was tumult as the charging troopers of Lieutenant Colonel Custer's 7th U.S. Cavalry came splashing across the frigid Washita River into the sleeping Cheyenne camp of Chief Black Kettle.

They came in four battalions. Custer led the largest straight into the village. Major Joel Elliott and Captains. William Thompson and Edward Myers led the others northeast and southwest in an attempt to surround the encampment. While Custer watched from a knoll to the south, the soldiers drove the Cheyenne from their lodges barefoot and half-clothed and pursued them in all directions. Some of the warriors fought and died in the village others took up positions behind trees and in ravines and returned fire many of them escaped. The village's leader, Black Kettle, and his wife Medicine Woman Later, were killed by soldiers while trying to cross the Washita River. When the firing ceased two hours later, approximately 30 to 60 Cheyenne and 20 cavalrymen lay dead in the snow and mud.

Following Major General Philip H. Sheridan's plan to cripple resistance, Custer captures the village's pony and mule herds, 875 animals. Custer cuts out 225 animals and orders the killing of the rest. In accordance with the total war policy, Custer also ordered the burning of the Cheyenne lodges, with all their winter supply of food and clothing. Then, realizing that many more Indians were threatening attack from the east, Custer feigned an attack toward their downriver camps and quickly retreated to Camp Supply with his captives - 53 women and children.

The engagement at the Washita might have ended very differently if the larger Indian encampments to the northeast had been closer to Black Kettle's camp. The impact of losing winter supplies, plus the knowledge that cold weather no longer provided protection from attack, forced many bands to accept reservation life.

Battle Map of the Attack Along the Washita

Wounds from the Washita: The Major Elliott Affair

Lt. Col. George Custer (at right, months after the November 1868 Battle of the Washita) won his clash with Black Kettle's Cheyenne, but lost respect among his men for his perceived abandonment of Major Joel Elliott. (Map by Joan Pennington photo from G.A. Custer: His Life and Times, by Glenwood J. Swanson, www.swansonproductions.com)

‘Custer had his victory, an even though a search party had not found Elliott’s missing detachment, Custer was determined to leave before the Indians could turn his triumph into something quite the opposite’

As twilight turned to daylight on November 27, 1868, the opening notes of “Garryowen” sounded from a height just north of the Washita River in western Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). This marching song of the 7th U.S. Cavalry was the signal for more than 700 cavalrymen to converge on a 50-tepee Cheyenne village in a loop along the river’s south bank. As his buglers sounded the charge, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led the assault, his black horse splashing at full gallop through the water at the head of Companies A, C, D and K.

It was a rude awakening for Chief Black Kettle and his villagers, who fled from their lodges, adding a chorus of screams and war whoops to the din of pounding hooves and relentless revolver and carbine fire. Women and children, most half-clad and barefoot, were among those cut down trying to escape in the snow. Although shaken and disorganized, many of the warriors grabbed their weapons—bows and arrows as well as rifles—and fired back at the bluecoats. Not all of the Indians would die easy this bitter fall day. The Cheyenne defenders killed Captain Louis Hamilton in the initial charge, and later severely wounded Captain Albert Barnitz.

Custer shot one warrior in the head but did not linger amid the chaos. He streaked through the village and took station on a hillock a quarter mile south of the Washita in order to direct the movements of his regiment. Major Joel Elliott, leading Companies G, H and M, had converged on the village from the northeast, entering it about the same time as Custer’s command. Captain Edward Myers took Companies E and I into the village from the west after the shooting started. Captain William Thompson arrived late from the south with Companies B and F, leaving a gap between his command and that of Elliott through which many Cheyennes escaped. (See map, above.)

Within 10 minutes of the initial assault the 7th Cavalry controlled the camp but dismounted troopers exchanged fire with desperate warriors for several hours in the woods along the riverbank. Major Elliott, the second in command, stationed himself on a ridge near the knoll Custer was using as the regimental command post. But he didn’t remain there long. Spotting a group of Indians fleeing downstream, Elliott galloped after them with 17 volunteers from various companies. None returned. A search party came up empty, and ultimately Custer left them behind, as too many other hostile Indian villages lay close by to justify lingering in the area.

Custer’s rout of Black Kettle’s village has since generated plenty of controversy. But a bigger concern for the 7th Cavalry itself over the following eight years was the question of whether or not Custer had abandoned Elliott. Captain Frederick Benteen and other 7th Cavalry officers could not forget what Custer did or didn’t do at the Washita in 1868, and they could not forgive their commander. The regiment was divided over the issue, setting the stage for other conflicts that disrupted the 7th Cavalry right up to the death of Custer and his immediate command at the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory on June 25, 1876. Only then did the Elliott affair cease to be a festering sore, for the 7th Cavalry lay deep in its own blood.

Born on October 27, 1840, Joel Haworth Elliott was the second son and third child of Mark and Mary Elliott. He grew up on the family farm near Centerville in Wayne County, Ind. His parents were fervent Quakers. In 1860, at age 19, he attended nearby Earlham, a Quaker teachers college, and also taught school in the area. But in the fall of 1861 he did not return to Earlham or continue teaching. Instead, as Sandy Barnard explains in his biography A Hoosier Quaker Goes to War, Elliott made a decision that ran counter to the pacifist tenets of Quakerism: On August 28, 1861, he enlisted as a private in Company C, 2nd Indiana Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.

Elliott’s decision likely concerned his family, but he was a product of his times. Like so many other young men at the outset of the Civil War, he had been swept up in the military moment and sought out adventure, honor and glory. He had also been influenced by prominent Wayne County lawyer George Washington Julian, himself a Quaker, founder of the Republican Party in Indiana and later a six-term U.S. congressman. A committed abolitionist, Julian had reinforced Elliot’s own Quaker antislavery views.

For the next 19 months the young Quaker-turned-soldier served the Union, much of that time detached from his regiment as an orderly/aide for senior field-grade officers such as Maj. Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook. In that capacity Elliott was at the Battles of Shiloh, Perryville and Stones River. In June 1863 he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the newly formed 7th Indiana Volunteer Cavalry Regiment and served as a recruiting officer. He quickly rose to first lieutenant and in October was commissioned captain of Company M.

In February 1864 Elliott and his regiment joined Brig. Gen. William Sooy Smith’s command, which was supporting Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to Meridian, Miss. Smith’s force was to keep Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates from interfering with Sherman’s operation, and the two sides clashed at Okolona, Ivy Farm and Pontotoc. On February 22 Elliott led his company as part of a mounted saber charge by the 7th Indiana and 4th Missouri Cavalry regiments at Ivy Farm. The enemy was forced to retire from the field but not before the young officer had a horse shot from under him and received a pistol wound to his neck.

Elliott and his comrades battled “that Devil Forrest” again at Brice’s Crossroads, Miss., on June 10, 1864. A Confederate onslaught on the Federal line routed the Yankees, and Elliott sustained gunshot wounds to his left lung and shoulder. After getting away from the pursuing Confederates, Elliott returned to his Indiana home to recuperate for the next six weeks.

In September 1864 Elliott re-joined his regiment near Memphis, and in December he led a 7th Indiana detachment in cavalry raids at Verona and Egypt, Miss. He and his men captured hundreds of supply wagons, four locomotives and 500 enemy prisoners. Elliott had done his part to end slavery and do the same for the Confederacy, but he was not about to give up the life of a soldier.

At war’s end the 7th Indiana was transferred into a corps of observation along the Texas frontier, intended to intimidate the French-supported Mexican government. Captain Elliott and his regiment became part of Brevet Maj. Gen. George A. Custer’s cavalry division stationed at Austin. While serving in the Lone Star State, according to author Barnard, Custer and Elliott enjoyed a good relationship. “What is evident during this period is that Captain Elliott obviously struck up, if not a close personal friendship with George Custer, at least a close professional tie,” writes Barnard. “Elliott frequently was appointed to boards of survey and other administrative positions in the command. For a time in December 1865 Elliott served as the command’s judge advocate, handling general courts-martial for Custer.”

Mustered out of the service in 1866, Elliott sought an appointment as a regular officer in the Army. Among his supporters were Rep. Julian, Sen. Oliver P. Morton of Indiana and his old commanding officer and Civil War hero Custer. In a letter of recommendation addressed to the War Department in December 1865, Custer said Elliott was “eminently qualified to hold a commission in the Regular Army,” and called him “a natural soldier improved by extensive experience and field service.” But not until March 11, 1867, was Elliott appointed a major in the 7th Cavalry.

Elliott joined his new regiment at Fort Riley, Kan., again serving under Custer, a lieutenant colonel in the postwar Army though still referred to as “General” by his men. What followed was a summer of frustrating forays designed to chastise the Cheyennes and Sioux for their depredations in Kansas, Nebraska and what would soon become Wyoming Territory. When Custer’s superiors relieved him of command and court-martialed him for leaving his regiment without permission, Elliott, as the senior regimental officer fit for duty, took charge of the 7th. One historian described the major as “a pleasant and earnest youth, with a high fair forehead beneath wavy hair and a studious face framed by sideburns.”

For the next 15 months the regiment patrolled the Kansas plains in operations characterized by, in the words of 7th Cavalry Captain Albert Barnitz, “long, exhausting marches, heat, dust, bad water and the absence of Indians.” In a letter home the captain recalled Elliott as a good commanding officer. “He has his faults to be sure,” Barnitz wrote, “but upon the whole he is an excellent officer.” In addition to field duty, for a time Elliott served as post commander at Fort Harker, Kan. But Custer was coming back.

In the fall of 1868 Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, commander of the Department of the Missouri, initiated a winter campaign to subdue the Indians on the central and northern Great Plains. Custer, found guilty at his court-martial, was serving a one-year suspension from rank and command, but Sheridan brought him back two months early to lead the 7th Cavalry on this campaign. With Custer again in charge, Elliott reverted to second in command of the regiment. The campaign proper began on November 12, but Custer didn’t take the field in pursuit of the Indians until the 23rd. On the 26th Elliott, whom Custer had dispatched with three companies on a scouting mission, picked up a recent Indian trail leading south from the Antelope Hills. By 9 o’clock that night Custer had linked up with Elliott’s command. In the early morning hours of November 27 an Osage scout discovered the village of Chief Black Kettle, a survivor of the Sand Creek Massacre, and Custer began preparing for his dawn attack.

Elliott did not notify Custer when he left the main battle with 17 volunteers to pursue fleeing Indians. As he galloped off, the captain called out to a fellow officer, “Here goes for a brevet or a coffin!” Once the shooting around the village had stopped, Custer had his men gather up Indian captives (53 women and children), burn tepees and supplies and shoot Indian ponies (nearly 900). Elliott was nowhere to be found, but Custer had bigger concerns. Assigned to round up the ponies, 1st Lt. Edward S. Godfrey had wandered a few miles down the wooded river valley. As the lieutenant summited a promontory to get his bearings, he spotted many more tepees and many more warriors heading in his direction. Custer had his victory, and even though the search party he had sent out under Captain Edward Myers had not found Elliott’s missing detachment, Custer was determined to leave before the Indians could turn his triumph into something quite the opposite. In a bold gambit he marched east from the late Black Kettle’s smoldering village, directly toward the newly discovered Indian villages. Believing the soldiers were intent on continuing the attack, the warriors switched to the defensive, dispersing down the valley to protect their families and lodges. The ruse worked. At nightfall Custer had his men reverse direction and ride clear of the valley.

Though none of Elliott’s group lived to tell the story, it isn’t hard to piece together a basic narrative (see sidebar, opposite page). The major’s rashness had led to a last stand that cost him and his men their lives. Eight years later others would insist that Custer’s own rash behavior led to the infamous Last Stand at the Little Bighorn. But this fall day at the Washita, Custer was intent on saving the rest of his command and in no rush to solve the mystery of Elliott’s lost detachment.

Indeed, thanks to Custer’s judicious behavior, his men and their Indian captives withdrew safely. To many Americans, Custer the Civil War hero was now Custer the Indian wars hero, but he drew criticism as well for his actions. Advocates of peace with the Indians decried his victory as a “massacre,” and his military peers questioned his judgment in attacking an enemy of unknown strength on unknown terrain.

Custer had more questions to answer that December after he, Sheridan and a force of some 1,700 men marched back to the Washita and discovered the mutilated remains of Elliott and his men. Captain Benteen, for one, said the tragedy happened because Custer had “abandoned” Elliott. Most others probably didn’t go that far, but some officers did question whether Custer had done enough to find and rescue his chief subordinate. Soldier casualties would have been light (four men killed and 13 wounded) if not for the death of Elliott and his 17 volunteers. Custer recorded 103 Indian warriors killed in the battle, although the Cheyennes claimed only 31 killed, 17 of those women and children. Regardless of the death toll on either side, the ghost of Elliott and his band would come to haunt the 7th Cavalry.

Benteen’s opinion about the Elliott affair first surfaced in a private letter forwarded to the Missouri Democrat and published on February 9, 1869. In high 19th-century melodramatic style Benteen described what he imagined to be the last moments of the forsaken men: “With anxious beating hearts, they strained their yearning ears in the direction of whence help should come,” he wrote. “What must have been the despair that, when all hopes of succor died out, nerved their stout arms to do and die?”

Benteen then claimed that his commander had remained in the Cheyenne village as his men rounded up prisoners, took inventory and slaughtered Indian ponies—perfunctory tasks at best—all the while oblivious to the plight of Elliott and his men and making no effort to search for them. Benteen’s claim, right or wrong, sprang from a rift that had plagued the regiment before the Washita and only widened after Elliott’s death: The 7th Cavalry officer corps was divided in its loyalties to its commanding officer. The accusatory letter from Benteen, self-anointed leader of the anti-Custer faction, did not initiate this conflict but merely brought it out into the open.

Throughout Custer’s tenure in the 7th Cavalry subordinates complained bitterly about his lack of recognition for the actions they performed on campaign. This included the commander’s report from the Battle of the Washita, in which he merely mentions the deaths of Hamilton and Elliott, the wounding of three other officers and that two officers (Benteen and Barnitz) had personally killed three Indians between them. Custer cited no other officer for his accomplishments that day, despite many praiseworthy examples.

One was Godfrey’s masterful three-mile leapfrog retreat with his platoon from the mass of warriors approaching Black Kettle’s camp from villages farther downstream. Moreover, Godfrey’s field report had alerted Custer to the threat of retaliatory Indian attacks. Custer also failed to cite the bravery and leadership of Captains Thomas Weir, Benteen and Myers during the 7th Cavalry’s withdrawal. These officers had met Indian charges with countercharges, forcing back the enemy and enabling the regiment to escape.

To top it all off, Custer never credited the late Elliott with finding the Indian trail that ultimately led to the discovery of Black Kettle’s village. Many in the 7th Cavalry ranks thought that omission in particular slighted the memory of a fallen comrade and revealed Custer could not be trusted, especially after the lieutenant colonel had seemingly abandoned Elliott at the Washita. If Custer could treat his second in command in such a fashion, would he not also ignore and betray their interests?

In his writings about the 1873 Yellowstone Expedition fights at Honsinger Bluff (August 4) and the Bighorn (August 11), Custer made only oblique references to his officers’ accomplishments, while highlighting his own actions and those of brother Tom. When approached about his refusal to acknowledge fellow officers in his reports, Custer replied that to single out exemplary individuals would be unfair to those not cited, and that among professional soldiers such laudatory remarks were unnecessary and unbecoming. But such acclaim in reports was a prime avenue toward promotion and honor Custer had had his activities announced in numerous official Army communiqués, reports and newspapers during the Civil War, with great benefit to his career. Thus his excuse for slighting his officers was disingenuous at best.

Another point of contention was Custer’s practice of sharing with subordinates as little as possible about his intentions. First Lt. William W. Cooke, the regimental adjutant general, was firmly in the Custer “camp,” yet even he once exclaimed that when it came to being informed of critical matters, George never told him anything. Custer made officer calls—such as the one held before the attack at the Washita and through the Little Bighorn campaign—purely to give out instructions input was neither requested nor tolerated. This approach to command did much to erode relations between Custer and key subordinates, stunting initiative and clouding mission objectives.

Custer’s prickly personality exacerbated problems with the officers and men in his command. According to John Burkman, the lieutenant colonel’s orderly, his boss had a tendency to overreact, “flying off the handle suddenly, maybe sometimes without occasion.” He did not have the capacity to counsel men on points of dissatisfaction, preferring to believe the officers would resolve such problems themselves. Even with brother Tom, George depended on wife Libbie to curb the younger Custer’s excessive drinking habits. By 1869 Custer had stopped caring whether his officers liked him the criticism he had received over the loss of Elliott had helped push him in that direction. In a letter to Libbie that year he confessed, “I never expected to be a popular commander in times of peace.” His expectation was fully realized.

When the 7th Cavalry rode to the Little Bighorn—and death and glory—in June 1876, it was a military column fractured by internal dissent. Other such units on the frontier had their share of personality conflicts and cliques, but few to such a degree. The mistrust, resentment and fear of betrayal many 7th Cavalry officers harbored toward Custer were in no small part a result of the Elliott affair. Whether it adversely affected the regiment’s martial performance after the Washita is a point for de-bate. But certainly the regiment would have performed its frontier duties with more confidence and less second-guessing had it not been for all the suspicion and mistrust. Custer’s tragedy at the Little Bighorn dwarfed Elliott’s tragedy at the Washita, but it is impossible to forget or dismiss the obvious links between the two.

Maryland attorney Arnold Blumberg has indulged his passion for military history as a visiting scholar with the History and Classics Department at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Suggested for further reading: A Hoosier Quaker Goes to War, by Sandy Barnard The Battle of the Washita, by Stanley Hoig Crazy Horse and Custer, by Stephen E. Ambrose and Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer, by Jeffry D. Wert.

Native History: Custer Attacks Peaceful Cheyenne in Oklahoma

This Date in Native History: On November 27, 1868, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an early morning attack on a band of peaceful Cheyenne living in western Oklahoma.

The surprise attack, known as the Battle of the Washita River, is hailed as one of the first substantial American victories in the wars against the Southern Plains Indians.

“Prior to this, the Southern Plains Indians—the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the Kiowa and Comanche—they were running circles around the Army,” said Joel Shockley, a park guide at Washita Battlefield National Historic Site. 𠇊t the time, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were known as the fiercest Indians in the area.”

Custer, touted as a Civil War hero, had been suspended for one year after being convicted of desertion and mistreatment of soldiers. Ten months into this punishment, he was reinstated to lead a campaign against Cheyenne Indians who had raided settlements in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Custer and 150 men of the 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked at dawn on November 27, after marching all night, said Shockley, who is Choctaw and Cherokee. Their target was a camp of about 300 Cheyenne living with Chief Black Kettle, who almost exactly four years earlier had survived the dawn massacre at Sand Creek, in Colorado.

In his field report, Custer stated that three of his four columns charged as one, and that “there was never a more complete surprise. My men charged the village and reached the lodges before the Indians were aware of our presence.”

Custer rode a black stallion that morning, historian Mary Jane Warde wrote in her 2003 book, Washita. After shooting one Cheyenne man, Custer took a position on a knoll to watch the battle. In his field report, he described the scene.

“The lodges and all their contents were in our possession within 10 minutes after the charge was ordered,” he wrote. 𠇋ut the real fighting, such as has rarely been equaled in Indian warfare, began when attempting to clear out or kill the warriors posted in ravines and underbrush charge after charge was made, and most gallantly too, but the Indians had resolved to sell their lives as dearly as possible.”

Within a few hours of the attack, Custer’s men had destroyed the village and killed as many as 103 Cheyenne, including Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman. Custer then ordered his men to destroy 𠇎verything of value to the Indians,” Warde wrote. That included slaughtering more than 800 horses and mules.

The Seventh U.S. Cavalry charging into Black Kettle&aposs village at daylight, November 27, 1868.

Custer calculated the number of human deaths by asking each of his men how many people he killed, Shockley said. By the time Custer returned to Fort Hayes, the count had risen to 140.

𠇌uster was trying to redeem himself with the Army,” Shockley said. “It is believed that many of these officers counted the same people two or three times.”

Cheyenne estimates put the death toll much lower, Shockley said. The tribe reported 50 to 60 people were killed, including 12 women and six children.

Of the 53 people taken captive, most were women and children. Custer likely used the hostages as “human shields,” a strategy he used often during the Indian wars and wrote about in his 1874 book, My Life on the Plains: Or, Personal Experiences with Indians.

Although the incident is called a battle, it was more of a massacre, Shockley said. Custer’s orders were to go to the Washita River and follow it until he found the hostile Indians.

Before he reached the hostile group, however, he discovered Black Kettle and his peaceful village. Black Kettle was leading his people to reservation land and out of harm’s way, Shockley said. “The irony is that Custer basically stumbled on him.”


Custer's paternal ancestors, Paulus and Gertrude Küster, came to the North American English colonies around 1693 from the Rhineland in Germany, probably among thousands of Palatines whose passage was arranged by the English government to gain settlers in New York and Pennsylvania. [7] [8]

According to family letters, Custer was named after George Armstrong, a minister, in his devout mother's hope that her son might join the clergy. [9]

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806–1892), a farmer and blacksmith, and his second wife, Marie Ward Kirkpatrick (1807–1882), who was of English and Scots-Irish descent. [10] He had two younger brothers, Thomas and Boston. His other full siblings were the family's youngest child, Margaret Custer, and Nevin Custer, who suffered from asthma and rheumatism. Custer also had three older half-siblings. [11] Custer and his brothers acquired a life-long love of practical jokes, which they played out among the close family members.

Emanuel Custer was an outspoken Jacksonian Democrat, who taught his children politics and toughness at an early age. [12]

In a February 3, 1887, letter to his son's widow, Libby, he related an incident from when George Custer (known as Autie) was about four years old:

"He had to have a tooth drawn, and he was very much afraid of blood. When I took him to the doctor to have the tooth pulled, it was in the night and I told him if it bled well it would get well right away, and he must be a good soldier. When he got to the doctor he took his seat, and the pulling began. The forceps slipped off and he had to make a second trial. He pulled it out, and Autie never even scrunched. Going home, I led him by the arm. He jumped and skipped, and said 'Father you and me can whip all the Whigs in Michigan.' I thought that was saying a good deal but I did not contradict him." [13]

In order to attend school, Custer lived with an older half-sister and her husband in Monroe, Michigan. Before entering the United States Military Academy, Custer attended the McNeely Normal School, later known as Hopedale Normal College, in Hopedale, Ohio. It was to train teachers for elementary schools. While attending Hopedale, Custer and classmate William Enos Emery were known to have carried coal to help pay for their room and board. After graduating from McNeely Normal School in 1856, Custer taught school in Cadiz, Ohio. [14] His first sweetheart was Mary Jane Holland. [15]

Custer entered West Point as a cadet on July 1, 1857, as a member of the class of 1862. His class numbered seventy-nine cadets embarking on a five-year course of study. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the course was shortened to four years, and Custer and his class graduated on June 24, 1861. He was 34th in a class of 34 graduates: 23 classmates had dropped out for academic reasons while 22 classmates had already resigned to join the Confederacy. [16]

Throughout his life, Custer tested boundaries and rules. In his four years at West Point, he amassed a record total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy. The local minister remembered Custer as "“the instigator of devilish plots both during the service and in Sunday school. On the surface he appeared attentive and respectful, but underneath the mind boiled with disruptive ideas. [17] ”A fellow cadet recalled Custer as declaring there were only two places in a class, the head and the foot, and since he had no desire to be the head, he aspired to be the foot. A roommate noted, "It was alright with George Custer, whether he knew his lesson or not he simply did not allow it to trouble him." [18] Under ordinary conditions, Custer's low class rank would result in an obscure posting, the first step in a dead-end career, but Custer had the fortune to graduate as the Civil War broke out, and as a result the Union Army had a sudden need for many junior officers.

McClellan and Pleasanton Edit

Like the other graduates, Custer was commissioned as a second lieutenant he was assigned to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment and tasked with drilling volunteers in Washington, D.C. On July 21, 1861, he was with his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run during the Manassas Campaign, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle, Custer continued participating in the defenses of Washington D.C. until October, when he became ill. He was absent from his unit until February 1862. In March, he participated with the 2nd Cavalry in the Peninsula Campaign (March to August) in Virginia until April 4.

On April 5, Custer served in the 5th Cavalry Regiment and participated in the Siege of Yorktown, from April 5 to May 4 and was aide to Major General George B. McClellan McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign. On May 24, 1862, during the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, when General McClellan and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River, they stopped, and Custer overheard General John G. Barnard mutter, "I wish I knew how deep it is." Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river, turned to the astonished officers, and shouted triumphantly, "McClellan, that’s how deep it is, General!" [19]

Custer was allowed to lead an attack with four companies of the 4th Michigan Infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, resulting in the capture of 50 Confederate soldiers and the seizing of the first Confederate battle flag of the war. McClellan termed it a "very gallant affair" and congratulated Custer personally. In his role as aide-de-camp to McClellan, Custer began his life-long pursuit of publicity. [19] Custer was promoted to the rank of captain on June 5, 1862. On July 17, he was reverted to the rank of first lieutenant. He participated in the Maryland Campaign in September to October, the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, the Battle of Antietam on September 17, and the March to Warrenton, Virginia, in October.

On June 9, 1863, Custer became aide to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Pleasonton, who was commanding the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. Recalling his service under Pleasonton, Custer was quoted as saying that "I do not believe a father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me." [20] Pleasonton's first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of what was to become the Gettysburg Campaign.

Brigade command Edit

Pleasonton was promoted on June 22, 1863, to major general of U.S. Volunteers. On June 29, after consulting with the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, George Meade, Pleasanton began replacing political generals with "commanders who were prepared to fight, to personally lead mounted attacks". [21] He found just the kind of aggressive fighters he wanted in three of his aides: Wesley Merritt, Elon J. Farnsworth (both of whom had command experience) and Custer. All received immediate promotions, Custer to brigadier general of volunteers, [22] commanding the Michigan Cavalry Brigade ("Wolverines"), part of the division of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. [23] Despite having no direct command experience, Custer became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23. Custer immediately shaped his brigade to reflect his aggressive character.

Now a general officer, Custer had great latitude in choosing his uniform. Though often criticized as gaudy, it was more than personal vanity. Historian Tom Carhart observed that "A showy uniform for Custer was one of command presence on the battlefield: he wanted to be readily distinguishable at first glance from all other soldiers. He intended to lead from the front, and to him it was a crucial issue of unit morale that his men be able to look up in the middle of a charge, or at any other time on the battlefield, and instantly see him leading the way into danger." [24]

Some have claimed Custer's leadership in battle as reckless or foolhardy. However, as English-born American author Marguerite Merington noted, he "meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemies [sic] weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the 'Custer Dash' with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time." [25]

Hanover and Abbottstown Edit

On June 30, 1863, Custer and the First and Seventh Michigan Cavalry had just passed through Hanover, Pennsylvania, while the Fifth and Sixth Michigan Cavalry followed about seven miles behind. Hearing gunfire, he turned and started to the sound of the guns. A courier reported that Farnsworth's Brigade had been attacked by rebel cavalry from side streets in the town. Reassembling his command, he received orders from Kilpatrick to engage the enemy northeast of town near the railway station. Custer deployed his troops and began to advance. After a brief firefight, the rebels withdrew to the northeast. This seemed odd, since it was supposed that Lee and his army were somewhere to the west. Though seemingly of little consequence, this skirmish further delayed Stuart from joining Lee. Further, as Captain James H. Kidd, commander of F troop, Sixth Michigan Cavalry, later wrote: "Under [Custer's] skillful hand the four regiments were soon welded into a cohesive unit. " [26]

Next morning, July 1, they passed through Abbottstown, Pennsylvania, still searching for Stuart's cavalry. Late in the morning they heard sounds of gunfire from the direction of Gettysburg. At Heidlersburg, Pennsylvania, that night they learned that General John Buford's cavalry had found Lee's army at Gettysburg. The next morning, July 2, orders came to hurry north to disrupt General Richard S. Ewell's communications and relieve the pressure on the union forces. By mid afternoon, as they approached Hunterstown, Pennsylvania, they encountered Stuart's cavalry. [27] Custer rode alone ahead to investigate and found that the rebels were unaware of the arrival of his troops. Returning to his men, he carefully positioned them along both sides of the road where they would be hidden from the rebels. Further along the road, behind a low rise, he positioned the First and Fifth Michigan Cavalry and his artillery, under the command of Lieutenant Alexander Cummings McWhorter Pennington, Jr. To bait his trap, he gathered A Troop, Sixth Michigan Cavalry, called out, "Come on boys, I'll lead you this time!" and galloped directly at the unsuspecting rebels. As he had expected, the rebels, "more than two hundred horsemen, came racing down the country road" after Custer and his men. He lost half of his men in the deadly rebel fire and his horse went down, leaving him on foot. [28] He was rescued by Private Norvell Francis Churchill of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, who galloped up, shot Custer's nearest assailant, and pulled Custer up behind him. [29] Custer and his remaining men reached safety, while the pursuing rebels were cut down by slashing rifle fire, then canister from six cannons. The rebels broke off their attack, and both sides withdrew.

After spending most of the night in the saddle, Custer's brigade arrived at Two Taverns, Pennsylvania, roughly five miles southeast of Gettysburg around 3 a.m. July 3. There he was joined by Farnsworth's brigade. By daybreak they received orders to protect Meade's flanks. He was about to experience perhaps his finest hours during the war.

Gettysburg Edit

Lee's battle plan, shared with less than a handful of subordinates, was to defeat Meade through a combined assault by all of his resources. General James Longstreet would attack Cemetery Hill from the west, Stuart would attack Culp's Hill from the southeast and Ewell would attack Culp's Hill from the north. Once the Union forces holding Culp's Hill had collapsed, the rebels would "roll up" the remaining Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge. To accomplish this, he sent Stuart with six thousand cavalrymen and mounted infantry on a long, flanking maneuver. [30]

By mid-morning, Custer had arrived at the intersection of Old Dutch road and Hanover Road. He was later joined by Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg, who had him deploy his men at the northeast corner. Custer then sent out scouts to investigate nearby wooded areas. Gregg, meanwhile, placed Colonel John Baillie McIntosh's brigade near the intersection and sent the rest of his command to picket duty along two miles to the southwest. After making additional deployments, that left 2,400 cavalry under McIntosh and 1,200 under Custer, together with Colonel Alexander Cummings McWhorter Pennington, Jr.'s and Captain Alanson Merwin Randol's artillery, a total of ten three-inch guns.

About noon Custer's men heard cannon fire, Stuart's signal to Lee that he was in position and had not been detected. About the same time Gregg received a message warning that a large body of rebel cavalry had moved out the York Pike and might be trying to get around the Union right. A second message, from Pleasonton, ordered Gregg to send Custer to cover the Union far left. Since Gregg had already sent most of his force off to other duties, it was clear to both Gregg and Custer that Custer must remain. They had about 2700 men facing 6000 Confederates.

Soon afterward fighting broke out between the skirmish lines. Stuart ordered an attack by his mounted infantry under General Albert G. Jenkins, but the Union line – men from the First Michigan cavalry, the First New Jersey Cavalry and the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry held. Stuart ordered Jackson's four gun battery into action. Custer ordered Pennington to answer. After a brief exchange in which two of Jackson's guns were destroyed, there was a lull.

About one o'clock, the massive Confederate artillery barrage in support of the upcoming assault on Cemetery Ridge began. Jenkins' men renewed the attack, but soon ran out of ammunition and fell back. Resupplied, they again pressed the attack. Outnumbered, the Union cavalry fell back, firing as they went. Custer sent most of his Fifth Michigan cavalry ahead on foot, forcing Jenkins' men to fall back. Jenkins' men were reinforced by about 150 sharpshooters from General Fitzhugh Lee's brigade and, shortly after, Stuart ordered a mounted charge by the Ninth Virginia Cavalry and the Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry. Now it was Custer's men who were running out of ammunition. The Fifth Michigan was forced back and the battle was reduced to vicious, hand-to-hand combat.

Seeing this, Custer mounted a counter-attack, riding ahead of the fewer than 400 new troopers of the Seventh Michigan Cavalry, shouting, "Come on, you Wolverines!" As he swept forward, he formed a line of squadrons five ranks deep – five rows of eighty horsemen side by side – chasing the retreating rebels until their charge was stopped by a wood rail fence. The horses and men became jammed into a solid mass and were soon attacked on their left flank by the dismounted Ninth and Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry and on the right flank by the mounted First Virginia cavalry. Custer extricated his men and raced south to the protection of Pennington's artillery near Hanover Road. The pursuing Confederates were cut down by canister, then driven back by the remounted Fifth Michigan Cavalry. Both forces withdrew to a safe distance to regroup.

It was then about three o'clock. The artillery barrage to the west had suddenly stopped. Union soldiers were surprised to see Stuart's entire force about a half mile away, coming toward them, not in line of battle, but "formed in close column of squadrons. A grander spectacle than their advance has rarely been beheld". [31] Stuart recognized he now had little time to reach and attack the Union rear along Cemetery Ridge. He must make one, last effort to break through the Union cavalry.

Stuart passed by McIntosh's cavalry- the First New Jersey, Third Pennsylvania and Company A of Purnell's Legion- posted about half way down the field, with relative ease. As he approached, they were ordered back into the woods, without slowing down Stuart's column, "advancing as if in review, with sabers drawn and glistening like silver in the bright sunlight. " [32]

Stuart's last obstacle was Custer, with four hundred veteran troopers of the First Michigan Cavalry, directly in his path. Outnumbered but undaunted, Custer rode to the head of the regiment, "drew his saber, threw off his hat so they could see his long yellow hair" and shouted. "Come on, you Wolverines!" [33] Custer formed his men in line of battle and charged. "So sudden was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them. " [34] As the Confederate advance stopped, their right flank was struck by troopers of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Michigan. McIntosh was able to gather some of his men from the First New Jersey and Third Pennsylvania and charged the rebel left flank. "Seeing that the situation was becoming critical, I [Captain Miller] turned to [Lieutenant Brooke-Rawle] and said: "I have been ordered to hold this position, but, if you will back me up in case I am court-martialed for disobedience, I will order a charge." [35] The rebel column disintegrated into individual saber and pistol fights.

Within twenty minutes the combatants heard the sound of the Union artillery opening up on Pickett's men. Stuart knew that whatever chance he had of joining the Confederate assault was gone. He withdrew his men to Cress Ridge. [36]

Custer's brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade. [37] "I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry", Custer wrote in his report. [38] "For Gallant And Meritorious Services", he was awarded a regular army brevet promotion to Major.

Shenandoah Valley and Appomattox Edit

General Custer participated in Sheridan's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. The civilian population was specifically targeted in what is known as the Burning. [39] [40] [41]

In 1864, with the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac reorganized under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer (now commanding the 3rd Division) led his "Wolverines" to the Shenandoah Valley where by the year's end they defeated the army of Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. During May and June, Sheridan and Custer (Captain, 5th Cavalry, May 8 and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel, May 11) took part in cavalry actions supporting the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which Custer ascended to division command), and the Battle of Yellow Tavern (where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded). In the largest all-cavalry engagement of the war, the Battle of Trevilian Station, in which Sheridan sought to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the Confederates' western resupply route, Custer captured Hampton's divisional train, but was then cut off and suffered heavy losses (including having his division's trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the enemy) before being relieved. When Lieutenant General Early was then ordered to move down the Shenandoah Valley and threaten Washington, D.C., Custer's division was again dispatched under Sheridan. In the Valley Campaigns of 1864, they pursued the Confederates at the Third Battle of Winchester and effectively destroyed Early's army during Sheridan's counterattack at Cedar Creek.

Sheridan and Custer, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburg, where they spent the winter. In April 1865 the Confederate lines finally broke, and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued by the Union cavalry. Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. His division blocked Lee's retreat on its final day and received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force. After a truce was arranged Custer was escorted through the lines to meet Longstreet, who described Custer as having flaxen locks flowing over his shoulders, and Custer said “in the name of General Sheridan I demand the unconditional surrender of this army.” Longstreet replied that he was not in command of the army, but if he was he would not deal with messages from Sheridan. Custer responded it would be a pity to have more blood upon the field, to which Longstreet suggested the truce be respected, and then added “General Lee has gone to meet General Grant, and it is for them to determine the future of the armies.” [42] Custer was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the table upon which the surrender was signed was presented to him as a gift for his wife by Sheridan, who included a note to her praising Custer's gallantry. She treasured the gift of the historical table, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution. [43]

On April 25, after the war officially ended, Custer had his men search for, then illegally seize a large, prize racehorse named "Don Juan" near Clarksville, Virginia, worth then an estimated $10,000 (several hundred thousand today), along with his written pedigree. Custer rode Don Juan in the grand review victory parade in Washington, D.C., on May 23, creating a sensation when the scared thoroughbred bolted. The owner, Richard Gaines, wrote to General Grant, who then ordered Custer to return the horse to Gaines, but he did not, instead hiding the horse and winning a race with it the next year, before the horse died suddenly. [44]

Promotions and ranks Edit

Custer's promotions and ranks including his six brevet [honorary] promotions which were all for gallant and meritorious services at five different battles and one campaign: [45]

Second lieutenant, 2nd Cavalry: June 24, 1861
First lieutenant, 5th Cavalry: July 17, 1862
Captain staff, additional aide-de-camp: June 5, 1862
Brigadier general, U.S. Volunteers: June 29, 1863
Brevet major, July 3, 1863 (Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)

Captain, 5th Cavalry: May 8, 1864
Brevet lieutenant colonel: May 11, 1864 (Battle of Yellow Tavern – Combat at Meadow)

Brevet colonel: September 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester, Virginia)
Brevet major general, U.S. Volunteers: October 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester and Fisher's Hill, Virginia)
Brevet brigadier general, U.S. Army, March 13, 1865 (Battle of Five Forks, Virginia)
Brevet major general, U.S. Army: March 13, 1865 (The campaign ending in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia)

Major general, U.S. Volunteers: April 15, 1865
Mustered out of Volunteer Service: February 1, 1866

Lieutenant colonel, 7th Cavalry: July 28, 1866 (killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876)

On June 3, 1865, at Sheridan's behest, Major General Custer accepted command of the 2nd Division of Cavalry, Military Division of the Southwest, to march from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Hempstead, Texas, as part of the Union occupation forces. Custer arrived at Alexandria on June 27 and began assembling his units, which took more than a month to gather and remount. On July 17, he assumed command of the Cavalry Division of the Military Division of the Gulf (on August 5, officially named the 2nd Division of Cavalry of the Military Division of the Gulf), and accompanied by his wife, he led the division (five regiments of veteran Western Theater cavalrymen) to Texas on an arduous 18-day march in August. On October 27, the division departed to Austin. On October 29, Custer moved the division from Hempstead to Austin, arriving on November 4. Major General Custer became Chief of Cavalry of the Department of Texas, from November 13 to February 1, 1866, succeeding Major General Wesley Merritt.

During his entire period of command of the division, Custer encountered considerable friction and near mutiny from the volunteer cavalry regiments who had campaigned along the Gulf coast. They desired to be mustered out of Federal service rather than continue campaigning, resented imposition of discipline (particularly from an Eastern Theater general), and considered Custer nothing more than a vain dandy. [46] [47]


A military engagement between the U.S. Army and American Indians, the Battle of the Washita occurred near present Cheyenne in Roger Mills County, Oklahoma, on November 27, 1868. Prior to that date, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 and military campaigns in western Kansas had failed to stem the tide of Indian raiding on the southern Great Plains. Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, who had been named commander of the Department of the Missouri in spring 1868, realized that warm weather expeditions against the mounted Southern Cheyenne, Southern Arapaho, and other "hostiles" were ineffective. Therefore, he devised a plan to attack during the winter months when the tribes were encamped and most vulnerable.

In November 1868 three columns of U.S. Army cavalry and infantry troops from forts Bascom in New Mexico, Lyon in Colorado, and Dodge in Kansas, were ordered to converge on the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) and strike the Southern Cheyenne and the Southern Arapaho. The main force was the Seventh Cavalry led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer. Custer's troops marched from Fort Dodge and established Camp Supply in the Indian Territory, where they were to rendezvous with the Nineteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, which was advancing from Topeka. Slowed by a severe snowstorm, the Nineteenth was unable to reach the post in time, and the Seventh set out alone on November 23.

While Custer's main body of troops and supplies advanced in deep snow south toward the Canadian River and the Antelope Hills, scouts from Maj. Joel Elliott's detachment found an Indian trail further south near the Washita River. Custer reformed the Seventh and decided to follow the path down the Washita, leaving the baggage train to catch up later. The Seventh arrived on a ridge behind an Indian camp after midnight on November 27. After moving forward with his Osage scouts and surveying the area, Custer planned to divide the Seventh into four battalions and attack the village at dawn.

Custer's target was peace chief Black Kettle's camp of about 250 Cheyenne. Earlier, on November 20, 1868, Bvt. Maj. Gen. William B. Hazen, commander of the military's Southern Indian District, had warned Black Kettle, who was seeking protection and supplies for his band at Fort Cobb in the Indian Territory, that the military was pursuing the Cheyenne and the Arapaho. Black Kettle learned that he and his principal men would have to deal with the army's field commanders if they wanted peace. Based on that knowledge, Black Kettle planned to move his village from its present location to larger Cheyenne encampments down the Washita. Having been attacked at Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864, he hoped to find safety in numbers.

Custer's troops were in position by daybreak, and he ordered them forward. Someone from the village spotted the soldiers and fired a shot to warn the camp. The attack started, and within ten minutes the village had been overrun. Fighting continued until about three o'clock that afternoon, however, because Indians from camps downstream rushed up the valley to aid Black Kettle. Arapaho and Kiowa were among those that encountered and killed a detachment of seventeen men led by Maj. Joel Elliott along a stream now known as Sergeant Major Creek. (Arapaho chief Little Raven and the Kiowa Satanta were among the defenders of Black Kettle's village.)

Black Kettle and an indeterminate number of Cheyenne were killed, and fifty-three women and children were captured. (Custer reported 103 Cheyenne men had been killed. The Cheyenne claimed only about eleven of their men had died. The rest were women and children.) In addition, fifty-one lodges and their contents were burned, and the camp's pony herd of roughly eight hundred horses was killed. The Seventh Cavalry suffered twenty-two men killed, including two officers, fifteen wounded, and one missing. That very evening the Seventh, with their prisoners in tow, began their return march to Camp Supply.

The Sheridan-Custer campaign continued into 1869, with troopers of the Seventh Cavalry and the Nineteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry roaming over much of present southwestern Oklahoma. Work on Camp Wichita, later Fort Sill, began in January 1869, replacing Fort Cobb as a base of operations. In March Custer overtook a large number of Cheyenne on the Sweetwater River in the Texas Panhandle. His supplies exhausted, Custer did not attack. Instead, using trickery, he took tribe leaders hostage and won a Cheyenne promise to report to Camp Supply. Declaring the five-month campaign finished, Custer led his army back to Kansas, and they arrived at Fort Hayes on April 10, 1869.

The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site was created in November 1996. The 315.2-acre memorial is maintained by the National Park Service. The Washita Battlefield is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NR 66000633). A related attraction is the Black Kettle Museum, once an Oklahoma Historical Society affiliate in nearby Cheyenne.


Charles Brill, Custer, Black Kettle and the Fight on the Washita (1938 Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).

Jerome Greene, Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867–1869 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).

Stan Hoig, The Battle of the Washita: The Sheridan-Custer Indian Campaign of 1867–69 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976).

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Colonel George Custer massacres Cheyenne on Washita River - HISTORY

On November 27, 1868, the U.S. troops of Lt.
Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked a
peaceful Cheyenne village on the Washita
River in what is now Oklahoma . By the time
the smoke cleared, one of the greatest
tragedies of America's relationship with the
Plains Indians had been enacted.

Called the Battle of the Washita by whites
and the Washita Massacre by Native
Americans, the attack resulted in the deaths
of the peace-inclined Cheyenne chief Black
Kettle and his wife.

Custer's attack was a direct result of the
signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty in
October of 1867. The agreement called for
the Cheyenne to join other groups such as
the Arapaho, Comanche and Kiowa in
moving to reservation lands in the Indian
Territory. There they were to give up their
traditional ways and take up farming.

Many of the key leaders of the Cheyenne had
refused to sign the treaty and some who did
sign had no authority to speak on behalf of
their people. As a result, strong opposition
grew to the agreement. Some young warriors
expressed their outrage through raids on
white settlements in Kansas.

Hoping to avert wider hostilities, Black Kettle
and Big Mouth visited with General William B.
Hazen to ask for peace and protection. They
were told that since General Philip Sheridan
commanded the Department of Missouri,
only he could grant their request.

The disappointed chiefs returned to their
camps on the Washita River, still hopeful that
they could reach a peace agreement with the
whites before the violence spread. They did
not know, however, that Sheridan had sent Lt.
Col. Custer and the 7th Cavalry to retaliate for
the Kansas raids.

Not believing that the U.S. Army would attack
before making an offer of peace, Black Kettle
had declined the suggestions of some of his
followers that the camp be relocated down
the Washita to the vicinity of several larger
groups. He and Big Mouth had only been
back among their people a few days when
Custer struck.

Attacking before dawn, the 7th Cavalry shot
down men, women and children. The 51
lodges in Black Kettle's village were burned,
along with the band's winter supply of food
and clothing. Black Kettle and his wife were
among the dead.

Custer reported that his men killed 100
Cheyenne, although Native American reports
placed the number at 11 warriors and 19
women and children. Two officers and 19
enlisted men were killed in the fighting, most
of them from a detachment under Lt. Joel
Elliott that was cut off by warriors from nearby
camps who heard gunfire and came to help.

In a particularly brutal move, Custer ordered
his men to shoot the Indian horses and
mules. An estimated 800 animals were killed.

The site of the attack is now preserved as the
Washita Battlefield National Historic Site. The
park is 30 miles north of I-40 on Highway
283, roughly halfway between Oklahoma City
and Amarillo, Texas.

Sunrise on the Washita
The battle was fought at dawn
with the ground covered in
snow, much as it appears

Massacre on the Washita: The U.S. Army's 'Total War' on Native Americans

In the fall of 1868, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer commenced a controversial military operation against the Cheyenne.

Custer decided to strike at daybreak. During the remaining hours of darkness, Custer split his command to surround the village and assault it from all sides. Elliott’s force (Companies G, H, and M) moved to the rear of the Indian position Captain William Thompson with Companies B and F crossed to the south bank of the Washita and positioned themselves to the south. The west side of the village would be hit by E and I Companies under Captain Edward Myers after he crossed the stream. Companies A, C, D, and K as well as the regimental sharpshooter detachment under the command of Captain Louis M. Hamilton and accompanied by Custer were stationed on a ridge a mile northwest of the village. The attack was to be made simultaneously by all forces at dawn, but if any of the columns were discovered beforehand, they were to engage at once. The signal for the assault would be given by the regimental band.

“Killed Without Mercy”

By dawn, Elliott’s force was within three-fourths of a mile of the village, straddling both sides of the Washita, with most of the men dismounted and in skirmish order. To their left, Thompson’s command eased into place. On the ridge beyond, Hamilton’s troopers waited in the cold darkness standing by their horses, prohibited for obvious reasons from lighting fires.

As daylight drew near, the soldiers with Custer on the ridge were ordered to mount up. The men formed a single line, while the sharpshooters arranged themselves on foot in skirmish order in front of the left wing. Custer’s column crested a second ridge and saw what looked like a deserted village. Company K, on the right of the advancing line, was ordered to charge anyway and secure any Indian ponies encountered. As the troopers neared the Indian lodges scattered beyond the thick timber along the Washita, Custer turned to the regimental band leader and ordered him to strike up the regiment’s famous marching song, “Garry Owen.”

Before the first musical notes faded in the cold morning air, the soldiers rushed into the Indian camp. The dismounted sharpshooters veered away to allow their mounted compatriots a clear path over the river and up the steep banks. Indians came scrambling out of their tents, mostly unarmed and bewildered. Leading the attack aboard a black stallion, Custer fired his revolver at one Indian and rode over another before taking a position on a rise a quarter of a mile south of the stream. Hamilton’s men entered the encampment firing their pistols at any target that moved. Soon after, Hamilton was shot dead from his saddle.

From the west and south Myers’s and Thompson’s men stormed into the village, but the latter’s force failed to close the circle around the Indians, allowing many to escape to the east. Meanwhile, hemmed in from all directions, other Indians ran for the river, jumped into the freezing waist-high water, and fired at the enemy over the steep bank. Others fled downriver or sought protection behind trees and in ravines. Seeing the chaos around them, Black Kettle and his wife mounted a horse and raced into the river, but both were struck by bullets and fell mortally wounded into the Washita.

Within minutes the soldiers controlled the village. In the ear-rattling confusion, troopers chased and, according to one army scout, “killed without mercy” any Indian man, woman, or child within their reach. That was not completely accurate. Dozens were rounded up and taken prisoner on the slopes below the village.

The Building Indian Resistance

After the village was cleared and the prisoners rounded up, the real fighting commenced. Taking refuge in the timber near the Washita, isolated groups of Indians fought off the pursuing soldiers. Custer’s men dismounted and fought on foot, aided by the sharpshooters who effectively silenced the stubborn pockets of resistance in the ravines and along the river bank. At the same time, Custer sent his men to gather the women and children still in their teepees and to assure them that they would not be harmed.

As the village fell, 1st Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey and 20 troopers sought to capture the Indian ponies feeding nearby. After rounding up a herd of horses south and east of the village, he left to run down a group of Indians seen fleeing across the river to the east. After going three miles, the junior officer spied another large number of lodges along the Washita. Even worse, he also saw hundreds of Indian warriors coming after him. Placing his small detachment in skirmish order, Godfrey deftly leapfrogged his men over a number of ridges away from the rapidly approaching enemy. After a time, for some unexplained reason they faded from his front.

As Godfrey and his men withdrew, they heard heavy firing coming from the nearby south bank of the Washita, but the trees prevented them from discerning what was happening on the far shore. Reaching Custer, Godfrey reported his encounter with the new band of warriors and the presence of a large village downstream. Custer seemed surprised at their existence. Godfrey suggested that Elliott might be under attack. “I hardly think so,” said Custer, “as Captain Myers has been fighting down there all morning and probably would have reported it.”

What Godfrey had heard but not seen was the destruction of a small force of horse soldiers under Elliott, which was the reason why the Indians had stopped chasing him. During the assault on Black Kettle’s camp, Elliott had seen a group of hostiles slip through the gap between his and Thompson’s line. Gathering 18 troopers, along with Sgt. Maj. Walter Kennedy, Elliot gave chase. “Here goes for a brevet or a coffin,” Elliott shouted as he galloped off in pursuit of the Indians.

Upon reaching a point 21/2 miles east of Black Kettle’s village on the south bank of the Washita, Elliott was suddenly attacked by hundreds of Indians from several directions. Dismounting and taking cover in the tall grass, the regulars were showered with Indian bullets and arrows and killed to a man. Their bodies were gruesomely butchered and scalped. Soon after the massacre, newly arrived Indians from the east and north came within sight of Black Kettle’s camp.

Custer’s Surprise Withdrawal

A short time later Custer’s ammunition train arrived, having ridden through the loose cordon of Indians beginning to surround Custer’s position. The colonel sent out a skirmish line to engage the rapidly congregating Indians. While the two sides exchanged shots with each other, Custer ordered the village burned to the ground. He also sent companies under Benteen, Weir, and Myers to engage the enemy. After a few spirited charges, the Indians fell back.

As the fighting died down to the north, Custer instructed Myers to locate Elliott and his detachment. After riding two miles eastward down the river, Myers returned and reported his failure to locate the missing officer and his men. Custer did not renew his efforts to discover Elliott’s whereabouts. He was more concerned about the growing number of armed Indians in the area, and he feared that they might discover and attack his wagon train, then advancing from the South Canadian River and guarded only by 81 infantrymen.

Late in the day, Custer determined to extract his command from a steadily worsening situation. After slaughtering more than 800 Indian ponies, Custer’s column, with wounded soldiers and 53 captured Indian women and children in tow, headed east along the north bank of the Washita toward the remaining Indian camps. Custer explained later that the enemy would never expect a movement in that direction and that the surprise would aid his withdrawal. He was right. Some skirmishing occurred between the soldiers and the pursuing Indians but most of the warriors dispersed and headed for their lodges in order to protect their own families and property. The retreating soldiers, unmolested, were able to join their wagon train, and by late evening of the 28th crossed to the north of the South Canadian River to safety. Four days later they reached Camp Supply.

The Dawn of Total War in the West

That night, while the regiment’s Osage scouts held a “hideous scalp dance” in honor of the victory, Custer described the battle to Sheridan. The general, always to the point, wanted to know what had happened to Major Elliott. Custer, somewhat lamely, suggested that Elliott had simply gotten lost and would turn up eventually. It was “a very unsatisfactory view of the matter,” Sheridan replied, but conceded that it was “altogether too late to make any search for him.” From that time on, Custer never again enjoyed his commanding general’s full confidence.

Elliott’s loss notwithstanding, the Battle of the Washita was a ringing affirmation of Sheridan’s overall strategy of total war. At the loss of two officers and 19 enlisted men killed and another 11 wounded, Custer’s regiment had killed 103 Indian warriors. More importantly, the destruction of the Indians’ ponies, lodgings and food, combined with the brutal reality that the soldiers could strike them during any season of the year, was completely demoralizing. The war on the southern Great Plains would continue until June 1869, but it paved the way for the final triumph over the Indians in that theater. It also cast Custer in the public mind as the most important Indian fighter in the country, even though it proved to be his only major battlefield success against Native American forces. Seven and a half years later, at the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana, he would attempt another surprise assault on an Indian encampment—with vastly different results.

Driven by History

This is the second act in the tragedy of the southern plains Indian War. As Ranger Joel Shockley recounted, the first act happened at Sand Creek. When Col. Chivington and his soldiers attacked Black Kettle’s camp of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864 at Sand Creek, a Plains War erupted that lasted for years, culminating in the Battle at Little Big Horn (Joel’s third act). In response of the Sand Creek Massacre, warriors from the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers rampaged across the southern Plains to avenge their fallen comrades and family members. Peace treaties came and went, and Black Kettle signed some of them, but he had little control over the attacks by the warriors.

Francis Gibson, a lieutenant in the 7 th Cavalry, later estimated that between August and November in 1868, 117 people were killed in the southern plains by the Dog Soldiers, with others scalped or captured, and almost 1,000 horses and mules stolen. As Western historian Paul Hutton said in the movie at the Washita visitors’ center: “The Army was humiliated. This was the Army that had defeated Robert E. Lee.” Something had to be done.

Historian: Washita Massacre shows how Indigenous story was silenced

Apr. 19—TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Dr. Jeffery Shepherd, a University of Texas at El Paso professor, detailed the history and public memory of the Washita Massacre as an example of how Indigenous stories are silenced during a Zoom conversation in late March.

Although the incident has historically been known as a battle, what happened Nov. 27, 1868, near Cheyenne, Oklahoma, was arguably a slaughter. An institution in Oklahoma's Indian Country, Shepherd told listeners at Northeastern State University that members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes consider it a massacre of their family, and that it's important to respect Indigenous perspectives. The conversation revolved around the massacre but also the ensuing struggle to commemorate and claim representation over the event.

"The massacre was a pivotal event in what the (National) Parks Service and some traditional historians will call the Indian Wars, " Shepherd said. "We can obviously problematize that as more of an issue of conquest and removal and dispossession."

Lt. Col. George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle that day. Years before, in 1864, U.S. troops attacked and destroyed Black Kettle's village in Colorado, during which time around 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children were killed. This came to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

Shepherd said the number of Natives killed by the U.S. military during the Washita Massacre ranges from 20 to 103, and politics have played a role in the numbers. Black Kettle was killed in the 1868 Washita attack near the Washita River and the Antelope Hills in what is now western Oklahoma.

"The massacre itself sparked years of Cheyenne and Arapaho resistance, struggle with the U.S military and the settler colonial population moving across the West, and then eventual removal and being forced onto the large Cheyenne, Arapaho reservation," Shepherd said.

Immediately after the attack, Custer and his men offered a narrative, Shepherd said, that they were simply following orders from military leadership — and that the deaths of 19 soldiers were part of their sacrifice to bring civilization to Native people.

"So they were martyred," Shepherd said. "The deaths stem from 'an inevitable clash of cultures that involved violence on both sides.' This is the rhetoric that starts to emerge immediately in December 1868."

Shepherd said part of settler colonial societies included "myth-making" to support tropes of American innocence. He said this builds off of older ideas of Manifest Destiny, the widely held cultural belief that American setters were destined to expand across North America. The Cheyenne and Arapaho saw it differently.

"Although there were interviews in some periodicals, they never made it out into the public very much during the early 20th Century, in part because of the larger systemic racism and also because those memories confounded in the larger project of settler colonial myth-making," Shepherd said. "So the Cheyenne and Arapaho perspectives see this as a massacre of family members — that they're unable to properly bury their kin."

Land runs and allotments began in the 1880s and 1890s, eventually leading to Oklahoma statehood. This would cast a shadow, retroactively, over the Washita Massacre. Many mass killings serve as historical pivot points or watershed moments for Indigenous communities, but Shepherd said the land runs eclipsed the massacre as the major traumatic event for Cheyenne and Arapaho people.

"With statehood and the creation of public schools, we see textbooks emerging throughout the 20th Century," he said. "Those textbooks continued to repeat these older tropes — based on Custer's reports, the military reports, and these self-serving reports — that the violence was inevitable."

Throughout much of the mid-20th Century, there was a shift to commemorate historical events and places. This happened in the U.S. West via the Indian Wars, wherein organizations and the state built roadside attractions and a picnic area overlooking the massacre site. Then in 1968, a reenactment for the centennial of the massacre was held. Shepherd said Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants of survivors of the Washita Massacre participated in the reenactment but didn't realize a continent of the great-grandsons of some of the 7th Cavalry were planning to depict an invasion and attack of the camp, which was created in 1968.

"They were surprised by these cavalry men dressed up in 19th Century military garb, shooting blanks," said Shepherd. "The fake soldiers went off script and really scared a lot of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and this was a turning point for many of them, particularly Peace Chief Lawrence Hart of the Cheyenne, who realized 100 years after the massacre, this wound was still causing pain, and the Anglo community was not paying attention to that."

From the 1960s to the 1990s, efforts emerged to reimagine American history to become more inclusive, more critical and multivocal. In the 1990s, the Cheyenne and Arapaho became involved in rethinking the historic site of the massacre. Chief Hart had testified in front of Congress once before in an effort to preserve the grounds as a historic site. Shepherd said Congress wasn't interested in appropriating any money, but after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Hart returned to testify again.

"He compared Washita to the Murrah Federal Building bombing," said Shepherd. "He said it in a very eloquent and diplomatic way, but he basically said the way you feel, or the way white people feel now, is the way Washita felt."

Today, the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site's cultural center, created in 1996, is still tied to the "trope of inevitable culture clash in their attempts to represent both sides equally." Shepherd said some people will say it's fine to attempt to represent both sides equally, but it could hinder the full explanation of what actually happened.

"There's also a choice there to name these sites a national battlefield," he said. "There's power in naming, and it's somewhat difficult to accept that they're representing both sides, when the name privileges one specific viewpoint."

Shepherd added that narratives of innocence running through U.S. history in ideas of American exceptionalism facilitate marginalization and land theft and silence ongoing pain.

"This site is really a source of ongoing trauma that Native people have been blocked from reconciliation, seeking truth, hearing their full story conveyed, and the full airing of the pain that continues with that silencing," he said.

Washita Memories : Eyewitness Views of Custer's Attack on Black Kettle's Village

The Battle of the Washita is one of the most tragic—and disturbing—events in American history. On November 27, 1868, the U.S. Cavalry under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked a peaceful Southern Cheyenne village along the Washita River in present-day western Oklahoma. This U.S. victory signaled the end of the Cheyennes’ traditional way of life and resulted in the death of Black Kettle, their most prominent peace chief.

In this documentary history, Richard G. Hardorff presents a broad range of views of the Washita battle. Eyewitnesses to the destruction of the Southern Cheyenne village included soldiers, officers, tribal members, Indian and white scouts, and government officials. Many of these witnesses recorded their memories of the event. The records they left vary from oral accounts handed down through Cheyenne families to personal letters, diary entries, newspaper columns, and even official government files. With Washita Memories, Hardorff has collected these surviving documents into a one-of-a-kind primary resource.

Each document is reproduced in full with an introduction and extensive annotation, and a general introduction places the campaign and its aftermath in historical context. Hardorff also provides fourteen detailed maps of the battle site and campaign routes.

Watch the video: Battle Of Washita River Battlefield Tour (May 2022).