November 27, 1868 – Lt Colonel George Armstrong Custer Leads Army in Massacre of Peaceful Cheyenne

On this day in history, Lt. Colonel George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against a Southern Cheyenne village in Oklahoma led by Chief Black Kettle.

This was not the Chief’s first unfortunate encounter with the U.S. Army. Almost exactly four years earlier, on November 29, 1864, Colonel J.M. Chivington and his troops attacked and destroyed the chief’s village that was allegedly under the protection of the US Army. As an NPS website reports:

Although the village at Sand Creek flew an American flag along with a white flag to demonstrate that the people were at peace with the United States, the troops killed and horribly mutilated 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children. Known as the Sand Creek Massacre, the attack on Black Kettle’s village resulted in several retaliatory raids led by Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota warriors, who along with Black Kettle had survived the dreadful and unwarranted attack.”

Chief Black Kettle, via Wikipedia

Congress established a federal peace commission and treaties were signed in 1865 and 1867. The Plains Indians agreed to end raids in exchange for food, shelter, and other goods. The supplies were slow in arriving, however, and graft by white Indian agents resulted in Native Americans receiving less than was promised.

By the summer of 1868, operating with bands of 50 and 100 warriors, the Plains Indians again resorted to warfare.

Major General Philip H. Sheridan, a Union hero of the Civil War, was appointed in 1867 by President Grant to deal with the Plains warriors.

Sheridan allegedly declared that “The only good Indians I know are dead.” Sheridan steadfastly denied ever saying that, but he wrote to General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Commanding General of the U.S. Army:

In taking the offensive I have to select that season when I can catch the fiends; and if a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers, but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack.”

Sherman responded to Sheridan:

I will back you with my whole authority… I will say nothing and do nothing to restrain our troops from doing what they deem proper on the spot, and will allow no mere vague general charges of cruelty and inhumanity to tie their hands, but will use all the powers confided to me to the end that these Indians, the enemies of our race and of our civilization, shall not again be able to begin and… carry out their barbarous warfare.”

(Like leaders from George Washington onward, members of the American government and military considered Native warfare to protect their homes “barbaric,” and white warfare to take it away “justified.”)

Since horses had minimal food during the winter and blizzards forced the Plains Indians to seek refuge near river valleys, Sheridan decided to attack the Indians during the winter when they least expected it.

To lead the campaign, Sheridan chose Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 7th US Cavalry, who set out from Camp Supply on November 23 headed to the Washita River valley where 6,000 Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa had set up camp for the winter. On November 26, Custer and his men reached the Washita Valley shortly after midnight on November 27 and silently positioned four battalions around a sleeping Cheyenne camp that coincidentally belonged to Chief Black Kettle.

George Armstrong Custer

Custer did not attempt to identify which group of Cheyenne was in the village, or to make even a cursory reconnaissance of it. Had he done so, Custer would have discovered that they were peaceful people and the village was on reservation soil, where the commander of Fort Cobb had guaranteed them safety. There was even a white flag flying from one of the main dwellings, indicating that the tribe was actively avoiding conflict. Of course, knowing all that may not have made a difference to Custer.

At daybreak, Custer led his battalion straight into Black Kettle’s village, while other troops attacked from the northeast and southwest. Few Cheyenne managed to seek refuge and return fire; most of the villagers were killed within the first 15 minutes of the conflict. Within a few hours, the village was destroyed–the soldiers had killed 103 Cheyenne, including the peaceful Black Kettle, his wife Medicine Woman Later, and many women and children.

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