Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars

Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars

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by Don Rickey Jr.

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The enlisted men in the United States Army during the Indian Wars (1866-91) need no longer be mere shadows behind their historically well-documented commanding officers.

As member of the regular army, these men formed an important segment of our usually slighted national military continuum and, through their labors, combats, and endurance, created the

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The enlisted men in the United States Army during the Indian Wars (1866-91) need no longer be mere shadows behind their historically well-documented commanding officers.

As member of the regular army, these men formed an important segment of our usually slighted national military continuum and, through their labors, combats, and endurance, created the framework of law and order within which settlement and development become possible. We should know more about the common soldier in our military past, and here he is.

The rank and file regular, then as now, was psychologically as well as physically isolated from most of his fellow Americans. The people were tired of the military and its connotations after four years of civil war. They arrayed their army between themselves and the Indians, paid its soldiers their pittance, and went about the business of mushrooming the nation’s economy.

Because few enlisted men were literarily inclined, many barely able to scribble their names, most previous writings about them have been what officers and others had to say. To find out what the average soldier of the post-Civil War frontier thought, Don Rickey, Jr., asked over three hundred living veterans to supply information about their army experiences by answering questionnaires and writing personal accounts. Many of them who had survived to the mid-1950’s contributed much more through additional correspondence and personal interviews.

Whether the soldier is speaking for himself or through the author in his role as commentator-historian, this is the first documented account of the mass personality of the rank and file during the Indian Wars, and is only incidentally a history of those campaigns.

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“This volume most certainly helps to reveal both the nature and the character of those who participated in the last Indian wars of the trans-Mississippi West. As such, it is a substantial addition not only to American military history in general but also a contribution to the literature of the western frontier.”— American Historical Review

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Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay

The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars

By Don Rickey Jr.


Copyright © 1963 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8722-8


War in the West

The morning of May 23, 1865, saw the nation's capital thronged with citizens and soldiers. Campaign-toughened Union troops, school children, convalescent soldiers and sailors from the hospitals, and eager civilians filled Washington's main thoroughfares, parks, and public buildings. It was the first of two days that men would talk about for years to come, two glorious days focused on national pride and thanksgiving. The war was over, and the victorious armies of the Potomac, of Tennessee, and of Georgia were about to pass in review before President Andrew Johnson and the people.

At nine o'clock General Meade's Army of the Potomac began its march down Capitol Hill toward Pennsylvania Avenue, where the presidential party waited in the reviewing stand erected in front of the White House. Flags and banners fluttered all along the line of march. School children sang and cheered. The crash of blaring bands accompanied the cobble-clatter of mounted officers and the stamp of serried ranks of veteran infantry as the troops moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the presidential stand festooned with star-spangled bunting bearing the terrible names of "Vicksburg," "Antietam," "Gettysburg," and others.

The second day of the Grand Review witnessed the passage of Sherman's far-ranging army. Little Phil Sheridan could not be present to lead his cavalry brigades, but Generals Custer and Merritt headed up the mounted column in his place. Custer would ride to defeat and immortality eleven years later at the Little Bighorn, but on this warm day in May, 1865, few Americans, in or out of the army, were much concerned with the potential problems of the Indian military frontier. This was the Grand Review of two hundred thousand victorious Union soldiers. Newspapers and magazines throughout the nation printed columns describing this proud, awesome display of the nation in arms, and universally voiced the prayer that never again would the land be torn by war.

Not all of the federal forces, by any means, could be assembled in Washington for the review, and reporters mentioned in passing that many deserving units of the army were necessarily occupied with garrison and routine duties elsewhere. Where these units were and what they were doing in actuality were not important to those who stood and watched the events connected with the Great Peace. For hours the troops, afoot and mounted, moved smartly in review. The issues between the two sections of a divided nation had been settled on the battlefields. Soldiers seasoned by four years of war could now return to the pursuits of peace, and the nation to the tasks of unity, reconstruction, and agricultural and industrial prosperity.

But this was only the moment of the Great Peace. The reality was of another character. The country had never really been bisectional, north and south: it had three parts after 1803, and there had not been a condition of entire peace in its western domain, which by 1865 extended to the far-away Pacific. There was another race there, and many tongues, those of the Indians, and they knew a great deal about warfare.

As the veterans of the Civil War passed in review, the men of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry and the Eleventh Ohio Cavalry, serving in Colorado and Dakota Territories, were spread thinly, garrisoning posts in eastern Colorado and along the Overland Trail in what is now southern Wyoming. The truth is, these volunteers did not know that the war was over, as powerful hordes of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors descended on settlements, posts, and trail traffic in the spring and summer of 1865. However, most of the wartime volunteer and state troops, from Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and California, were withdrawn from the Indian frontier in the Southwest, from Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and Dakota, late in 1865. Active service for the volunteers ended when they were replaced by hastily reorganized regiments of the Regular Army.

At the end of the Civil War, the plains, deserts, and mountains of the West flamed with savage warfare. Another generation would pass before the power of the western tribes was broken. During most of the quarter-century after 1865 the Regular Army was virtually a stepchild of the Republic. National attention was usually absorbed by such compelling developments as President Johnson's struggle with the Radical Republican Congress and the agonies of reconstruction; possibilities of involvement with France over the Mexican question; financial panics and massive labor violence, and the growing pains of a wildly expanding economy. Only the most sensational Indian campaigns received much notice in the older, more settled sections of the nation.

Fairly quiet when the Civil War began, Indian warfare reemerged in August, 1862, when the Santee Sioux broke out violently in Minnesota. The Santees were finally driven west into Dakota Territory, where their western Sioux kinsmen took up their cause. Troops sent against the Sioux in 1863–64 campaigned deep into Dakota Territory, removing the Indian threat to the border settlements, but leaving all the Sioux ready for large-scale warfare, where before only the eastern Sioux had been serious enemies. By 1865, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho war parties scourged through most of Dakota Territory, much of Nebraska, Kansas, eastern Colorado, and what is now Wyoming.

On the southern plains the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches, and Kiowas fought Union and Confederate troops alike during the Civil War. Desiring at least an interval of peace in 1864, the Southern Cheyennes negotiated for terms and went into winter camp on Sand Creek, near Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado. Infuriated, vengeful Colorado volunteer troops tried to exterminate Black Kettle's Southern Cheyennes at their Sand Creek camp November 29, 1864. Already burning brightly, Chivington's Colorado Volunteers had turned the flame of plains warfare into a searing blast, as news of the Sand Creek tragedy spread to the Northern Cheyennes and the Sioux. Indian retaliation was not slow. Raids occurred with ever increasing devastation and frequency. In February, 1865, a combined Sioux, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho war party captured, sacked, and burned the settlement of Julesburg in northeastern Colorado.

The Apaches and Navahos of the southwestern deserts and mountains had also been at war with the whites from 1861 to 1864. Kit Carson, leading Union troops as a colonel of Volunteers, quelled the Mescalero Apaches of southern New Mexico, and forced the Navahos to surrender at Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, January 6, 1864. The Navahos were fairly quiet thereafter, but the flame of Apache warfare remained to blight Arizona and New Mexico for another two decades.

Regular Army units were to be sent west after the Civil War and were to find themselves faced with powerful aggregations of hostile tribesmen from the Canadian boundary to the Mexican border and from central Kansas and Nebraska west to and beyond the Rocky Mountains. Government agents would attempt to secure treaties with the hostiles, so that hordes of restless, westering immigrants and gold seekers could settle in and pass through what was still Indian country. The chronology from the moment of the Great Peace to the final settlement of the western frontier was to be long drawn out.

In 1865 a meaningless, scrap-of-paper treaty was negotiated with a few Sioux to obtain white passage and occupation of the Bozeman Trail, from the Overland Trail in central Wyoming northwest through southern Montana to the gold fields of western Montana. Red Cloud's Sioux and their allies relentlessly harried the Bozeman Road and the forts that guarded it from 1866 through most of 1868. Peace treaty commissioners finally assented to Red Cloud's demands and agreed to withdraw the troops garrisoning Forts Phil Kearny and C. F. Smith, abandoning the trail to the Sioux and Cheyennes in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. This treaty, like so many others, bore within it the seeds of later conflicts. Only about one-half of the Sioux agreed to live on the treaty-stipulated reservation, in the western half of what is now South Dakota. The non-treaty Sioux, led by such warriors as Sitting Bull, remained out as free rovers through northern Wyoming, eastern Montana, and the northwestern section of Dakota Territory.

Government peace commissioners met with the southern plains tribes at Medicine Lodge, Kansas, in October, 1867. The assembled Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahos and Cheyennes halfheartedly agreed to live on reservations in what is now western Oklahoma, but many of them took the warpath as soon as the council ended. The Southern Cheyennes raided throughout western Kansas and eastern Colorado in 1867 and most of 1868. In September, 1868, Colonel George A. Forsyth and his specially recruited scouts fought the Battle of Beecher's Island, on the Arickaree Fork of the Republican River, near the Colorado-Kansas border, against Roman Nose's Cheyenne hostiles. Roman Nose fell in the Indians' attempt to overrun the defenders' position on a low-lying sand island in the shallow river. His vaunted bullet-proof medicine had been broken when one of its taboos was violated.

The Southern Cheyennes were dealt another body blow in the late fall of 1868. Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer smashed the winter camp of Black Kettle's band on the Washita River, in northwestern Oklahoma, in the snowy dawn of November 27. Subsequently, many Cheyennes and Arapahos came in to receive food and live on their reservation during the winter of 1868–69. Major Eugene A. Carr's Fifth Cavalrymen and Indian scouts delivered the final blow to the Cheyennes on July 11,1869, when the implacable Dog Soldier band was defeated at Summit Springs, Colorado, and their chief Tall Bull numbered among the killed.

Taking office in 1869, President Grant listened to the pleadings of eastern reformers and church groups who were sincerely interested in the welfare of the western tribes. For them, the white man's burden was the responsibility of civilizing the wild tribes through kindness, peaceful persuasion, and education. Unfortunately, the powerful plains Indians looked on warfare as the natural condition of their kind, and they tended to view the efforts of the peace policy advocates as evidences of weakness on the part of the whites. Quaker Laurie Tatum, shepherd to the truculent Kiowas in southwestern Oklahoma, refused to admit that his charges were raiding into Texas and devastating white ranches and settlements until the Kiowas flagrantly boasted of their annihilation of a wagon train near Jacksboro, Texas, in May, 1871. General William Tecumseh Sherman, traveling nearby en route to inspect Fort Sill, Oklahoma, learned all the particulars, and later ordered the arrest of Satanta, Big Tree, and Satank, the Kiowa ringleaders. Agent Tatum, disillusioned and greatly saddened, resigned his commission, and the Kiowas and Comanches came under much closer military surveillance.

In November, 1872, the scene of Indian warfare shifted to the California-Oregon boundary region, when the Modoc uprising broke out and quickly assumed the proportions of a major campaign. The army was compelled to concentrate regiments of regulars and some citizen volunteer units in order to drive the tenacious Modocs from their stronghold in the lava beds of northern California. National attention was focused on the treacherous murder of General E. R. S. Canby, in April, 1873. Canby had arranged a parley with the Modoc leaders under a flag of truce. When the meeting began, Captain Jack and his hostile lieutenants killed the General in cold blood. Troops and artillery finally dislodged the Modocs, and those guilty of Canby's death were executed.

By the early 1870's white commercial buffalo hunters had made great slashing inroads in the vast herds of the southern plains. On June 27, 1874, a base camp of white hunters at Adobe Walls, Texas, was attacked by a large war party of Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche warriors. Fortunately for the hunters, they happened to be awake when the Indians attempted to surprise them at dawn, and they were able to beat off the assault. In August, 1874, restless Kiowa and Comanche bands broke away from their agency at Anadarko, Oklahoma, and headed for the Staked Plains of the Texas Panhandle. Colonel Nelson A. Miles's column intercepted some of the runaways and their Cheyenne friends in the Antelope Hills of western Oklahoma on August 30, dealing them a heavy blow before most of the Indians were able to make their escape.

The high point of the Kiowa-Comanche Red River War of 1874–75 came when General Ranald Mackenzie found the hostiles' winter camp hidden in the Palo Duro Canyon, south of modern Amarillo, Texas, early in the morning of September 27, 1874. The Indians' village was destroyed, and though only a few were killed in the attack, all their supplies were lost. Most of the Comanches and Kiowas came in and surrendered during the winter of 1874–75. By the end of 1875, the once powerful Comanches had surrendered completely.

With Indian affairs beginning to stabilize on the southern plains by the beginning of 1876, trouble with the Sioux and Cheyennes of the north country again began to assume major proportions. Conflict on the plains reached its peak in the Sioux War of 1876–81. The Laramie Treaty of 1868 had guaranteed the western half of modern South Dakota as a perpetual reservation for the Sioux. The Black Hills, sacred to the Sioux and Cheyennes and the best hunting country in the region, were part of the reservation. Discovery of rich gold deposits in the Black Hills, by the 1874 Custer expedition, had started a stampede of whites to the new Dakota Golconda, regardless of government attempts to keep the Black Hills inviolate for the Indians. Sitting Bull and his hostiles, who had never concurred in the reservation idea in any case, drew hundreds of recruits to their camps when the reservation Sioux began to leave their agencies in 1875. By the end of that year, the Indian Bureau admitted it had lost control of the situation, and the army was called in to compel all the Sioux and Cheyennes, treaty and nontreaty alike, to turn themselves in at a reservation agency by January 31, 1876.

Winter weather may have kept some peacefully inclined bands from moving toward the reservation, but the vast majority of Sioux and Cheyennes had no intention of bowing to the ultimatum. Columns were sent against them from Fort Fetterman in south-central Wyoming; from Fort Lincoln near Bismarck, Dakota Territory, and from posts in western Montana. Inconclusive actions were fought between General Crook's Wyoming column and the hostiles on March 17 and June 17. On June 25, Custer launched his winner-take-all attack on the combined Sioux and Cheyenne camp at the Little Bighorn. The dashing, newspaper-popular Custer and almost half his Seventh Cavalry Regiment were wiped out by a force of at least twenty-five hundred hostiles. The remnants of the Seventh Cavalry, who had desperately defended themselves five miles from the site of Custer's annihilation, were rescued from a like fate by General Terry's column on June 27. A few days later telegraph wires hummed the message of disaster to a nation whose attention was focused on the spectacular Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. One hundred years of proud, expansive nationhood was rung in by the shock of disaster on the northern plains.

The Little Bighorn was the beginning of the end for the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes. By the spring of 1877 most of the once powerful bands were harried back to the reservations or defeated in a series of sharp campaigns. Sitting Bull crossed into Canada, where he remained as a threat to the Montana and Dakota border areas until July, 1881, when he finally surrendered at Fort Buford, Dakota Territory.

Sioux war parties were still a very real menace in eastern Montana when the Nez Percé War broke out in the spring of 1877. Refusing removal to a reservation they had not all agreed upon, feeling the press of white settlement in their eastern Idaho valley, the hitherto peaceful Nez Percé were characterized by mounting tension. Some excited warriors killed a few white settlers, and the agony of the Nez Percés began. General O. O. Howard's troops fought indecisive actions with them but failed to halt the Nez Percés' retreat eastward, over the Lolo Trail, into Montana. Colonel John Gibbon's hastily organized column intercepted the Indians in camp on the Big Hole River, August 9, on the western edge of Montana, but could not hold the determined Indians. Looping first southward through Yellowstone Park, then northeast, Chief Joseph led his people across the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, halting about one day's march from the Canadian border. Miles's mounted Fifth Infantrymen and companies of the Seventh Cavalry surprised the Nez Percé camp September 30. After a five-day siege, including light artillery shelling of the hostile position, the shattered tribesmen capitulated on October 5. Joseph's surrender speech remains a classic of Indian oratory and pathos.


Excerpted from Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay by Don Rickey Jr.. Copyright © 1963 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Don Rickey, Jr., who holds the Ph.D. degree from the University of Oklahoma, is park interpretive planner, National Park Service, Midwest Region, in Omaha, and an authority on the military history of the American West.

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