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General Custer to General Sheridan

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Battle of the Washita
General Custer to General Sheridan

 

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Headquarters Seventh U.S. Cavalry, In The Field Of The Washita River, 28 November 1868

On the morning of the 26th inst., this command, comprising eleven troops of the Seventh Cavalry, struck the trail of an Indian war party, numbering about one hundred (100) warriors. The trail was not quite twenty-four hours old, and was first discovered near the point where the Texas boundary line crosses the Canadian River. The direction was toward the southeast. The ground being covered by over twelve inches of snow, no difficulty was experienced in following the trail. A vigorous pursuit was at once instituted. Wagons, tents and all other impediments to a rapid march were abandoned. From daylight until 9 o'clock at night the pursuit was unchecked. Horses and men were then allowed one hour for refreshment, and at 10 P.M. the march was resumed and continued until 1:30 A.M., when our Osage trailers reported a village within less than a mile from our advance.

The column was countermarched and withdrew to a retired point, to prevent discovery. After reconnoitering with all the officers of the command the location of the village, which was situated in a strip of heavy timber, I divided the command into four columns of nearly equal strength; the first consisting of three companies, under Major Elliott, was to attack in the timber from below the village; the second column, under Lieut. Col. Myers, was to move down the Washita and attack in the timber from above; Breves Col. Thompson, in command of the third column was to attack from the crest north of the village from the crest overlooking it, on the left bank of the Washita.

The hour at which the four columns were to charge simultaneously was the first dawn of day, and, notwithstanding the fact that two of the columns were compelled to march several miles to reach their positions, the attack of three of them made the attack so near together as to make it appear like one charge. The other column was only a few minutes late. There never was a more complete surprise. My men charged the village, and reached the lodge before the Indians were aware of our presence. The moment the charge was ordered the band struck up "Garrey Owen," and with cheers that strongly reminded me of scenes during the war, every trooper, led by his officer, rushed toward the village.

The Indians were caught napping for once, and the warriors rushed from their lodges and posited themselves behind trees and in the deep ravines, from which they began a most determined defense. The lodges and all their contents were in our possession within a few minutes after the charge was ordered; but the real fighting, such as rarely, if ever, been equaled in Indian warfare, began when attempting to clear out of kill the warriors posited in the ravines or underbrush; charge after charge was made, and most gallantly too, but the Indians had resolved to sell their lives as clearly as possible. After a desperate conflict of several hours, our efforts were crowned with the most complete and gratifying success.

The entire village, numbering forty-seven lodges of "Black Kettle's" band of Cheyenne's, two lodges of Arapahos and two lodges of Sioux-fifty-one lodges in all, under command of their principal chief Black Kettle-fell into our hands. By a strict and careful examination after the battle, the following figures give some of the fruits of our victory:

The Indians left on the ground and in our possession, the bodies of 108 of their warriors, including "Black Kettle" himself, whose scalp is now in the possession of one of our Osage guides. We captured in good condition, 875 horses, ponies and mules, 241 saddles, some of very fine and costly workmanship; 523 buffalo robes, 210 axes, 140 hatchets, 35 revolvers, 47 rifles, 535 pounds of powder, 1050 pounds of lead, 4,000 arrows, 90 bullet-molds, 35 bows and quivers, 12 shields, 300 pounds of bullets, 775 lariats, 940 buckskin saddle-bags, 470 blankets, 93 coats, 700 pounds of tobacco. In addition, we captured all their Winter supply of dried buffalo meat, all their meal, flour and other provisions, and, in fact, everything they possessed, even driving the warriors from the village with little or no clothing. We destroyed everything of value to the Indians, and have now in our possession, as prisoners of war, fifty-three squaws and their children. Among the prisoners are the survivors of Black Kettle's and the family of Little Rock. We also secured two white children held captive by the Indians. One white woman who was in their possession was murdered by her captors the moment we attacked. A white boy held captive, about ten years old, when about to be secured, was brutally murdered by a squaw, who ripped out his entrails with a knife.

The Kiowas, under Satanta, and Arapahos, under Little Raven, were encamped six miles below Black Kettle's village, and the warriors from these two villages came to attempt the rescue of the Cheyennes. They attacked my command from all sides about noon, hoping to recover the squaws and herds of the Cheyennes. In their attack they displayed great boldness, and compelled me to use all my force to repel them, but the counter charge of the cavalry was more than they could stand; by 3 o'clock we drove them in all directions, pursuing them several miles. I then moved my entire command in search of the village of the Kiowas and Arapahos, but after a march of eighty miles discovered they had taken alarm at the fate of the Cheyenne village and had fled.

I was then three days' march from where I had left my train of supplies, and knew that wagons wound not follow me as the trail had led me over a section of country so cut up by ravines and other obstructions that cavalry could with difficulty move over it. The supplies carried from the train on the persons of the men were exhausted. My men, from loss of sleep and hard service, were wearied out; my horses were in the same condition for want of forage. I therefore began my return march about 8 P.M., and found my train of supplies at this point, it having accomplished only sixteen miles since I left it. In the excitement of the fight, as well as in self-defense, it so happened that some of the squaws and a few children were killed and wounded. The latter I have brought with me, and they receive all the needful attention the circumstances of the case permit. Many of the squaws were taken with arms in their hands, and several of my command are known to have been wounded by them.

The desperate character of the combat may be inferred from the fact that after the battle the bodies of thirty-eight dead warriors were found in a small ravine near the village in which they had posted themselves.

I now have to report the loss suffered by my own command. I regret to mention among the killed, Major Joel H. Elliott and Capt. Louis W. Hamilton, ad nineteen enlisted men; in wounded includes three officers and eleven enlisted men-in all thirty-five. Of the officers, Brevet Lieut.-Col. Albert Barnitz, Captain Seventh Cavalry, is seriously if not mortally wounded. Brevet Lieutn. Col. F.W. Benteen had his horse shot under him by a son of Black Kettle, whom he afterward killed. Col. Barnitz, before receiving his wound, killed two warriors.

I cannot sufficiently commend the admirable conduct of the officers and men. This command has marched constantly five days, amidst terrible snow storms and over a rough country covered by more than twelve inches of snow. Officers and men have slept in the snow without tents. The night preceding the attack officers and men stood at their horses' heads for hours, awaiting the moment of attack, and this, too, when the temperature was far below the freezing point. They have endured every privation and fought with unsurpassed gallantry against a powerful and well-armed foe, and from first to last I have not heard a single murmur: but, on the contrary, the officers and men of the several squadrons and companies seemed to vie with each other in their attention to duty and their patience and perseverance under difficulties. Every officer, man, scout and Indian guide did their full duty.

I only regret the loss of the gallant spirits who fell in the battle of the Washita. Those whose loss we are called upon deplore were among our bravest and best.

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New York Times, 30 November 1868