The Battle of the Rosebud may well be the largest Indian battle ever fought in the American West. The monumental clash on June 17, 1876, along Rosebud Creek in southeastern Montana pitted George Crook and his Shoshone and Crow allies against Sioux and Northern Cheyennes under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. It set the stage for the battle that occurred eight days later when, just twenty-five miles away, George Armstrong Custer blundered into the very same village that had outmatched Crook. Historian Paul L. Hedren presents the definitive account of this critical battle, from its antecedents in the Sioux campaign to its historic consequences.
Rosebud, June 17, 1876 explores in unprecedented detail the events of the spring and early summer of 1876. Drawing on an extensive array of sources, including government reports, diaries, reminiscences, and a previously untapped trove of newspaper stories, the book traces the movements of both Indian forces and U.S. troops and their Indian allies as Brigadier General Crook commenced his second great campaign against the northern Indians for the year. Both Indian and army paths led to Rosebud Creek, where warriors surprised Crook and then parried with his soldiers for the better part of a day on an enormous field. Describing the battle from multiple viewpoints, Hedren narrates the action moment by moment, capturing the ebb and flow of the fighting. Throughout he weighs the decisions and events that contributed to Crook’s tactical victory, and to his fateful decision thereafter not to pursue his adversary. The result is a uniquely comprehensive view of an engagement that made history and then changed its course.
Rosebud was at once a battle won and a battle lost. With informed attention to the subtleties and significance of both outcomes, as well as to the fears and motivations on all sides, Hedren has given new meaning to this consequential fight, and new insight into its place in the larger story of the Great Sioux War.
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A CHAOTIC SPRING
The young reporter wanted to go with Custer. The newspaper's senior editor wanted a man with Crook. News from the West in the spring of 1876 was spurring both of them. The buzz in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and across the land was about gold in the Black Hills and Indians. The Black Hills were indeed booming in a rush triggered by George Custer's exploration two summers before. Another army exploration in 1875 confirmed the richness of the new El Dorado, yet only now were the Hills and trails truly alive with prospectors. Offsetting the lure and richness of the gulches was news of the extreme mayhem on the trails, perpetrated by Indians and outlaws. Farther west a major Indian campaign in Wyoming and Montana had gone bust, though now new expeditions were forming to settle issues with the Sioux Indians once and for all. The Chicago Times and its senior editor, Wilber Storey, sensed big news, and the paper wanted it firsthand.
The challenge of enlisting an agreeable reporter fell to Clinton Snowden, the city editor of the Times. Snowden promptly turned to one of his own staff writers, John Finerty, and asked whether he was open to an adventure in the West. "There is apt to be warm work out there with the Indians," Snowden warned, but if he was up for it, he should go see Mr. Storey. Finerty agreed on the spot but grimaced at the notion of talking with the always brusque, white- haired Storey, the paper's aloof senior man. Storey had built the Times into one of the great newspapers of the day. He was a legendary but intimidating character, who once fired a man who wore creaking boots because the noise disrupted others at work in the editorial room.
Finerty's willingness reached Storey even before Finerty did. "How soon can you be ready?" Storey inquired abruptly.
Almost immediately, replied the eager journalist.
"You should have your outfit first," Storey snapped back. "You are going with Crook's column."
"I understood I was to go with Custer. I know General Custer, but am not acquainted with General Crook," Finerty responded.
"That will make no difference, whatever," said Storey. "Terry commands over Custer, and Crook, who knows more about the Indians, is likely to do the hard work. Custer is a brave soldier — none braver — but he has been out there some years already, and has not succeeded in bringing the Sioux to a decisive engagement. Crook did well in Arizona. It is settled that you go with Crook. Report to me when you are ready." Finerty and Storey could hardly know it, of course, but the editor's insistence may have saved the reporter's life.
And so it was that the twenty-nine-year-old Irishman John Frederick Finerty joined George Crook and the Sioux war. A lanky, ruddy-faced Irishman with a thick mustache, Finerty was no stranger to armed conflict. Soon after immigrating to the United States in 1864, he had enlisted in the Union army and fought in the last year of the Civil War. Now he wasted no time in getting ready. Finerty thought first to seek out Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, the army's senior commander in the West and also located in downtown Chicago. From Sheridan he sought a letter of introduction to General Crook. Sheridan happily complied, adding a simple warning: "You will find General Crook a hard campaigner." Finerty purchased arms and a riding outfit, packed a small bag, bade goodbye to friends, and reported back to Storey. "Spare no expense and use the wires freely, whenever practicable," Storey advised. Finerty departed Chicago on the Northwestern line for Omaha on a rainy Saturday morning, May 6, 1876.
Finerty indeed had jumped into an Indian war. As he made his way to Omaha he contemplated the news filling the papers in recent days — stories about Sidney and Cheyenne, the allure of the new Whitewood and Deadwood diggings in the northern Black Hills, the brutal murders of the Metz family and "Stuttering" Brown on the Fort Laramie–Custer City Road, the perplexing if disastrous battle at Powder River, and Crook apparently now quietly at work organizing another movement against the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes.
Upon reaching Omaha on Sunday morning, Finerty sought out General Crook, whom he found at work at his desk in the Withnell Building, headquarters of the army's Department of the Platte, located a few blocks from the railroad station. The department offices were scattered across four floors of the unassuming brick building. A massive American flag flew from a staff off the front. The singular striking feature inside that day was a beautiful buffalo robe collected from the Powder River battlefield and proudly heralded as "one of the finest robes to be found anywhere in this country." Sheridan's letter provided admittance to Crook's office. The two men quickly sized each other up. Finerty recalled encountering a man barely in his forties (in fact, forty-seven), with an athletic physique, distinctive Roman nose, fair hair clipped short, and a beard that seemed to part naturally at the chin. "He looked every inch a soldier," the reporter later remembered, "except that he wore no uniform." Finerty may not yet have understood Crook's preference for casual dress, in the office or in the field.
Crook got straight to the point. "Can you ride and shoot well?"
"I can ride fairly, General," Finerty replied. "I might manage to hit a barn at a couple of hundred yards."
Crook laughed. "You'll need practice then." He told Finerty to make his way to Fort Russell where the expedition was forming, secure messing arrangements with some officer going from there, and purchase a horse in Cheyenne. "There will be some delay yet. I am going to visit the Indian agencies to get some warriors to accompany us. After that I'll go to Cheyenne. Await me there." With that Finerty thanked the general and proceeded to his hotel. The next morning he boarded a Union Pacific train for Cheyenne.
* * *
News from the northern plains was unusually mixed that spring. Finerty likely carried with him on his travels the current issue of the Omaha Daily Bee, one of three newspapers published in the city and the recognized voice of the community and region. Since midwinter the paper had employed special correspondents in the field to report the gold rush, which was the dominant news of the season, even eclipsing reports of Omaha's own Crook and the Indian war. Captain Jack Crawford, the self-proclaimed "Poet Scout of the Black Hills," reported from Custer City in the central hills, while a counterpart, John Harwood Pierce, writing under the pen name "Ranger," rode the rails and filed stories from North Platte, Sidney, Cheyenne, and Laramie. The Bee was an ardent advocate of open access to the new gold country, despite the conundrum of the Black Hills lying squarely within the bounds of the Great Sioux Reservation.
The Bee particularly championed Nebraska's interests in the rush. Crawford and Pierce penned weekly and sometimes twice- weekly letters describing outfitting opportunities in the various rail towns, the trails northward from the Union Pacific, and the enticing lure of the yellow metal itself, sluiced from French, Spring, Castle, and Rapid Creeks and other watercourses beyond in the central and northern Black Hills. Both correspondents were decidedly circumspect about the many difficulties encountered on the trails, particularly in the proximities of the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Indian agencies in the Pine Ridge country of northwestern Nebraska. Despite the many incidences that bloodied those roads, the resolute "gold talk" in the Bee and the region's other newspapers transfixed readers.
General Crook oversaw the two prime avenues to the gold country. Ironically, the Black Hills themselves lay beyond his official administrative control, which ended at the Dakota border. The two routes originated at communities on the Union Pacific Railroad. Both trails crossed the North Platte River and the one distinctive physical feature between the rails and the Black Hills: the Pine Ridge of far northwestern Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. One of the trails passed the two Sioux agencies in Nebraska in the midst of the Pine Ridge. Jack Crawford and the Omaha Bee favored that Nebraska-centric Sidney Road.
Originating at Sidney, on the Union Pacific Railroad, the Sidney Road ran straight north to Red Cloud Agency and nearby Camp Robinson and from there north again to Buffalo Gap, the southeastern entry into the Black Hills, and then on to Custer City. Red Cloud Agency was the home of the Oglala Sioux, the largest body of all Lakotas. Their principal chieftain and the agency namesake, Red Cloud, had masterminded the bloody Bozeman Trail War of the 1860s. Slightly east of there was the Spotted Tail Agency, home of the Brulé Sioux and that tribe's great chief, Spotted Tail. Spotted Tail's followers were much less stridently inclined than the war-prone Oglalas who followed Crazy Horse, He Dog, and others, but some of them also made their way to the warring camps as the looming drama unfolded. From both agencies a great Indian trail stretched westward, generally following the northern margins of the Pine Ridge into Wyoming and continuing to the Powder River Basin. Known as the Powder River Trail or Red Cloud's Trail, this road and these many Oglalas and Brulés were complications to be reckoned with by Black Hillers and soon enough by Crook himself.
The second significant road to the Black Hills in Crook's department ran from Cheyenne, Wyoming, north to Fort Laramie and from there straight north again to the Pine Ridge, where it angled northeast to Red Cañon, the southwestern entry into the Black Hills, and on to Custer City. This road carried significantly greater Hills- bound traffic than all others owing chiefly to the completion (in December 1875) of a three-span iron bridge at Fort Laramie that crossed the turbulent North Platte. This new bridge provided the only safe crossing of this difficult river hazard until the completion downstream of the 3,000-foot, seven-span wooden Clarke Bridge north of Sidney, which unofficially opened to traffic on May 17. No bridge existed upstream, a factor that played directly into Crook's campaign preparations in May. Like the Sidney Road, the Cheyenne Road also crossed the treacherous Powder River Trail. That intersection was isolated from military protection and became yet another issue that Crook was soon forced to address.
Black Hills traffic on these roads surged as the warmth of springtime transformed the wintery landscapes of Nebraska, Dakota, and Wyoming with emergent grasses and drying roadbeds. The troubles in the region could not be denied. One newspaper editor waxed whimsical about the mysterious connections between grass and warfare on the plains. "When the succulent grass springs up, the wild Indian mounts his pony and starts out in search of the buffalo and the white man." Crook acknowledged that as well. His coming campaign needed dry ground and new grass, without which it would be impossible to maneuver far from a line of supplies. Of course, as the editor noted, those natural elements benefited agency Indians too.
Crook believed that much of the trouble disturbing the Pine Ridge country and Black Hills was directly attributed to agency Indians bound for and or returning from the buffalo country in the Powder River Basin and beyond. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty permitted hunting off of the reservation. For that reason alone travel to and from the hunting grounds was steady. Such movement put Indians and Black Hillers on confrontational courses. But there was more. A distinct surliness was palpable in Indian country just then, especially in the Oglala camps. The Indian people had endured in rapid succession the government's attempt to buy the Black Hills in August 1875 (a proceeding raucously brought to failure by the Northern Sioux), severe food shortages during the hard winter of 1875–76 that forced tribesmen into the field to hunt, and most recently news of Joseph Jones Reynolds's aggression at Powder River, which was foisted on Northern Cheyennes and Oglalas alike. As discontented and imposed-upon Indians dealt with such matters, depredations increased dramatically, even locally. On April 26 the cattle corral, slaughterhouse, and scales within a half-mile of Red Cloud Agency were burned. Bitter, hungry, and threatened people were lashing out at those supporting them and at Hillers flooding the roads to Custer City.
Jack Crawford, the Omaha Bee correspondent in Custer City, provided his readers with a distinct sense of the dangers on the trails and the underlying fear of Indians disrupting life in the diggings. Foremost he repeatedly warned his audience that people needed to travel in large armed parties. He often colored his letters with examples of those who failed to heed such simple advice, as with the story in April of the man known only as Wood. Traveling alone, Wood was found near Buffalo Gap with a bullet though his heart and an arrow sticking in him, with another arrow lying nearby. "He had a horse valued at $250, which was a big inducement for a northern Sioux to get away with." In another letter Crawford told of a man wounded half a mile from Custer while he and a partner were prospecting and yet another killed at Rapid City and one farther north. "Miners on this creek are working with rifles by their side and revolvers on each hip. These are men who don't scare worth a cent."
Stealing horses was an understood motive for Indian raiding and killing. Traditional plunder beyond firearms — paper money, clothing, metal ware, horse gear — had marginal value to agency Indians, yet Crawford's letters frequently mentioned Indians being sighted as close as the margins of Custer City or down the Sidney Road, especially around Buffalo Gap, always pursuing or running off stock. Some residents of Custer City banded together as the Black Hills Rangers in April and actually responded to a number of those raids, but the successful recovery of stock was never mentioned.
Such prowling plagued ranchers and business owners in the border region as well. In rapid succession in mid- and late April came news of Indians "from the north" (meaning the Pine Ridge country), raiding horses at Coad's Ranch, a few miles below Scotts Bluff on the North Platte River; at Bosler's Ranch on the north side of the North Platte, a few miles below the Sidney crossing; at Harkison and Griffith's Ranch, thirty-six miles west of Sidney, where ten horses were stolen; and from the Government Farm, eleven miles north of Fort Laramie, where stage company stock was run off. Yet another account told of an attack on "embryo miners" on Burntwood Creek, between the Black Hills and the Spotted Tail Agency. They had gone into camp and barely had their bacon half-fried when a party of forty Indians swept down on them and captured all of their horses. Those prospectors put up a good fight, however, and may actually have killed one of their assailants.
Two of the most egregious killings in this bloody spree had the imprints of a single white outlaw and a handful of Indian accomplices who terrorized Red Cañon and the Cheyenne Road just south of there. The first episode was the killing of the Metz party of Laramie City. Charles Metz and his wife had opened a bakery in Custer City in midwinter. As prospecting activity drifted north that spring, particularly toward the fantastically rich Whitewood and Deadwood gulches, the pair sold their business at a good profit and planned on returning to Laramie. On April 16 they as well as their black cook and a driver were murdered in Red Cañon, barely thirty miles southwest of Custer City. The cook was riddled with arrows. Three others in their party were wounded, two dying later. The killings were inordinately vicious, and Indians were immediately blamed. A more careful investigation also quickly implicated the white outlaw, William F. "Persimmon Bill" Chambers. Persimmon Bill, an ill- tempered, hair-triggered, thirty-two-year-old accomplished horse thief, had killed a soldier near Fort Fetterman six weeks earlier and more recently had been seen loitering in Custer City as the Metzes prepared to depart. In this instance robbery seemed a more probable motive than stock theft. The Black Hills Rangers from Custer City and others responded to the killings, which came to be known as the Metz Massacre, but Chambers and his accomplices were by then long gone.
A second sensational killing occurred just five days later not far from Red Cañon. Henry E. "Stuttering" Brown, superintendent of the Fort Laramie–Custer City leg of the Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage, Mail, and Express Company and late of Omaha, was ambushed and gut shot in a night attack on the road between the Cheyenne River and Hat Creek stage stations. Brown was discovered some hours later and carried to Hat Creek. An army doctor summoned from Fort Laramie could not save the stage man, who died at the station several days later. Brown was a popular figure in Cheyenne and Custer City, and his death was a considerable blow to the company's fledgling business. Persimmon Bill was implicated in this murder too. He and Brown had scuffled at the Cheyenne River station not long before the shooting, where Brown accused the firebrand of thieving company stock.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rosebud June 17, 1876"
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Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. A Chaotic Spring,
2. Organizing a Second Campaign,
3. Fort Fetterman,
4. The Northern Indians and the Great Ascendancy,
5. The Road North,
6. Tongue River Heights,
7. Fateful Intelligence,
8. Eleventh U.S. Dragoons,
9. Trail to Rosebud Creek,
10. On Reno Creek,
Interlude: Notes on Rosebud Geography,
11. Opening Salvos,
12. Sweeping the Gap,
13. Commanding the Field,
14. Sowing the Wind,
15. Reaping the Whirlwind,
16. Warriors Heroic,
17. Evening on the Rosebud,
18. Return to Goose Creek,
19. Eight Days,
A. Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition Order of Battle, May 29–June 21, 1876,
B. Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition Casualties,
C. Cartridges, Cartridges,