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Battle of the Washita

On 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 for him. 

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"

"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 attack was set in motion. The 7th Cavalry surrounded the camp and at dawn on November. 27 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:

The 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.

The entire village, numbering forty-seven lodges of "Black Kettle's" band of Cheyenne's, two lodges of Arapahos and two lodges of Sioux-fifty-one lodges in all, under command of their principal chief Black Kettle-fell into our hands. By a strict and careful examination after the battle, the following figures give some of the fruits of our victory:

The Indians left on the ground and in our possession, the bodies of 108 of their warriors, including "Black Kettle" himself, whose scalp is now in the possession of one of our Osage guides. We captured in good condition, 875 horses, ponies and mules, 241 saddles, some of very fine and costly workmanship; 523 buffalo robes, 210 axes, 140 hatchets, 35 revolvers, 47 rifles, 535 pounds of powder, 1050 pounds of lead, 4,000 arrows, 90 bullet-molds, 35 bows and quivers, 12 shields, 300 pounds of bullets, 775 lariats, 940 buckskin saddle-bags, 470 blankets, 93 coats, 700 pounds of tobacco. In addition, we captured all their Winter supply of dried buffalo meat, all their meal, flour and other provisions, and, in fact, everything they possessed, even driving the warriors from the village with little or no clothing. We destroyed everything of value to the Indians, and have now in our possession, as prisoners of war, fifty-three squaws and their children. Among the prisoners are the survivors of Black Kettle's and the family of Little Rock. We also secured two white children held captive by the Indians. One white woman who was in their possession was murdered by her captors the moment we attacked. A white boy held captive, about ten years old, when about to be secured, was brutally murdered by a squaw, who ripped out his entrails with a knife.

Washita Memories
Washita Memories
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.

Other Books

The Battle of the Washita: The Sheridan-Custer Indian Campaign of 1867-69 
by Stan Hoig

Washita by Jerome A. Greene

Bows & Arrows of the Native Americans
Bows & Arrows of the Native Americans
A Step-by-Step Guide to Wooden Bows, Sinew-backed Bows, Composite Bows, Strings, Arrows & Quivers
by Jim Hamm 

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