The second part of my biography of General Custer. His early indian fighting days.
|In April 1865, George Armstrong "Autie" Custer was among the best known and most lauded heroes of the American Civil War. He had enjoyed a meteoritic rise through the ranks beginning his military career as a Second Lieutenant, and ending the war as a Major General commanding an entire cavalry division. Autie and his "Red Tie Boys" served as the striking arm the union army, and the attention that brought him pleased him no end. |
When the war ended, his rise did not stop, just after the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox, he was promoted to the rank of Full Major General of Volunteers.
In June 1865, Autie's wartime commander General Philip "Little Phil" Sheridan was tasked with raising an army to chase down the last stubborn remnants of the confederate forces, and Autie was given command of the cavalry division that would be doing the chasing. There was one major disappointment in store for him though.
He was not leading his "Red Tie Boys". Instead he was leading a division made up of troops from a number of Midwest regiments and they certainly did not worship him in the way his Michigan troopers had. The war was over and these men didn't want to gallivant around the country chasing more rebels, they just wanted to go home and having the famous "Boy General" in charge didn't improve their disposition. Autie joined his new unit in Louisiana and marched with it into Texas.
This was an unfamiliar situation for Autie; he had loved the adoration he had received during the war. Desertion was endemic in this new army and poor discipline was a constant problem. To improve the situation he took the only action he knew. He became a martinet. Soldiers caught stealing were subjected to twenty five lashes and had their heads shaved. Deserters would face the firing squad.
On one occasion he convened a court martial to try an Indiana trooper who had deserted and a Wisconsin Sergeant named Lancaster who had committed mutiny by presenting a petition asking Autie, the commanding officer to resign. Both were found guilty and sentenced to death. After the verdict was brought down, there was open talk of mutiny and death threats. On the day of their execution, both men were blindfolded and sat on their own coffins. The command was give to take aim, but before the order to fire was given Autie, who respected the war record of Sgt Lancaster had him led away and only the deserter was shot. Sgt Lancaster may have survived but he was dishonourably discharged and left destitute. While commuting the man's death sentence was regarded by Autie as an act of mercy, he was oblivious to the fact many soldiers in the division saw it as a form of torture and the disciplinary troubles were never solved.
For all his professional worries, Autie enjoyed a cozy family life with Libbie, and the rest of his family wasn't far away either, younger brother Tom had joined his staff when the division marched to Texas and somehow, his father Emmanuel was appointed as a forage agent for the division. Hunting and horse racing were among his favourite hobbies in Texas and it was here that he started collecting a huge pack of hunting dogs. Libbie would often complain that there were so many dogs in the bed that there was barely room for her!
In February 1866 the Texas mission came to an end when the government finally disbanded the volunteer units that had been the backbone of the army during the war years. While this was wonderful news for the homesick troopers in his division, it was a disaster for Autie. He had been brevetted the rank of Major General during the war and made full Major General of Volunteers just after the surrender, but now there were no volunteer regiments to command. The "Boy General" was suddenly Captain Custer, 5th Cavalry Regiment.
Autie took extended leave in New York to explore his options. He still held currency as a war hero and this brought him an opportunity. He was offered the position of Adjutant General of the Mexican army, a job that would pay $16,000 a year. Autie was enthusiastic about the job and his request for a year long leave of absence was recommended by his superior, "Little Phil" Sheridan. The United States Government however weren't as enthusiastic. Afraid of provoking the French, who had significant interest in Mexico, the Secretary of State refused his request. Instead he was offered the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the newly raised Seventh Cavalry.
While he considered the offer, he made a disastrous foray into politics. He and Libbie joined President Andrew Johnston on his "swing around the circle" in September. As a Democrat, Autie agreed with Johnson's policy of continuing Lincoln's "moderate" approach to reconstruction in the south. However most in Johnson's own Republican Party did not support leniency for the "enemy" who had betrayed the union and caused four years of tragic bloodshed.
He may have been a war hero, but Autie was no politician, and he was certainly no orator, in stressful situations he would easily become tongue tied and would begin to stammer. The hostile reception left him disillusioned with politics for the time being and helped him to decide that his true vocation was as a soldier. He accepted the Seventh Cavalry offer.
Now that the "war between the states" was over, the mission of the United States Army had changed. The objective was now to protect the tens of thousand of immigrants who were once again making the long trek westward, and less nobly to subjugate or destroy the Native American tribes who resisted this progress. On the open plains that covered the middle third of the continent infantry, traveling and fighting on foot lost much of the relevance they had enjoyed during the war against the Confederacy. Only Cavalry had any hope of matching the mobility of such nations as the Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Comanche. To this end, four new Cavalry regiments (the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th cavalry regiments) were formed.
Autie and Libbie arrived at Fort Riley, Kansas on October 16, 1866 to find the regiment still being formed and organized. The Commander of the regiment, Colonel Andrew Smith had not yet arrived to take command so it fell to Autie to take charge in this activity. One week after joining the unit however, Autie was summoned to Washington to sit before the examination board to confirm his promotion, he didn't return to Fort Riley until just before Christmas, 1866.
In November 1866, Colonel Smith left the Seventh Cavalry to take charge of the Department of the Upper Arkansas so that when he returned from the east, Autie had command of the regiment. Or part of it at least. By the time of his return only three companies remained stationed at Fort Riley, the remaining nine were scattered across the plains garrisoning small one or two company outposts.
Just as he had in Texas immediately after the war, Autie found himself in a far from unified command. His Majors and Captains were mostly experienced civil war veterans and many had in fact been awarded brevet ranks themselves, only two had any experience in fighting the Indians on the plains though. The majority of his Lieutenants and Second Lieutenants were young and had not seen combat, they were much more likely to be impressed by his wartime reputation.
As always Autie was able to surround himself with a close clique of fellow officers, referred to by some detractors as "The Custer Clan". This group included Tom Custer who had recently joined the regiment as a Lieutenant, Lieutenant William Cooke, the bewhiskered Canadian known as "Queens Own", Captain Myles Keogh, a violent alcoholic who had once served in the Papal Guard and Lieutenant Algernon Smith, so badly crippled by a wartime wound that he required assistance to get dressed each day.
While he was surrounded by this surrogate family, Autie also had many detractors among the officers of his regiment, who regarded him as arrogant and flashy. There was one officer who despised Autie from the very moment he met his new commander.
Captain Frederick Benteen was a civil war veteran, who had held the rank of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel during the recent conflict. He was a bitter man who saw service on the frontier as punishment rather than a profession, having lost 4 children to meningitis while serving in the army. He resented being under the command of a man younger than himself and would be Autie's most vocal critic.
If there was division among the regiment's officers, the troops who formed the backbone of the Seventh were even more disparate. In the period after the end of the civil war, many men found themselves out of work or newly arrived in the United States with poor English and few prospects. These men would enlist in the army and find themselves garrisoning forts and outposts all across the west. The living conditions at these "forts" was primitive to say the very least, the enlisted men living in barracks buildings not fit for animals, and officer's living in less cramped but equally squalid conditions. Alcoholism was rife among both officers and enlisted men, and low pay (Thirteen dollars a month for enlisted men, when a cowboy might make as much as thirty) coupled with poor quality rations led desertion rates as high as twenty five percent. Suicide was commonplace. Little wonder that Martha Summerhayes, an officer's wife later referred to their time on the frontier as "a glittering misery".
In Wyoming, on Christmas Eve 1866, Captain William Fetterman who had earlier boasted to his commanding officer that if given eighty men, he "would ride through the whole Sioux nation" got his wish. With a mixed group of eighty cavalry and infantry he blundered into a Sioux ambush as he pursued a group of "fleeing" warriors, which included a young Crazy Horse.
The "Fetterman Massacre" as it became known sparked the government into action. The following spring, the Seventh Cavalry, with Autie at its head, would be taking part in a campaign intended to impress the Sioux and Cheyenne and compel them into cooperation with the government.
When the campaign got under way on March 26, 1867, Autie led eight companies of the 7th cavalry out of Fort Hays, Kansas. With the column were seven companies of infantry and a battery of artillery, making a total of 1,400 men. The preceding winter had been unusually wet and progress across the wide open prairies was slow. At Fort Larned, the column waited in freezing conditions for the Sioux and Cheyenne chiefs to arrive. On April 12, 1867, Autie saw his first "wild" Indians when Sioux chiefs Tall Bull and White Horse arrived at the fort for the scheduled "discussions" with a paltry ten warriors.
In charge of the talks was Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, renowned civil war hero. He was furious that only two chiefs had braved the harsh weather to come to Fort Larned and it showed in his attitude toward them. He showed the chiefs no respect, attempting to bully them into submission.
Despite his intimidation, General Hancock could not get any form of agreement from the chiefs, and when they decided to return to their own camp, thirty miles away, the General decided that the column would follow and make camp nearby. In doing so, he made the token concession to them that their village would not be molested in any way.
The Sioux and Cheyenne in the village had reason to feel nervous upon hearing that the army was coming to make camp only a few hundred yards away from them. They had only to cast their minds back three years to 1864 when a "peaceful" village on Sand Creek in Colorado was attacked without warning by Colorado Militia. This "battle", known as the "Sand Creek Massacre" resulted in the deaths of over 200 men women and children.
The following morning, the soldiers found the entire village empty. Fearing an attack, every man, woman and child in the village abandoned their possessions and fled in the night under the noses of the troops assigned to guard them. Hancock was incensed, he ordered the village and Autie to take the 7th and pursue them. This was exactly what Autie was waiting for, an opportunity to once again show his ability in an independent command. He was convinced that the glory he had earned in the civil war was about to return.
The Seventh immediately set off in pursuit of the fleeing village and it didn't take long for Autie to realize that this was not going to be an easy task. The fleeing Indians split into three separate groups, all heading in different directions. Autie and the seventh followed as best they could for two days until they reached a well traveled stage route known as the Smokey Hill Road. Scattered along the road were burning houses and Stage stations and the bodies of mutilated settlers.
When the regiment came within sight of a herd of buffalo, Autie decided that since the Indians could not be anywhere close by and gave in to his impetuous nature. Surrounded by dogs and with his bugler struggling vainly to keep up, Autie rode off after the fleeing herd. After a chase lasting a few minutes, Autie was riding alongside an old bull which had separated from the herd. He drew and cocked his revolver, aiming to shoot the bull and claim his first buffalo, when the creature bumped his horse Custis Lee. To keep control of his mount, Autie needed both hands on the reins. As he grabbed at the reins with the hand still holding his revolver, the weapon discharged shooting his horse in the back of the head, killing it instantly and in his own words, found himself to be "whirling through the air over the head of my horse." After Autie had landed, he found that he was alone in unfamiliar country, miles away from his troops. He spent several tense hours before being located by his men. As embarrassing and potentially dangerous as this situation was for him, Autie would revel in retelling the story for years to come.
When Hancock heard the report of the raids and murders on the Smokey Hill Road he was infuriated saying "I am satisfied that the Indian village was a nest of conspirators" he then ordered the empty village to be burned to the ground. Following this, the column retired to Fort Hays to re-supply for a campaign to bring the Sioux and Cheyenne to battle over the summer.
The plan fell apart almost immediately. The forage and supplies that were expected to be found at Fort Hays were not there. Flooding caused by the constant bad weather had delayed their delivery immobilizing the entire column in cold and miserable conditions for several weeks.
This stagnant situation was a bitter situation for a man of action like Autie and it had a distinct effect on his personality. Normally a very active and character, he sank into a depression, becoming moody and uncommunicative. More disturbingly, as he became more depressed his men suffered accordingly, with even minor infractions attracting cruel punishments. No fresh fruit or vegetables were provided for the men and sickness was again becoming a worry. When six troopers left the camp to buy tinned peaches in town he had their heads shaved and had the men paraded through the camp "to their own great humiliation and the exceeding mortification disgrace and disgust of all right minded officers and men in the camp". Though the officer who had written this in his journal, Captain Albert Barnitz had served with Autie in the civil war and admired him greatly, his disappointment in his commander compelled him to write to his wife Jenny "He is the most complete example of a petty tyrant that I have ever seen" and "You would be filled with utter amazement if I were to give to you a few instances of his cruelty to the men and discourtesy to the officers". He was not the only officer or trooper who would remember Autie bitterly as a result of this short period.
On June 1, 1867, Autie left Fort Hays with six companies, marching north toward Fort McPherson in the Nebraska Territory. A week later, the second Major of the Seventh Cavalry Major Wickliffe Cooper shot himself in a fit of delirious tremens. Autie wrote of him "but for temperance Col. Cooper (he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Civil War) would have been a useful and accomplished officer, a brilliant and most companionable gentleman." Despite this show of respect, he had the Major laid out on display and forced his officers to take a look, as a warning of the dangers of drinking.
Twelve miles south of Fort McPherson, the regiment encountered the band of Sioux led by Pawnee Killer. At a parley at which Pawnee Killer and his group were treated to gifts of coffee and sugar, the Lakota Sioux chief gave Autie his assurance that his band was peaceful. Autie took him at his word, but it is generally considered that Pawnee Killer and his band were responsible for the depredations along the Smoky Hill Road the previous month.
Autie and the regiment reached Fort McPherson on June 10, 1867 where he was joined two days later by an angry General William Sherman, the commander of the Military Department of the Missouri. He told Autie that he was too trusting in his dealings with the Sioux. Sherman ordered Autie to take the six companies of the regiment and detain Pawnee Killer and his band. Sherman made some vague remarks about having Libbie travel by train to Fort McPherson to join her husband upon his return. Autie had other ideas though and had already written her a letter asking her to travel to Fort Wallace in the far west of Kansas and that he would send an escort to fetch her. "Come as soon as you can" he wrote "I did not marry you for you to live in eon house and me in another. One bed shall accommodate us both"
The small column rode out on June 17, 1867 in the direction of the forks of the Republican River, in the remote border regions of Kansas and Nebraska territory. It was Sherman's intention that they scout westward along the rivers forking from the Republican before turning northward toward Fort Sedgwick, Colorado where they would re-supply and await further orders.
After making camp on the Republican River, Autie made a baffling decision. In direct disobedience of his orders, he chose to not lead the column to Fort Sedgwick. Major Joel Elliot, with a small escort of troopers was dispatched to Fort Sedgwick to receive the expected orders from Sherman. On June 23, Lieutenant Cooke, Autie's heavily bewhiskered adjutant was sent south to Fort Wallace with two companies and the column's wagons to collect supplies and forage for the unit's mounts. Autie justified his disobedience by rationalizing that both forts were about the same distance from his current location and that the terrain to the south was less hilly and thus better for the supply wagons.
Early the following morning Autie had another encounter with Pawnee Killer and his band when the Sioux warriors attempted to stampede the cavalry's horses.
After they had been driven off, Autie requested another parley which ended without any agreement with Pawnee Killer and his followers mounting and quickly outdistancing the few cavalrymen who attempted to pursue them.
Autie must have been chafing at having been so close to his quarry and not being able to capture him. When a band of warriors appeared that afternoon on a ridge not far from the camp, he immediately ordered Captain Louis Hamilton and two companies (the second was commanded by Tom Custer) to pursue them. After a chase of a few miles, the fleeing warriors suddenly turned on their pursuers. It was only by dismounting troopers and providing covering fire that the companies were able to extricate themselves from a potentially very precarious situation with the loss of just one horse.
With the realisation that the hostile Indians were in the vicinity, Autie dispatched another two companies to reinforce the supply train which should by now have been well on its way back from Fort Wallace. It was weighing heavily on him that Libbie might be with the small group, especially given that it was a widely held convention that white women should be shot if capture by the Indians was imminent.
It was fortunate that the additional companies had been sent to the supply train. On June 26, the small command was attacked by a force of Cheyenne warriors that numbered in the several hundreds. Lieutenant Cooke calmly arranged the wagons in two parallel columns and dismounted the cavalry troopers, posting them in a cordon around the wagons, moving on foot with the slow moving vehicles. In this way the troopers held the much larger force at bay for several hours until relieved by the two extra companies. When they arrived at the camp the following day, Autie was both relieved and disappointed to find that Libbie was not with the wagons.
Major Elliot returned to the camp the day after having received no new orders in Fort Sedgwick. Had Autie complied with his orders and brought the entire column to Fort Sedgwick, he would most likely have received new orders. The day after Elliot had left to return to Autie's camp, orders were received by telegraph and Second Lieutenant Lyman Kidder, who had received his commission only weeks before was dispatched with ten men to find Autie and deliver them to him.
Pawnee Killer found him first however, and on July 2, Kidder's tiny command was killed in a running fight across the prairie and their bodies horribly mutilated. The orders were never delivered.
Having received no orders, Autie led his troops on fruitless patrols southwest along the Republican River then inexplicably had the command turn and march in a northerly direction toward the South Platte River, deep in Colorado. This move took the cavalrymen away from the very area that was showing evidence of Indian activity. Worse, the area he was entering was a vast open plain, largely waterless and lacking in forage for the mounts. Marching in this kind of terrain would be detrimental to the condition of his horses and bad for the health of the men. Should the unit become engaged by the Indians they were trying to find, they would be at a serious disadvantage.
On this grueling overland march, most of Autie's dogs and several of the pack mules died from dehydration and heat exhaustion. While during the day the men and animals sweltered and suffered, night often did not bring any relief, on July 3, a freak storm left the men wet and shivering after most of their tents were blown away. Despite this hardship, Autie pushed his troopers harder than ever, at midnight on July 4, the unit began a march which continued until eight o'clock the following evening, covering a distance of 65 miles. When they neared the South Platte River, Autie rode ahead with two scouts to locate the water. They did so, but the grueling pace caught up with them and all three fell asleep next to the river, leaving the rest of the unit to find the river themselves. While they slept, Indians destroyed a stagecoach station three miles upstream, killing the three men employed there. The rest of the command arrived at dawn.
Autie found a telegraph station not far from the unit and sent to Fort McPherson requesting further orders. He received an angry response from General Sherman enquiring why he had not already been met by Lieutenant Kidder with his orders. He went on to order Autie to march toward Fort Wallace, still scouting for the hostiles who were burning and killing along the Smokey Hill Road. He was also to locate Lieutenant Kidder if possible.
Autie's anxieties were mounting. He had been worried about Libbie, first that she had been traveling in the middle of territory being ravaged by Pawnee Killer and his band, and more recently by rumours that had begun to circulate of Cholera in the Kansas forts. Worry over the location of Lieutenant Kidder and his men added to his fears.
As hard as the march to the South Platte had been, Autie had more to worry about. This march had brought the unit close to roads leading to rich mining areas in Colorado and Wyoming territory. Recent hardships and the prospect of riches proved too much and desertion once again became a major problem.
Since April 19, 120 men of the 7th Cavalry had deserted. Early on the morning of July 7, 1867 thirty four men deserted and shortly after noon on the same day thirteen more, seven of them on horseback deserted in full view of Autie and the rest of the unit. Incensed at this brazen act, Autie at once called for the officer of the guard Lieutenant Henry Jackson and his men (being the only men mounted at the time) telling him "Follow those men. Shoot them and don't bring any back alive". He then turned to the only other officers whose horses were saddled, Tom Custer, Lieutenant Cooke and Major Elliot speaking to them loudly enough so that he knew nearby men would hear "I want you to mount and go after those deserters. Shoot them down". The mounted men returned a short while later with six of the deserters, three of whom were wounded. The regimental surgeon Isaac Coates, a civilian employed on contract approached the wounded men to tend their wounds but was stopped by Autie "Doctor, do not approach those men. I have no sympathy with them." Dr Coates would later testify that Autie approached him privately and asked him to tend the men's wounds.
Despite the doctor's best efforts, one of the men, Private Charles Johnson died from his wounds. This was the cause of great resentment toward Autie, whom they believed responsible for Johnson's death. That night Autie ordered the unit's officers to stand guard rather than the usual enlisted men. He gave them the order to shoot any man they saw outside their tent during the night. Despite their discontent, there were no more desertions during the campaign.
The return to Fort Wallace was largely uneventful. On July 12, William "Medicine Bill" Comstock discovered the remains of Lieutenant Kidder and his troops while scouting ahead of Autie's troops. The experienced scout pieced together an important lesson for the troops as they dug shallow graves for Kidder and his men. According to Comstock the tracks showed that the Indians pursued the outnumbered troopers for almost ten miles, picking off the fleeing cavalrymen one by one as their tired horses collapsed before Kidder and a handful of troopers made a last stand on the bank of Beaver Creek, managing to kill two of their pursuers before being overrun. The lesson he said, was that running from the Indians on the plains was death. A man would have to stop and fight for his life, relying on his firepower to keep them at bay until they were driven away or lost interest.
The following day, the column straggled in to Fort Wallace. The march had rendered both the men and their horses useless until they could rest and get decent food. The campaign was now effectively finished.
Autie now found himself in a similar situation at the end of the campaign to that he was in at its beginning. He felt himself marooned and trapped at Fort Wallace while Libbie was at Fort Riley at the opposite end of Kansas. He could stand it no longer.
On July 15, 1867 he assembled a "force" of 72 men by ordering each of the six company commanders who had arrived back at Wallace to provide twelve men on the best mounts available. That evening Autie turned over command of the unit to his senior Major, Joel Elliot and rode out of Fort Wallace with those 72 men, three officers, Tom Custer, Louis Hamilton and William Cooke. Later he would justify this action by saying that he intended to obtain further orders, supplies and forage for the unit and cholera medicine at Fort Harker, 200 miles to the East.
All these reasons are untenable. Fort Wallace had recently been attacked by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, but the grazing at the fort was abundant after the wet spring and there was at least a month of supplies for the men. Cholera, although reported in the eastern forts, had not been reported so far west at that time, and should not have been his priority. Despite these excuses there was one reason for him to abandon his post, Libbie.
He had been separated from her for too long and had been driven to distraction when he thought she was traveling in hostile territory early in the summer. This anxiety had led him to mistreat his men and to act irrationally while on the march. Now however, he had another reason to rush home to her. A rumour had circulated that Libbie and Lieutenant Thomas Weir, her regular escort at Fort Hays were "becoming an item". While it was common for an officer's wife to be escorted in public by an unmarried officer in her husband's absence, it is highly possible that this rumour was enough to make Autie jealous enough to abandon his post.
In his haste to reach Libbie, Autie led his small command on a forced march which covered 150 miles in 55 hours of almost uninterrupted travel. On the second day of the march, they met two separate mail wagons. Autie personally stopped them and went through the mail they carried, looking for news from Libbie. When he didn't find anything, he became even more frantic. He did however notice that his spare mount Fanchon, which was being led by a Trooper named Young, was missing. He detailed Sergeant James Connelly and six men to find the missing horse and soldier.
The detachment found them both at nearby Castle Rock and took the deserting trooper into custody without resistance. On the return trip however, the regiment's nemesis of the summer, Pawnee Killer and his band happened upon the tiny group. In a sharp fight, one trooper was killed and another was wounded and was not able to keep up with his comrades. The remaining troopers made it to Downer's station where they took refuge with the rest of the command. Upon hearing this news, Autie refused the men's repeated requests to return for their comrades, saying that there was simply no time to waste. The mutilated remains of the two men would be recovered the following day by the infantry guarding the station.
At Big Creek station, near Fort Hays twenty of the contingent's troopers deserted. When troopers had brazenly ridden off with their horses and equipment earlier in the summer, Autie had ordered them to be shot, now though, when he was almost at the end of this feverish march he didn't care. He simply ordered Captain Hamilton to take command of the depleted unit and to have the men and horses rest for a day at Fort Hays then follow on as quickly as possible. Autie then climbed on board one of the two ambulances which had been brought along. He was joined by Tom Custer and Lieutenant Cooke, a journalist named Davis and two troopers to drive them on the sixty mile trip to Fort Harker. That evening they met a supply train. The commander of this wagon train Captain Cox of the 10th Cavalry (The Buffalo Soldiers) was carrying the orders Autie claimed to be searching for. These orders instructed him to be scouting the huge area encompassed by the Platte and Arkansas Rivers in the border regions of Kansas and Colorado. Despite these very clear orders, Autie was too close to Libbie now to just turn around and ride back to his troops. Autie and his companions rode into Fort Harker about 2am on July19 1867.
Fort Hays was under the command of General Andrew Smith, the former commanding officer of the 7th cavalry. Surprised at being woken in the middle of the night he was nonetheless polite and asked Autie about his summer, and woke his adjutant Lt Thomas Weir to escort Autie to meet the 3am train to Fort Riley. In another, unsubstantiated version of this story, Autie did indeed meet Lt Weir and forced him at gunpoint to beg on his knees for mercy.
Autie left the train as soon as it arrived at Fort Riley at noon and barged in to Libbie's living quarters. She had missed him as much as he had missed her. "There before me blithe and buoyant stood my husband. In an instant, every moment of the preceding months was obliterated" she later wrote. Autie recounted his summer in the rapid "jumbled" and "tangled" manner that he had when excited. Even before he had time to sit, he had Eliza, their servant organizing the household for Libbie to return west with him.
When General Smith woke up the following morning, a little clearer headed, he realized that he did not have the authority to allow Autie to board the train the previous evening. In fact what was Autie doing in Fort Harker when his orders instructed him to be scouting some three hundred miles to the west with his regiment? He then sent Autie a telegram ordering him to return to Fort Harker immediately and that he should "consider himself under arrest". When Autie arrived by train with Libbie two days later, Smith was concerned about her being in the fort while Cholera was still a problem. He immediately ordered them both to return to Fort Riley to wait for the convening of a court martial.
The Court Martial convened on September 15, 1867. Autie was facing two main charges as a result of his "mad dash" across Kansas. The first charge was related to his being absent without "proper authorization" from his unit when it was expected to be directly engaged with the enemy. The second charge was for "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline". This was related to the fact that his forced march from Fort Wallace to Fort Harker was made using government property, resulting in the death of several horses. It also concerned the incident near Downers Station claiming that lack of leadership and unwillingness to attempt a rescue resulted in the two trooper's deaths.
An additional charge was preferred by Captain Robert West of the 7th cavalry that Autie had ordered deserters to be shot without trial while on the march and that he had denied the wounded deserters medical aid, resulting in the death of Trooper Johnson. Autie Represented himself, pleading not guilty on all counts and citing his reasons for leaving his command over and over. Tom Custer and Lt Cooke testified on his behalf but it was to no avail. Autie was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to suspension from duty for one year without pay.
Despite his clear disobedience of orders and extremely poor judgment in leaving his command, many considered that Autie was being made a scapegoat for the poor performance during the summer campaign. In three months of scouring the Kansas and Colorado plains, Autie had been in close contact with Pawnee Killer's band a number of times without any result. Over the summer only two hostile Indians had been killed by the army, both of them by Lt Kidder's ill fated party.
If the summer campaign had proven a military failure, it had to have been a crushing personal failure for Autie as well. His status as the nation's foremost war hero had given way to ignominious punishment. It is possible that he had disobeyed his orders thinking that his civil war reputation would spare him punishment or censure. This was a different war though and the congress and the public expected spectacular results for their money. The enemy was also very different. The Sioux and Cheyenne warriors excelled at guerilla warfare, using their superior mobility to make devastating hit and run attacks, almost always avoiding battle, unless they had clear advantage in numbers. Even at their peak, the confederate cavalry would not have been able to compete. To his credit, Autie took these harsh lessons and learned from them. He would however, never be able to demand the complete loyalty and devotion of his men and officers as he had in the civil war.
Despite this humiliating fall from grace Autie found that he still had influential friends. General Sheridan offered them his quarters at Fort Leavenworth. Autie and Libbie spent the winter and spring there, enjoying a busy social life, despite their reduced circumstances. It was during this period that Autie discovered a talent separate from soldiering. He began writing articles on the subject of hunting and warfare on the plains for "Field, Turf and Farm" under the pseudonym "Nomad'. Selected articles were collected in 1874 and published in book form as "My life on the plains". Also during this period, Autie began writing his civil war memoirs. He never completed them.
During Autie's absence, the situation on the plains descended from bad to worse. Sioux and Cheyenne warriors killed settlers and disrupted the stage and rail lines in Kansas and Wyoming. To the south in Texas, Cheyenne and Kiowa were similarly destructive. In late 1867 and the spring of 1868 the United States government made treaties with the Sioux at Medicine Lodge, Kansas and Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory. These treaties were at best a token gesture. The few Sioux chiefs who had attended the talks had no concept of the demands being made on them, that they would have to effectively surrender their traditional hunting grounds. Additionally Chiefs who wanted peace could exercise little control over warriors in their villages. This culture coupled with the ever increasing demands for land and resources by white settlers across the plains regions meant that the treaties, however well intentioned were doomed to fail.
By the middle of summer, both sides had broken their parts in the treaties and violence was flaring across the plains again. A campaign to punish the Sioux in Kansas petered out after only a week. General Sheridan was understandably frustrated. He approached his superior General William Sherman with a plan for "Total War". The concept of "total war", in which an entire population was targeted and deprived of the basic resources required to live was not new. Sherman had used the strategy with great success during the civil war and now Sheridan was proposing to employ the idea against the Sioux and Cheyenne. "... the more I see of these Indians the more I am convinced that they will all have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers" he told Sherman.
Autie and Libbie were back in Monroe in September when they received an unexpected telegram from General Sheridan, who had replaced Hancock as the commander of the department of the Missouri. "...Generals Sherman, Sully and myself and nearly all the officers of your regiment have asked for you, and I hope the application will be successful. Can you come at once?" General Sheridan was effectively calling Autie back to duty two months before his suspension was complete. Autie was excited, he considered this to be vindication of his actions and he would soon be back in the field leading troops, the place he was most comfortable and effective.
When Autie arrived at General Sheridan's headquarters at Ellsworth, Kansas on October 4, 1868 he was informed by the general to prepare for a winter campaign against the Cheyenne in the Indian Territory to the south. The reasoning behind mounting a campaign in winter was simple. It was the only way the army could catch the Indians. In winter the Indian bands did not have the necessary grazing land available for their horses. This effectively immobilized them. Although the expedition would be led by General Sully, and Sheridan himself intended to be present in the area of the campaign, he said to Autie "I rely in everything upon you and shall send you on this expedition without giving you any orders and leaving you to act entirely on your own judgment" When Sheridan asked him what he thought of this idea, Autie simply said "When do we leave?"
No doubt ecstatic at the prospect of once again leading his regiment and effectively being given permission to act independently, Autie rejoined the 7th cavalry a week later and was welcomed warmly by most of his officers. Even Captain West who had laid the charges of having deserters shot offered his hand in welcome. In a very uncharacteristic display of spite refused to acknowledge him.
Back in command, Autie set about making his mark on the regiment. He ordered all horses to be returned to the pool and then reassigned them to companies so that each company rode only horses of matching colours. The regimental band was excused from routine fatigues and ordered to practice continually so that the regimental song "Garry Owen" could be performed flawlessly on the march.
Autie marched out with eleven companies of the 7th cavalry on November 12, 1868. The command was completed by General Sully's headquarters and five companies of infantry. However happy Autie was to be back in command of his regiment, it rankled him that he was under the command of a superior officer whom he considered to be too timid. He and Sully came into conflict when the column intercepted the fresh trail of Cheyenne warriors. Autie wanted to attack at once, Sully refused him. He wanted to wait for them to be joined by the 19th Kansas Volunteer cavalry, which was already battling the winter conditions to rendezvous with them. The column reached Camp Supply in the Indian Territory, where they were joined by General Sheridan on November 21. Autie immediately complained to him about Sully, claiming that his timidity was a liability to the campaign. Sheridan agreed and Sully was returned to Fort Harker. Autie was happy he had gotten his way and was now in charge.
In freezing conditions, the 7th marched out from Camp Supply to the strains of "The girl I left behind me" played by the regimental band. The music came to a halt only a few minutes later when the band was no longer able to play as their spit froze in their trumpets and horns, rendering them useless. A bad omen some might have thought, but not Autie, he was having the time of his life. Photographs of him in this period show him in buckskins and heavily bearded. The long curly locks that had made him a household name only a few years earlier were now cut short and covered by a beaver fur hat.
A few days later, on November 26 1868, the regiment found the trail of a large group of Cheyenne and followed it over the "Antelope hills" until they found a large village on the banks of the Washita River in the early hours of the following day. Autie quickly gathered his officers and outlined his plan. The regiment would be divided in to four wings, each attacking from a different direction. Before they made their stealthy approach, Autie gave an order that broke the hearts of many of his men. In order to maintain the element of surprise, he ordered all dogs accompanying the regiment be killed so that their barking would not alert the sleeping Cheyenne in the village. The order was carried out, but many men never forgave their commander. Autie as was his way was oblivious to this resentment.
The chief in this village was Black Kettle. He was a "peace chief", he did not want war but as was the way in plains Indians society, he could not order his warriors to comply and many young men would leave the village to raid. Fourteen years earlier on the Sand Creek in Colorado, his village was attacked by Colorado Volunteer Militia. The Sand Creek massacre was even then regarded by many particularly in the east as one of the darkest episodes in United States history. He could never have known that it was about to happen again. Autie could not have known that this was the village of a "peace chief". His orders were to find the Indians and kill them or destroy their resources and willingness to fight. He gave the order to attack.
The attack caught the Cheyenne completely by surprise. The troopers rode headlong into the unsuspecting village. The battle that ensued could barely be called a battle. Cheyenne warriors fought back as best they could to allow their families to escape but it was a lost cause, the village was under the control of the cavalrymen in less than ten minutes. Many of the troopers present at the fight had been vainly pursuing Indians for the last couple of years and their frustration boiled over now that they had the Cheyenne at their mercy and the situation rapidly degenerated into a killing spree. Even among this carnage, there were acts of compassion, even chivalry. Most of the regiment's officers including Autie himself interceded to save women and children from being murdered. In another case Captain Frederick Benteen refused to fire on a teenaged boy named Blue Horse, chief black kettle's nephew. It was only after the young warrior fired at him three times and shot Benteen's horse from under him that the white haired officer fired his revolver, killing the youth.
It is hard to know how many Cheyenne were killed in the attack. Autie himself at first estimated that 103 Cheyenne were killed, mostly non combatants, and then later revised the total to 140. Cavalry scout Ben Clark, claimed that five notable chiefs and seventy five warriors and "fully as many women and children were killed. Little Robe, a Cheyenne chief later claimed that thirteen warriors, twelve women and six children died in the attack. Chief Black Kettle and his wife were among the dead. Fifty three non combatants were taken prisoner.
Even though the village had been captured with only light casualties, the battle was far from over. Lieutenant Edward Godfrey, scouting to the southeast of the village gathering ponies to be slaughtered came under attack by large numbers of warriors arriving form nearby villages. His platoon made a fighting retreat to the village and reported this to Autie, who had his company commanders form skirmish lines to hold the warriors. He ordered the captives to take only necessary items and ordered everything else burned. The entire pony herd, some 900 animals was either shot, or had their throats cut. This was total war.
Worse still, Major Joel Elliot, the regiment's senior Major had ridden off with 19 men that morning in pursuit of fleeing Cheyenne and had not yet returned. Autie dispatched Captain Edward Myers and E Company to scout downriver to locate the missing Major. After two miles Myers became nervous at the number of Indians in the area and returned, reporting that he was not able to locate the missing men.
By now the were large numbers of Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors moving around the flanks of the village and Autie made a decision that would have long lasting implications. He decided that Major Elliot, if he was still alive would have to make his own way back to Camp Supply. He then mounted his troops and with the band playing "Ain't I glad to get out of the wilderness" marched with the captives directly toward the largest concentration of warriors. He was counting on the warriors not wanting to fire on the column for fear of injuring their own people. The bluff was successful the regiment was able to march away from trouble, reaching Camp Supply on December 2 1868.
The "victory" on the Washita River inspired mixed reactions. Westerners, accustomed to the danger of Indian attack lauded Autie for making the west a little safer. In the East, where Indian attacks were non existent, the attack was condemned as a massacre in the mould of Sand Creek. General Sheridan was very happy with the overall result of the attack. It was a perfect example of the principals of "total war". He was less happy however about Autie leaving the battlefield without locating Major Elliot.
On December 7, Autie led General Sheridan and the 7th Cavalry, reinforced by the 19th Kansas volunteer cavalry and infantry companies south from Camp Supply. A few days later they reached the wreckage of Black Kettle's village. A few miles from the village they discovered the mutilated remains of Major Elliot and his small detachment. Evidence at the site suggested that the troopers had come under attack and the talented major had the men dismount and form a tight defensive circle in a grassy thicket. Large numbers of empty rifle shells suggested that the trapped group fought fiercely for some time before being overwhelmed and killed. For Captain Benteen, already a fierce critic of Autie, the sight of the disfigured body of his old friend served only to harden his hatred for his commander.
Further down the river, in the remains of a Kiowa village, the column found the dead body of a white woman and a child. Clara Blinn and her son Willy had been taken from a wagon train on the Colorado plains months earlier. When the 7th cavalry attacked Black Kettle's village a week earlier, she and her son were murdered. She was shot twice in the head and her scalp taken, and her son was picked up and smashed against a tree. This gruesome sight struck Autie particularly as he recalled his anxiety months earlier when he feared for Libbie's life on the Kansas plains.
When the command came across a band of Kiowa under the leadership of Satanta, it was all that Autie and his regulars could do to stop the Kansas volunteers from attacking. The scouts had told Autie that the abandoned village where Mrs. Blinn and her son had been discovered was that of Satanta. The Kiowa chief presented a letter from Colonel Hazen at Fort Cobb a short distance to the south explaining that Satanta and his fellow chief Little Wolf were friendly and that they were not to be molested in any way. Autie demanded that the band go immediately to Fort Cobb and when the two chiefs did not look convinced he had them seized and threatened with hanging in order to convince their followers to go to the fort.
After a short halt at Fort Cobb and Fort Sill the expedition continued. In early January in the Wichita Mountains just north of the Texas border, Autie at the head of a detachment of 40 sharpshooters convinced an Arapaho village to submit to the reservation without a shot being fired.
On March 15, 1869 Autie achieved a personal triumph when the column marched in to the Staked Plains region of northern Texas. Riding ahead of the column with the leader of his sharpshooter detachment, Lieutenant William Cooke, Autie was informed by his scouts that a large Cheyenne village was nearby. Brazenly the pair rode into the village where they were escorted to the teepee of the village chief Little Robe. There they shared the chief's pipe. When they had finished smoking, the old chief dumped the ashes from the pipe onto Autie's boots, informing him that this signified that if he should ever act treacherously toward the Cheyenne in the future it would result in his death and that of all who accompanied him. Autie no doubt scoffed at such a superstitious suggestion. He paid more attention though when Little Robe confirmed to him that there were two white women held as prisoners in the village.
When Autie returned to his command with the news of the hostages, the Kansas volunteers immediately prepared to attack. They suspected that the two women may have been two Kansas citizens taken during the summer. They were furious when Autie forbade them to attack. With the image of Mrs. Blinn and he murdered son fresh in his memory, he decided that he would parley for their release.
When Little Robe and two minor chiefs came to the camp under a white flag, Autie had them arrested and informed them that they would be hanged unless the hostages were released immediately. This tense situation continued for three days, when Autie finally lost patience and had three nooses hoisted over the branch of a nearby tree in full view of the village. When the chiefs were marched to the tree, the message was clear and the women were released. Autie then decided to press his advantage and ordered the chiefs to take their people to the closest army fort. Pleased that he had been able to secure the release of the women without resorting to violence, Autie led the column back to Camp Supply. The Cheyenne had also learned a valuable lesson as a result of their encounter with the soldier they called "Yellow Hair". The lesson was simple. They could not trust him.
The column staggered into Camp Supply on March 23 1869 the column staggered into Camp Supply. They had been on the march for most of the winter and although they had struck several heavy blows against their enemies, the regiment was in terrible shape. The harsh conditions had meant that supplies for men and animals were long expended and the troopers had been eating horses and mules that had died for several weeks.
While Autie had plenty to boast about at the conclusion of the campaign, two controversial events plagued him. The first was the perceived abandonment of Major Elliot and his men. Captain Frederick Benteen had in anger written a letter harshly critical of Autie's abandonment of Major Elliot to a mutual friend in St Louis. The letter was passed, most likely without Benteen's permission to the St Louis Democrat who published the letter unsigned. When Autie saw this letter he was furious. He called the regiment's officers to his tent where he paced in front of them slapping a riding crop against his boot and threatening to horsewhip the man who had authored the offending letter or indeed any man who questioned his command. According to Captain Benteen's version of the incident the white haired company commander, unbuttoned his holster and stated "While I cannot claim father all the blame you have asserted, I guess I am the man you are after and I am ready for the whipping promised." By all accounts Autie was flustered by this direct address and stammered "Colonel Benteen, I will see you again sir" Before dismissing the assembled officers. The rift in the regiment caused by the death of Major Elliot who was regarded by all as a fine officer and very popular among the rank and file troopers would be deep and long lasting.
Another controversy, though one much less divisive involved a young woman taken captive in the attack on Black Kettle's camp. Mo-nah-se-tah was the daughter of Chief Little Rock and served as an interpreter and guide for the column after the attack. She has been described as "young and beautiful" in a number of sources and was seven months pregnant as the time of the attack. After the birth of her child though, it is rumoured that she became Autie's mistress and had a "light haired" baby by him later in the summer of 1869. It is certainly possible that he took advantage of the young woman it would certainly not be the first time that a captive Indian woman had relations with her captors, willingly or otherwise. It does seem out of character for him to do so though. Though he had a reputation as a ladies man in his younger years, he was a thoroughly devoted husband to Libbie for their entire married life. Another suspect is more likely. Tom Custer, Autie's younger brother was fair haired and had a definite reckless wild streak. In Kansas he was beaten and arrested by Wild Bill Hickock after a drunken spree in Hays City's "red light" district. We will never know for sure.
Whatever the controversies may have been the winter campaign of 1868-69 catapulted Autie back into the public imagination, and when he returned to Libbie at Fort Leavenworth he was regarded as the army's best Indian fighting soldier and the best known soldier in the country. This made him very happy indeed.