My Life on the Plains, by Gen. George A. Custer

Chapter Thirteen.

Waging the Winter Campaign.

FORAGE for the horses and mules and rations for the men, sufficient of both to last thirty days, having been loaded on the wagons, the entire command, composed as previously stated and accompanied by General Sheridan and staff, left Camp Supply early on the morning of December 7, and turning our horses' heads southward we marched in the direction of the battle-ground of the Washita. Our march to the Washita was quiet and uneventful if we except the loquacity of California Joe, who, now that we were once more in the saddle with the prospect of stirring times before us, seemed completely in his element and gave vent to his satisfaction by indulging in a connected series of remarks and queries, always supplying the answer to the latter himself if none of his listeners evinced a disposition to do so for him. His principal delight seemed to be in speculating audibly as to what would be the impression produced on the minds of the Indians when they discovered us returning with increased numbers both of men and wagons.

     "I'd jist like to see the streaked count'-nances of Satanta, Medicine Arrow, Lone Wolf, and a few others of 'em when they ketch the fust glimpse of the outfit. They'll think we're comin' to spend an evenin' with 'em sure, and hev brought our knittin with us. One look'll satisfy 'em thar'll be sum of the durndest kickin' out over these plains that ever war heern tell uv. One good thing, it's goin to cum as nigh killin' uv 'em to start 'em out this time uv year as ef we hed an out an' out scrummage with 'em. The way I looks at it they hev jist this preference: them as don't like bein' shot to deth kin take ther chances at freezin.'" In this interminable manner California Joe would pursue his semi-soliloquies, only too delighted if some one exhibited interest sufficient to propound an occasional question.

     As our proposed route bore to the southeast after reaching the battlefield, our course was so chosen as to carry us to the Washita River a few miles below, at which point we encamped early in the day. General Sheridan desired to ride over the battle-ground and we hoped by a careful examination of the surrounding country to discover the remains of Major Elliot and his little party, of whose fate there could no longer be the faintest doubt. With one hundred men of the Seventh Cavalry under command of Captain Yates we proceeded to the scene of the battle and from there dispersed in small parties in all directions, with orders to make a thorough search for our lost comrades. We found the evidences of the late engagement much as we had left them. Here were the bodies, now frozen, of the seven hundred ponies which we had slain after the battle; here and there, scattered in and about the site of the former village of Black Kettle, lay the bodies of many of the Indians who fell during the struggle. Many of the bodies, however, particularly those of Black Kettle and Little Rock, had been removed by their friends. Why any had been allowed to remain uncared for could only be explained upon the supposition that the hasty flight of the other villages prevented the Indians from carrying away any except the bodies of the most prominent chiefs or warriors, although most of those remaining on the battle-ground were found wrapped in blankets and bound with lariats preparatory to removal and burial. Even some of the Indian dogs were found loitering in the vicinity of the places where the lodges of their former masters stood; but, like the Indians themselves, they were suspicious of the white man and could hardly, be induced to establish friendly relations. Some of the soldiers, however, managed to secure possession of a few young puppies; these were carefully brought up and to this day they or some of their descendants are in the possession of members of the command.

     After riding over the ground in the immediate vicinity of the village I joined one of the parties engaged in the search for the bodies of Major Elliot and his men. In describing the search and its result I cannot do better than transcribe from my official report, made soon after to General Sheridan:

     "After marching a distance of two miles in the direction in which Major Elliot and his little party were last seen, we suddenly came upon the stark, stiff, naked, and horribly mutilated bodies of our dead comrades. No words were needed to tell how desperate had been the struggle before they were finally overpowered. At a short distance from where the bodies lay could be seen the carcasses of some of the horses of the party, which had probably been killed early in the fight. Seeing the hopelessness of breaking through the line which surrounded them, and which undoubtedly numbered more than one hundred to one, Elliot dismounted his men, tied their horses together, and prepared to sell their lives as dearly as possible. It may not be improper to add that in describing, as far as possible, the details of Elliot's fight I rely not only upon a critical and personal examination of the ground and attendant circumstances, but am sustained by the statements of Indian chiefs and warriors who witnessed and participated in the fight, and who have since been forced to enter our lines and surrender themselves up under circumstances which will be made to appear in other portions of this report.

     "The bodies of Elliot and his little band, with but a single exception, were found lying within a circle not exceeding twenty yards diameter. We found them exactly they fell, except that their barbarous foes had stripped and mutilated the bodies in the most savage manner.

     "All the bodies were carried to camp. The latter was reached after dark. It being the intention to resume the march before daylight the following day, a grave was hastily prepared on a little knoll near our camp and with the exception of that of Major Elliot, whose remains were carried with us for interment at Fort Arbuckle, the bodies of the entire party, under the dim light of a few torches held by sorrowing comrades, were consigned to one common resting place. No funeral note sounded to measure their passage to the grave. No volley was fired to tell us a comrade was receiving the last sad rites of burial, that the fresh earth had closed over some of our truest and most daring soldiers.

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     "The forest along the banks of the Washita from the battle-ground a distance of twelve miles was found to have been one continuous Indian village. Black Kettle's band of Cheyennes was above; then came other hostile tribes camped in the following order: Arapahoes under Little Raven; Kiowas under Satanta and Lone Wolf; the remaining bands of Cheyennes, Comanches, and Apaches. Nothing could exceed the disorder and haste with which these tribes had fled from their camping grounds. They had abandoned thousands of lodge poles, some of which were still standing as when last used. Immense numbers of camp kettles, cooking utensils, coffee-mills, axes, and several hundred buffalo robes were Sound in the abandoned camps adjacent to Black Kettle's village, but which had not been visited before by our troops. By actual examination it was computed that over six hundred lodges had been standing along the Washita during the battle, and within five miles of the battleground, and it was from these villages, and others still lower down the stream that the immense number of warriors came who, after our rout and destruction of Black Kettle and his band, surrounded my command and fought until defeated by the Seventh Cavalry about 3 P. M. on the 27th ult.... In the deserted camp lately occupied by Satanta with the Kiowas my men discovered the bodies of a young white woman and child, the former apparently about twenty-three years of age, the latter probably eighteen months old. They were evidently mother and child and had not long been in captivity, as the woman still retained several articles of her wardrobe about her person, among others a pair of cloth gaiters but little worn, everything indicating that she had been but recently captured and upon our attacking and routing Black Kettle's camp her captors, fearing she might be recaptured by us and her testimony used against them, had deliberately murdered her and her child in cold blood. The woman had received a shot in the forehead, her entire scalp had been removed, and her skull horribly crushed. The child also bore numerous marks of violence."

     At daylight on the following morning the entire command started on the trail of the Indian villages, nearly all of which had moved down the Washita toward Fort Cobb, where they had good reason to believe they would receive protection. The Arapahoes and remaining band of Cheyennes left the Washita Valley and moved across in the direction of Red River. After following the trail of the Kiowas and other hostile Indians for seven days over an almost impassable country, where it was necessary to keep two or three hundred men almost constantly at work with picks, axes, and spades before being able to advance with our immense train, my Osage scouts came galloping back on the morning of the 17th of December and reported a party of Indians in our front bearing a flag of truce.

     It is to this day such a common occurrence for Indian agents to assert in positive terms that the particular Indians of their agency have not been absent from their reservation nor engaged in making war upon the white men, when the contrary is well known to be true, that I deem it proper to introduce one of the many instances of this kind which have fallen under my observation, as an illustration not only of how the public in distant sections of the country may be misled and deceived as to the acts and intentions of the Indians, but also of the extent to which the Indian agents themselves will proceed in attempting to shield and defend the Indians of their particular agency.

     Sometimes, of course, the agent is the victim of deception and no doubt conscientiously proclaims that which he firmly believes; but I am forced by long experience to the opinion that instances of this kind are rare, being the exception rather than the rule. In the example to which I refer, the high character and distinction as well as the deservedly national reputation achieved by the official then in charge of the Indians against whom we were operating will at once absolve me from the imputation of intentionally reflecting upon the integrity of his action in the matter. The only point to occasion surprise is how an officer possessing the knowledge of the Indian character, derived from an extensive experience on the frontier, which General Hazen could justly lay claim to should be so far misled as to give the certificate of good conduct which follows. General Hazen had not only had superior opportunities for studying the Indian character, but had participated in Indian wars, and at the very time he penned the following note he was partially disabled from the effects of an Indian wound. The Government had selected him from the large number of intelligent officers of high rank whose services, were available for the position, and had assigned him with plenary powers to the superintendency of the Southern Indian District, a position in which almost the entire control of all the southern tribes was vested in the occupant. If gentlemen of the experience and military education of General Hazen, occupying the intimate and official relation to the Indians which he did, could be so readily and completely deceived as to their real character it is not strange that the mass of the people living far from the scene of operations and only possessing such information as reaches them in scraps through the public press, and generally colored by interested parties, should at times entertain extremely erroneous impressions regarding the much vexed Indian question. Now to the case in point:

     With the Osage scouts who came back from the advance with the intelligence that a party of Indians were in front, also came a scout who stated that he was from Fort Cobb and delivered to me a despatch which read as follows:

     FORT COBB, 9 P. M. December 16, 1868.

To the Officer, commanding troops in the Field.
     Indians have just brought in word that our troops to-day reached the Washita some twenty miles above here. I send this to say that all the camps this side of the point reported to have been reached are friendly, and have not been on the war path this season. If this reaches you it would be well to communicate at once with Satanta or Black Eagle, chiefs of the Kiowas, near where you now are, who will readily inform you of the position of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, also of my camp.

(Signed) W. B. HAZEN, Brevet Major-General.

     This scout at the same time informed me that a large party of Kiowa warriors under Lone Wolf, Satanta, and other leading chiefs were within less than a mile of my advance, and notwithstanding the above certificate regarding their friendly character they had seized a scout who accompanied the bearer of the despatch, disarmed him, and held him a prisoner of war. Taking a small party with me I proceeded beyond our lines to meet the flag of truce. I was met by several of the leading chiefs of the Kiowas, including those above named. Large parties of their warriors could be seen posted in the neighboring ravines and upon the surrounding hilltops. All were painted and plumed for war and nearly all were armed with one rifle, two revolvers, bow and arrow, some of their bows being strung, and their whole appearance and conduct plainly indicating that they had come for war. Their declarations to some of my guides and friendly Indians proved the same thing, and they were only deterred from hostile acts by discovering our strength to be far greater than they had imagined, and our scouts on the alert. Aside, however, from the question as to what their present or future intentions were at that time, how deserving were those Indians of the certificate of good behavior which they had been shrewd enough to obtain? The certificate was dated December 16, and stated that the camps had not been on the war path "this season."

     What were the facts? On the 27th of November, only twenty-one days prior to the date of the certificate, the same Indians whose peaceable character was vouched for so strongly had engaged in battle with my command by attacking it during the fight with Black Kettle. It was in their camp that the bodies of the murdered mother and child were found, and we had followed day by day the trail of the Kiowas and other tribes leading us directly from the dead and mangled bodies of our comrades, slain by them a few days previous, until we were about to overtake and punish the guilty parties, when the above communication was received, some forty or fifty miles from Fort Cobb in the direction of the Washita battle-ground.

     This of itself was conclusive evidence of the character of the tribes we were dealing with; but aside from these incontrovertible facts, had additional evidence been needed of the openly hostile conduct of the Kiowas and Comanches and of their active participation in the battle of the Washita, it is only necessary to refer to the collected testimony of Black Eagle and other leading chiefs. This testimony was written and was then in the hands of the agents of the Indian Bureau. It was given voluntarily by the Indian chiefs referred to and was taken down at the time by the Indian agents, not for the army or with a view of furnishing it to officers of the army, but simply for the benefit and information of the Indian Bureau. This testimony, making due allowance for the concealment of much that would be prejudicial to the interests of the Indians, plainly states that the Kiowas and Comanches took part in the battle of the Washita: that the former constituted a portion of the war party whose trail I followed, and which led my command into Black Kettle's village: and that some of the Kiowas remained in Black Kettle's village until the morning of the battle.

     This evidence is all contained in a report made to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs by one Philip McCuskey, United States interpreter for the Kiowa and Comanche tribes. This report was dated Fort Cobb, December 3, while the communication from General Hazen, certifying to the friendly disposition and conduct of these tribes was dated at the same place thirteen days later. Mah-wis-sa also confirmed these statements and pointed out to me, when near the battleground, the location of Satanta's village. It was from her, too, that I learned that it was in Satanta's village that the bodies of the white woman and child were found. As I pen these lines the daily press contains frequent allusions to the negotiations which are being conducted between the Governor of Texas and the General Government looking to the release of Satanta from the Texas penitentiary, to which institution Satanta, after a trial before the civil authorities for numerous murders committed on the Texas frontier, was sent three or four years ago to serve out a life sentence.

     After meeting the chiefs who with their bands had approached our advance under flag of truce, and compelling the release of the scout whom they had seized and held prisoner, we continued our march toward Fort Cobb, the chiefs agreeing to ride with us and accompany my command to that place. Every assurance was given me that the villages to which these various chiefs belonged would at once move to Fort Cobb and there encamp, thus separating themselves from the hostile tribes, or those who preferred to decline this proposition of peace and to continue to wage war; and as an evidence of the sincerity of their purpose some eighteen or twenty of the most prominent chiefs, generally Kiowas, voluntarily proposed to accompany us during the march of that day and the next, by which time it was expected that the command would reach Fort Cobb. The chiefs only requested that they might send one of their number mounted on a fleet pony to the villages, in order to hasten their movement to Fort Cobb. How eager for peace were these poor, confiding sons of the forest is the mental ejaculation of some of my readers, particularly if they are inclined to be converts to the humanitarian doctrines supposed to be applicable in the government of Indians. If I am addressing any of this class, for whose kindness of heart I have the utmost regard, I regret to be compelled to disturb the illusion.

     Peace was not included among the purposes which governed the chiefs who so freely and unhesitatingly proffered their company during our march to Fort Cobb. Nor had they the faintest intention of either accompanying us or directing their villages to proceed to the fort. The messenger whom they seemed so anxious to despatch to the village was not sent to hasten the movement of their villages toward Fort Cobb, as claimed by them, but to hasten their movement in a precisely opposite direction, viz., towards the head waters of Red River near the northwestern limits of Texas. This sudden effusion of friendly sentiments rather excited my suspicions, but I was unable at first to divine the real intents and purposes of the chiefs. Nothing was to be done but to act so as to avoid exciting their suspicions, and trust to time to unravel the scheme.

     When we arrived at our camping ground on the evening of that day the chiefs requested permission to despatch another messenger to their people to inform them where we were encamped. To this proposition no objection was made. That evening I caused an abundant supply of provisions, consisting principally of beef, bread, coffee, and sugar, to be distributed among them. In posting my pickets that night for the protection of the camp I arranged to have the reserve stationed within a short distance of the spot on which the chiefs were to encamp during the night, which point was but a few paces from my headquarters. Before retiring, I took Romeo, the interpreter, and strolled down to pay a visit to the chiefs. The latter, after the substantial meal in which they had just indulged, were seated, Indian fashion, around a small fire, enjoying such comfort as was to be derived from the occasional whiffs of smoke which each in proper turn inhaled from she long-stemmed pipe of red clay that was kept passing from right to left around the circle. Their greeting of me was cordial in the extreme, but, as in the play-of Richelieu, I believe- they "bowed too low."

     Through Romeo I chatted on indifferent subjects with the various chiefs, and from nearly all of them received assurances of their firmly fixed resolution to abandon forever the dangers and risks of the war path, to live no longer at variance with their white brothers, to eschew henceforth all such unfriendly customs as scalp-taking, murdering defenseless women and children, and stealing stock from the settlers of the frontier. All this was to be changed in the future. It seemed strange, listening to these apparently artless sons of nature, that men entertaining the ardent desire for repose which they professed had not turned their backs on the war path long ago and settled down to the quiet enjoyment of the blessings of peace. But better that this conclusion should be arrived at late than not at all. The curtain had fallen from their eyes and they were enabled to see everything in its proper light. To adopt their own language, "their hearts had become good," "their tongues had become straight," they had cast aside the bad ways in which they had so long struggled unsuccessfully and had now resolved to follow the white man's road; to adopt his mode of dress, till the soil, and establish schools for the education of their children, until in time the white man and the red man would not only be brothers in name, but would be found travelling the same road with interests in common.

     Had I been a latter-day Peace Commissioner, I should have felt in duty bound to send a despatch to the chief of the proper bureau at Washington, in terms somewhat as follows :

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     Not being an orthodox Peace Commissioner in good standing in that fraternity, I did not send a despatch of this character. What I did, however, answered every purpose. I went to the station of the guard near by and directed the non-commissioned officer in charge to have his men keep a watchful eye upon those same untutored sons of the forest, as I felt confident their plans boded us no good. Romeo was also told to inform the chiefs that after the camp had quieted down for the night it would not be prudent for them to wander far from their camp fire, as the sentries might mistake them for enemies and fire upon them. This I knew would make them hug their fire closely until morning.

     Before daylight we were again in the saddle and commencing the last march necessary to take us to Fort Cobb. Again did it become important, in the opinion of the chiefs, to despatch another of their number to hurry up the people of their villages, in order, as they said, that the villages might arrive at Fort Cobb at the same time we did. As the march progressed these applications became more frequent, until most of the chiefs had been sent away as messengers. I noticed, however, that in selecting those to be sent the chiefs lowest in rank and importance were first chosen, so that those who remained were the highest. When their numbers had dwindled down to less than half the original party I saw that instead of acting in good faith this party of chiefs was solely engaged in the effort to withdraw our attention from the villages, and, by an apparent offer on their part to accompany us to Fort Cobb, where we were encouraged to believe the villages would meet us, prevent us from watching and following the trail made by the lodges which had already diverged from the direct route to Fort Cobb, the one the villages would have pursued had that fort been their destination.

     It became palpably evident that the Indians were resorting, as usual, to stratagem to accomplish their purpose, which of course involved our deception. Fortunately their purpose was divined in time to thwart it. As no haste was necessary, I permitted the remaining chiefs to continue the march with us without giving them any grounds to suppose that we strongly doubted their oft repeated assertions that their hearts were good and their tongues were straight. Finally as our march for that day neared its termination and we were soon to reach our destination, the party of chiefs, which at first embraced upwards of twenty, had become reduced until none remained except the two head chiefs, Lone Wolf and Satanta, and these no doubt were laughing in their sleeves, if an Indian may be supposed to possess that article of apparel, at the happy and highly successful manner in which they had hoodwinked their white brethren. But had they known all that had been transpiring they would not have felt so self-satisfied. As usual, quite a number of officers and orderlies rode at the head of the column, including a few of General Sheridan's staff.

     As soon as the scheme of the Indians was discovered, I determined to seize the most prominent chiefs as hostages for the fulfilment of their promises regarding the corning on of the villages; but as for this purpose two hostages were as valuable as twenty, I allowed all but this number to take their departure apparently unnoticed. Finally when none but Lone Wolf and Satanta remained, and they no doubt were prepared with a plausible excuse to bid us in the most improved Kiowa au revoir, the officers just referred to, at a given signal, drew their revolvers and Lone Wolf and Satanta were informed through Romeo that they were prisoners.

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