|Nelson A. Miles, Crazy Horse, and the Battle of Wolf Mountains|
by Jeffrey V. Pearson
From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Winter 2001), 53-67; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2001.
Dawn broke on January 8, 1877, in cold gray hues with the sun illuminating the thickly packed clouds that hung low over the mountains surrounding the Tongue River Valley.1 A light snow was falling, adding to the already thick blanket that covered the ground to depths of nearly three feet in some places. On a flat in a horseshoe bend of the river, soldiers under the command of Nelson A. Miles busied themselves preparing for the day's activities. In the air there was an excitement, an anticipation of what the day might bring.
Suddenly, the pickets' signaling of returning scouts broke the morning routine.2 The scouts raced their mounts through the bivouac directly to Miles's quarters. After listening to the report, the colonel galloped to a plateau about a quarter mile southwest of camp. Peering through his field glasses, Miles saw hundreds of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors less than a mile away.3 These were the warriors of the Crazy Horse and Two Moons bands that his force had been following for the past ten days. As he watched, the Indians scattered into the hills to the north and west. Turning to his adjutant, the colonel began issuing orders to deploy his troops. The opening volleys of the Battle of Wolf Mountains were less than an hour away.4
One of the events leading to the Great Sioux War's Battle of Wolf Mountains occurred in early August 1876, when Colonel Nelson A. Miles arrived in Montana Territory from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with companies B, E, F, G, H, and K of the Fifth Infantry as part of the massive troop buildup on the northern plains that began after the Little Bighorn fight earlier that summer. Assigned to Brigadier General Alfred Terry's Dakota column, Miles eagerly awaited the opportunity to lead his men into battle against the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors who had killed his friend George Armstrong Custer. Miles, however, spent his first few weeks on the northern plains keeping supply lines open from a depot on Glendive Creek to Terry's column, which was wandering fruitlessly through the Yellowstone River Valley in search of the Indians. By month's end, it was apparent that the large gathering of Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes who had fought Custer had scattered and that Terry's column had little chance of striking the smaller Indian encampments. On August 25 General Phil Sheridan ordered the campaign closed and disbanded the Dakota column.5
To Miles's great satisfaction, Sheridan ordered the Fifth Infantry to remain in the area to build Cantonment Tongue River, one of two new posts in Montana authorized by Congress in 1876. Miles's new assignment at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers offered him the freedom of an independent command away from the ineffectual Terry and an opportunity to devise his own strategy against the bands that had eluded the army throughout the summer. To supplement his troops, Miles secured the transfer of companies A, C, D, I, J, and L, Fifth Infantry; companies C, E, F, G, I, and K, Twenty-second Infantry; and companies C and G, Seventeenth Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Elwell S. Otis, giving Miles more than a thousand men.
The post Sheridan ordered Miles to build was to stand as a warning that the United States was determined to move nonagency bands off their hunting grounds and onto the Great Sioux Reservation. The Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes had been granted title to two vast tracts of land by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie: the reservation itself, which lay west of the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota and included the Black Hills, and a hunting reserve referred to in the treaty as "unceded Indian territory," which stretched between the Black Hills and Bighorn Mountains and extended north from the North Fork of the Platte River. Although the United States had granted the Indians title to the hunting reserve, the government had never intended them to live there year-round. Groups from both tribes, the nonagency bands, however, had refused to recognize the treaty and continued living within the reserve, fiercely defending this territory. In the wake of the illegal invasion of the Black Hills by goldseekers, the United States abrogated sections of the 1868 treaty, stripping the tribes of their title to the hunting grounds and the Black Hills, and deployed troops to the area.6
Ignoring advice from his superiors in the Department of the Dakotas, Miles began devising a winter campaign strategy to be used against the Lakota leader Sitting Bull and his followers. Even as construction of the first rudimentary buildings at the post began, Miles recruited white and mixed-blood guides familiar with the country, enlisted a compliment of Crow scouts, and secured two pieces of artillery. Like Sheridan, Miles believed that the best way to conquer a nomadic people was to campaign against them during Montana's arctic-like winter when the Indians had settled in their semipermanent winter camps and food supplies for man and beast were scarce. "The only way to make the country tenable for us," Miles later wrote, "was to render it untenable for the Indians."7
Although some Lakota and Northern Cheyenne bands began to return to the Great Sioux Reservation's Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock agencies in early fall 1876 to receive annuity goods, the majority of the family groups who had left the reservation that spring to hunt and reestablish ties with relatives in nonagency bands remained with their kinsman as the weather grew cooler. When the summer began, there were only about four hundred lodges of nonagency Lakotas and Cheyennes in the unceded Indian territory (about twenty-eight hundred people), but by late June that number had grown substantially to between twelve hundred and twenty-five hundred lodges. Perhaps two-thirds of the Indians off the reservation were "summer roamers."8
In past years the summer roamers returned to the agencies once game grew scarce and signs of winter appeared, but circumstances at the agencies in fall 1876 dramatically altered this pattern. Congress's threat to withhold rations from agency Indians if they did not concede title to the Black Hills to the United States angered many Lakotas, as did the August 1876 decision to remove civilian authorities and give control of the agencies to the army. In addition, rumors spread that the military planned to confiscate all agency Indians' guns and horses. Frustrated by the worsening conditions, more Indians were leaving the agencies that fall than were returning.
After organizing his command, Miles directed his attention toward Sitting Bull and his band, who were living in eastern Montana between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. The army had long singled out the Hunkpapa chief of Little Bighorn fame as the most influential war advocate among the Lakotas. Campaigning throughout October and November 1876, Miles dogged the Hunkpapas, denying them the sanctuary usually found in the game-rich valleys of Montana's interior. Two engagements at Cedar Creek and one at Ash Creek inflicted losses in food, shelter, and supplies. By December Miles had effectively destroyed Sitting Bull's military strength, rendering him, as one historian observed, "a remote ingredient" in the Great Sioux War. Although Miles had defeated only one of several prominent leaders, he believed his recent victories would compel "the hostiles" to consider surrender.9
To a degree Miles was correct. In off-reservation groups, tribal elders, headmen, and members of warrior societies were divided into factions of those who wanted to make peace and those who favored war. Initially the rift existed largely between nonagency bands and summer roamers. Yet, as game grew scarce and the number of soldiers in the area increased, some leaders from the nonagency bands became convinced of the war's futility. By November some had returned to the reservation. In nonagency bands like those of Crazy Horse and Two Moons, however, the influence of prominent war leaders silenced most peace advocates. In Crazy Horse's camp, for example, the young Oglala leader used his influence over the akicita, a warrior society selected to police the camp, to quell any talk of surrender. Under Crazy Horse's direction, the akicita destroyed the belongings and horses of anyone caught attempting to leave the village to return to the reservation.10 In late November 1876 Crazy Horse had a following of nearly two hundred fifty lodges composed of Oglalas, Brulés, some Northern Cheyennes, and a scattering of mostly warrior-aged men from other Lakota tribes.11
Despite the harsh conditions, the number of inhabitants in Crazy Horse's village actually grew. By late December 1876 a village of nearly eight hundred lodges, the majority of off-reservation Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes, were living alongside Crazy Horse's people in the Tongue River Valley near Hanging Woman Creek. In addition to the two hundred fifty Oglala and Northern Cheyenne lodges, there were now over three hundred Sans Arc and Miniconjou lodges, approximately one hundred Hunkpapa lodges, and over one hundred lodges belonging to family groups from other Lakota tribes.12
The arrival of Dull Knife and his group of Northern Cheyennes in early December had dramatically altered attitudes in the camp. Attacked along the Red Fork of the Powder River early on the morning of November 25, 1876, by Colonel Ranald Mackenzie's troops and driven from their lodges with only the clothing they wore, the Northern Cheyennes had endured a horrifying journey north. Frostbite consumed exposed flesh, and several infants perished from the bitter cold temperatures literally while at their mothers' breasts. The Northern Cheyennes had entered Crazy Horse's village after spending weeks traveling through the Powder River Valley of Wyoming and Montana territories with scant food and little besides a few blankets and buffalo robes. The refugees' pitiful condition shifted the attitudes of the key Lakota councilors No Water, Sitting Bull the Oglala, Bull Eagle, The Yearling, Fat Hide, Lame Red Shirt, and Bad Leg.13
Leading the new peace faction in Crazy Horse's camp was the Oglala headman Sitting Bull (also known as Packs the Drum), an elder who had a relatively good relationship with whites but who had left the reservation during summer 1876 in disgust over the impending loss of the Black Hills. After the arrival of Dull Knife's people, Sitting Bull argued that a similar fate awaited the village if it did not surrender. He believed that more favorable terms of surrender could be arranged by sending delegates to see Miles.14 Eventually, a joint Lakota-Northern Cheyenne council reached a unanimous decision to send peace envoys to Cantonment Tongue River.
Crazy Horse supported the decision to make peace inquiries, albeit grudgingly. The appearance of Dull Knife's Northern Cheyennes had shocked him, and Oglala holy man Black Elk, who was a teenager at the time, later stated that the arrival of the band shook Crazy Horse's resolution to continue the war. "He was always a queer man but that winter he was queerer than ever," remembered Black Elk. The winter had come early that year and game was increasingly difficult to find. Already Crazy Horse's people were living off the flesh of their horses, which were dying from exposure and starvation. Faced with the growing scarcity of game and the prospect of attack, Crazy Horse agreed, perhaps for the first time in his life, that his people should make efforts to secure peace with the United States.15
Within days of the arrival of Dull Knife's band, the council selected a delegation to meet with Miles. Sitting Bull, four Miniconjou delegates, and a few warriors arrived at the post on December 16, 1876. There the five peacemakers left the other members of their party outside the cantonment. Under flags of truce and making gestures of peace, the delegation approached the cantonment, and a group of Crows who were serving as scouts for Miles rode out to welcome them. When the two groups met near the fort's neatly stacked firewood, however, the long-standing animosity between the tribes flared, and the Crows pulled the peace delegates from their saddles and killed them.16
When the surviving members of the party brought him news of the murders, Crazy Horse immediately demanded revenge. All but the most strident peace advocates supported him. The council unanimously endorsed a plan to send a party of nearly a hundred warriors as a decoy to raid the cantonment and draw the soldiers out in pursuit. The party would continue harassing the force until they reached an ambush site where the main attack would take place.17 It was an adaptation of the Lakota decoy tactic used to lure Captain William J. Fetterman and his command to their deaths along the Bozeman Trail in 1866.
Although Miles had not planned to conduct another winter campaign after defeating Sitting Bull, within days of the killings the decoy party's retaliatory strikes demonstrated to Miles that a campaign would have to be organized and sent into the field that winter. On December 18 warriors attacked government mail contractors within miles of the post and made off with the mail and several government animals, forcing cancellation of mail service to the post. On December 20, 1876, the commander wired department headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, to declare his intentions. On December 26 the decoy party struck again less than a mile from the post, stealing nearly two hundred fifty head of cattle from the post's beef contractor and driving them into the interior of the Tongue River Valley. Miles dispatched E and F Company, Twenty-second Infantry, and K Company, Fifth Infantry, under the command of Captain Charles Dickey to pick up the Indians' trail while he finalized preparations for his campaign.18
On December 28, 1876, Colonel Miles led the balance of his strike force away from Cantonment Tongue River. Joining the three units already in the field were companies A, C, D, and E, Fifth Infantry; a detachment of forty mounted infantrymen drawn from several companies; five white and three Indian scouts; and the campaign's supply train, 436 men in all. Miles also brought along two pieces of field artillery-a twelve-pound Napoleon cannon and a Rodman gun, a three-inch ordinance rifle that he hid under canvas-covered wagon bows.19
As the column began its march, it was clear to all that nature would prove as much an adversary as the warriors. Temperatures dropped to thirty degrees below zero, and ten inches of fresh snow greeted the troops that morning. Clad in overcoats made of buffalo robes-which were worn over numerous other layers of clothing-the company looked, according to their commanding officer, more like arctic explorers than soldiers.20
With his command united, Miles followed the Indians' trail southwest through the Tongue River Valley for the next several days. Fighting harsh winds, bitter subzero temperatures, deep snows, and frequent river crossings, the strike force advanced as fast as possible up the river. It was a grueling march. At the more than one hundred river crossings, wagons often plunged through the ice, taking men and animals into the freezing water with them. Expedition member L. Barker later remembered that "in order to prevent men from almost perishing with cold . . . the advance guard was instructed to build fires wherever the river was to be crossed."21
Miles firmly believed that if he could make a successful strike against Crazy Horse, who he knew to be living in the Tongue River Valley, he could bring the war to a close by spring. He had neutralized Sitting Bull already; if Crazy Horse could be defeated, the Lakotas would be without their two most influential leaders. Therefore, Miles drove his men at a relentless pace in hopes of quickly overtaking the warriors in the decoy party who would lead him to Crazy Horse's camp. Miles's haste was exactly what the ambush planners wanted. By leaving fresh campsites for the military scouts to discover and engaging Miles's rear guard in small-scale skirmishes on the first and third days of the new year, the decoy party encouraged the column toward the ambush that was to take place near Prairie Dog Creek.22
On January 7, 1877, a series of events unfolded that proved decisive in the campaign. At noon, after an exhausting two and a half-mile march, Miles ordered the troops into an early bivouac in a horseshoe bend of the river and directed the Crow scouts to reconnoiter the valley. The scouts had been away from camp for several hours when pickets reported them returning with prisoners. Chief scout Luther "Yellowstone" Kelly reported to Miles that they had captured nine Northern Cheyenne women and children a little more than a mile southwest of camp. Their location and the fact that they seemed to be carrying all their possessions on their horses led Kelly to believe that the Indian women were searching for Crazy Horse's camp. Miles agreed.23
Miles ordered Kelly to organize another reconnaissance and began revising his strategy. If Crazy Horse's camp lay within a couple days' march of their present location, as he and Kelly believed, it would be necessary to increase the column's speed and maneuverability in order to find the camp quickly, before it could be moved and before Miles lost what he thought to be the upper hand. With this in mind, Miles decided to leave the supply train behind and lead the command on a two-day reconnaissance using mules to carry supplies. Meanwhile, Captain Ezra P. Ewers and E Company, Fifth Infantry, would remain to guard the supply wagons.24
Kelly's report to Miles was correct-the Northern Cheyenne prisoners had been attempting to find Crazy Horse when the scouts spotted them. What Kelly and the others did not realize, however, was that the women had an escort, a Northern Cheyenne named Big Horse. Big Horse and his traveling companions, Sweet Taste Woman, Crooked Nose, Twin Woman and her two children, Fingers Woman, a boy named Black Horse, and two others, knew soldiers were in the area; they had discovered the tracks of Miles's troops a few days before. They also knew their kinsmen and Crazy Horse were camped somewhere along the Tongue. Unsure if smoke they saw belonged to American soldiers or kinsmen, Big Horse told the group to remain concealed while he investigated. The women, however, disregarded his instructions and ventured out of their concealment, blundering into the scouts. Big Horse returned in time to see the scouts surround the women. Realizing he was helpless to prevent their capture, he fled the scene to search out the village and alert them of the military's presence.25
Throughout the remaining hours of January 7, Big Horse struggled through the snow-covered valley trying to find the village. Near midnight, after a thirty-mile journey, he located the camp and entered it, howling like a wolf to draw people out of their lodges to hear the news.26 The announcement of the capture spread through the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne camp like a shock wave. Warriors immediately began to prepare themselves for battle, painting their faces and rounding up their best war-horses. Meanwhile, Crazy Horse and other Lakota and Northern Cheyenne war leaders planned the attack. The war party would follow the Tongue to within a few miles of the soldier camp, where the group would split. Half the warriors, mostly Northern Cheyennes, would cross the river and use the terrain to conceal their movement as they approached the soldiers from the south. Crazy Horse would lead the remaining warriors along the river and attack the soldiers from the west. Crazy Horse and the other war leaders believed they could surprise the soldiers and lure them into an ambush, but unbeknownst to them, they had already lost any chance of catching Miles's troops off guard.27
Hours after Big Horse's departure, sometime in the early evening, members of the decoy party that had been harassing the expedition discovered tracks leading to the scene of the Northern Cheyenne women's capture. Unaware of Big Horse's efforts, and perhaps believing that the women would be killed by the soldiers, the decoy party decided to spring the ambush early. After concealing the bulk of their numbers, a few warriors lingered out in the open hoping to be discovered.
Their wait would not be long. Back in the soldiers' camp, Crow scouts reported seeing a few Lakota or Northern Cheyenne warriors in the hills to the south. Hearing the news, Kelly, Tom Leforge, George Johnson, James Parker, and John "Liver-Eating" Johnston rode out of camp hoping to take more prisoners. A little more than a mile to the southwest, the five scouts did, indeed, observe several warriors milling around the area where the Northern Cheyenne women had been captured, apparently looking for signs of what had happened there a few hours before. Thinking the warriors unaware of their presence, Kelly drew his rifle and, with his fellow scouts close to his side, charged the Indians, quickly narrowing the gap between themselves and their targets.
Suddenly a group of forty or fifty warriors sprang from the brush and fired on the unsuspecting scouts. Realizing they had been caught in an ambush, Kelly and his companions sprinted for a grove of scrub oaks a few hundred yards to their right. Kelly and the others reached the trees, but not before two scouts had their horses shot from underneath them and an Indian bullet took a few locks of Johnston's hair. Narrowly escaping the warriors' initial rush, the scouts barricaded themselves behind tree trunks and threw up breastworks of fallen trees and large rocks.28
The report of the Indian rifles sent the soldiers in camp scrambling for their weapons. Within minutes companies formed skirmish lines and encircled the bivouac in a protective ring. Miles directed Captain James S. Casey to take his company, A Company, Fifth Infantry, and one of the field artillery pieces to a plateau approximately three-quarters of a mile to the southwest. The commanding officer also directed Lieutenant Charles E. Hargous to lead his mounted infantry to a position near Casey's to assist in the relief of the scouting party. By the time Casey and Hargous were in position, the number of warriors had swelled to over one hundred. Intense small arms fire lasted for over an hour but began to wane when artillery shells found their mark within the ranks of the attacking warriors, who slowly retreated from their positions into the rocky hills.
By dusk the valley was quiet, and the scouts and the companies sent to relieve them returned to camp; however, tensions still ran high. Miles thought the Indians had broken off their attack to regroup among the valley's southern hills and prepare for a direct assault on the camp. In anticipation of another attack, Miles promptly sent two companies to stand guard a quarter mile outside of camp.
The ruggedness of the valley facilitated the camp's defense. Miles had established his bivouac on a flat stretch of ground in a horseshoe-shaped bend of the Tongue River. Across the river due north of camp, a series of towering bluffs followed the course of the river for a quarter mile before sloping down into a wide floodplain that lay on both sides of the river east of Miles's position. Southwest of the encampment and on the same side of the river was the hundred-yard-wide kidney-shaped plateau with a conical knoll rising from its center that came to be known as Battle Butte. From its base, a broad canyon with a dry creek in the bottom (later known as Battle Butte Creek) ran southeast toward thickly packed hills. Farther to the west between the butte and the river lay another open floodplain about a quarter mile wide and a half mile in length, while across the river in the western and northwestern portion of the valley were rolling hills. All in all it was a difficult yet defensible site.
Undoubtedly believing attackers would come from the west, Miles moved E Company, Fifth Infantry, onto Battle Butte where the conical knoll offered E Company a panoramic view of the valley floor. For Miles this butte was particularly valuable because in addition to offering a considerable field of vision, its western face fell away in an eighty-foot cliff. This would force any frontal assault on the soldiers' camp to pass through the quarter-mile- wide opening between the butte where E Company was positioned and the bluffs north of the camp. Miles covered this gap by directing K Company, Fifth Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Mason Carter, to take positions in a grove of cottonwood trees on the river's far bank. Although the attack did not take place as the colonel expected, the night did not pass quietly. Indian riflemen positioned in the bluffs north of camp fired blindly into the bivouac throughout the night, sending soldiers fleeing for cover in near-perfect darkness.
Meanwhile, in heavy falling snow, Crazy Horse and approximately four hundred warriors followed the river north toward Miles's encampment. Unaware of the failed ambush, the leaders of this party believed they could execute their original plan of surprising the soldiers, finally taking revenge for the murdered peace delegates and possibly rescuing the captured Northern Cheyenne women as well. Near the mouth of Wall Creek a few miles upstream from the soldiers' camp, the war party divided into two groups. Half the warriors crossed the Tongue River with Big Crow and began maneuvering through the valley's southern foothills. Crazy Horse, Medicine Bear, and the others continued down the northern bank of the frozen Tongue River making no attempt to conceal their advance.29
On the morning of January 8, 1876, reveille sounded at 4:00 a.m. to awaken soldiers who had slept little during the night, and the men immediately set about preparing for the reconnaissance missions Miles had planned the previous evening.30 As the sky lightened and soldiers prepared breakfast and packed the mule trains, Miles sent his scouts out to make another search of the valley, despite the fact that the nearly three feet of newly fallen snow lessened the chance of discovering signs of Indian movement.
Suddenly, the scouting party raced into camp warning of approaching warriors. Mounting his horse, Miles rode to the plateau where Captain Ewers and E Company had passed the night. Through his field glasses, the colonel watched Crazy Horse's force scatter among the western foothills.31 Though the Indians' presence did not surprise him, Miles was astonished to see a great many of the warriors dismount and form what looked like firing lines a few hundred yards from K Company. In his report of the battle Miles stated:
[R]iding down they would leave their horses behind bluffs, and advance on foot, rifle in hand, filling every ravine and lining every crest. . . . This engagment [sic] was unlike any other Indian fight I ever witnessed, it was fought on ground. . . . [T]hey fought entirely dismounted, not a single rifle being fired on horseback.32
Before the firing began, Miles began barking orders to his aides who had followed on his heels to the plateau. In his hand he held a small stick, which he waved through the air like a sword, pointing out exactly where he wanted his companies deployed. Captain Casey with A Company and Lieutenant Hargous's detachment of mounted infantrymen were to join Ewers and Miles on the plateau. These two units would support Lieutenant James W. Pope's two artillery pieces, which Miles directed to the northwestern edge of the butte. The colonel then brought two companies into position to support Carter's K Company, which was to remain dug in among the cottonwoods across the river throughout the battle. To Carter's left, on the opposite bank of the river, Miles stationed Captain Dickey's E Company, Twenty-second Infantry. To their right, also on the south bank and near the supply wagons, was Lieutenant Cornelius Cusick and F Company, Twenty-second Infantry. Miles held two companies as reserves at the base of the plateau. Positioned facing the east, these two companies, C and D of the Fifth Infantry, were commanded by Captain Edmund Butler and Lieutenant Robert McDonald.33
At about 7:00 a.m. Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors charged K Company's lines. Steadying his men, the lieutenant withheld the order to fire until the warriors were well within rifle range. Brief, heavy skirmishing ensued until the Indians were repulsed by the three companies stationed along the river and a few well-placed artillery rounds from Pope. Falling back into the hills, the warriors regrouped and charged again, this time probing the far eastern side of K Company's front line.
Throughout the early hours of the battle, the warriors repeated this action in an attempt to collapse Carter's line and force him to retreat across the river. Each advance, however, was met with rapid exchanges of rifle fire accentuated by the roar of artillery, which eventually forced the warriors to retreat to the shelter of the hills. Leopold Holeman, a member of Carter's company later recalled, "My gun barrel was sizzling hot and [Sergeant John] McQue was sending the shrapnail [sic] over our heads indicating we had the hottest place [in the valley]."34 Bullets, arrows, and artillery shells flew thickly and freely but did little damage to the fighting men on either side.
Heavy firing in this part of the valley persisted throughout the early morning until the Indians with Crazy Horse eventually worked their way into the bluffs overlooking camp. From these lofty heights, warriors positioned themselves in pockets among the rocks, offering covering fire to others who rode over the river and across the valley to positions in the hills southeast of Miles.
As the fighting raged in the western valley, Medicine Bear led his warriors along the northern bank of the Tongue River then across the frozen river and toward the hills south of Battle Butte. From atop the conical knoll, Ewers observed the Indians' movement and shifted his men. His company now formed a line that extended from the center of plateau to rock outcroppings on its extreme southwestern edge. Behind these natural breastworks, the company fired repeated volleys at the approaching horsemen. Pope also turned his field gun on the warriors.
When about halfway across the open floodplain, Medicine Bear reined in his bay war-horse and began waving a Northern Cheyenne talisman called the Turner above his head. The Turner, Medicine Bear believed, would pull soldiers' bullets toward him before harmlessly deflecting them, thus protecting the members of his party as they crossed to the safety of the hills south of the army's position. It seemed to work. The warriors suffered no discernible casualties and managed to take up positions on a small elevation only a few hundred yards to the south of E Company. Like their counterparts across the valley, these Northern Cheyennes fought on foot. Medicine Bear himself was forced to retreat. As he waved the Turner, a shell from one of the artillery pieces struck his horse's flank, and both were knocked to the ground by its force. But the shell failed to detonate, and moments later horse and rider retreated safely.35
With Indians so close at hand, the ability of Ewers's men to defend the ground between the Indian position and Battle Butte became critical to the battle's outcome. Shifting E Company to the southern base of the knoll, Ewers directed his company's fire at the warriors. If the Northern Cheyennes dislodged the infantrymen from their entrenchments, Miles's troops and artillery positioned on the northern half of the plateau and rest of the command would face certain annihilation.36
With warriors now occupying the northwestern valley and the butte south of his position and with others crossing the river, Miles found himself nearly surrounded. Aware that he and his men were several hundred miles away from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming Territory, the closest military post, Miles boldly took the offensive. The colonel seized the opportunity after Yellowstone Kelly directed his attention to a growing number of Northern Cheyenne and Lakota warriors gathering on a series of three ridges about a quarter of a mile southeast of the plateau.37
These were the warriors who had crossed the Tongue River with Big Crow near Wall Creek before dawn and the warriors from the ambush party who had joined them.38 They had maneuvered through the southern hills, crossed the canyon with the dry creek bed at the bottom, and climbed the three icy ridges that offered a commanding view of the valley and a highly defensible position from which to launch assaults.39 Recognizing the direness of the situation, Miles sent A Company to take the hills across the valley, and he drew his reserves, C and D companies, Fifth Infantry, onto the plateau.
Following Miles's orders, Captain Casey deployed the men of A Company in a skirmish line and marched them across the quarter mile of open field toward the ridges. Deep snow and their heavy winter suits encumbered the company's progress. Midway to their objective, Casey's command began taking fire from Medicine Bear's warriors positioned across from Ewers, but none of the members of A Company was hit. Miraculously, Casey succeeded in taking the first hill, half as high as the others, without suffering any casualties.40 The attack on the other two ridges, however, soon stalled.
Considering the lay of the land, it is likely that Indian resistance strengthened after the soldiers dislodged the warriors from their initial firing positions. The three ridges increased in elevation, and a hollow between the second and third hill formed a hidden corral. The warriors most likely reformed their lines there and joined by supporting fire from the third ridge, halted Casey's advance. When Miles saw the assault grind to a stop, he sent D Company, Fifth Infantry, to join Casey across the valley.
Lieutenant Robert McDonald advanced his men across the valley floor in the tracks of A Company. As McDonald approached, he shifted his command to Casey's left and directed his men up the face of the taller, steeper second hill. Fierce resistance met them. Occasionally falling when they failed to secure footings, the soldiers of D Company inched their way up the steep slopes.
When McDonald's men began pushing the Indians back from the second summit, observers across the field saw a warrior dressed in bright red and wearing a warbonnet with a tail that reached the ground begin to dance across the third ridge.41 Big Crow, a Northern Cheyenne medicine man, believed himself impervious to soldiers' bullets and was deliberately exposing himself to their fire to rally his companions' fighting spirit. "He used up his cartridges and came back to us hidden behind the rocks, to ask for more," Northern Cheyenne battle participant Wooden Leg remembered. "Cheyennes and Sioux here and there each gave him one or two or three. He soon got enough to fill his belt."
He went out again to walk along the ridge, to shoot at the soldiers and to defy them in their efforts to hit him with a bullet. All of us others kept behind the rocks, only peeping around at times to shoot. Crazy Horse, the Ogallala chief, was near me.42
Incredibly, Big Crow traversed his route several times without being hit by any of the nearly one hundred soldiers then positioned across from him. It was not until Sergeant Danny Burns and Corporal Byron Bronson of McDonald's D Company fired from below the lip of the second summit two hundred yards away that Big Crow fell into the snow.
The bullet that pierced Big Crow's abdomen destroyed the resolve of many warriors, especially among the Northern Cheyennes. Big Crow was regarded as one of the bravest and most powerful medicine men. Many broke from the engagement to remove his body from the field.43 Other Northern Cheyennes deserted the ranks, interpreting Big Crow's death as a sign of impending disaster. Yet, by this stage of the battle, many of the warriors facing McDonald's and Casey's companies were Lakotas. Along with Crazy Horse, these warriors had circled from the northern valley through the open plain to the east in great numbers and were less affected by the failure of Big Crow's medicine. The shrill sound of eagle-bone whistles filled the air as Crazy Horse rallied his men and attempted a daring assault on foot against the two infantry companies.
From the third hill, Crazy Horse and his warriors advanced across a connecting neck to within fifty yards of McDonald's position. Captain Edmund Butler, who was across the valley with Miles, believed there were approximately three hundred warriors when the charge began. The thunderous report of the rifles signaled some of the battle's most intense fighting. From his vantage point, Miles watched the warriors press the infantry lines.
The critical moment of the battle had arrived-victory hinged upon whether or not Miles's soldiers could successfully drive Crazy Horse's warriors from the third ridge. Although the fighting continued in the northern valley and south of Battle Butte, Miles could see that these soldiers were not at risk of being overrun. Casey and McDonald's positions, however, were still vulnerable-especially in light of the boldness the Indians displayed in the presence of Crazy Horse. Turning to Captain Butler, Miles ordered the last reserve unit, C Company, to reinforce A and D companies.
Butler ordered his C Company to the left face and deployed them in skirmish-line order. Realizing the urgency of Colonel Miles's orders, the captain drove his men through the snow at double time. When about halfway across the valley, "a murderous fire from every hill and ravine in range" opened on Butler and his men. Ignoring the puffs of displaced snow, Butler urged his men toward their objective. The warriors were advancing on McDonald's lines.
As C Company approached the ridges, Miles realized the captain was positioning to reinforce D Company on the second elevation. The colonel had wanted Butler to swing his command around McDonald's line and directly assault the third hill, which was being occupied by an ever-increasing number of warriors. Turning to his adjutant, Lieutenant Frank D. Baldwin, Miles impatiently barked orders redirecting Butler. Pointing to the third hill with the stick he had carried throughout the battle, Miles shouted to his lieutenant, "Tell him to take that infernal hill and drive the Indians away."44
Climbing onto his horse, Baldwin galloped across the valley to catch Butler before he could reinforce D Company. Noting that the commands already in place were running low on ammunition, the adjutant carried with him a half-empty crate of rifle cartridges. At the base of the second hill, Baldwin directed Butler around McDonald.45 Adjusting his approach, Butler advanced his men to the base of the third hill and gave the order to charge. "The left of the company was a little in advance, owing to the nature of the initial movement. From ravines, and from behind rocks and fallen trees, the [Indian] force was concentrated on this portion of the line," Butler wrote in his battle report.
It seemed to those who watched the movement that nothing could save this company from decimation. Butler's horse was shot under him as he led the charge up the first ascent. The steepest part of the ridge was yet to be scaled. Giving the Indians in the ravine a volley, and taking the run, Co. C moved up, its commander now on foot.46
As Butler moved out with the left wing of C Company, Baldwin remained with the right, and as part of his endeavor to deliver the ammunition to McDonald and Casey, he led an advance through a wide drainage channel that provided a direct line of assault on the warriors still fighting on the neck between the second and third ridges.47
The fighting lasted throughout the late morning, and the intensity of the gunfire exchanged between the nearly five hundred combatants in this area never lessened. The Indians defended their positions fiercely, but under the pressure of Butler's troops, Crazy Horse's warriors were forced to fall back onto the summit of the third hill. There, concealed behind flat-topped rocks and scattered fallen trees, the warriors maintained their positions. Butler later recalled that "fully 400 shots were fired at this company from Winchester and Sharps rifles, and . . . only the plunging nature of the fire . . . [and] the . . . rapidity with which the Indians worked their magazine guns . . . saved this company from heavy loss."48
Miles noted the Indians' determined effort and ordered his field artillery repositioned. At a distance of nearly seven hundred yards, Pope lobbed shells over the heads of his comrades and into the warriors' ranks. As had been the case the previous day, exploding shells from the Rodman gun and the Napoleon cannon compelled the warriors to leave their entrenched positions, and the Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes began to fall back farther into the valley. The warriors, however, did not break into an all-out retreat but continued reforming their lines and giving battle to Butler's and McDonald's troops. The army's pursuit lasted for nearly a mile but halted when heavy snow began to fall around noon. Exhausted, running low on ammunition, and finally seeing the Indians in full retreat, Butler ordered an end to the chase.
Elsewhere, as the weather degenerated into blizzard conditions, the Indians engaging Miles's other troops also withdrew from the battlefield, using the blinding snowfall to cover their retreat. After nearly five hours of fighting, the battle was over. Miles directed his officers to resume the positions they had held at the onset of the fighting. The order to prepare the midday meal was relayed, but Miles reminded his troops to remain on the alert for another attack. Later in the afternoon, as a defensive measure, the commanding officer ordered the supply wagons unpacked and camp established on Battle Butte. The relocation allowed the officers' tents to be pitched for the command's wounded, giving them a degree of shelter from the driving winds. Considering the staggering amount of ammunition discharged by the Indians, casualties were light with only August Rathman killed and eight others wounded. On the return march, Bernard McCann would also succumb.49
After another tense night, Miles led six companies out of camp at dawn to assess the Indians' losses and the direction of their retreat, leaving Lieutenant Cusick and F Company to occupy the bluffs overlooking the first campsite and another company acting as pickets on the three ridges. The companies with Miles spread across the width of the valley in skirmish lines and advanced slowly. Numerous pools of frozen blood and the carcasses of dead horses were readily discovered, but as expected, troops found no Indian casualties, only places where mounted warriors had used lassos to drag the wounded through the snow. Based on this information, Miles reported that "their loss is known to have been severe, they left pools of blood on the snow where they fought, on the ice [where] they crossed the river, and for five miles up the valley on their retreat." The Indians' retreat was thought to be toward the Bighorn Mountains seventy miles south, a prospect that delighted Miles, who believed they would find little game, deep snow, and hostile Crows. Returning to Battle Butte at dusk, Miles decided the expedition's objectives had been met and announced that the army would begin its march home the next day.50
Although the Indians fought to a draw at Wolf Mountains, the battle ultimately proved to be a tactical victory for the army and an unrecoverable military defeat for the Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes. The engagement demonstrated to the nonagency bands the impossibility of evading the army even in winter. "While the engagement was not of such a serious character as to cause great loss of life on either side," Miles wrote, "it demonstrated the fact that we could move in any part of the country in the midst of winter, and hunt the enemy down in their camps wherever they might take refuge." And although only three warriors were killed in the fight-Big Crow and two Lakotas-the losses in supplies and ammunition suffered at the battle meant that neither Crazy Horse nor Two Moons was ever again able to take the field against the United States.51
Within weeks of the battle, the bonds that had held the nonagency bands together began to dissolve. In late January the first of many messengers sent out from Cantonment Tongue River and Camp Robinson in Nebraska arrived at the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne camp near the headwaters of the Bighorn River. These messengers bore promises of good treatment from the military, which was now trying to convince these bands to surrender before campaigning renewed in the spring. In February tribal councils split over the question of continuing the war, and the bands eventually parted ways. One by one they surrendered at Miles's post or on the Great Sioux Reservation until only Crazy Horse's band remained off the reservation.
Finally, on May 6, 1877, after a journey slowed by the effects of hunger and fatigue from Bear Lodge Butte in present-day Wyoming, Crazy Horse led his people into Camp Robinson.52 That afternoon Crazy Horse shook the hand of Lieutenant Philo Clark, General George Crook's emissary at the fort and commander of the Indian scouts. As a sign of friendship, He Dog, a close ally of Crazy Horse, placed his own warbonnet on the lieutenant's head and his pipe in the officer's arms. The Great Sioux War was over.
JEFFREY V. PEARSON is a Ph.D. candidate in history at University of New Mexico. This article was drawn from research conducted for the preparation of a National Register of Historic Places application for the Wolf Mountains Battlefield, which received listing in January 2001. The article received the Merrill G. Burlingame-K. Ross Toole Award for best student manuscript submitted to Montana The Magazine of Western History in 2000.
1.Miles stated in his reports that the fighting took place in the Wolf Mountains, through which he believed his command was marching. He was actually only in the foothills of the mountains. Over the years the engagement has had various names-the Battle of Wolf Mountain, Miles's Battle on the Tongue River, the Battle of the Butte. The Northern Cheyennes call it the Battle of Belly Butte. See Jerome A. Greene, Yellowstone Command: Colonel Nelson A. Miles and the Great Sioux War, 1876-1877 (Lincoln, 1991), 147-82.
2.Edwin M. "Trumpter" Brown diary, 1876-1877, January 8, 1877, microfilm 320a, Edwin M. Brown Papers, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.
3.Nelson A. Miles, "Rounding up the Redmen," Cosmopolitan Magazine, 2 (June 1911), 110.
4.After reading participants' accounts and examining the topography of the battlefield, I found that the evidence warranted an almost ninety-degree shift in the locations significant to the battle's interpretation. This rethinking of the evidence is detailed in note 37. For previous interpretations of the battle, see Charles B. Earlanson, The Battle for the Butte: General Miles' Fight with the Indians on Tongue River, January 8, 1877 (n.p., 1963), 16-17; Don Rickey, Jr., "The Battle of Wolf Mountain," Montana The Magazine of Western History, 13 (Spring 1963), 49; and Greene, Yellowstone Command, 167.
5.Jerome A. Greene, Yellowstone Command, 36. There are several other notable volumes on Nelson A. Miles, including Nelson A. Miles, Personal Recollections and Observations of General Nelson A. Miles (New York, 1897); and Robert Wooster, Nelson A. Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army (Lincoln, 1993).
6.Referred to in the 1868 treaty as "unceded Indian territory," the reserve had no clearly defined northern boundary. See James C. Olson, Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem (Lincoln, 1965), 341-49, for a copy of the treaty.
7.Miles, Personal Recollections, 218.
8.Charles M. Robinson III, A Good Year to Die: The Story of the Great Sioux War (New York, 1995), 259-60; Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891 (New York, 1973), 253-54.
9.Miles, "Rounding up the Redmen," 106-10; Greene, Yellowstone Command, 154; Nelson A. Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 23, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War, 1877 (Washington, D.C., 1877), 495-96. Also see Greene, Yellowstone Command, 92-146; and Utley, Frontier Regulars, 267-91. Sitting Bull took the remnants of his band to Fort Peck Agency following the Battle of Ash Creek. In meetings with other Hunkpapa leaders it was decided that he would cross into Canada after delivering supplies and food to Crazy Horse's people in the Tongue River Valley. Sitting Bull entered Canada in late January or early February 1877. Robert M. Utley, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (New York, 1993), 174-82.
10.Peter J. Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain: A History of the Northern Cheyenne Chiefs and Warrior Societies, 1830-1879, with an Epilogue, 1969-1974, 2 vols. (San Francisco, 1981), 2:1073; Kingsley M. Bray, "Crazy Horse and the End of the Great Sioux War," Nebraska History, 79 (Fall 1998), 96; Utley, Frontier Regulars, 271. For insight into the political organization of the Oglala tribe, see Catherine Price, The Oglala People, 1841-1879: A Political History (Lincoln, 1996), 1-26; and James Walker, Lakota Society, ed. Raymond J. DeMallie (Lincoln, 1982), documents 8-16.
11.The seven Lakota tribes, the Blackfeet, Brulé, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Oglala, San Arc, and Two Kettle, comprised the western branch of the Sioux Nation.
12.Bray, "Crazy Horse and the End of the Great Sioux War," 94-115. That is not to say that Crazy Horse "commanded" all eight hundred lodges, however.
13.Jerome A. Greene, Battles and Skirmishes of the Great Sioux War, 1876-1877: The Military View (Norman, 1993), 167; Utley, Frontier Regulars, 275-76; Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1073; Greene, Yellowstone Command, 151. Also see Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1058-71.
14.Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1073. By this stage of the war, the military demanded the Indians surrender unconditionally to authorities at the agencies.
15.John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: Being a Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (New York, 1932), 114-15. For information concerning the role of a chief in Lakota society, see Walker, Lakota Society, 23-28, 29-32, 35-39.
16.Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1073-74; Wooster, Nelson A. Miles, 88; Greene, Yellowstone Command, 157.
17.Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1074.
18.Greene, Yellowstone Command, 152-55, 157; Luther S. Kelly, "Yellowstone Kelly," The Memoirs of Luther S. Kelly (New Haven, Conn., 1926), 166; Alice Blackwood Baldwin, Memoirs of the Late Frank D. Baldwin, Major General U.S.A. (Los Angeles, 1929), 79.
19.Greene, Yellowstone Command, 157-58.
20.Miles, "Rounding up the Redmen," 110; Miles, Personal Recollections, 219; Baldwin, Memoirs of the Late Frank D. Baldwin, 79; Greene, Yellowstone Command, 157.
21.L. Barker, "The Tongue River Campaign and Battle of Wolf Mountain," Oregon Veteran, 5 (August 1922), 7.
22.Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 23, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War.
23.Ibid.; Kelly, "Yellowstone Kelly," 169-70; Miles, "Rounding up the Redmen," 110; Miles, Personal Recollections, 136-37; Greene, Yellowstone Command, 163-64.
24.Cornelius Cusick letter, June 7, 1894, in Appointments, Commissions, and Document File, 1888, box 1168, Record Group 94, Records of the Office of the Adjutant General, National Archives, Washington D.C. (hereafter NA); Barker, "Tongue River Campaign," 39; Brown diary, January 8, 1877, p. 23.
25.Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1074-75; Kelly, "Yellowstone Kelly," 169-70; John Stands In Timber and Margot Liberty, Cheyenne Memories (New Haven, 1967), 219-20; Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 23, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War.
26.Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1075.
27.Peter J. Powell, Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance, and the Sacred Buffalo Hat, 2 vols. (Norman, 1969), 1:177; Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1075-76; Stands In Timber and Liberty, Cheyenne Memories, 220; Bray, "Crazy Horse and the End of the Great Sioux War," 98.
28.Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 23, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War; Brown diary, January 8, 1877, p. 23; Kelly, "Yellowstone Kelly," 170-72; Greene, Yellowstone Command, 164-65.
29.Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1075-76. See also Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 23, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War.
30.Brown diary, January 8, 1877, p. 23.
31. Miles, "Rounding up the Redmen," 110.
32.Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 23, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War.
33.For placement of the troops at the beginning of the battle, see Army and Navy Journal, March 31, 1877; Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 23, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War; Cusick letter, June 7, 1894, NA; Leopold Holeman to W. C. Brown, May 21, 1932, folder 36, box 21, W. C. Brown Papers, Western History Collections, University of Colorado Library, Boulder (hereafter Brown Papers); Greene, Yellowstone Command, 165-66. The Army and Navy Journal article was written by Captain Edmund Butler, who later received a Medal of Honor for his role in the Battle of Wolf Mountains.
34.Holeman to Brown, May 21, 1932, Brown Papers.
35.Powell, Sweet Medicine, 1:15; Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1076.
36.Kelly, "Yellowstone Kelly," 167-68.
37.The actual location where Kelly first saw the warriors gathering on the three ridges is about a quarter mile east of the location suggested by other historians, or in the hills about a half mile south of the Miles's camp.
38.Thomas B. Marquis, Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer (Minneapolis, 1931), 289-92.
39.The location of the Indians at this stage of the battle is critical to its interpretation because it is at this location where the fiercest fighting of the day took place. Accounts from other witnesses support Kelly's statement that the Indians were gathering in the upper part of the field. Butler said that the fiercest fighting of the day took place on a bluff "to the left and slightly to the rear of the knoll held by Capt. Ewers." Later this officer described the bluff as a series of hills connected by a "neck." Lieutenant Cusick echoed Butler's directions when he described the Indians as occupying hills "away in their rear and left flank." These hills were described by Baldwin as "three high hills," to which Miles added that they were "three rough, piny [sic], rugged hills." Kelly, "Yellowstone Kelly," 173; Baldwin, Memoirs of the Late Frank D. Baldwin, 85; Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 23, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War; Cusick letter, June 7, 1894, NA; Holeman to Brown, May 21, 1932, Brown Papers; Army and Navy Journal, March 31, 1877.
40.All subsequent troop movements are based on the account provided by Edmund Butler in the Army and Navy Journal, March 31, 1877, unless otherwise indicated. See Greene, Battles and Skirmishes, 194-203, for a transcript of Butler's account.
41.Kelly, "Yellowstone Kelly," 174; Cusick letter, June 7, 1894, NA; Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 23, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War; Miles, "Rounding up the Redmen," 110-11; Army and Navy Journal, March 31, 1877; Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1076.
42.Marquis, Wooden Leg, 290-91. See also Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 2:1076-77; and Greene, Yellowstone Command, 175-76.
43.Marquis, Wooden Leg, 291-92.
44.Fred A. Hunt, "The Crumbling of Crazy Horse's Command," Overland Monthly (February 1912), 162.
45.Kelly, "Yellowstone Kelly," 174; Don Weibert, "Blood on the Snow at Wolf Mountain: 'You've Had Your Last Breakfast,'" Hoofprints, 21 (Spring-Summer 1991), 4, 6. Weibert traced the route taken by Baldwin from the northern edge of Battle Butte to the hill using a metal detector to locate several dropped cartridge boxes.
46.Army and Navy Journal, March 31, 1877.
47.Several sources credit Baldwin with leading this charge. This account is based on the movements of C Company given by Butler, as well as information suggested by Miles, Brown, and Kelly. Army and Navy Journal, March 31, 1877; Miles, Personal Recollections, 238; Brown diary, January 8, 1877, p. 23; Kelly, "Yellowstone Kelly," 174.
48.Army and Navy Journal, March 31, 1877.
49.Brown diary, January 9, 1877, pp. 24-25; Cusick letter, June 7, 1894, NA; Greene, Battles and Skirmishes, 191.
50.Brown diary, January 9, 1877, pp. 24-25; Cusick letter, June 7, 1894, NA; Nelson A. Miles to Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota, January 20, 1877, in Report of the Secretary of War; Miles, "Rounding up the Redmen," 111.
51.Miles, Personal Recollections, 238-39; Marquis, Wooden Leg, 291-92.
52.Bray, "Crazy Horse and the End of the Great Sioux War," 108.
From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Winter 2001), 53-67; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2001.