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Fort Sill, Oklahoma
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Fort Sill, Oklahoma – A Great Experience – My Early Link to Custer
Webmaster's Note: Tim Bradshaw recently joined the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. When he shared with me his experiences growing up at Fort Sill and his first visit to Little Bighorn, I asked him if he'd be willing to let our viewers in on the great stories as well. He happily obliged.
I had the privilege and honor of growing up in an Army family. My father was Staff Sergeant Timothy E. Bradshaw Sr. Children of military families are often called “Military Brats.” To me that was not considered an insult, but rather somewhat of an honor, because I was proud to be the son of a soldier in the United States Army. Throughout my father’s military career, we lived at places like Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Hood, Texas; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. My most cherished memories are from Fort Sill. Most of the time when my father was not overseas, we lived at Fort Sill. We were there off and on for the most part of 1956 through 1966.
Timothy E. Bradshaw Sr., Veteran of Korea and Viet Nam. One Purple Heart awarded in each war.
The fort is located in Southwestern Oklahoma near the junction of Cache and Medicine Creek at the eastern edge of the Wichita Mountains. Long before the U.S. Army discovered this area, the Wichita Indians lived there. I remember well the winds blowing the cottonwood seed through the air and the song of the locusts on those summer days. As a kid my friends and I would role-play the parts of Lt. Rick Jason and Sergeant Saunders of the popular WWII television show, “Combat!” It was a place where my mother could hang out clothes to dry in a matter of minutes on some days. Near the fort on the National Wildlife Refuge, there are herds of buffalo, long horn steer, prairie dog towns, and some good Carp fishing on Lake Lawtonka at the base of Mount Scott. Then there is the walking history tour of the Fort Sill Museum. This is located on the old post quadrangle, utilizing many of the original stone structures. A walk through this “old post museum” spans the entire history of the fort from the frontier days to the present use as the artillery and missile technology.
On November 26, 1868, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacked the village of Black Kettle on the Washita River in Northwestern Indian Territory. It was a cold and harsh winter, typical of the open plains. Colonel B.H. Grierson, commander of the 10th U.S. Cavalry scouted a location for a new fort, strategically located to help control the movement and raiding parties of the Comanche and Kiowa over the Red River into Texas.
The First Stake Driven
General Phillip Sheridan arrived with his staff opposite of Medicine Creek Bluffs on the evening of January 7, 1869 and went into camp. The column had marched through the freezing rain and clinging mud from Fort Cobb. Finally, the rain had stopped and the weather cleared well enough for him to look around the area. Colonel Grierson had originally planned to build a stockade fort; however, General Sheridan proposed to erect a permanent post. He had approved a location previously scouted by Colonel Grierson. On January 8th the first stake was driven marking the site of the new fort. General Sheridan held the stake for his ambulance driver, John Murphy, a young Irishman.
On that same day General Sheridan wrote to General William T. Sherman making his report on the location of the new fort. He said, “I have looked around and full agree with the report made (by Colonel B.H.Grierson, 10th Cavalry and Colonel W.B.Hazen, 6th Infantry). There are numerous mountain streams of pure water, well timbered, with rich alluvial bottom lands, while the whole country is covered with nutritious bunch grass, which even at this season is very fair…I will enclose an application for the requisite authority from the Secretary of War, for the construction of a military post, for six companies of cavalry at this point…To speak generally of the country south of the Washita, and including the whole of the valley of the Washita, it is the best I have ever seen.”
Later in the evening Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his Seventh Cavalry arrived covered in mud. By the 10th Custer’s men had begun to make their camp more comfortable. They were bivouacked in a column of troops, each company being in line. They had constructed dugouts along their lines. The small dugouts were roofed with brush and shelter tents and each one had a sod fireplace. Dry grass and leaves were placed on the floors to make their beds more comfortable. Three men slept together and with each man having one or two blankets, there was plenty of cover. If it became necessary for a man to turn over during the night, he would cry out, “turn,” and all three men would turn over at the same time. Sheridan wrote in his memoirs how humorous it was to see the men occasionally poke their heads out and bark at the denizens of neighboring warrens in imitation of the prairie dogs.
The New Post Gets a Name
The Comanche and Kiowa called the place “”Where the soldiers live at Medicine Bluff.” The Army called the site by two names: Camp Wichita and Camp at Medicine Bluff Creek. The men of the 7th Cavalry had wished to name the new establishment as “Fort Elliot,” named after Major Joel H. Elliot, a member of the 7th Cavalry who was killed at the Battle of the Washita. General Sheridan chose the name “Fort Sill,” in honor of his West Point classmate Joshua W. Sill, who was killed leading a charge of Sheridan’s Brigade during the Battle on Stone River in Tennessee during the Civil War on December 31, 1862.
The Beginning of the End of Hostilities
Colonel Albert Gallatin Boone, a grand son of Daniel Boone, served as the first agent for the Comanche and Kiowa. There were many hostilities on the Southern Plains with Fort Sill as the focal point. In June 1874 the Comanche, Kiowa, and Southern Cheyenne went on the warpath and the Southern Plains shook with fear of the Indian raiders. The year long event became known as the Red River Campaign. It was a war of attrition, which involved relentless pursuit by converging military columns. The Comanche continued raids into Texas and Mexico. Finally by the spring of 1875 the final peace was made with the Comanche.
On June 2, 1875 Comanche Chief Quannah Parker arrived at Fort Sill, accompanied by most of the Quohadas. There were 100 warriors, 300 non-combatants, and 1400 ponies. The men were disarmed and the pony herd was auctioned off. This marked the last of the hostilities. Eventually, the famous renegade leader Geronimo and his band of Chiricahua Apaches would come to Fort Sill after his imprisonment in Florida following his capture. It was his request to return to his old home in New Mexico to live out his life, but Fort Sill was as close as he was allowed.
My Life on the Plains
I lived at Fort Sill from 1956 until 1966 with the exception of approximately a year and a half. On April 28, 1963, my father was assigned as Platoon Sergeant of C/S Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, in Korea.
It would be years before I could appreciate his attachment to the 7th Cavalry. It would be many years later before I began to realize that General George Armstrong Custer was involved in the very beginning of selecting the site of Fort Sill on Cache Creek in southwestern Oklahoma back in 1868. On a visit there in 1998, with my father, I discovered a granite marker down near the creek next to a soccer field, which preserved the memory of the campsite of the 7th Cavalry in those early days.
My father told me about his experience in Korea with the 7th Cavalry. He told me the he owned a bugle (even though he could not play it) and a pet goat while stationed there. The official greeting was “Garry Owen”. There were traditional bugle calls and the officers wore the old 1876 style campaign hat. When he came home from that tour of duty, he had brought me a souvenir ring made from a silver spoon with the initials ROK on it, standing for Republic of Korea.
I contribute my experiences of living at Fort Sill to my early rooted interest in the Indian Wars. While most of my cousins back east grew up with stories of “The Swamp Fox” and “The Civil War”, I was exposed to the legacy of Old Fort Sill and the role it played as “Indian Territory.” At Fort Sill, we lived in the enlisted housing complex and I went to grammar school at Post Children’s School on Geronimo Road. I think today the name of the school is Geronimo School. Of course, school is school and we learned the three R’s, but Lawton and Fort Sill just seem to have history oozing from the ground.
The landscape of Fort Sill and surrounding area held a special attraction to me. The landscape is beautiful. The creeks are lined with old cottonwood trees and the flat lands are grassy. Near the Wichita Mountains the ground gets rocky. Among them is Mount Scott. At 12 years old, I landed a boat at the foot of this mountain along with two of my cousins who were visiting me. We walked and climbed our way to the top taking the road part of the way. Years later I learned that Custer and Captain Thomas B. Weir had done the same thing in February 1869.
On my first ever camping trip, we gathered “buffalo chips” to burn at our campfires. It is a pretty good source of fuel. It was not unusual to see a Jackrabbit, a prairie dog, a scorpion, a tarantula, and occasionally a rattlesnake. I do think though that my favorite was the Buffalo and the Longhorn Steer. I think I remember elk also. The buffalo were very special animals to me.
I remember the first time my father took me to the guardhouse on the old post quadrangle. I was about 10 years old. This is where Geronimo was detained occasionally. At the time I first visited the guardhouse, we went to the cell in the basement where Geronimo was once kept. The door to the cell was thick and heavy and the walls and floor were constructed of stone. The floor was uneven and I was told that it was because Geronimo had paced the floor and worn it down. It made him seem bigger than life to me.
In addition to Geronimo there was Quannah Parker, the last great Chief of the Comanche. I have wonderful memories of going through his old house. It had large white stars painted on the roof. It was my understanding that he wanted to be recognized as equivalent to the army generals.
One of my favorite pastimes was horseback riding at Cache, Oklahoma about 15 miles from Lawton. The place was Eagle Park owned by a man named Herbert Woesner. For $1.50, I could ride, unassisted and on my own for one hour. For that hour, I would ride off with my imagination as I skirted through the cottonwoods and pretended I was on patrol and on the lookout for hostile Indians.
Little did I know just how close we were to the battle site of the Washita of 1868 where Custer attacked the camp of Black Kettle of the Southern Cheyenne. It would not be until October of 1968, when my father returned from the war in Vietnam, that I would realized there was a General George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. As a kid, I had always heard it joked about as “Custard’s Last Stand.” On my father’s flight from Seattle, Washington, he told me that the pilot pointed out the battlefield to the passengers when they flew over it. Right away, it sparked a flame in me to want to see the battlefield for myself. For many years, actually visiting the battlefield was only being a dream, one that I would not let die.
The first pictures I ever saw of the battlefield were those of an old television show called the Twilight Zone, hosted by Rod Sterling. The episode was “The 7th Is Made up of Phantoms.” It featured an Army National Guard unit on maneuvers in the vicinity of the battlefield. A tank crew had strayed off course and the men ended up participating in the closing moments of the battle of the Little Bighorn, complete with their names highlighted on the monument on Custer Hill. To my surprise, it turns out that the film was done on a Hollywood back lot and the monument was a reproduction. Of course, I knew this to be science fiction, but I thought I had at least got a real glimpse of the battlefield. I would later find out this was not so.
First Trip to the Little Bighorn Battlefield
Finally, in 1985, my dream would come true. That year, I took my wife Debbie and two sons, Robert and Jeremy to Yellowstone National Park. I had reserved a couple of days at the end of that long ride from South Carolina, to visit what was at that time called “Custer Battlefield”.
We had spent the night west of Billings, Montana and got up the next morning and headed to the battlefield. Arriving there was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I was really there! In six hours I had managed to tour what I though was the battlefield proper. This included the small museum, a bus ride down to Garry Owen, and a walk down into the Deep Ravine, and a ranger interpretation of the battle. Custer Hill was a far as I ventured. At the time, I thought that I had visited the entire battlefield.
I did not understand the significance of the role Reno and Benteen played during the Hilltop Fight. Just like many other people, I thought that everyone in the 7th Cavalry was killed on June 25th 1876. By this time, my wife and kids were about stir crazy with boredom. My wife told me that she could not understand what was taking me so long to look at this place and that after all it only took Custer about an hour or less. So we had to go. I was trying to figure out how I was going to get to come back another time. My wife made a deal with me. She said, “I will agree for you to come back here under one condition.” I said, “What” and she replied, "That I did not make her come with me." We made a deal.
I returned in 1996 and spent a little over a week and a half. I met many new friends along the way. I also had a chance to visit with the owners of a new museum on the valley floor where Major Reno and his troops had a fighting retreat from the Indian village. They showed me a few of the relics found in the past six years. I held in my hand the wedding ring of Lt. Donald McIntosh who was killed very near the museum. Other items included a crucifix found in Sitting Bull’s camp, several officer cavalry uniform buttons, and strangely enough, several Civil War uniform buttons which included a South Carolina State Seal! What a perfect way to experience the battlefield.
I have visited the battlefield three times since 1996. On one of my trips, I spent an entire day at the Rosebud Battlefield. The Rosebud is a very interesting battlefield. I would highly recommend anyone who has the time, to go over there. Every year I try to figure out how and when I can go back again! Thus, now you know how my infatuation with the Little Bighorn came about. Eventually, my studies of the battle and participants provided me with insight of two troopers form my part of the world. Captain George Daniel Wallace was from Yorkville [York], South Carolina and Sergeant Daniel Alexander Kanipe of Marion, North Carolina.
After my tour of duty in the United States Marine Corps at Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, in 1975, I moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina. While living in Black Mountain, I attended McDowell Technical Institute in Marion, North Carolina.
Little did I know at that time, I would one day learn of local farm boy from that small mountain town who would fight and survive the battle of the Little Bighorn. His name is Daniel Alexander Kanipe. I have enjoyed personal visits with descendants of Sergeant Kanipe. I am grateful for their willingness to share what they knew about their famous ancestor.
I deeply appreciate my parents for giving me a good life, at the expense of Uncle Sam, to have lived many of my childhood years at Fort Sill. I also cherish the patience of my family and their understanding of my pilgrimage to the battlefield.
My Father & I Visit LBH
My last trip to the Battlefield as of this writing was in June 2003. I had finally arranged to take my Father along. We began our trip in Bozeman and ventured over to Big Hole Battlefield in Western Montana. Making our way back to Garry Owen, we visited Canyon Creek Battlefield and Pompey’s Pillar where Custer camped during the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873. I also wanted him to experience the Black Hills and we visited Fort Meade and other local landmarks.
At last we arrived at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. I remember the last day there was Father’s Day. It was not planned that way, but I could not help but reflect while sitting at the Reno Benteen marker that day. As I sat there writing in my journal, I kept glancing at the valley. Earlier that morning we were down there tromping the ground as we visited the gravesites of Lonesome Charlie Reynolds and Isaiah Dorman. I told my father about Reno’s skirmish lines and the retreat back across the river and up the bluffs. We could visualize the desperate men of Reno’s command as they protected their position on the hilltop. I also showed my father the location of Sergeant Kanipe’s positions of the two days while there.
My Father told me that he was glad to be able to see all of these things before he died. I will never forget those words as long as I live. I owe my interest in Custer and the Little Bighorn to him, an Old Soldier with two Purple Hearts, U.S. Army Retired (1969, the 100th anniversary of old Fort Sill). He passed away in October, 2006.
Historical References taken from:
Carbine and Lance; The Story of Old Fort Sill, Colonel W.S. Nye 1937
Campaigning With Custer 1868-1869, David L. Spotts, and Edited by E.A. Brininstool, 1928
North American Indians of Achievement; Geronimo, Melissa Schwarz, 1992
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022