Battle Of The Washita

Eight years before the Little Big Horn, Custer was the victor in a massacre, the Battle of the Washita, that decimated an innocent village. Find out all about it.

In 1868 Black Kettle was an ageing Cheyenne chief who wanted nothing more than to live in peace with the white man. Four years earlier his village along the Sand Creek had been torn to pieces by a vicious attack under the command of Colonel John Chivington. Now, though Black Kettle had encamped on the banks of the Washita River, some 40 miles east of Oklahoma's Antelope Hills. Although he was guaranteed protection under the Medicine Lodge Treaty, Black Kettle didn't want to take any chances on a repeat of Sand Creek. He approached General William B. Hazen at Fort Cobb, 100 miles away, and asked for permission for his people to move closer to the fort to afford them more protection. Hazen assured Black Kettle that this would be fine and that the village need not fear an attack from the United States army.

Despite such assurances, however, November of 1868 did, indeed, see a command of soldiers advancing on Black Kettle's village. A part of General Philip Sheridan's winter campaign, the outfit in question was the Seventh Cavalry, under the control of the dashing young Civil War hero, George Armstrong Custer. After a gruelling three day march over snow covered frozen country, Custer slowed his advance. He sent his second in command, Major Joel H Elliot, ahead on a scouting mission. Elliot soon found tracks leading to a large Indian village. He reported back to Custer that he had found signs of a village ahead. Custer immediately concluded that they were hostiles and made preparations for the attack.

Meanwhile Black Kettle had just returned home from his conference with General Hazen. He called a council to relay Hazen's assurances to the people that there would be no attack by the soldiers. The day after that council Black Kettle was awoken with the words "Soldiers! Soldiers!" The old man grabbed his rifle and fired a warning shot.

Black Kettle advanced to the head of the village to meet the soldiers. He hoped to talk peace and avoid any bloodshed. But this was not to be. The soldiers poured into the village from all four sides. Black Kettle still attempted to bring some sanity, hoisting a white flag besides the Starts and Stripes that already fluttered above his tipi. Within minutes, though, both Black Kettle and his wife had been cut down in a hail of bullets. Black Kettle's fourteen year old son was killed soon thereafter in hand to hand combat. Warriors rushed from their tipis and made for the ravine where they could set about mounting a defence. Yet Custer had secured the village within ten minutes.

Indians in neighbouring villages now rushed to the scene of the carnage to take on the soldiers who had attacked their brothers. Soon Custer's men were outnumbered. Just as it seemed that the tables were about to be turned on Custer, his supply wagons and a mounted escort arrived on the scene. This sufficiently distracted the Indians and Custer's regiment was able to pull out. He soon realised that Major Elliot and his men were missing, however. Custer made the decision not to look for them, one for which he would be resented for the rest of his life. Before pulling out of the village, the lodges were burnt. The Indians lost 4000 arrows, 500 pounds of lead and an equal amount of powder. 875 horses were shot to death. However, Custer released his 53 women and child prisoners before leaving.

Rather than high tailing it like a scared puppy, Custer reformed his men and boldly marched them right up the middle of the Washita as the band boomed out , "Ain't I Glad to Get Out of the Wilderness." This took the Indians by surprise and they gradually withdrew as Custer's men advanced. They halted at the next camp they came to, acting as if they were about to attack this one as well. He knew, however, that the Indians would have set a trap for him and eluded them. From there Custer's regiment managed to make their escape.

Custer's losses amounted to Major Elliot, a Captain Louis M. Hamilton and 19 enlisted men. Three officers and 11 men were wounded. The official count of Indian dead was 103.

The Battle of the Washita was an inconsequential engagement in the scheme of things. It did, however, gain publicity and prominence for the man who led the attack. The Indians, however, smarted badly from this unprovoked attack on a friendly encampment. Eight years later they would exact their revenge along the banks of another river - the Little Big Horn.

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