By Stan ers, Army Heritage and Education CenterNovember 19, 2007
By August of 1868, Major General Philip Sheridan, Commander, Department of the Missouri, was convinced that the Kiowa, Comanche, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes did not intend to recognize the terms and reservation boundaries set forth in the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. With the support of his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant General of the Army William T. Sherman, General Sheridan began plans for an aggressive winter campaign.
General Sheridan planned a coordinated three pronged movement to push the Indians toward the reservation agency at Fort Cobb in Indian Territory. Troops from Fort Bascom, New Mexico Territory, would move easterly across the Llano Estacado to the headwaters of the South Canadian River while troops from Fort Lyon, Colorado, were to move southeasterly to the North Canadian River and remain in the field as long as supplies would allow. The main force was to move south from Fort Dodge, Kansas, and catch any Indians fleeing the other two columns and then move down the Washita River to Fort Cobb. Two requirements, locating the winter camps of the Indians and supplying a large force in the field with adequate food and clothing during the unpredictable and often hostile weather of the Southern Plains in winter, challenged the success of the maneuver.
Discovery of a war party trail heading north near Camp Supply, Indian Territory, launched Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and the 7th Cavalry into action on November 24, with orders to back-track the trail to its source. The march south was drastically hampered due to a snowstorm where blowing wind and snow had obliterated the trail by the morning of November 26. Sending out a reconnaissance led by Major Joel Elliott to locate a new trail, Custer soon learned from Osage scouts that a new trail had been discovered. The lieutenant colonel immediately organized a pursuit by his remaining command, leaving all of his supply wagons behind with only a light guard.
It was nine oAca,!a,,cclock at night when the main body of the 7th Cavalry caught up to Major Elliott. Confident that they were near an Indian camp, Custer resumed point with two Osage guides until they came across a winter camp on the Washita River. Plans were made to surround the camp with four equal detachments during the night and attack the unknown force over unknown terrain at sunrise.
A single rifle report from the Indian camp broke the morning silence of November 27, announcing the discovery of the soldiers. Bugles sounded the charge, and all four detachments converged upon the camp. The Cheyenne village of Black Kettle was taken by complete surprise and, although a vigorous defense was quickly formed along the riverbank, the entire village was overrun in a matter of minutes.
CusterAca,!a,,cs losses in the battle are reported at twenty one killed and thirteen wounded, and Indian casualties are clouded in controversy. Significant losses in the attack were Major Joel Elliott and Captain Louis Hamilton, grandson of Alexander Hamilton.
The engagement at the Washita by Custer was the only significant victory of General SheridanAca,!a,,cs winter campaign of 1868. It set an example that pursuit of the Indians during the winter was possible and that the most effective way of fighting them was not to force a decisive confrontation on open ground but to employ a strategy of destroying the resources that allowed them to sustain a war; lessons learned four years earlier during the Civil War.