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Washita -- Chapter 9

Webmaster's Note: We present a portion of Chapter 9 for your enjoyment.

Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869 (Campaigns and Commanders) --  copyright by the author and  U. O. Press.

For the Seventh Cavalry, the Washita encounter generated con­siderable enduring trauma, mostly resulting from the debate arising within the regiment over whether Custer consciously and purposefully abandoned Major Elliott and his men to their fate. While heretofore latent seeds of dissension perhaps dated back to the unit's organization in 1866, following Washita, the searing fissures suddenly rushed front and center. Their impetus lay in the publication of an anonymous letter, later claimed by Captain Benteen to have been written by himself bluntly asserting that Elliott's force had gone to their deaths having first been forsaken by Custer, then, in the colonel's desperation to save his command from the downriver villagers, being abandoned by him altogether. "Surely some search will be made for our missing com­rades” mocked Benteen's piece, before concluding, "No, they are for­gotten." The captain, no friend of Custer, had mailed the missive from Fort Cobb to a friend on December 22, 1868. Custer learned of its pub­lication upon returning to Camp Supply in late March 1869, sparking a sharp verbal confrontation between the two officers after Benteen admitted to its authorship. Most accounts suggest that Custer remained unaware of Elliott's whereabouts until long after the major and his seven­teen volunteers had departed downstream in pursuit of the fleeing party of Cheyennes. As stated, when Lieutenant Godfrey reported the additional villages downstream and the sounds of shooting he had heard during his movement in that direction, Custer initially dismissed the latter information, believing that a squad under Captain Myers oper­ating downstream would have reported it earlier. As second in com­mand, Elliott was a significant fixture in the command hierarchy, and his whereabouts on the field would have been important knowledge in the wake of the opening assault. Similarly, Sergeant Major Walter M. Kennedy was the senior enlisted man in the regiment. But apparently their disappearance was obscured in the onrush of succeeding events. By the time Elliott's absence was noted, the lateness of the hour and the need to extricate his command from its position preempted Custer's rapt effort to search longer for the detachment, by then presumed dead, and recover the bodies, though flankers kept watch for signs of the missing party during the downstream march. While it is difficult to ascertain what more Custer could have done under the circumstances, Sheridan was not satisfied with his subordinate's feeble explanation of Elliott's disappearance. The incident, seemingly aggravated by Benteen's offensive letter, became a hot topic of conversation within the regiment, leading to untold speculation and supposedly producing fac­tionalism among the officers. It has since been viewed as having aggra­vated discord and partisanship so strong in the unit as to influence the personal and professional interrelationships to the degree of affecting the Seventh's performance in subsequent campaigns up to and including the Little Bighorn River eight years hence.

The most enduring controversy emanating from the Washita is whether the action should be classified as a battle or a massacre. Nearly everyone who has heard of Custer's attack on Black Kettle's Cheyennes holds an opinion about its proper nomenclature. Yet any substantive discussion must have established at the outset the structure of author­itative definitions regarding what the terms mean. According to one well-known dictionary, "battle" describes "a general encounter between armies" that is usually "a general and prolonged combat." A promi­nent military dictionary of the late nineteenth century presents much the same meaning but further identifies an "offensive battle," in which " an army seeks the enemy and attacks him wherever he is to be found."  The American Heritage College Dictionary describes "massacre" as "the act or an instance of cruel, indiscriminate killing of a large number of human beings," while the military dictionary defines it as "the killing of human beings by indiscriminate slaughter, murder of numbers with cruelty or atrocity, or contrary to the usages of civilized people; cold-blooded destruction of life; butchery; carnage."

Granted these semantic parameters, the action on the Washita must be viewed on the grounds of whether the events that occurred on November 27,1868, were of sufficient form and magnitude to clas­sify them one way or the other. Given the War Department's mandate that all Cheyennes were guilty for the sins of the few in regard to the Kansas raids, there is no question that Custer succeeded in this pur­pose by attacking Black Kettle's village. His instructions from his supe­riors had been "to destroy their villages and ponies; to kill or hang all warriors, and bring back all women and children." In effect, Custer had carried out an offensive strike against one village. But whether it was truly an "offensive battle" remains murky, for that term's defini­tion assumes that the enemy is an opposing army and not a village con­taining large numbers of noncombatants.

Certainly, for the tribesmen who experienced the early morning attacks on their homes and families, wherein bullets from the charging forces ripped through the lodges, every army assault must have seemed like a massacre. For Black Kettle's Cheyennes, ever skittish following Chivington's butchery at Sand Creek -- an encounter that embodied every characteristic of that word -- Custer's attack must have seemed especially brutal, in many ways a figurative exclamation point to the earlier carnage and a sequel that in their troubled existence they had anticipated for a long time. Yet Washita exhibited aspects that-by definition-were significantly different from what happened at Sand Creek. Most notably, it was not an indiscriminate slaughter. While there exists substantial evidence that some noncombatants were killed by soldiers in the course of the confusion and excitement of the initial charge, some of these deaths likely could not have been avoided, given the nature of the army's warfare methodology. "In the excitement of the fight, as well as in self-defense," explained Custer, "some of the squaws and a few children were killed and wounded.” And Lieutenant Godfrey remembered that, during the charge, the assailants made no effort "to prevent hitting women." Despite such losses, the troops evi­dently took some measures to protect the women and children. Custer claimed to have earlier enjoined his men "to prevent the killing of any but the fighting strength of the village," and soon after the initial charge, he directed that Captain Myers's action in chasing a group of women and children be halted and that they be taken to a designated lodge to be kept there under guard. He later sent Romero to assure other women and children who had remained in their lodges during the attack that they would not be harmed. By most accounts, however, many of the women who fell in the attack were victims of the Osage scouts, tradi­tional enemies of the Cheyennes. The directions to the troops to pro­tect women and children and to take them prisoner, however, did not extend to the men, and as Ben Clark pointed out, all warriors who lay wounded in the village -- presumably no matter the extent of their injuries-were summarily executed by the soldiers in a very discrim­inating manner. At least fifty-three women and children taken captive at the Washita served as assurance against attack from the downriver peoples during Custer's extrication of his command from the scene late on November 27. They accompanied the column to Camp Supply and later to Fort Hays, where they were incarcerated in a stockade. Certain of them, including Black Kettle's sister, played key roles in inducing the surrenders that followed. The fact that during the course of the fighting, attempts were made to save and protect these women and children, and that they were thereafter taken north as prisoners and became the subject of manuscript and photographic documentation of their status, necessarily disqualifies Washita as a "massacre" under that term's definition as "indiscriminate, merciless killing" and "indis­criminate slaughter."

Yet at least one act often associated with massacres -- including that at Sand Creek -- occurred at the Washita. In the various accounts of the action, there appear several references to instances of scalping - the practice whereby part of the hair-bearing flesh on a human head is cut or tom from its victim as a token of revenge or of victory. Clearly, the society that the army represented generally viewed scalping as a form of mutilation. But it is documented that at the Washita, the Osage scouts took scalps from the Cheyennes they killed during the attack. That these acts occurred there can be no doubt, and its repeti­tion on the field was evidently sanctioned because scalping represented ingrained cultural behavior on the part of the Osages (as it also did among the Cheyennes), was thereby condoned as an aspect of intertribal warfare, and any attempt by the troops to curtail its practice among their Indian allies would have offended them. Indeed, one account described an extreme case where an Osage scout killed a Cheyenne and completely beheaded the body. The Osages seem to have been particu­larly severe in their treatment of Cheyenne women, reportedly beating them with switches as they tried to run away and then scalping and otherwise mutilating those they killed. Beyond these incidents, there occurred occasional scalpings (at least two) by members of Custer's command, though the practice among the soldiers that day appears to have been infrequent.

Without question, the occurrence of these offenses helped color the Washita encounter and contributed to it qualities reminiscent of a full-fledged massacre. But more than anything, the army's own Indian fighting tactics bolstered that perception, especially as the concept of "offensive battle" became transposed on the frontier to embrace not surprise attacks upon otherwise prepared adversaries, but dawn attacks on enclaves normally containing a high percentage of sleeping non­combatants. Such procedures comprised the army's modus operandi of the Indian wars period. This kind of engagement, which in the West preceded the Civil War (and was therefore perhaps a coincidental pre­cursor of the "total war" strategy later enacted by Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan), often resulted in the deaths of women, children, and the eld­erly. This fact, while accepted among the officer corps to varying degrees, did not change the existing definition of "battle." The army justified these mission -- oriented tactics as imperative to controlling highly mobile, belligerent native populations with the long-range objective of pro­tecting U.S. citizens on the frontier. Clearly, the tactic accommodated a prevalent and none-too-subtle perception of Indians as inferior beings from less significant and more expendable cultures ultimately destined for oblivion. Clearly too, the very nature of this combat methodology, embracing as it did a theory of conscienceless total destruction of men and resources, in practice often balanced hazardously on the precipice of "massacre" and accordingly promoted -- and continues to promote­ -- its frequent correlation with that term. For the Cheyennes at the Washita in 1868, with the specter of the Sand Creek Massacre ever at hand, Custer's force delivered the quintessential example of this ruthless and remorseless form of warfare.

Although the techniques applied at Washita -- complete surprise at daybreak, the squeezing off of escape routes, and the rapid isolation of the pony herd to ruin mobility -- would be more or less emulated, with varying results, against other tribes in the West over the next decade, the engagement itself appears to have had no long-term resounding influence on the military institution. Indeed, the controversies gener­ated by Custer's attack seem to have nullified any positive publicity that the army might otherwise have expected in view of such recent episodes as Fetterman's defeat by Sioux in 1866 and Hancock's failed summer expedition of 1867. While Sheridan initiated a winter campaign against the Cheyennes, the concept had been applied earlier, including by Brigadier General James H. Carleton and Colonel Christopher Carson against the Navahos in 1863-64 and Colonel Patrick E. Connor against the Northwestern Shoshones in 1863. Dawn attacks on Indian villages had also happened before Washita, all with deadly conse­quences-witness Colonel William S. Harney's strike against Lakotas at Blue Water Creek, Nebraska Territory, in 1855; Connor's above­ mentioned assault on Shoshones at Bear River, Idaho Territory, in January 1863; and Chivington's onslaught of Black Kettle's Cheyennes at Sand Creek in November 1864. The "dawn attack" scenario, no doubt influenced to some degree by what happened at Washita in 1868 and rationalized as "battle" partly as a result of that encounter, played out time and again over subsequent years, not only on the plains but also in the Southwest and Northwest. Cavalry troops (rarely infantry) in single or multiple columns stormed into sleeping camps in all seasons at such places as Marias River, Montana Territory (1870); McClellan Creek, Texas (1872); Turret Peak, Arizona Territory (1873); Palo Duro Canyon, Texas (1874); Powder River, Montana Territory (1876); Slim Buttes, Dakota Territory (1876); Red Fork of Powder River, Wyoming Territory (1876); and Clear Creek, Idaho Territory (1877), among others. Occasionally, such as at Big Hole, Montana Territory (1877); Bear's Paw Mountains, Montana Territory (1877); and Little Bighorn, Montana Territory (1876), the villages managed to turn back their assailants, and the engagements evolved into full-fledged contests of duration and substance-indeed, real battles. Further, at the Little Bighorn, Custer appears to have at least initially contemplated an assault on the Lakota and Cheyenne encampment using tactics reminiscent of those he employed at the Washita eight years earlier. 

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