Massacre on the Washita: The U.S. Army's 'Total War' on Native Americans

Massacre on the Washita: The U.S. Army's 'Total War' on Native Americans

In the fall of 1868, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer commenced a controversial military operation against the Cheyenne.

Here's What You Need to Know: Washita was a ringing affirmation of Sheridan’s overall strategy of total war.

The conclusion of the Civil War saw the painfully reunited nation resume its westward surge. Complicating that surge was the Indian question: how best to remove the Native American peoples from the paths of white expansion. The United States Army, imbued with impatient confidence after defeating the redoubtable Confederates, felt that the resolution of the Indian problem would be a swift and simple matter. That assessment would prove to be disastrously wrong, for both sides.

The postwar opening of massive new areas for settlement and the building of the transcontinental rail system required a sufficient number of soldiers. The main theater of operations in the West immediately after the Civil War was the area of the Great Plains. Situated west of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, this swath of land stretched 500 miles east to west and 2,000 miles north to south, covering parts of Canada as well as the United States. Included in this vast territory were the areas of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming. It was the home to over 100,000 Native Americans (Blackfoot, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and others), proud, warlike people who would not be removed from their tribal lands without a struggle.

At the end of the Civil War, Congress authorized a Regular Army of 57,000 men, well under the numbers needed to secure the revitalized settlement of the West. A number of factors complicated the Army’s task. First, a strong force had to be maintained on the border with Mexico to keep an eye on the French-sponsored regime of Emperor Maximilian. Second, one-third of the army had to be deployed in the southern states to ensure the Reconstruction program would be completed. This left fewer than 15,000 troops to combat and contain the Indians, a task made harder by the fact that many of the soldiers were tied down manning the 255 military posts scattered throughout the nation. The result was predictable. In the majority of large-scale operations against the Indians, the Army was able to bring to bear at most 1,500 to 3,500 fighters at a time.

Furthermore, the Army was hobbled with a poor appreciation of the tactics required to defeat the Native Americans. The high command was still rooted in the ways of conventional warfare practiced during the Civil War. Accustomed by that conflict to rely upon weight of numbers and armaments accompanying ponderous advances, the Army leadership after 1865 needed time to relearn the lessons of fighting a frontier war in which it had not been actively engaged for almost 10 years. Meanwhile, it had to cope with a skilled foe whose use of deception, mobility, and guerrilla-style fighting techniques to avoid battle and strike unexpected blows was exceptional.

Hancock’s War

In 1866 an explosion of violence occurred in the Wyoming and Montana territories of the northern plains. The violence escalated with a bloody and unimaginable defeat sustained by the Army. On December 12, Captain William J. Fetterman, in command of an 81-man mixed infantry and cavalry detachment, was ambushed by 1,000 Indian fighters outside Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. Fetterman and his entire command were wiped out. At the time, the Fetterman Massacre was the worst defeat ever sustained by the American military on the Great Plains. Public anger over the event brought demands for the government to come down hard on the Native Americans. The Army was more than willing to do so.

From his headquarters in St. Louis, Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman, commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, contacted Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who headed the Department of Missouri, a geographical command encompassing Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Sherman ordered a military strike to teach the Indians a lasting lesson. In March 1867, Hancock gathered 1,400 infantry and cavalry, along with one artillery battery, and set out for Fort Larned, Kansas, to confront the Cheyenne and Sioux tribesmen camped at Pawnee Fork, 35 miles south of the fort.

During Hancock’s approach to the Indian village between April 12 and 15, the Indians fled their camp. Cavalry was sent after the escapees, but the only things they found were burned stage stations, run-off livestock, and butchered white civilians. In retaliation, Hancock set fire to the Indian camp on Pawnee Fork. What became known as Hancock’s War had begun.

The Medicine Lodge Treaties

For the next three months, the Army carried out fruitless searches for the Indian bands that repeatedly attacked and destroyed mail stations, stagecoaches, wagon trains and railroad workers along the Platte, Smokey Hill, and Arkansas Rivers. By the end of July, the Great Plains was embroiled in warfare. Except for a few abortive mounted expeditions, Hancock’s forces spent the summer strictly on the defensive. His 5,000 soldiers (chiefly infantry) were tied down defending a 2,500-mile perimeter made up of isolated military posts designed to protect the major travel arteries. Within this cordon ranged the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne, who took every opportunity to strike selected targets.

In July, the U.S. Congress negotiated a peace with all the warring tribes on the Great Plains. Embedded in the resultant treaty was the requirement that all the Indians be cleared from the area between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers and resettled to the north and south. Army brass reluctantly went along with the congressional peace initiative, mainly as a way of diverting attention from the clumsy and embarrassing campaign that Hancock had conducted.

The Medicine Lodge Treaties (the talks took place at Medicine Lodge Creek in southern Kansas) were finalized in October 1867 between the United States and the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. The Native American signatories were consigned to a reservation in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma). The peace created at Medicine Lodge Creek did not last long. Comprehending belatedly what they had bartered away and increasingly angered by the failure of the U.S. government to provide long-promised supplies, the Cheyenne and their traditional allies the Arapaho went on a rampage starting in July 1868. Aimed first at their longtime rivals, the Pawnee, the rebellious Indians also attacked whites along the Solomon and Saline Rivers.

In the Department of the Missouri alone, 110 white civilians were killed, 13 women raped, and more than 1,000 livestock stolen. In addition, uncounted farmhouses, wagon trains, and stage- coaches were destroyed. Numerous small-scale skirmishes occurred between soldiers and Indians, but the Army never succeeded in bringing the raiders to bay. Frustrated commanders vowed to pursue and kill any Indians who refused to move onto Medicine Creek Treaty lands.

Who was to Blame for the Treaty Violations?

In March 1868, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan replaced Hancock as head of the Department of Missouri. The flinty-eyed Sheridan, diminutive and blasphemous, had successfully commanded a field army in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, as well as the Cavalry Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac, during the Civil War. Like Sherman, Sheridan believed in the concept of total war. To both men, total war meant subjecting the entire enemy population to the horrors of war, thereby undermining their will to resist. It had worked against the South—perhaps it would work against the Indians as well.

Although Sherman and Sheridan blamed Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders for instigating the recent disturbances, the facts were otherwise. Before the summer warfare erupted, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had moved south to Indian Territory to get away from the growing disorder north of the Kansas line. Most of the trouble was caused by young Indian men who resisted tribal authority and sought to plunder white settlers and their property. Others were members of the warrior society known as Dog Soldiers, who lived only to fight the white man and other hereditary enemies. The Army failed to separate the perpetrators of the summer violence from other tribal members who advocated peace with the whites.

One such peace proponent was Cheyenne chief Black Kettle. Born in 1801 near the Black Hills, Black Kettle was a longtime advocate of compromise with the United States. He sought to accommodate the Americans by signing several peace treaties with them in the hope of retaining some autonomy for his people. Despite his efforts, he and his tribe were attacked on November 29, 1864, at the Sand Creek Reservation in the Colorado Territory by territorial militia under Colonel John M. Chivington. The surprise assault on the Indian camp claimed 163 Cheyenne dead, mostly women and children. Black Kettle barely escaped with his life.

Even after the Sand Creek Massacre, Black Kettle continued to work for peace with the American government, but his standing with his own people never recovered from the debacle of Sand Creek. His acquiescence to later treaties caused many other Cheyenne to lose faith in his judgment and ability to lead them. This increased the influence of the Dog Soldiers, who insisted that war was the only answer to the growing white threat. To Sherman and Sheridan, Black Kettle’s inability to control his people was seen as an encouragement to further violence. The generals determined to eradicate the problem by severely punishing Black Kettle and his compatriots.