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It was 154 years ago today that the Washita River in Oklahoma ran red with blood. On November 27, 1868, Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the troopers of his 7th Calvary Regiment attacked a Cheyenne village on the Washita River, on the Oklahoma-Texas border, near the Panhandle. There has been much discussion among historians about the aftermath of this battle, but what led up to it and the actual fight is what we will talk about today.
The Cheyenne, like many other Indian tribes, lived by the culture of the Indian Brave, the Warrior, and the Hunter. Through the spring, summer, and early fall months of 1868, Braves had been on the warpath, raiding in Texas and Oklahoma, many times without fear of any significant military response. After the Civil War, the U.S. Army budget was seriously cut. In many cases, the Indians were better armed than the soldiers. Custer himself was actually a General during the War, called the “Boy General”, as he was the youngest at the time.
To stay in the dilapidated and neglected Army, he had to take a demotion in rank, though he was still known as General. The Army was expected to do a job that it was not equipped for and thus suffered. Before the fight at Washita, Custer had actually been on suspension in Michigan after driving his men too hard in fighting with the Indians. However, the Army was desperate, and so Custer was called back. He immediately set out to reorganize and toughen the 7th Cav. Decided it would be best to attack the Cheyenne during the winter when they would be camped along the nearest river and ceased raiding. To Custer, this was the best way to attack and defeat an enemy, when they least expected it.
With Osage Indians acting as scouts, Custer and his men plunged straight into a snow storm, though it was hard on the soldiers, it also kept them concealed. Sent ahead to reconnoitrer the village’s location Major Elliot took with him 19 men, they were later found to have been ambushed and massacred, their bodies mutilated in a common tradition of the natives. However, on the night of the 26th, Custer set about organizing his troops around the village, being careful not to make a sound or even light a match.
The Son of the Morning Star who attacked at dawn was one of several names that the Indians gave to General Custer. In the early morning hours of November 27, 1868, Custer lived up to his moniker, attacking while the Cheyenne were asleep. While leading his men, the band playing The Gary Owen with the buglers sounding the charge, Custer and his 7th Cav galloped into the village. Though initially taken by surprise, the villagers fought back fiercely against the troopers. Men, women, and children used whatever weapons they could.
One American officer, after being fired at three times by a boy, had to kill him just to save himself. Other Indians during the fighting set about massacring white captives that they had taken during previous raids, including an Indian woman that chased down a fleeing captive, and killed them, before being shot and killed herself. As the battle was raging, Custer learned through interrogations of prisoners that he was in the midst of not just a small camp of natives, but a village that extended some ten miles, that included many other tribes. Fearing a possible disaster, Custer ordered his men to burn whatever stock they could find, even killing several hundred captured horses so that the Indians could not use them.
Once his men were reorganized, Custer moved in force to burn as much as possible of the village, all while enemy forces continued to grow, but Custer’s column was too strong for the Braves to attack with any effect. On December 2, Custer and his men marched triumphantly back into Camp Supply, with General Sheridan, the main commander of the area, proudly tipping his hat. Custer managed to bring many prisoners back with him, some stock, but above all, a much-needed victory in a time when the Army was struggling against heavy odds.
There is much controversy surrounding the Battle of the Washita. Scholars argue that the Indian camp had a white flag, symbolizing peace, though Custer and his men had followed the tracks of an Indian war party to the village, and white captives had been found there as well. Many also criticize Custer for not searching for Major Elliot and his men. Sources of casualties are also debated. The Cheyenne claim mostly women and children were killed, while the Army claims mostly women and children were captured, with over a hundred warriors killed.
One causality was confirmed by both sides, the death of Chief Black Kettle, a major setback for the tribe and a great victory for the Army. When you are fighting a war with an enemy that does not do a roll call every day, it’s hard to get exact figures. The U.S. Calvary casualties numbered less than 30, but later Major Elliot and his 19 men would be added to the casualty list.
What was happening yesterday, on November 26th?