- Historic Sites
Spare, frail, and plagued by old wounds, Ranald Mackenzie was still “the finest Indian-fighting cavalryman of them all”
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
Carter estimated they had ridden 160 miles in 33 hours, a good part of the time in sweltering heat and always in suffocating clouds of dust. All had gone without sleep for two, and some for three, nights, subsisting on nothing but bread and water. It was an extraordinary feat of arms.
The Mexican government vigorously protested the raid, but Phil Sheridan kept his word and Mackenzie suffered no disciplinary action. The Indian raids in that particular area noticeably diminished thereafter, but Mackenzie and Bullis’ scouts had to cross the Rio Grande several times more until the Indian menace completely ceased.
The next year, in 1874, many Comanches, Arapahoes, Kiowas, and Southern Cheyennes became restless and left their reservations in the Indian Territory to join their wild brethren in the Staked Plains, whence they rode forth to ravage the frontier settlements. Several converging columns were ordered out to punish them, and Mackenzie headed the troops sent from Texas. His command had a sharp skirmish with a war party of Southern Cheyennes during the night and morning of September 26–27, but when the Indians sought to lead him off on a false trail to the south, Mackenzie’s previous explorations of this country paid off. He knew the Indian camps must be in the bottom of the deep and steep-walled PaIo Duro Canyon, and so, on the twenty-seventh, while daylight lasted, he leisurely followed the retreating Indians southward. As soon as it was dark he reversed his direction, led his troops on a fast night march to the north, and at dawn was looking down from the south rim of the canyon on the Indian encampments far below. Until now these hide-outs had been unknown to the white man, and the Indians could always retreat here when pursued.
A narrow, zigzag trail leading downward was found, and each soldier dismounted and led his horse, sliding and stumbling, toward the bottom. But suddenly they were spotted by an early-rising Indian assigned to herd horses, who fired his gun to give the alarm. The troopers hastened their descent, but before they could reach the floor of the canyon the Indians poured forth from their lodges and, abandoning everything except their rifles, mounted ponies and fled up the canyon or scrambled on foot up its sides to hide behind immense piles of boulders. From these vantage points they kept up a hot fire as the troopers formed ranks and charged up the canyon. But the fleeing Indians had too much of a head start and the troopers soon returned, their only captives a large herd of horses. Mackenzie decided further pursuit was useless, and that it would be too costly to dislodge the Indians firing from behind the rocks. He burned all the deserted lodges and abandoned property and drove the captured horses up the steep zigzag trail. Once out of the canyon he picked out a few horses for his men and then ordered the rest, about 1,400, to be shot. For years afterward a heap of glistening bones marked the spot. The destruction of these supplies and horses was a mortal blow to the Indians’ spirit; they straggled back to their reservations for the winter. The next year Mackenzie and the 4th Cavalry moved on to Fort Sill, where his firmness prevented any further outbreaks by the restless braves on the reservations, and there in June, 1875, he received the surrender of the last wandering band of Comanches.
After Custer’s debacle at the Little Big Horn in Montana the following June, Mackenzie was rushed north with most of the 4th Cavalry to join Major General George Crook against the victorious Sioux and Northern Cheyennes. They made a good team. Crook (known as the Gray Fox) was cool, silent, and calculating; while Mackenzie had courage, dash, and quickness of apprehension. But his seven wounds, the hardships of years of campaigning, and his heavy responsibilities had naturally told on Mackenzie’s frail physique and high-strung temperament. Moreover he suffered ceaseless pain. At Fort Sill in 1875 he had been thrown on his head from a wagon and remained dazed for days afterward; his mind had not entirely cleared for several months. As Captain Robert G. Carter described him:
“He was fretful, irritable, oftentimes irascible and pretty hard to serve with. This was due largely to his failing to take care of himself and his wounds received during the Civil War. He kept late hours, ate but little and slept less than anybody in the regiment. But he was not a martinet and was always just to all the officers and men.… The wound through his lung was always a most serious drawback to his physical comfort and action on campaigns and it probably, with his other wounds, added to his irritability at times. He could not ride more than 25 to 30 miles without being in great pain and yet he rode 160 miles in 32 hours when we crossed the Rio Grande in 1873, without, so far as I can recall, a single murmur or sign of exhaustion.… Mackenzie hung on like a bull dog until the Indians begged him to let go. He had more brains than Custer, better judgment, and he carefully planned his attacks.…”
In the campaign against Ouster’s conquerors, Mackenzie first went to the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. Red Cloud and his Oglala Sioux braves, veterans of the Fetterman massacre and the Wagon-Box fight near Fort Phil Kearny in 1866 and 1867, were suspected of having taken part in the Custer massacre. By September 1 Colonel Mackenzie had counted only 4,706 Indians—about half the number reported by the resident agent. Red Cloud defiantly refused to move his camp closer to the agency until Mackenzie’s troopers surrounded his lodge at night and captured him. He was deposed as chief and held in confinement. Again Mackenzie had taken swift and decisive action.