- 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
In October of that year, Mackenzie led a cavalry column with Indian auxiliaries against Chief Dull Knife and his band of Northern Cheyennes who had been lurking near the Powder River since defeating Custer in June. In a surprise attack at dawn, his men destroyed the village, killed about forty Indians, and captured some six hundred ponies. In the village they found many relics of the Custer Massacre and of the Cheyennes’ recent victory over the Shoshones: scalps, silk guidons, and letters taken from the bodies of Custer’s officers and men; Shoshone scalps, the arm and hand of a Shoshone squaw, a necklace made of human fingers, and the right hands of twelve Shoshone children. It was understandable that Mackenzie’s Shoshone auxiliaries gave no quarter in the attack.
Many Cheyennes who escaped by flight without supplies, including eleven babies, froze to death in a temperature of 30 degrees below zero. The survivors surrendered and the troubles in the North ended. Crook wired the War Department:
“I can’t commend too highly [Mackenzie’s] brilliant achievements and the gallantry of the troops of his command. This will be a terrible blow to the hostiles, as those Cheyennes were not only their bravest warriors but have been the head and front of most all the raids and deviltry committed in this country.”
Mackenzie returned south that autumn and was placed in command of the Department of the Nueces with headquarters at his old stamping ground, Fort Clark at Bracketville, Texas. In May of 1878 he again crossed the Rio Grande, leading eleven companies of cavalry in pursuit of raiding Kickapoos and cattle thieves. There is reason to believe that the Hayes Administration in Washington was not adverse to a war with Mexico, for it would bring the Tilden Democrats, who still bitterly resented Hayes’s close victory in the 1876 election, into a common cause. Perhaps Mackenzie again had verbal orders to disregard Mexican sovereignty. Other U.S. officers, particularly Lieutenant John L. Bullis with his handful of Seminole scouts, had been constantly crossing the river on the trail of marauding Indians during the five years since the great raid on Remolino. But Bullis’ band was so small and he was so careful to keep away from Mexican settlements while chasing the common enemy that the Mexican authorities seemed to wink at his violations of their country’s sovereignty.
At any rate, on this particular raid Mackenzie was forced to give up the chase when his guide fell ill and the water ran low. Returning toward the Rio Grande, he found his way blocked by a body of Mexican troops under a General Winkler, who ordered him to avoid the town of Piedras Negras and return the way he came. Mackenzie replied that he was going to cross the Rio Grande by the nearest ford and that he would fight his way through if necessary. He formed his troops into line of battle and advanced directly at Winkler’s men. Fortunately for peace between the two countries, the Mexicans gave way. Soon afterward Mexico agreed to police the border, and the resulting co-operation between General E. O. C. Ord, commanding at San Antonio, and his Mexican son-in-law, General Jeronimo Treviño, in Coahuila, practically ended the Indian troubles on the Texas border.
Mackenzie’s next campaign took him to Colorado, where in September of 1879, the White River Utes had gone on the warpath. They had ambushed a force of soldiers under Major Thomas T. Thornburgh, killed the young major and several of his men, and then murdered the well-meaning Indian agent, Nathan C. Meeker, and all his employees [A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1957]. All told the Utes had killed 30 whites and wounded 44 more. They had also kidnaped Meeker’s wife, his attractive daughter, and another young white girl with her two children, had held them prisoners for some twenty-odd days, and had raped the women, although the victims would not at first publicly admit it. Mackenzie rushed to the spot and soon had the rampaging Utes under control.
The resulting hue and cry against them in Colorado brought about an order for their expulsion westward into Utah territory. The Utes, however, refused to move and swore they would die fighting to resist eviction from their homeland. Again Mackenzie was called upon and in 1881 achieved what he considered his greatest success with the Indians. Unarmed, he personally delivered an ultimatum to some twenty truculent chiefs; they must decide at once, he said, whether to go or fight. The chiefs, used to the shilly-shallying of Indian agents, were dumfounded; in less than ten minutes they agreed to go. It was an intensely dramatic scene, dominated by Mackenzie’s force of character. If the chiefs had decided to fight, Mackenzie would have been the first to die.
By now Mackenzie was getting a reputation as the army’s prime trouble shooter. In the summer of 1881 there were Apache outbreaks in Arizona, and General William T. Sherman placed him in command of all forces in the field with headquarters at Fort Apache. Mackenzie used the agency police to make a few arrest and soon quelled the troubles. From there he was ordered to Santa Fe, in command of the district of New Mexico. In October, 1882, upon the strong recommendation of U. S. Grant, he was promoted to brigadier general in the Regular Army. Promotion was extremely slow in those post-Civil War days, and the competition was keen. Nelson A. Miles had received this same promotion in 1880, and there had been keen rivalry between these two Indian-fighting colonels. There was a story of an old and privileged sergeant who noticed Mackenzie one night on the plains gazing thoughtfully at the heavens and said, “Colonel, there’s Miles between you and that star.”