The Bluecoats, many of them veterans of the Civil War, had survived the most brutal deprivations—the “Hornet’s Nest” at Shiloh, Stonewall Jackson’s “River of Death” on the banks of the Chickahominy, the bloody Sunken Road at Antietam. They had held firm to cover the retreat at Bull Run and stood with Kit Carson at Valverde Ford. But the onset of the winter of 1866 was introducing them to a new kind of hardship as they broke trail through the rugged Powder River Country, the only sounds the creak of their frozen tack and the moan of the north wind as it tore through the stunted branches of scrub oak that choked the river corridors.
It was November 2, and it had taken the sixty-three officers and enlisted men of Company C of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry more than a month to traverse the nearly 700 miles from the flatlands of eastern Nebraska to the head of the Bozeman Trail in south-central Wyoming. They had traced the great bend of the North Platte across gale-scoured plains, climbed onto mile-high prairie whose altitude made their lungs wheeze and their heads ache, and forded more than two dozen ice-crusted rivers and streams. Now, veering west from the South Powder, they disappeared into the rolling buttes that buckled and folded to the northern horizon. The riders were still a day’s journey from their destination, the isolated Fort Phil Kearny, a seventeen-acre redoubt on the fork of Little Piney Creek and Big Piney Creek just shy of the Montana border. With their black woolen sack coats cinched tight and their greasy kepis and Hardees pulled low against their foreheads, from a twilit distance the party could well have been mistaken for a column of wizened buffalo picking its way through the rugged Dakota Territory.1 Along the trail they had passed a great many grave sites holding the remains of white men and women murdered by Indians.
The soldiers, reinforcements from the East, were unaccustomed to the ferocity of the poudrerie whiteouts that funneled down from the Canadian Plains. Though the biting northers had left the tops of the surrounding foothills and tabletops bald and brown, Company C’s horses and wagon mules pushed through creek bottoms and coulees piled high with snowdrifts that sometimes reached their withers. That night they bivouacked in a narrow gulch, where a spinney of bare serviceberry trees formed a windbreak. Above them loomed the east face of the Bighorn Mountains, a 12,000-foot fortress of granite that few whites had ever seen. Platoon sergeants hobbled horses, posted pickets, and passed the word that fires could be lit for cooking. The men huddled close to the flames and methodically spooned up a supper of beans, coffee, molar-cracking hardtack, and sowbelly remaindered from the Civil War. Company C was nominally under the command of Lieutenant Horatio Stowe Bingham, a gaunt, hawk-nosed Québécois who had fought with the 1st Minnesota Volunteers from Bull Run to Antietam, where he had been wounded. But every enlisted man recognized that the most senior officer accompanying them, the coal-eyed Captain William Judd Fetterman, was the man who would lead them on their paramount mission: to find, capture, or kill the great Oglala Sioux warrior chief Red Cloud.
For more than a year Red Cloud had directed an army of over 3,000 Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors on a campaign across a territory that spanned a swath of land twice the size of Texas. It was the first time the United States had been confronted by an enemy using the kind of guerrilla warfare that had helped secure its own existence a century earlier, although this irony went largely unappreciated in dusty western duty barracks or eastern boardrooms where railroad barons, mining magnates, and ambitious politicians plotted to create an empire. Red Cloud’s fighters had ambushed and burned wagon trains, killed and mutilated civilians, and outwitted and outfought government troops in a series of bloody raids that had shaken the U.S. Army’s general command. The fact that a heathen “headman” had rallied and coordinated so large a multitribal force was in itself a surprise to the Americans, whose racial prejudices were emblematic of the era. But that Red Cloud had managed to wield enough strength of purpose to maintain authority over his squabbling warriors and notoriously ill-disciplined fighters came as an even greater shock.
As was the white man’s wont since the annihilation of the Indian confederacies and nations east of the Mississippi, when he could not acquire Native lands through fraud and bribery, he relied on force. Thus at the first sign of hostilities on the Northern Plains the powers in Washington had authorized the Army to crush the hostiles. If that did not work, it was to buy them off. One year earlier, in the summer of 1865, government negotiators had followed up a failed punitive expedition against Red Cloud and his allies with the offer of yet another in a succession of treaties, this one ceding the vast Powder River Country as inviolable Indian land. Yet again gifts of blankets, sugar, tobacco, and coffee were proffered while promises of independence were read aloud. In exchange the whites had asked—again—only for unimpeded passage along the wagon trail that veined the dun-colored prairie. Many chiefs and subchiefs had “touched the pen” at a ceremony on the same grasslands of southern Wyoming where, fourteen years earlier, the United States had signed its first formal pact with the Western Sioux. Now, as he had in 1851, Red Cloud refused. He argued at council fires that to allow “this dangerous snake in our midst . . . and give up our sacred graves to be plowed under for corn” would lead to the destruction of his people.
“The White Man lies and steals,” the Oglala warrior chief warned his Indian brethren, and he was not wrong. “My lodges were many, but now they are few. The White Man wants all. The White Man must fight, and the Indian will die where his fathers died.”
By November 1866 the forty-five-year-old Red Cloud was at the pinnacle of his considerable power, and the war parties he recruited were driven by equal measures of desperation, revenge, and overinflated self-confidence in their military mastery of the High Plains. The nomadic lifestyle they had followed for centuries was being inexorably altered by the white invasion, and they sensed that their only salvation was to make a stand here, now; otherwise, they would be doomed to extermination. Red Cloud’s warnings would prove prescient: the mid-1860s were a psychological turning point in white-Indian relations in the nation’s midsection. Earlier European colonialism had involved not only the destruction of Native peoples, but also a paternalistic veneration—partly influenced by James Fenimore Cooper—of the cultures of the “Noble Savages . . . their fate decreed by a heartless federal government whose deliberate policy was to kill as many as possible in needless wars.”
Now, however, Cooper’s romanticism was a receding memory, a newly muscular America replacing it with a post–Civil War vision of Manifest Destiny. The old attitudes were reconfigured with cruel clarity, particularly among westerners. Even whites who had once considered Indians the equivalent of wayward children—naifs like Thomas Gainsborough’s English rustics, to be “civilized” with Bibles and plows—were beginning to view them as a subhuman race to be exterminated or swept onto reservations by the tide of progress. By the summer of 1866 the United States had broken the previous year’s flimsy treaty and constructed three forts along the 535-mile Bozeman Trail, which bisected the rich Powder River basin—an area delineated by the Platte River in the south, the Bighorns to the west, the wild Yellowstone River in the north, and, in the east, the sacred Black Hills: to the Sioux, Paha Sapa, “The Heart of Everything That Is.”
Moreover, a much more immediate motivation for what newspapers would soon refer to as Red Cloud’s War propelled the politicians in Washington. Four years earlier, in 1862, gold had been discovered in great quantities in the craggy mountain canyons of western Montana—gold now needed to fund Reconstruction and pay down the skyrocketing interest on the national debt. Nearly half a decade of civil war had left the Union on the verge of bankruptcy, and the government depended on the thousands of placermen and panners who had already made their way to the shanty boomtowns of Montana’s “Fourteen-Mile City” via a serpentine route that skirted the western flank of the Bighorns and Sioux territory. But the most direct path to the fields ran directly through Red Cloud’s land, which had been ceded to his people by treaty.
Small trains of miners and emigrants had already begun picking their way through this country, pioneers with hard bark who had no use for either American treaties or Indian traditions. Facing persistent attack, they were not shy in their disdain for laws that blocked their passage. The gold hand Frank Elliott spoke for most when he wrote to his father back east, “They will make many a poor white man bite the dust since they spare neither women or children. Something has to be done immediately. I tell you we are getting hostile. The Indians have to be chastised & we are going to give them the best in the shop.” Federal officials wrung their hands over such attitudes, claiming that they lacked sufficient military force to rein in the white interlopers. Few politicians, however, had any real desire to do so. As a result, any treaty boundary lines that existed on paper dissolved on the ground.
This enormous pressure created tension from saloons to statehouses and forced General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant to send troops to reopen the Bozeman Trail. The wagon route, whose wheel ruts are still visible in places today, had been blazed in 1863 by the adventurers John Bozeman and John Jacobs and traced ancient buffalo and Indian paths. It angled north by northwest from the long-established Oregon Trail, and coursed directly through the heart of hallowed Indian hunting grounds teeming with fat prairie chickens, grouse, and quail; with wolves and grizzlies; and with great herds of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. The land was bountiful to the tribes. But above all, this was one of the last redoubts of the great northern herd of the sacred buffalo, millions upon millions of which migrated through the territory. It was the buffalo—the animal itself and what it represented to Indian culture—for which Red Cloud fought. And no American statesman or soldier had counted on the cunning and flint of the elusive Sioux chief in defense of his people’s culture. In just a few months in the summer and fall of 1866 Red Cloud had proved the equal of history’s great guerrilla tacticians.
• • •
From literally the first day European emigrants set foot on the New World’s fatal shores,2 whites and Indians had engaged in bloody, one-sided, and near-constant combat. Four centuries of these wars of conquest had combined with starvation and disease to result in the relocation, if not the extinction, of perhaps half of North America’s pre-Columbian population. Gone or penned up on hard land were the Pequots and the Cherokee, the Iroquois and Choctaw, the Delaware and Seminoles and Hurons and Shawnee. With few exceptions the newcomers accomplished this with such relative ease that by the mid-nineteenth century a flabby complacency toward fighting the Indians had set in. This arrogance was exacerbated in the post–Civil War era. As the historian Christopher Morton notes, “Imagine: soldiers who had recently outfought Stonewall Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, and the great Robert E. Lee are shipped west. It is described to them that they’ll see a few Indians here, a few Indians there. Scraggly. Lice-ridden. Bows and arrows against rifles. Naturally they have no idea what they’re getting into.”
Thus from the outset of Red Cloud’s War the U.S. Army’s field commanders failed to recognize that this was a new kind of Indian conflict. For all their historic ruthlessness, the tribes had always lacked long-range planning, and their habitual reluctance to press a military advantage had ultimately led to their defeat and subjugation. Yet here was a military campaign, as described by the historian Grace Raymond Hebard, led by “a strategic chief who was learning to follow up a victory, an art heretofore unknown to the red men.” It was not unusual for Red Cloud to confound his pursuers by planning and executing simultaneous attacks on civilian wagon trains and Army supply columns separated by hundreds of miles. Nor was Red Cloud afraid to confront U.S. soldiers—and their deafening mountain howitzer, “the gun that shoots twice”—within shouting distance of their isolated stockades.
Sioux braves slithering on their bellies through the saltbush and silver sage came within a few yards of sentries in guard towers before shooting them off their posts; soldiers assigned to hunt, fetch water, and chop wood were harassed almost daily by hails of arrows fired from sheer cutbanks and hidden glens; dispatch riders simply disappeared into the emptiness of the rolling prairie with alarming regularity. It was like a fatal game, and thus by ones and twos the bulk of the undermanned and outgunned 2nd Battalion of the 18th U.S. Infantry Regiment stationed at Fort Phil Kearny was depleted. The cavalry of Company C was riding to their rescue.
The infantry battalion—eight companies of approximately 100 men each spread among three Bozeman Trail forts—was under the command of the forty-two-year-old Colonel Henry Beebee Carrington, a politically connected midwesterner who through four bloody years of civil war had never fired a shot in anger. His stooped posture and graying hair betrayed the vestiges of a sickly youth; his deep-set rheumy eyes appeared to be permanently weeping; Red Cloud and the Plains Indians had taken to referring to him derisively as the “Little White Chief.” Carrington had chosen as his headquarters Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming, about midway between Reno Station, sixty miles to the south, and Fort C. F. Smith, a further ninety miles to the northwest across the Montana border. He had begun construction on the post in July 1866, and during the compound’s first six months of existence he recorded over fifty “hostile demonstrations,” resulting in the deaths of 154 soldiers, scouts, settlers, and miners, as well as the theft of 800 head of livestock. Carrington’s impotence in the face of this creeping if deadly harassment—“Scarcely a day or night passes without attempts to steal stock or surprise pickets” was typical of the tone of his pleading dispatches—led to constant requests for more soldiers, better mounts, and modern, breech-loading rifles to replace his troop’s cumbersome, antiquated muzzle-loaders. For various reasons his petitions went largely unheeded.
Yet, surprisingly, in neither his official reports nor his personal journals did Carrington much note the devastating psychological toll Indian warfare was taking on his troops. The Natives’ astonishing capacity for cruelty was like nothing the whites had ever experienced. The Plains Indians had honed their war ethic for centuries, and their martial logic was not only fairly straightforward, but accepted by all tribes without challenge—no quarter asked, none given; to every enemy, death, the slower and more excruciating the better. A defeated Crow, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Shoshone, or Sioux not immediately killed in battle would be subjected to unimaginable torments for as long as he could stand the pain. Women of all ages were tortured to death, but not before being raped—unless they were young enough to be raped and then taken as captive slaves or hostages to be traded for trinkets, whiskey, or guns. Crying babies were a burden on the trail, so they were summarily killed, by spear, by war club, or by banging their soft skulls against rocks or trees so as not to waste arrows. On occasion, in order to replenish their gene pool—or particularly after the tribes recognized the value of white hostages—preteens of both sexes were spared execution, if not pitiless treatment. This was merely the way of life and death to the Indian: vae victis, woe to the conquered. All expected similar treatment should they fall. But it was incomprehensibly immoral to the Anglo-European soldiers and settlers for whom memories of the Roman Colosseum, the barbarities of the Crusades, and the dungeons of the Inquisition had long since faded.
Even Carrington’s most hardened veterans, their steel forged in the carnage of the Civil War, were literally sickened by what newspapers from New York to San Francisco euphemistically referred to as Indian “atrocities” and, in the case of women, “depredations.” Captured whites were scalped, skinned, and roasted alive over their own campfires, shrieking in agony as Indians yelped and danced about them like the bloody-eyed Achilles celebrating over the fallen Hector. Men’s penises were hacked off and shoved down their throats and women were flogged with deer-hide quirts while being gang-raped. Afterward their breasts, vaginas, and even pregnant wombs were sliced away and laid out on the buffalo grass. Carrington’s patrols rode often to the rescue, but almost always too late, finding victims whose eyeballs had been gouged out and left perched on rocks, or the burned carcasses of men and women bound together by their own steaming entrails ripped from their insides while they were still conscious. The Indians, inured to this torture ethos, naturally fought one another to their last breath. The whites were at first astonished by this persistence, and most of the soldiers of the 18th Infantry had long since made unofficial pacts never to be taken alive.
Captain Fetterman, the relentless and adaptive Civil War hero, was charged with ending this Hobbesian dystopia. The Army’s general staff considered Fetterman a new breed of Indian fighter, and as such he carried orders to Fort Phil Kearny installing him as second in command to Carrington, his old regimental commander. The final instructions he received before his departure from Omaha had been terse: “Indian warfare in the Powder River Country can be successfully ended once and for all by engaging in open battle with the Indians during the winter.” These orders underlined the War Department’s undisguised position that previous campaigns against Red Cloud, if indeed they could be called such, had stalled owing to a combination of incompetence and the American field commanders’ aversion to cold-weather combat. In truth, even newcomers to the frontier such as Carrington soon learned that giving chase with horses, infantry, and supply trains consistently bogged down in deep snow was fruitless. But the eastern generals, who had conducted the majority of their Civil War marches in the South, were ignorant of Plains weather, and Washington expected the Army to drain this blood-soaked western swamp.
In the summer of 1866 the new commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, General William Tecumseh Sherman, undertook two long inspection tours of his vast western defenses. On the trail he became even more convinced that his troops’ failure to apprehend or kill Red Cloud stemmed from reluctance to meet savagery with savagery. The craggy forty-six-year-old Sherman was already an expert on human misery, and he held no illusions that peace between the white and red races could be achieved. In his typical brusque view, all Indians should be either killed outright or confined to reservations of the Army’s choosing. He had an eye toward the transcontinental railroad—whose tracks already extended 100 miles west of Omaha—and his genocidal judgments were succinct. “We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians check and stop progress,” he wrote to his old commander General Grant. “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination—men, women and children.”
Sherman recognized that the piecemeal destruction of the eastern tribes had been a centuries-long process, and was still continuing to some extent. He also understood that this slow, systematic eradication would not work in a West bursting with natural resources the United States needed immediately. The raw frontier he was charged with taming was too vast, and on his circuitous inspection tours he spent long, gritty days in the saddle, traveling (it seemed to him) to Creation and back. Wherever he rode he had been made to feel like a visitor, or worse, an interloper, by warriors who shadowed his every move, just out of rifle range, over hills, through ravines, and along alkaline creek beds. Finally, during a brief two-day stopover at Nebraska’s Fort Kearney,3 Carrington informed him, with no apparent attempt at irony, “Where you have been, General, is only a fraction of Red Cloud’s country.”
This caught Sherman’s attention. Red Cloud’s country? Over the past four years so many good men, in President Lincoln’s words, gave the last full measure of devotion to preserve the Union. And a heathen considered this land his country? Carrington’s choice of words was just another manifestation of the white-red cultural divide, however. Red Cloud no more considered the Powder River territory “his country,” in the American sense of the phrase, than he would claim ownership of the moon and the stars. At best he was fighting to preserve a country that the Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, had provided for Indians’ use. That Washington had deigned to cede to his tribe the right to occupy it in a succession of treaties and “friendship pacts” dating to 1825 only proved how confused these whites were about the grand scheme of the universe. Unlike the conciliatory Indian headmen who a year earlier were willing to cease hostilities in exchange for “protection” and “trade rights,” Red Cloud was making war to halt the increasing intrusion of whites into Sioux hunting grounds—no more, no less.
The simplicity of this oft-stated purpose eluded Sherman. The general was a manic-depressive whose mental illness had forced him to temporarily relieve himself of command in the early stages of the Civil War—this relief, when discovered by the wire services, had prompted the headline “General William T. Sherman Insane.” Now his inner demons were made terrifyingly manifest by a scalping, torturing tribe of “savages” his troops could not even find, much less kill. It came as a further blow to his fragile ego when, during a stopover at Fort Laramie, an officer produced a primitive map that displayed all the territory Red Cloud and the Western Sioux had secured over the past two decades. This largely uncharted expanse of primeval forests, undulating prairie, sun-baked tableland, cloud-shrouded peaks, and ice-blue kettle lakes encompassed 740,000 square miles, extending south from the Canadian border into Colorado and Nebraska, and west from the Minnesota frontier to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It was bisected by over a dozen major rivers and numberless creeks and streams flowing out of the Rockies and Black Hills, and was home to an abundance of tribes that the Sioux had either conquered or reduced to vassal status.