“Dont Let Them Ride Over Us”

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[Peate] reached into his saddle pockets and brought me out a hardtack and a little piece of bacon.… Then he put spurs to his horse and rode on to the island. When I got there the boys were laughing and cheering and the tears were running down their cheeks and Peate said that Donovan was coming … and Colonel Carpenter and his command. …

Forsyth’s hopes had proved well-founded. Stillwell and Trudeau had gotten through to Fort Wallace, and the commanding officer there sent word to Cheyenne Wells, about 100 miles from Forsyth’s position, where a company of the 10th U.S. Cavalry (For a history of the regiment and its most famous alumnus, see ” ‘Black Jack’ of the 10th,” in this issue.) under Lieutenant Colonel Louis H. Carpenter was on patrol. Jack Peate was one of Forsyth’s scouts who through a mixup in orders had been left behind when the main body moved out. Now he was temporarily attached to Carpenter’s command, which headed immediately to Forsyth’s relief. On the way, quite by accident, the troopers ran into Donovan, who, with Pliley, had also succeeded in reaching Fort Wallace and was returning to the Arikaree with a group of scouts.

SCOUT JACK PEATE: Crowned king nor conquering general ne’er received so royal and hearty a welcome as I did when I rode into that island among those staunchhearted men, who lifted me from my horse, embraced me, and strong men though they were, wept, as cheer upon cheer arose. … All had that wolfish, haggard look on their countenances which indicates hunger. … None of the wounds had been properly dressed, as the doctor had been killed in the battle. A terrible stench from the dead horses, which lay where they had fallen during the battle, filled the air. …

Louis Parley was the most desperately wounded, and died that night after his shattered leg had been amputated. … Blood poisoning had already commenced in [Colonel] Forsyth’s wounds and had medical attention been delayed twenty-four hours, he could not have lived.

TROOPER REUBEN WALLER: Jack Stillwell brought us word of the fix that Beecher was in … and in 26 hours [actually about 48 hours—G.M.H.], Colonel Carpenter and myself, as his hostler, rode into the rifle pits. And what a sight we saw … wounded and dead men in the midst of 50 dead horses, that had lain in the hot sun for [nine] days. And these men had eaten the putrid flesh of those dead horses for eight days. … we began to feed the men from our haversacks. If the doctor had not arrived in time we would have killed them all by feeding them to death. … Sure, we never gave a thought that it would hurt them. … It was all done through eagerness and excitement.

The Battle of Beecher Island, one of the finest stands against long odds by a small force, was not a key fight in the Indian wars. The scouts sustained losses of five killed and eighteen wounded. George Bird Grinnell, in The Fighting Cheyennes , wrote that in later years the Indians could identify only nine warriors killed. At the other extreme, some estimates have placed their losses as high as four or five hundred. Forsyth officially reported that he counted thirty-two dead Indians, and was later told by a Brulé Sioux, who participated in the battle, that there were seventy-five killed. The truth probably lies between these latter two figures.

After Beecher Island General Sheridan abandoned his idea of using civilians to bring peace to the plains. But he was still confronted with the problem of marauding Indians, and decided that the only way to pin down the elusive foe was to hit him in his winter camps, where he would lose his advantage of mobility. Accordingly, the General organized a campaign against the large bands wintering in Indian Territory—now Oklahoma. George Custer’s 7th Cavalry struck the first blow in a surprise attack on Black Kettle’s camp of Cheyennes on the Washita River at dawn, November 29, 1868. His orders from Sheridan had been to hang any warriors not killed in battle, to take prisoner all women and children, to destroy all lodges and supplies, and to kill all ponies. Custer carried out these instructions with a relish. The engagement at Washita River was followed by other punitive measures, and by the following spring a majority of the Indians of the central plains had been brought under control. But as George Custer discovered one June day seven years later, the control was only temporary.