Custer's first Indian campaign

Publié le par custerwest

The first campaign of the Seventh Cavalry against the Indians


sources: Kansas Historical Quaterly, Summer, 1970 (Vol. 36, No. 2), pages 113-148, Kansas Collection

(...)      The expedition to the west got off on March 26. It was made up of six companies of the Seventh cavalry, seven companies of the 37th infantry and a battery of the Fourth artillery, aggregating eventually 1,400 soldiers. [11] Hancock, Smith, and Custer were along. Altogether it was quite an impressive army and the Western newspapers spoke of it as "the grand advance" or the "expedition de Hancock." [12] Hancock hoped the Indians, too, would be impressed. In martial array the cortege proceeded to Fort Larned where the Cheyennes had been asked to meet the general. [13] The railroad was to be built through Cheyenne country and the attitude of the Indians had been a matter of comment and conjecture throughout the winter.

     At Fort Larned the troops endured an eight-inch snowstorm on April 9 and cold so severe that Custer considered taking his mare, Fanchon, into his tent for shelter. The storm delayed the Indians, adding to the tensions and misunderstandings of the meeting. Dissatisfied because so few of the chiefs had come and because of their stolid lack of response, Hancock decided to go on out to the Indian village on Pawnee fork so that all the people might see his mighty army and be deterred from any overt actions later. He found a large encampment of both Sioux and Cheyennes. [14] As he approached the village the frightened people ran away and on their flight to and across the Smoky Hill, killed three station keepers on the trail as they passed.

     Custer, sent with the cavalry to bring them back, failed to come up with even one Indian but was treated instead to a magnificent demonstration of the way the Indian, even on his winter-weakened ponies, burdened with his women and children, could evade the U. S. cavalry. Following the Indian sign, Custer marched obliquely northwest towards the Smoky Hill river, and came around eventually to discover the burned and mutilated bodies of the station men slightly northeast of the camp on the Pawnee from which the Indians had fled. [15] When Hancock heard of the atrocity, he burned the village the Indians had forsaken. Thus the season began.

     Custer, his horses worn out by his fast scout -- 150 miles in four and a half days -- came into Fort Hays to find no forage for his horses and sat down to wait for it. Hancock and Smith went on to Fort Dodge to talk to chiefs of other tribes and inspect the condition of the post. To his embarrassment Hancock also ran short of forage. The weather had continued adverse and at Dodge on April 22 more snow had fallen. One of the frontier newspapers that had been observing with interest the meeting of the ponderous army with the nimble Indian, reported, "His [Hancock's] mules are in very precarious circumstances . . . his hay exhausted, and a courier was dispatched to Fort Harker for a supply. He has with him about seventeen hundred mules." [16] Always sensitive to public criticism, Hancock wrote to General Sherman:

     I have seen some notices in the newspapers, stating that the expedition has been detained for want of forage, and that our animals are suffering, etc. There is not a word of truth in such statements. . . . The hay contractors failed almost entirely, owing to high water, bad roads, etc., and we have consequently only had hay sufficient for the animals during the most inclement weather. . . . The only serious trouble we have met in respect to forage was that when General Custer arrived at Fort Hays from Pawnee Fork he found there was only a sufficient supply for his command for one or two days, and was unfortunately delayed on that account.

This shortage of supplies troubled Hancock greatly for he was a careful planner, a master of army red tape as well as a master of army supply. Before the Civil War he had been a quartermaster in the Western districts and during the war the Second Corps, which he commanded, was known as the best-organized, best-supplied corps in the Army of the Potomac. The expedition had accomplished little. Perhaps for the lack of a little hay an opportunity had been lost. Had Custer been able to follow and catch the Indians and bring them back this ambiguous condition of neither war nor peace would not have existed.
In their swing around to talk to Indians as well as to arrange for the rebuilding of the Western posts, Smith and Hancock arrived at Fort Hays on May 3. Though by that time Hancock well knew that Custer had not been able to go on north after the Indians, he asked for a written report of the matter. The methodical general liked to have everything written down. Custer's report of May 4 shows a tinge of resentment:

     I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of this date, calling upon me for my "reasons in detail for not making any movement" with my command since my arrival at this point. In reply, I would state that I reached this post on the 19th ultimo, expecting to find forage and subsistence stores for my command. Upon the contrary, no provision had been made for its supply. . . . [18]

     A full supply was not forthcoming until April 27. By that time his horses were out of condition, having subsisted for some days upon "dry prairie grass." Also "subsistence stores expected daily at this post have been small and insufficient, but about two days supply being on hand." [19] Though as soon as the shortages were known the orders had gone out that all supply trains, even those bound for Santa Fe, should be rerouted to Custer at Hays, it took some time for the deficiencies to be made up. Custer never forgave what he called the "neglect" of the quartermaster's department and some years later excoriated it thus: "Dishonest contractors at the receiving depots further east had been permitted to perpetrate gross frauds upon the Government, the result of which was to produce want and suffering among the men. [20]

     Mrs. Custer would further charge in her memoirs that the rations were inferior in quality and that the subsistence supplies had been sent out to the frontier posts during the Civil War, had lain in poorly constructed storehouses and then, moldy and spoiled, were issued to the men throughout 1867. [21]

     Custer's own report of May 4 refutes this statement. There was no backlog of bacon and hardtack molding in the storehouse at Fort Hays, since "but about two days supply" was on hand. In some measure this condition existed at all the outlying forts throughout the summer. They never had any great accumulation of subsistence stores and reported frequently how many days' supply was on hand. But no one actually ran out, nor did any report that the rations were old and unfit for consumption.

     There was, however, a shortage of fine stores for officers. For the first time, as an experiment, in 1867 the quartermaster's department proposed to send and keep at each post a supply of canned goods, hams, etc., for purchase by officers and their families. Heretofore officers had had to provide their own food, either taking a supply along to their stations or buying it from the high-priced sutler's store. Unfortunately the new system did not work very well under the exigencies of 1867 transportation and the officers were thrown back onto the monotonous hard bread, bacon, and beans of the trooper. On May 4 there were no fine stores at Fort Hays and Hancock ordered some sent at once.

     It should be remembered that when Custer made his complaints about the provisioning of the troops he was accounting for the many desertions from his regiment, 90 altogether while he was at Hays. Besides the rations he noted that there was cholera about and scurvy in the ranks. There was no cholera in Kansas in April and May -- it would come later -- but there were 13 cases of scurvy, a condition that is not caused by bad bread and does not develop in a month. It could have been prevented by a more diversified diet through the winter at Fort Riley. On May 4 Hancock ordered antiscorbutics -- potatoes and onions -- sent out at once.

Michael Schreck, 

     Whatever the cause of the desertions, the cavalry camp near Fort Hays was certainly grim and miserable. The post possessed only a few small shacks, inadequate even for the shelter of the men stationed there. [22] The weather was cold and Custer's regiment lived in tents pitched on soggy ground that never dried out. A rainstorm, "which promised permanence," had set in "to make the mud more bottomless than that which the army of the Potomac wallowed through during the Burnside mud march at Fredericksburg." Theodore R. Davis, a reporter with the regiment, spoke of the Custer moodiness and "sombre mien following the enforced anchorage of his command in the muddy camp at Big Creek." As Davis sat whistling in his little A tent while he sketched by the light of a candle, Custer burst in with the demand, "Stop this cheerfulness in purgatory or I'll have you out here in the flood walking post." [23]

     Custer's boredom and depression was expressed in his letters to his wife. "The inaction to which I am subjected now, in our present halt, is almost unendurable. It requires all the buoyancy of my sanguine disposition to resist being extremely homesick." [24] He wanted nothing so much as to get an appointment to Fort Garland out in the mountains of Colorado where the hunting and weather would be better and he could have his wife with him. [25] As always when the young general was sick or depressed he turned to his wife for comfort and renewed assurance.

     Custer had also lost any interest he might have had in Indian fighting. The fiercest Indians of the Plains had not impressed him as a foe -- they were timid and had run away. He had written to his superiors stating that the redskins were frightened and peaceful and he could see no reason for any war. [26] He reassured his wife as to the danger, "The chances are, however, that I shall not see any of them, it being next to impossible to overtake them when they are forewarned and expecting us, as they now are." [27] He would more or less act on this belief the rest of the summer.

     When the weather permitted Davis took Custer out for a buffalo hunt. He suggested a contest between two teams of officers to see which could kill the most buffalo in one day. All the fresh meat thus obtained must have been a welcome addition to the trooper's diet. Foot races were organized for the men. A courier system was set up to bring the mail from Fort Harker more expeditiously than it came by stage. Hancock agreed that Mrs. Custer might come to Hays and General Smith insisted that the tent carried by General Hancock on the expedition should be allotted to her use. The Seventh cavalry band was sent out from Riley by General Gibbs. [28] Everyone did his best to allay the Custer malaise.

     Although the Cheyennes signified their hostile intent by killing a few settlers in Kansas in May they concentrated more on harassing the stage line and railroad workers along the Platte river. Sherman recast his plans for the summer. Though certain of the so-called friendly bands of Sioux had been granted permission to hunt between the Platte and the Smoky Hill, word was sent to them to come in to the forts along the Platte or return north of the river to avoid involvement in the war that seemed imminent. Custer would be sent to patrol the area. [29] He would be ideal for the assignment -- aggressive, "willing to act and fight." [30] Sherman wanted a man who would go after the Indians, not stand back and wait for them to come to him. On May 13 Gen. C. C. Augur, commanding on the Platte wrote: "All the friendly bands have left the Republican and gone north of the Platte. They report two hundred fifty lodges of Cheyennes, and sixty lodges of Sioux, on Turkey Creek, a tributary of the Republican, about eighty miles south of Fort McPherson." [31]

Dan Oelze

On the 15th Hancock wrote to Smith about the proposed patrol. Subsistence supplies had been placed at all points in case Custer might need them. "I do not know how long the cavalry will be absent. It does not much matter, they can go leisurely, unless they meet trails of Indians when they should pursue. When they come back they can rest at Hays. The commander should report progress frequently by telegraph or otherwise. Send the odometer." [32]

     But when days went past and Custer still did not move Hancock became impatient. Smith explained that Custer was waiting for shelter tents which were absolutely necessary. They had had extremely cold weather in the West and "some of the most terrific storms I have ever witnessed on the plains." [33] Smith also sent a special courier down to Harker for officers' stores for Custer since Hancock's order for them had not been filled. [34] Finally on June 1 when the grass was up and Custer was prepared to his own satisfaction he left Fort Hays with six cavalry troops and 20 supply wagons for Fort McPherson on the Platte. His orders of May 31 stated:

     The object of the expedition is to hunt out and chastise the Cheyennes and that portion of the Sioux who are their allies, between the Smoky Hill and the Platte. It is reported that all friendly Sioux have gone north of the Platte and may be in the vicinity of Forts McPherson or Sedgwick. You will as soon as possible, inform yourself as to the whereabouts of these friendly bands and avoid a collision with them. [35]

     Sherman in Nebraska wrote hopefully to Gov. Alexander C. Hunt of Colorado, who was worried for fear the Indian attacks might close the trail to Denver: "It is barely possible the Cheyenne camp, stampeded by Hancock on Pawnee fork is now on the Republican, south of this. General Custer may strike them in coming across. . . . [36]

     The Seventh cavalry column arrived at Fort McPherson on June 10 having marched 229 miles in 10 days, an average of 23 miles a day, [39] despite the delays of Indian trails, a heavy rain storm and the necessity of corduroying some creek banks and cutting down ridges to get the wagons over. Unluckily no Indian camps had been discovered.

     Shortly after he reached the Platte Custer held a pow-wow with Pawnee Killer, one of the Sioux chiefs, who had been camped with his band alongside the Cheyennes on Pawnee Fork in April. He and others of the Sioux had made protestations of friendliness, which had been accepted. The Sioux had fled with the Cheyennes but as Custer's orders were to "avoid collision" with friendly bands, he was pleasant. Only later would it be found out that it had been the Sioux who had killed the station keepers on the Smoky Hill. Custer wrote to his wife, "six of the principle Sioux Indians have just come in to see me to sue for peace for their whole tribe. . . . . I encouraged peace propositions. . . . " [40]

     Sherman, old and wise in the ways of the wily Indian, did not agree with Custer's handling of the situation. When he came in next day to the cavalry camp, he suggested that Custer might rather have taken some hostages that would have insured the behavior of Pawnee Killer's band. Sherman remained with the young general for two days talking at length with him about his next movement. Though the orders were verbal, [41] there has since been no disagreement as to their content. Custer was to go down to the forks of the Republican river and scout the region thoroughly for Indians. He was to come up to Fort Sedgwick for supplies and further orders, then make a long march to the west along the Republican, coming out on the Platte somewhere west of Fort Sedgwick. Contingencies might arise for which Custer would have to use his own judgment; if he found Indians he could go anywhere -- to hell or Denver and not a word said if he marched his horses to death when he found a hot trail. Sherman was anxious to have the Indians harried out of the area. [42]

     Custer arrived at the forks of the Republican June 21, having marched 107 miles "over very bad country" in four days. [43] The next day he dispatched D company under Lt. Samuel M. Robbins to accompany a train of 12 wagons commanded by Lt. William W. Cook [44] to Fort Wallace on the Smoky Hill for supplies. Along with the wagons and escort he sent Company K under Cpt. Robert M. West with instructions to stop at Beaver creek and scout it while D company went on into Fort Wallace.

     The only explanation of this early need for supplies and in the opposite direction from which his orders indicated is given in the Custer memoirs:

     Circumstances seemed to favor a modification . . .. at least as to marching the entire command to Fort Sedgwick . . . . . . . My proposed change of programme contemplated a continuous march, which might be prolonged twenty days or more. To this end additional supplies were necessary. The guides all agreed in the statement that we were then about equidistant from Fort Wallace on the south and Fort Sedgwick on the north, at either of which the required supplies could be obtained; but that while the country between our camp and the former was generally level and unbroken . . .. . . that between us and Fort Sedgwick was almost impassable for heavily-laden wagons. [45]

     The real reason for going so quickly to Fort Wallace was to pick up Mrs. Custer who had been instructed by letter as early as June 17 to come to that post where a squadron would be sent for her. There was no danger -- the Indians were pretty well scared and peace had been made with Pawnee Killer. The marching would not be too hard for her. In the note he sent along by Lieutenant Cook the devoted husband wrote, "I never was so anxious in my life." Not anxious for her safety and comfort but anxious to have her with him. [46]

     Custer's facile decision not to obey Sherman's express orders to draw his supplies from Fort Sedgwick was evidence of his rather casual view of the whole expedition and its purpose. There was good reason for Sherman's instructions. The primary purpose of the scout was to protect the Platte trail and railroad and the appearance of the troop at Fort Sedgwick near the railroad would be a warning to hostile Indians. Furthermore Fort Sedgwick was easily provisioned by rail while Fort Wallace could only be supplied with difficulty by wagon trains.

     Maj. Joel Elliott was given the duty of getting Custer's report to Sedgwick and bringing back any further orders from General Sherman. Allowed to make his own arrangements he elected to depend on speed rather than numbers and took with him but one scout and 10 men on fast horses. He left the camp at three A.M. the morning of June 23.

     Then, when more than a third of Custer's command was gone on their errands, the "monotony of idleness" [47] was broken at daybreak on June 24 by a party of 50 Indians, all gaudily painted and accoutered as a war party. The picket was shot down but the quick response of the troopers foiled an attempt to drive off the cavalry horses. While everybody in camp considered the Indian action an attack, Custer would not have it so. He sent his scout to give the sign for a parley. As he said:

     I was extremely anxious . . . . to detain the chiefs near my camp and keep up the semblance at least of friendship . . . . I was particularly prompted to this desire by the fact that the two detachments which had left my command the previous day would necessarily continue absent several days, and I feared that they might become the victims of an attack from this band if steps were not taken to prevent it. [48]

     The parley was attended by seven officers and seven chiefs, one of whom was Pawnee Killer, who had been specifically warned to go north of the Platte or remain near Fort McPherson or otherwise be liable to attack. The parley was inconclusive. The reporter, Davis, gives a somewhat different account of this episode than does Custer in. his memoirs:

     The circumstance was an afternoon peace talk with some Sioux chiefs who had that morning made an attack of small moment upon Custer's camp, and later with considerable impudence accorded to the General an opportunity to talk the matter over-stipulating that the meeting should be a friendly affair and to this end the parties to it must appear unarmed, in fulfillment of which the individuals on both sides were so loaded down with weapons that an indifferent concealment of their armament gave rise to observable stiffness of movement especially on the part of the most prominent members of the peace congress.      It was discovered when too late to avoid the session, that notwithstanding what seemed a sufficient precaution -- the Indians really controlled the situation and were obviously aware of the fact -- and it is my firm conviction, that our little party escaped, and the affair ended without a sanguinary conclusion, mainly by the peculiar influence of Custer's presence. [49]

     Custer told Pawnee Killer he would follow him to his camp. "We followed as rapidly as our heavier horses could travel, but the speed of the Indian pony on this occasion, as on many others, was too great for that of our horses." [50] Lt. Henry Jackson, who was supervising the odometer, mapping, and recording each day's journey, also gave a laconic account of the pursuit: "At 12 M., struck camp and moved out after Indians [,] crossing the north Fork [of the Republican] and marching S. W. along south Fork and marched 2 M. when we turned N. E. by E. and returned to our old camp. Found Indians had been in our camp while we were away. [51]

     The Indians continued their fun and games, luring away from camp a detachment under Cpt. Louis M. Hamilton. After some maneuver and skirmish Hamilton came back with the loss of only one horse. The most thrilling event of the afternoon was the chase by a half-dozen well-mounted warriors after Dr. I. T. Coates who for some reason or another found himself about four miles out of camp on a jaded horse. The doctor out-ran his pursuers and arrived safely in camp because as Custer said, "our domestic horses, until accustomed to their presence, are as terrified by Indians as by a huge wild beast, and will fly from them. . . ." [52]

     After the encounter with Pawnee Killer Custer was truly anxious for his wife's safety. On the morning of June 25 he sent out another full company , E, under Cpt. Edward Myers, who was to march without halting to Captain West on the Beaver and then with him proceed on towards Fort Wallace to further protect the supply train and Mrs. Custer. Now one half of the Custer command was committed to this duty of replenishing the supplies and bringing out Mrs. Custer.

     So expeditiously did Myers move that by the morning of the 26th, he and Captain West were able to pick up the supply train about 30 miles out of Fort Wallace and frighten away a party of several hundred Cheyennes and Sioux, who had been attacking the train for about three hours. The train was doing quite well by itself. Commanded by Lieutenant Robbins the troopers had been dismounted and deployed in a circle on foot on all sides of the wagons which advanced in parallel columns. The horses were led between the wagons. This was the standard defense posture for wagon trains under Indian attack. The red warriors circled around at some distance exchanging shots with the troopers. No one was killed on either side though the cavalry was sure that a few of the Indians had bit the dust. Mrs. Custer had not come to Fort Wallace and was not with the train. [53] Escorted from then on by three companies of cavalry the supply wagons arrived at the camp on the Republican on the morning of June 27. A quick trip had been made.

     The scout, William Comstock, who had gone with the train, had cherished for some time the belief that the Indian camps, which it was hoped Custer would find, were located somewhere on Beaver creek. This was undoubtedly the reason Captain West had been sent to scout there though his orders from Custer "contemplated a friendly meeting between his forces and the Indians should the latter be discovered." [54] When the wagons and escort arrived at Fort Wallace they were greeted with the news that the Cheyennes had for a month been raiding the stage stations along the Smoky Hill almost nightly. On June 21 the fort itself had been attacked, two men had been killed and others wounded. [55] So as was very evident the Indians were hostile and probably camped not a great distance to the north.

     Lt. Joseph Hale, Third U. S. infantry, commanding at Wallace, reported on June 27:

     Lieutenants Robbins and Cook, 7th Cavalry arrived at this post on the 24th. Inst. from Genl. Custer's command, with about twenty wagons, for rations and q.m. stores. They returned on the evening of the 25th. Comstock, the guide who accompanied these officers, thinks that Indian villages can he found on "Beaver Creek." [56]

     Hancock sending this report on to Sherman phrased it differently, "Comstock . . . crossing a trail of seven hundred warriors going toward Beaver Creek." [57]

     The attack on the wagon train by both the Sioux and the Cheyennes, mostly Sioux, must have reinforced Comstock's belief that the hostiles could be found somewhere on the Beaver if anyone cared to seek them out. [58]

     As for the supplies, the large amount drawn by Custer depleted the store at Fort Wallace. Lieutenant Hale noted in his report, "I would also respectfully state that the supply of commissary stores will soon be exhausted, officers supplies are entirely out." [59] Custer would later complain bitterly about the dearth of officers' supplies.

     The supply wagons returned to the camp on the Republican on June 27 and Major Elliott came back from Fort Sedgwick on the 28th, reporting the distance therefrom to be 105 miles. He brought no new orders from Sherman, only a reiteration from General Augur:

     I infer from a dispatch recd. from Gen. Sherman that he will order you again to the Smoky Hill route. If not, proceed to carry out such instructions as you have already recd. from him concerning your present scout, and having completed it, return to Sedgwick. . . . I think it very important to get Pawnee-Killer and all other Indians who desire to be friendly, out of the Republican country, and wish you to do all you can to accomplish it. If your instructions from Gen. Sherman will allow it, pitch into the Cheyenne Villages by all means. . . . If you do not meanwhile receive orders from Gen. Sherman, I will have none for you on your arrival at Sedgwick. Meantime scout the country well. . . . [60]

     Despite Sherman's and now Augur's emphasis on the importance of getting the friendly Indians out of the country and attacking the hostile ones, together with Comstock's freely expressed opinion as to where the camps were, Custer now decided to follow the letter of Sherman's earlier instructions, when no one knew anything about the Indians on the Beaver. On June 29 he took off, marching for more than two days along the south side of the South fork of the Republican, which in that area turns rather sharply to the southwest. On the third day they "crossed an Indian trail going up it" and before they camped that night crossed the river itself. After that they went north-northwest until they reached the Platte. On July 3 they encountered some difficulty in finding a crossing over Black Tail Deer creek and in the afternoon and evening suffered a terrible wind and hail storm which blew down most of the tents and did much damage to the camp. On July 4, they marched but five miles and then paused to rest for the final journey to the Platte. Just why Custer proposed to travel this great distance in one prolonged effort is not known. Since it would go over a divide he might have feared he would find little water. Perhaps he did not realize the distance would be so long or perhaps be was impatient to get the orders that might send him back to the Smoky Hill.

The march began at midnight on the 4th and continued until eight o'clock in the evening of the 5th. On the journey the column found water in several places and stopped to water its horses at the last arroyo, where water lay in pools or could be obtained by digging. They were then about 24 miles from the Platte. On its return the detail would camp overnight at this spot. Nevertheless the trip was grueling, the latter part of the 60 miles under a hot July sun and through masses of cacti. [61] While Custer's later comments on this day differed in a number of details from Lieutenant Jackson's careful notes on the spot, it was more graphic. Many of the dogs with the column died from thirst and exhaustion. The indefatigable Custer with three companions rode ahead of the rest to select a good camping ground. But when they reached the river they were so spent that instead of going back to guide the troops behind, they all lay down on the bare ground and slept through the night unawakened by a shower of rain. The tired troopers found their own way to the river, camping almost three miles below their commander's bivouac. [62]

     At nearby Riverside station Custer telegraphed for orders. He found that the next day after Major Elliott had left Sedgwick on June 26, new orders had come from Sherman. These had been entrusted to Lt. Lyman S. Kidder, Second U. S. cavalry, and an escort of 10 men and a scout with instructions to find Custer and deliver the orders to him. Kidder had not yet caught up with the column. A copy of the orders was transmitted to Custer and they gave him instructions to return to Fort Wallace. They also gave an intimation of Sherman's surprise that the young general had drawn supplies from Fort Wallace.

     I don't understand about General Custer being on the Republican awaiting provisions from Fort Wallace. If this be so, and all the Indians be gone south, convey to him my orders that he proceed with all his command in search of the Indians towards Fort Wallace, and report to General Hancock, who will leave Denver for same place today. [63]

     Sherman's shift of this his striking force down to the Smoky Hill was due not so much to the relative quiet on the Platte but to the great need on the Smoky Hill. The stage stations to the west had been under almost constant attack. The Indians came at night, stealing the horses and burning the buildings and the hay. Cpt. Myles W. Keogh at Fort Wallace pleaded constantly for more guards both for the stations and the fort. Musicians and mechanics had to be pressed into service. When Hancock went through on his way to Denver on June 18 he took Keogh and I company of the Seventh cavalry along as escort, leaving the post defended by an assortment of infantry and dismounted cavalrymen. Then the Indians attacked the post in broad daylight on June 21 and again on the 26th. Lt. Frederick H. Beecher, Third U. S. infantry, quartermaster at Fort Wallace, wrote to his mother after the June 21 attack. They had taken

      . . . into the field one hundred and twenty-five infantry, unhorsed cavalry and citizens. We sit up nights and sleep by turns during the day. Really, I think we are not in danger of losing life and limb. We are only surrounded and thereby much inconvenienced and tried. My stone quarry has fallen into the enemies' hands and my work, thereby, almost stopped. Don't get up any alarm for my safety, but condole with me that the government will give us so few troops to fight so many Indians. [65]

     The Indian raids spread to the east. The surveying teams began coming in to the forts as their escorts had to be reduced. Though the attacks in the west had been attributed to the Cheyennes and the Sioux, the Kiowas took a hand and on June 12 ran off all the government stock at Fort Dodge. Company A of the Seventh cavalry stationed there lost all its horses and was afoot. On June 16 a large train at Cimarron crossing was attacked, two men killed and the wagons plundered. [66] Some of the advance Union Pacific, Eastern Division, railroad workers were killed and the rest of the men fled from their work. [67] Demands for more protection came raining in on the army. Railroad officials bothered little to complain to the local post commanders but concentrated on the governor of Kansas and officials at Washington. [68] Hancock was in Denver or on the road. General Smith at Fort Harker in the center of the pressure did everything he could, cutting the guards where least necessary and it, maintaining them where they were vital. He had to keep the supply trains running for the very life of the forts to the west depended upon them. At the same time he pleaded to Sherman for more help. As early as June 19 he had asked that Custer be sent back to his district. Gov. Samuel Crawford of Kansas made a great fuss about the inadequacy of the army and offered to raise a regiment of local cavalry.

     Sherman had been determined not to allow the use of local troops as he considered them prone to act irresponsibly as Chivington had done at Sand creek. [70] He had managed to avoid accepting them in Minnesota, Montana, and Colorado. In Kansas he vacillated, first giving permission and then withdrawing it. Finally on July 1 he gave Governor Crawford permission to enlist six or eight companies and having decided to allow them, wanted them by July 6. This was impossible. Recruits gathered quickly at Harker but had difficulty in finding horses.

     Meanwhile fate threw another bolt at the straining army and its laboring General Smith at Fort Harker. Some companies of the 38th U. S. infantry coming from Jefferson Barracks to go with Maj. H. C. Merriam to New Mexico brought with them the deadly seeds of cholera. The first case was identified at Fort Harker on June 28. That same day the Merriam cortege left the fort for the southwest and as it went distributed the fatal disease it carried to every fort and camp at which it stopped -- Fort Zarah, Fort Larned, Fort Dodge, and Fort Lyon. The surgeon and his wife with the contingent were both victims.

     At Fort Harker the same day the disease appeared in the 38th infantry another fatal case was noted in an employee of a beef contractor. For a few days the infection was confined to the troops camped about the post rather than in the garrison itself but the sickness soon engulfed not only the post but the town of Ellsworth as well. Dr. George M. Sternberg of the post eventually reported 79 cases in his hospital with 29 deaths but he agreed that probably as many as 200 died at and in the vicinity of Fort Harker. [71] Mrs. Sternberg and her cook died on two successive days. [72] The Catholic priest, Father Louis Dumortier, who served the area is said to have died alone, along the road, while his mule wandered away. [73]

     The frontier newspapers, always booster minded, first ignored the epidemic. "The cholera rumors from Harker only increase in proportions and frightfulness. They are so conflicting and unsatisfactory . . . . we will not attempt any notice of it." [74] But eventually they had to notice it. A dispatch from Ellsworth dated July 26 read: "Everyone who was not tied here has left and no labor is performed at all. It is hard to get graves dug, or people to sit by corpses or to dress them for the grave. Long trains of loaded cars stand on the track with no one to unload them." [75]

     The 18th Kansas cavalry -- four companies of them, that being all that horses could be provided for -- were mustered in on July 15. They too suffered from the cholera: "When the battalion was in line, being mustered into service at Fort Harker, the cholera was raging in the garrison and three of the Kansas boys were stricken down while the oath was being administered. The remainder, however, stood firm and when the ceremony was over, marched off the parade ground with a steady step."

     Starting out on an assignment to scout between the Smoky and the Arkansas, they made a long march, all apparently well until after supper in camp: "In another hour the camp became a hospital of screaming cholera patients. Men were seized with cramping of the stomach, bowels, and muscles of the arms and legs. The doctor and his medicine were powerless to resist the disease. . . . . The morning of the 17th found five dead and thirty-six stretched on the ground in a state of collapse." [77] Such was the savage onset of the disease.

     Worried by the situation at Harker, General Sherman came out on July 5 and remained until the 12th when Hancock came through on his way back from Denver. General Smith then and later refused to be relieved. [78] He knew the problems and he knew the territory and the disposition of the troops in the posts and along the trail. He would stick with the job until the situation eased. Sherman had done what he could to relieve the pressure for more troops -- he had ordered Custer back to the Smoky Hill and much against his judgment had allowed the recruitment of the local cavalry. As for the cholera he could only send more doctors.

     Custer on the Platte did not linger long, scarcely 24 hours. Despite the punishing march and the need of rest for both horses and men, the command was forced to move quickly out into the wastes again. The temptation of the busy, well-traveled trail along the river was too much for the tired, beaten men and in that one night on the Platte about 30 of them deserted. [79] Even when the company, 12 miles out paused for dinner, the men slipped away in groups of two or three. Outraged at such open flouting of oaths and duty, Custer impulsively ordered officers out after them "to bring none in alive." In the hurried chase to stop the deserters, three were shot, one, Charles Johnson of Company K, was fatally wounded by a ball through his head and chest. An army wagon was sent out to bring in the injured. When it returned to the column and the doctor started towards it, the commander ordered him to stop and "not to go near those men." This denial of medical attention was apparently to be a warning against further desertion. As the troopers passed the wagon, some threw their overcoats into its bed so that the wounded would not have to lie on the bare, rough boards.

     A bit later Custer privately told Dr. Coates to attend the deserters but to not let it be known that he had had second thoughts. The result was a rather bizarre situation and much conflicting testimony later. According to the doctor the wounds were not dressed for two days because there was no good water available and besides gunshot wounds often dried up better by themselves without being dressed. The men were left in the wagon because it was more comfortable than the ambulances which had weak springs. The men had been given opiates within two hours after they were shot and this repeated medication had kept them relatively comfortable throughout the journey. None of the wounds had been considered serious though Johnson's was worse than the others. The doctor would swear that Johnson died of his wound and not from any lack of medical attention but some of the troopers and officers would continue stubbornly to believe that the wounded men had been inhumanely treated. [80]

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