Campaigning with the Buffalo Soldiers
[see source at http://www.sru.edu/depts/scc/Buffalo/Campaigning.htm]
Dr. David Dixon is an associate professor of history at Slippery Rock University. His courses include The American West, Indians of the United States, and The American Civil War. For his book, Hero of Beecher Island, Dr. Dixon received the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America as the best non-fiction author of 1994. This page is used with permission.
On August 10, 1868, a war party of over 200 Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos swept down on the unsuspecting settlers of the Solomon and Saline Valleys in central Kansas. During the raid, the Indian warriors killed 13 people and carried one woman into captivity. Less than a week later, another band of Indians ambushed government scouts William "Medicine Bill" Comstock and Abner "Sharp" Grover. Comstock died instantly in a hail of bullets. Grover, shot through the back, managed to hold off his assailants until nightfall by using Comstocks body as a shield. Then he doggedly crept away in the darkness and made his way to the tracks of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. A passing train picked him up and took the wounded scout to Fort Wallace where he eventually recovered.
The causes of this Indian outbreak were similar to past hostilities that characterized Native American-White relationsbroken treaties, a lack of understanding between the two cultures, and a disregard for tolerance. Major General Philip H. Sheridan, commander of the Military Department of the Missouri, was not interested in uncovering the causes of this recent unrest. He was simply intent upon exacting retribution against the Plains tribes who had participated in the depredations. Sheridan was determined to punish these warriors by hunting them down and destroying them.
This objective, however, posed a number of problems, not the least of which included the fact that the general had no idea where to find the Indians. As Sheridan and other officers knew all too well, one of the major obstacles to successful Indian campaigning was finding Indians. The resourceful warriors of the Great Plains had the remarkable ability to strike without warning and just as quickly vanished into the vast emptiness of the prairie. In addition, General Sheridan had to face the fact that he simply did not have enough troops to mount successful, offensive operations, while at the same time protect the vital lines of communication and transportation that stretched across the Plains like a thin ribbon. Within the entire Department of the Missouri, which ranged from the Platte River to the Red River and west to the Rocky Mountains, Sheridan could count only 2,600 men, brigade strength during the late Civil War. These troops, who were scattered throughout the region at various forts along the notale highways, included only 1,200 cavalry. Horse soldiers were essential to the pursuit of the nomadic Plains tribes.
One of the units that Sheridan had placed in the field was the Tenth United States Cavalry, a regiment comprised entirely of African-American soldiers with white officers. These troops had been organized in 1866 under an Act of Congress that created four black military regiments: the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry regiments. The Tenth was divided by troops and scattered along the important lines of communication such as the Smoky Hill Trail and the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Their mission was to scout the roads in search of Indians and attempt to protect travelers along the trail. Throughout the month of August, 1868, the Buffalo Soldiers scoured over 1000 miles of the Kansas and Colorado prairie in search of the elusive tribes that had attacked the Solomon and Saline valleys (Leckie 1967).
One of the most active troops in the field was Company H of the Tenth Cavalry under the command of Captain Louis H. Carpenter. Carpenter had served with distinction on General Phil Sheridans staff during the Civil War where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. When the war came to an end, Carpenter received an appointment as captain in the peace-time army. Stationed at Fort Wallace in western Kansas, H Troop was assigned the task of patrolling the road to Denver.
While Carpenter and his Buffalo Soldiers scouted for Indians along the trail, General Sheridan decided to make a more concerted effort to locate and punish the Indians. He authorized one of his most loyal staff officers, Major George A. Forsyth, to recruit a company of 50 civilian scouts, knowledgeable in Indian customs and warfare, to be used to seek out the nomadic warriors (Dixon 1994).
Forsyths frontiersmen, dubbed the "Solomon Avengers," set out from Fort Wallace on September 10 in pursuit of a band of Indians that had attacked a freighting caravan near Sheridan, Kansas, 13 miles away. Arriving at the scene of the attack, Forsyths experienced scouts quickly picked up the trail and headed northwest. As expected, the tracks left by the fleeing Indians soon evaporated as the warriors veered off in different directions to evade pursuit. Forsyth's scouts doggedly continued following a trail made by a single pony. After several days of scouting, the path became large and pronounced once again. Some of the men became concerned that they might encounter more Indians than they could handle. Forsyth admonished his scouts by asking them if they were not hired on to fight Indians. As Scout John Hurst later recalled, "That ended the matter, but did not convince us as to the wisdom of the course" (Simmons M. & Simmons R. 1985).
By September 16 Forsyths command had followed the trail into a broad valley that bordered the banks of the Arickaree Fork of the Republican River in northeastern Colorado. The men camped that evening along the stream across from a small island. The next morning, just before dawn, the scouts were awakened by a small war party intent on running off the horses and pack mules. As soon as the men had recovered from this minor attack, they were startled to see hundreds of mounted Indians galloping toward them at a dead run from up the valley. Forsyth and his men quickly took refuge on the nearby island and dug rifle pits in the sand for protection. While vastly outnumbered, the scouts were all armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles and were able to repulse charge after charge by the determined Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. Unable to overrun the scouts, the Indians then surrounded the island and assumed sniper positions. By the end of the day nearly half of Forsyths men were either dead or wounded. The Major himself had been wounded three times and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Frederick Beecher, was dead. In addition, Dr. John H. Mooers, the contract surgeon for the expedition, had been killed early in the fight. Ironically, Mooers, who had experience as an army doctor, joined Forsyths command "because he had always wanted to see a real, live wild Indian" (Dixon 1994; Criqui 1993; Grinnell 1956; Powell 1981).
That evening, Major Forsyth asked for volunteers to attempt to crawl through the Indian lines and walk the nearly 100 miles to Fort Wallace for relief. Eighteen-year old Jack Stilwell and veteran plainsman Pierre Trudeau agreed to make the journey. Two days later, Forsyth decided to send two more scouts, Allison Pliley and Jack Donovan, to seek assistance.
While the Solomon Avengers languished on the Arickaree, Captain Carpenter and the Buffalo Soldiers of the Company H were once again in the saddle patrolling the Denver Road. The command was made up of 2 officers, 70 troopers, and 17 civilian scouts. Carpenter was supplied with 13 wagons and an ambulance drawn by a team of mules. Shortly before noon on September 23, the Captain was intercepted by couriers from Fort Wallace. Forsyths messengers had arrived at the fort with the grim news of the Avengers scouts' deplorable situation. As a result, the post commander, Colonel Henry Bankhead, immediately dispatched two Buffalo Soldiers to overtake Captain Carpenter and order him to ride to Forsyths relief. The Captain called his men together to explain the nature of the mission they were about to undertake. As one of the scouts, J. J. Peate, later recalled, "The whole command was eager to do all that was in their power to crown our efforts with success. Not a man, horse, or mule, but did all that was required of him" (Simmons S. & Simmons R. 1985).
The Buffalo Soldiers left the Denver road and turned their mounts north through the rugged prairie. For the rest of the day Carpenters men surged forward at about six miles per hour. The slow pace was due to the fact that the supply wagons had a difficult time negotiating the rough terrain. After traveling 35 miles the command was forced to halt due to darkness and rain. At dawn the next morning the troops were back in the saddle heading for the Republican River region. In the afternoon Carpenters men came across an abandoned Indian encampment. As the Captain later recalled, "I here discovered the signs and trail of a very large force of Indians, who had encamped the previous night and for several days past.... Several dead warriors were buried in the hills close by on scaffoldings" (Simmons S. & Simmons R. 1985). Scout J. J. Peate recalled the scene:
Half a mile south of the river we found several dead Indians on a
scaffold about eight feet above the ground (some tribes mode of
disposing of the dead). They were wrapped in blankets and buffalo
robes and had their hunting and war paraphernalia beside them.
Horses had been killed by the side of the scaffold so the departed
warriors would have horses to ride in the happy hunting grounds.
We examined the dead warriors and found they had died recently of
gun-shot wounds. This was about 3 oclock p.m., and we felt sure
we were near where the battle had taken place (Simmons M. &
Simmons R. 1985).
The next morning as the command was preparing to depart, five mounted men were seen approaching the camp. The riders proved to be scouts from another army unit in the field also searching for Forsyths position. One of the scouts was Jack Donovan, one of the men Major Forsyth had sent to find help. Donovan told Captain Carpenter that Forsyths men were about 20 miles further north. Carpenter then decided to "move at a rapid rate on the back trail" in an attempt to reach Forsyth as soon as possible. Leaving behind the bulk of his force, the Captain set out with a handful of scouts and a small detachment of Buffalo Soldiers. The Captain wisely chose to take the ambulance with him. Included in the small force was Private Reuben Waller, a former slave who had enlisted in the Tenth Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As the small relief force pushed on, the anticipation seemed to build. As J. J. Peate remembered, "Even our horses entered into the excitement of the hour and needed very little urging. We traveled at a run...." (Simmons M. & Simmons R. 1985). Finally, Carpenters men reached the beleaguered scouts who had been pinned down for nine days. Private Waller never forgot the scene:
What a sight we saw--30 wounded and dead men right in the midst of
50 dead horses, that had lain in the hot sun for ten days
[actually the men were only on the island for nine days]. And
these men had eaten the putrid flesh of those dead horses for
eight days. The men were in a dying condition when Carpenter and>
myself dismounted and began to rescue them (Simmons M. & Simmons
As Captain Carpenter approached Major Forsyth he found the determined officer laying in one of the rifle pits, having sustained three wounds. In order to keep from breaking down, the Major pretended to be reading the novel Oliver Twist. Forsyth gazed up at Carpenter and replied, "Welcome to Beecher Island." The scouts had decided to name their sandy sanctuary in honor of Lieutenant Frederick Beecher, who had been killed in the battle.
While the army surgeon attended to the wounded, Private Waller and the other Buffalo Soldiers began to feed the famished scouts from their haversacks. As Private Waller later recalled, "If the doctor had not arrived in time we would have killed them all by feeding them to death. The men were eating all we gave them, and it was a plenty. Sure, we never gave a thought that it would hurt them" (Simmons M. & Simmons R. 1985).
After attending to the more seriously wounded, Carpenter and his men rested two days before starting back to Fort Wallace with Forsyth and his scouts. Along the way, the command took note of a large trail left by the Indians that struck across country toward the direction of Beaver Creek. It took four days to return to the fort where Major Forsyth and the wounded scouts were cared for in the post hospital. The brave commander later recovered from his ordeal and was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General for gallantry under fire during the attack. Captain Carpenter was also later rewarded for his determined and dramatic relief of the scouts by being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Brady, C.T. (1971). Indian Fights and Fighters. New York: McClure, Philips and Company.
Criqui, O.A. (1993). Fifty Fearless Men. Marceline, MO: Walsworth Publishing.
Dixon, D. (1994). Hero of Beecher Island. The Life and Military Career of George A. Forsyth.
Grinnell, G.B. (1956). The Fighting Cheyennes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Hyde, G.E. A Life of George Bent Written from his Letters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Leckie, W.H. The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Powell, P.J. (1981). People of the Sacred Mountain: A History of the Northern Cheyenne Warrior Societies, 1830-1879. New York: Harper and Row.
Sheridan, P.H. Papers on Brevet Major General E. A. Carr Commanding Expedition from Fort Lyon, of the Operations of his Command during the late Campaign against Hostile Indians, April 7, 1869. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.
Simmons M. & Simmons R. (1985). The Beecher Island Annual. Wray, CO: Beecher Island Battlefield Memorial Association.
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