Custer's attack was the result of the U.S. Army's evolving strategy for imposing the government's reservation policy on noncompliant Indians of the Great Plains. In October 1867, peace commissioners from the United States government met with representatives of the Arapahos, Comanches, Kiowas, Prairie Apaches, and southern Cheyennes in a grove of trees along Medicine Lodge Creek, sixty miles south of Fort Larned, Kansas. There, the principal Native peoples of the southern Plains signed treaties promising to move onto two reservations in western Indian Territory and to take no action to impede the construction of nearby railroads, wagon roads, and government facilities. In exchange for their compliance, signatory tribes were promised agricultural implements, clothing, education for their children, annuity payments, and the prohibition of white settlement on reservation land.
Of the five nations represented at the Medicine Lodge council, the southern Cheyennes were the least united in support of the treaty. Black Kettle was reluctant to sign the document until the militant Cheyenne Dog Soldiers agreed to its terms. Unable to convince War Chief Roman Nose and his band of the merits of peace under the terms of the treaty, Black Kettle nevertheless affixed his mark to the paper. Despite the lack of a unified following, the Cheyenne chief settled peaceably into reservation life below the Arkansas River.
Throughout the winter of 1867–1868, food stores from the autumn buffalo hunts sustained the reservation Cheyennes. As spring approached and supplies dwindled, the promised government support materialized in insufficient quantities. Most disconcerting for the Cheyennes was the absence of the promised guns and ammunition needed for hunting. Notwithstanding the best efforts of Agent Edward W. Wynkoop to reassure the disaffected, some young Cheyenne men, angered by the duplicity of the white peace commissioners, ventured northward away from the reservation to join Roman Nose and the leaders of other resistant factions.
In response to the growing defiance of the government's reservation policy among Native peoples on the southern Plains, Major General Philip Henry Sheridan, commander of the Department of the Missouri (with the support of Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman), orchestrated a strategy to force submission. Sheridan envisioned a winter operation utilizing converging columns of cavalry and infantry to round up warriors whose limited supplies and grass-fed ponies would make them virtually immobile and susceptible to capture. Accordingly, on November 18, 1868, Major Andrew W. Evans left Fort Bascom, New Mexico, with 563 men and marched eastward down the South Canadian River. Two weeks later, Brevet Major General Eugene Asa Carr and 650 men left Fort Lyon, Colorado, and moved southward (guided by "Buffalo Bill" Cody) toward Antelope Hills in Indian Territory. The third and largest column, comprising the 800 troopers of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, left Camp Supply, a depot on the North Canadian River 100 miles south of Fort Dodge, Kansas, on November 23 and headed south toward the Washita River. Sheridan placed Custer in overall command of his column and instructed the lieutenant colonel to follow a fresh trail in the snow, suspecting its creators to be a Cheyenne raiding party returning from Kansas.
That same autumn, as Sheridan put the finishing touches on his planned winter campaign, Black Kettle and his followers set up an encampment on a bend in the Washita River, forty miles east of the Antelope Hills. Consisting of fifty-one lodges, the village was populated by Cheyenne women, children, and elders as well as recently returned young warriors who were now more willing to accept the peaceful ways of Black Kettle after Roman Nose's death on September 17 at the Battle of Beecher's Island. Downriver, Arapaho, Kiowa, and additional Cheyenne camps dotted the landscape. Learning that U.S. troops were on the move, Black Kettle and other Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders traveled 100 miles down the Washita River Valley to Fort Cobb to meet with the garrison's commander, General William Babcock Hazen, to seek protection for their people. To their dismay, the heretofore convivial Hazen maintained he lacked the authority to allow the Cheyenne and Arapaho bands to move closer to the fort and instructed Black Kettle to return to his camp.
On November 26, Custer's undetected column drew near the bend in the Washita River occupied by the Cheyenne chief and his band. The trail they had followed led directly to the encampment. Without bothering to determine adequately the size and strength of his foe, the lieutenant colonel ordered an attack for the following day. Just before daybreak on November 27, troopers from the Seventh Cavalry, with the regimental band playing "Garry Owen," charged into Black Kettle's sleeping village from four directions. The shaken and surprised Cheyenne could do nothing except run for safety. A few warriors vainly fought back. Black Kettle and his wife attempted to escape across a ford in the river, only to be gunned down in the mud. Within ten minutes, the Seventh Cavalry controlled the village. Estimates vary, but it is probable that 103 Cheyenne men, women, and children died in the attack, while fifty-three women and children were taken captive. For his part, Custer lost two officers and nineteen enlisted men, most of whom were under the command of Major Joel H. Elliott. Attempting to corral a group of Indians fleeing downriver, Elliot and his men were themselves surrounded and killed by members of the nearby Arapaho and Cheyenne camps who were coming to Black Kettle's aid.
As more and more mounted warriors arrived to overlook the scene, Custer's troopers set up a defensive perimeter and then systematically set fire to the lodges, destroying the winter supply of food and clothing. The cavalry likewise slaughtered more than 800 Cheyenne ponies and mules. To remove his command from an increasingly foreboding environment, Custer abandoned efforts to locate Major Elliott, feigned an attack in the late afternoon against Indian encampments further downriver, then escaped back across the river after dark. The Seventh Cavalry returned triumphantly to Camp Supply on December 2, much to the satisfaction of General Sheridan.
More of a massacre than a battle, Washita proved to be a debilitating blow to the southern Cheyenne. With their winter supplies destroyed along with their herd of mules and ponies, the majority of the Cheyenne bands found themselves with little choice but to succumb to reservation life. Perhaps of equal consequence, Washita demonstrated to the noncompliant Indians of the Plains that winter no longer provided the element of security it once had.
Alan C. Downs
Greene, Jerome A. 2004. Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867–1869. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Utley, Robert M. 1973. Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian 1866– 1891. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.