the morning of November 27, the air was frosty and biting cold. The
moon had reappeared, its light intensified by the snow covering the
ground. Landscape pockets and fringes of timber were eerily acentuated
by blue shadows formed in the moonlight. Just before dawn the eastern
sky was illuminated by the brilliance of a rising morning star. Custer
named it "the Star of the Washita," believing that it announced victory
The Battle of the Washita occurred on November 27, 1868 when the 7th U.S. Cavalry led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked a Cheyenne village on the Washita River near present day Cheyenne, Oklahoma.
"Heroic Death of Walter Kennedy" by Taylor, 1874. National Anthropological Archives
Custer's attack occurred almost four years to the day of the Sand Creek Massacre and was against many of the bands and families that had survived the 1864 assault.
The Cheyennes had been waiting for provisions promised in the Medicine Lodge Treaty, but which were delayed by Congress' slow ratification of the treaty. The restless tribes had been warring on Pawnees and white settlers in the land they considered theirs when Gen. Phillip Sheridan took command of the U.S. Army in the Dept. of the Missouri in March, 1868
On November 22, 1868, Sheridan gave
Custer orders to go
on a 30-day scouting mission. When his scouts found evidence of an
Indian trail, Custer followed it to the Cheyenne camp and a plan of
set in motion. The 7th Cavalry surrounded the camp and at dawn on
attacked the sleeping camp.
This camp was headed by Chief Black Kettle, a Suhtia, who had married into the Cheyenne band of his wife. No scouts had been put out to guard the sleeping village. The ensuing attack has been described as more of a "turkey shoot" or a genocidal massacre than a battle. Custer, however, described it as follows:
Indians were caught napping for once, and the warriors rushed from
their lodges and posited themselves behind trees and in the deep
ravines, from which they began a most determined defense. The lodges
and all their contents were in our possession within a few minutes
after the charge was ordered; but the real fighting, such as rarely, if
ever, been equaled in Indian warfare, began when attempting to clear
out of kill the warriors posited in the ravines or underbrush; charge
after charge was made, and most gallantly too, but the Indians had
resolved to sell their lives as clearly as possible. After a desperate
conflict of several hours, our efforts were crowned with the most
complete and gratifying success.
Eyewitness Views of Custer's Attack on Black Kettle's Village
by Richard G. Hardorff
University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
Until recently, most historical accounts of the Battle of the Washita have relied heavily on Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's report of the event and General Phillip Sheridan’s annual report of 1868.
This volume helps provide a wider perspective by collecting all the known surviving firsthand accounts of the conflict. These include personal letters, diary entries, newspaper reports, and government files produced by eyewitnesses.
The oral accounts of survivors handed down by Cheyenne families are an important contribution to this collection, as the Cheyenne have a far different perspective on the attack than the white witnesses.
"The Cheyennes of today have a strong sense of the injustice done to their people at the Washita," author Richard G. Hardorff explains. "They continue to view the brutal attack as a horrible event in their tribal history. Some have opposed the development of the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site because they feel that the ground is hallowed and should be left undisturbed rather than opened to the public."
Each document is this collection is reproduced in full with an introduction and annotations. Fourteen details maps of the battle site and campaign routes are included.
Battle of the Washita: The Sheridan-Custer Indian Campaign of
Washita by Jerome A. Greene