What Were the Circumstances Surrounding the Battle of the Washita River

7th U.S. Cavalry

Unquestionably, the American Civil War forever altered the United States. After the four years of the “brothers’ war,” the cultural, economic, political, social, and regional fabric of the United States was drastically altered under the premise of Reconstruction. What is often forgotten; however, are the changes that affected the U.S. military after the guns were stacked at Appomattox Courthouse. Priorities changed from a civil war, primarily fought in the eastern U.S., to open warfare against the Native Americans who lived on the vast expanses of the western United States. In order to affect a formidable frontier military presence, the U.S. military needed to enhance its cavalry.

As the 19th Century progressed after the Civil War, expansion to the west increased due to available land, the destruction of homes and farms in the South, and the exponential growth of the railroad system. The hindrance to westward expansion included raids and violence along the plains states and the western U.S. as hunters and settlers encroached on designated Native American lands. Many of the tribes of the Plains were nomadic and relied on the buffalo for their very existence. With white hunters trespassing on Native hunting grounds in violation of government treaties, hostilities reached greater heights after the Civil War as the U.S. military had a surplus of seasoned troops by the end of 1865 and were at that time able to focus their attention on the western region of the country.

Expansion of the Cavalry

The West, known at the time as the frontier, consisted of vast swathes of unsettled lands that contained an abundance of natural resources. To commandeer these resources for their own benefit, white businessmen, railroad officials, hunters, trappers, and pioneers required military protection when traversing this region. As the territory was so immense, infantry soldiers were ineffective in covering such a seemingly limitless expanse. In order to scout trails and combat what were considered “hostile” Indians, the cavalry was needed.

In July 1866, the U.S. Congress authorized the formation of four additional cavalry units. These new troops were to be utilized almost exclusively in the western United States to form a defense against Native American attacks on pioneers and hunters. Further, cavalry units were needed to patrol the Texas border and ward off attacks from the growing number of bandito raids from Mexico. Not the least of the duties assigned to the new units was to protect the interests of the railroads. Transcontinental transportation was foremost on the mind of politicians, military brass, and businessmen alike. The treaties agreed to with the Native American tribes became increasingly inconsequential as the railroads grew and towns were settled. Arguably, the most blatant violation of Indian treaty came after gold was discovered in the Black Hills on designated Indian lands, which ultimately resulted in the slaughter of George A. Custer and his troops. Prior to that battle, the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, the men of the U.S. 7th Cavalry garnered acclaim for their bravery, skill, and tenacity during the Indian Wars of the 19th Century.

Major General Winfield Hancock, commander of the Department of the Missouri, issued Special Orders No. 2 on August 27, 1866. This new directive instructed Brevet Major General John Davidson of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry to “take charge of and superintend the organization of the new Regiment of Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas.”[1]Davidson was ordered to detail several officers from the 2nd Cavalry to assist him in this endeavor and these junior officers were instructed to remain at Fort Riley until such a time when new and suitable replacements arrived from Washington. These men were to lead the new recruits into becoming the U.S. Army’s premiere fighting force. The men who enlisted for this duty became professional soldiers with the goal of a long military career.

Issued on November 23, 1866 and retroactive to September 21 of that year, the War Department released General Orders No. 92, which delineated the field officers for the new cavalry regiments. Colonel Andrew J. Smith, Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, and Major Alfred Gibbs were appointed to command the 7th Cavalry, which fell under the purview of the Division of the Missouri.[2]By September 17, the unit was further organized into troops A-I and K-M.[3] At this time, 882 enlisted men commanded by the officers of the 2nd Cavalry composed the 7th U.S. Cavalry. When 1866 reached its end, the 7th Cavalry Regiment was fully functional and assigned to their duty stations with a complement of fifteen commissioned officers and 963 enlisted men.

Plans for a Winter Campaign

General Philip Sheridan

Throughout 1867, the duties of the 7th Cavalry consisted mainly of scouting and escorting government officials, surveyors, and pioneers. One notable exception to the routine, and often monotonous, duties of the regiment occurred on September 17 when court martial charges were brought against Colonel Custer at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Court martial charges were brought on September 16, 1867. On October 11, Custer was found guilty of the charges; the primary two being “absent without leave from his command,” and “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.”[4] Custer had effectively abandoned his post to visit his wife. At Fort Leavenworth he was arrested and sentenced to a one year suspension with the loss of pay and rank. For the duration of his suspension, command of troops A, D, E, G, H, K, and M was turned over to Major Elliott.[5]During this time, the 7th Cavalry troops were conducting scouting expeditions and being utilized as escorts. While these seemingly mundane tasks were occurring, Major General Philip “Little Phil” Sheridan, commander of the Department of the Missouri, was making plans for a winter campaign to be fought against the Cheyenne. He wanted Custer and upon his request his wish was granted. Colonel Custer was released early from his sentence and rejoined his troops on October 7, 1868.[6]

By the time Custer had rejoined his unit, the Medicine Lodge Treaty had been in effect for one year; however, it had been grossly violated by white hunters, trappers, and pioneers. In addition to designating land specifically to Native Americans, the Treaty also stipulated that provisions, supplies, and food stuffs would be provided to the reservation and agency tribes by the United States government.[7] While all aspects of the Treaty were being violated, the military commanders in the western frontier enabled the crimes by ignoring the criminals. Because of the actions of the hunters and the neglect and broken promises of the government, Indian chiefs and war bands began to rebel and strayed from reservation land to hunt for the purposes of feeding and supplying their families. General Sherman exacerbated the conflict by ordering the winter campaign upon which Custer was about to embark. Sherman was of the opinion that Native Americans were “‘the enemies of our [white] race and civilization,’” and stated, “‘I will say nothing and do nothing to restrain our troops.’”[8]Sherman and his peers incited Native American raids and hostilities by encouraging buffalo hunters, issuing propaganda in the form of false media reports, and openly encouraging his officers and men to take any action necessary to restrain the tribes in his jurisdiction. By doing so, he made war with the Indians a reality and utilized the 7th Cavalry extensively to carry out his plans.

Map of the Battle of the Washita

One month before George Custer rejoined his unit after being incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth, Generals Sherman and Sheridan were planning the “Winter Campaign.” At that time, the 7th U.S. Cavalry was controlled by General William T. Sherman, commander of the Military Division of the Missouri. They were headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, Missouri under the purview of General Philip Sheridan, commander of the Department of the Missouri. They were the key component of General Alfred Sully’s District of the Upper Arkansas. Major Joel Elliott was in command of the 7th while Custer was serving his suspension. Elliot was a seasoned war veteran who served with the Indiana cavalry during the Civil War. He participated in the battles of Shiloh, Stones River, and Perryville in addition to being present at Vicksburg in 1863. He was ordered out of Fort Leavenworth in April 1868 and was to proceed with Troops A, D, E, G, and K to Fort Larned.[9]Along the way, Elliott began to see Cheyenne war signals and Indian trails. This was the onset of the crucial fight that was imminent and the fate of Major Joel H. Elliott was forever altered.

Movements of the 7th

Custer and the 7th marching toward Black Kettle's village.

Due to the breach of treaties with Native Americans, tribal leaders and war chiefs became increasingly agitated and fell into the government’s trap of war. Indian raids increased due to necessity between August and November 1868. Accordingly, Sherman sent a message to General Sheridan that the Cheyenne and Arapaho wanted war. Pioneers were becoming increasingly fearful and as a result military actions were ordered without hesitation. While Indian tribes were settling into their winter camps along the Washita River in November 1868, the 7th Cavalry began to move in the direction of the river and a man called Black Kettle.

By the beginning of October 1868, the 7th Cavalry was camped along Bluff’s Creek and received a new burst of energy when George Custer returned to lead his troops on the 6th of the month. That same evening, they were attacked by an Indian band forcing them to return to Medicine Lodge Creek then back to the north bank of the Arkansas River. Orders continued to pour in from command as Sheridan’s winter campaign was beginning to take shape. The General rightfully posited that a successful winter campaign carried out by his forces would prove to be a strong and permanent solution to the so-called Indian problem. If the U.S. forces were able to destroy enough tribal supplies and livestock, the natural elements of winter would force the tribal leaders, along with all of their family members, into a state of surrender. The winters in the region were not conducive to supporting life without access to ample food and warm clothing; additionally, the destruction of Indian weapons and ammunition would render the tribal position untenable.

Early in November, eleven cavalry troops, which was the entire 7th with the exception of L Troop, crossed the Arkansas river and headed south in the direction of the Wichita Mountains. Of these nearly 800 men, forty were selected as sharpshooters and taken to form an entirely new company.

Chief Black Kettle

All of these men joined with the infantry companies and supply wagon under General Sully and together made their way to Camp Supply. Upon their arrival, General Sheridan entered the camp and issued further orders. He assessed the supply situation and arrived at the conclusion that with General Sully and the remaining infantrymen, supplies were inadequate. He therefore, released Sully and his soldiers from the mission. The men of the 7th Cavalry were instructed to carry what they could, ideally thirty days-worth of supplies, and the men disembarked from Supply on November 23, 1868.[10]The horsemen of the 7th left Camp Supply not knowing if they were going out on a mission of peace or to make war.

The night prior to leaving camp it had snowed heavily and the flakes continued as they departed on their mission. As the snow was a natural way to hide the tracks of the Indians, the party was led by Osage scouts as they were far better equipped to discover a hidden trail due to years of experience. That first night they camped at Wolf Creek and several nights hence were sleeping on the northern bank of the Canadian River. From this site, Custer ordered Major Joel Elliott to take three companies of men and relocate the trail they had lost in the heavy snow. Elliott succeeded and sent word to Custer that he was pursuing the trail. Custer then ordered the remainder of his men to pack only the barest of necessities before they detached from the supply wagon and left camp in order to link up with Major Elliott. Custer located the Major at approximately nine o’clock that night. He allowed his men one hour rest before they continued on into the dark night.

The Battle of the Washita

7th Cavalry charging the Cheyenne village, November 27, 1868

As they proceeded, the trail grew fresher and the 7th was able to move more stealthily. At last they discovered the tribal camps in a valley and planned to carry out Sheridan’s plan and attack from all sides at dawn. Custer ordered Major Elliott to proceed with Troops G, H, and M to the left and rear position of the Indian camp. Colonel William Thompson positioned himself with Troops B and F to the right and then was tasked with linking to Major Elliott. Colonel Meyers took Troops E and I into the woods to await the order to attack while Lieutenant Colonel Cook formed the center column composed of the Osage scouts, Troops A, C, D, and K, and the sharpshooters. Ultimately, this column was to be led by Custer.

At dawn on November 27, 1868 the attack commenced. The attack signal, “Garry Owen,” was played by the unit’s band and the fighting began. The siege on the Indians’ camp came from all sides and the U.S. troops dismounted and engaged in combat. According to Lieutenant Gibson, “After charging into the village and taking possession of it, the battle began. The Troops were quickly dismounted, the horses sent to the safest place of shelter, and a desperate hand to hand battle ensued.”[11]

Custer and the center column captured Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle’s village. While trying to escape on a pony with his wife, Medicine Woman, they were both shot in the back and killed. Once this particular village was captured, Custer realized that the warriors who seemingly fled, were overlooking the U.S. troops from the high ground above the village. Fortunately for Custer, the other Cavalry companies were able to assault the other villages. Aside from a military incursion, the goods and supplies in the encampments were destroyed or burned forcing the Native Americans to flee further down the Washita River. This was due primarily to the fact that Custer had ordered the capture of women and children from the village.

Custer's Actions

Lieutenant Colonel, BMG, George Armstrong Custer

A great deal of controversy has stemmed from this action in that these non-combatants were used by Custer as human shields and as bargaining chips for the release of white hostages being held by Indians. As is common with all families, the South Plains tribes were fiercely loyal to their bands and refused to fire on innocent hostages from their families. Custer intermingled the women and children hostages with his men and went so far as to perch them on horseback so as to protect his own troops.[12]Had the hostages not been taken, “Custer probably could not have pulled off this tactical coup had he not had in his possession the fifty-some women and children captives…doubtlessly it occurred to Custer that the family-oriented [Cheyenne] warriors would not attack the Seventh with the women and children marching in [the middle of his column].”[13]

In his 1874 memoirs, Lieutenant Colonel Custer defended his actions by claiming that “the close proximity of their women and children, and their necessary exposure in case of conflict, would operate as a powerful argument in favor of peace.”[14]Further, he was following the orders of his superior, General Sheridan, who commanded that hostages be taken and villages be burned. He issued this order of total war so as to force “all segments of Indian society experience the horrors of war as fully as the warriors.”[15]He succeeded.

Another controversy that continues to surround Custer regarding the Battle of the Washita concerns the death of Major Elliott. With a small band of men, Major Elliott broke away from the column he led in order to pursue a small party of Cheyenne warriors. Almost immediately after breaking off from the formation, Elliott and his sparse group encountered a contingent of Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho warriors, who quickly dispatched with the U.S. soldiers. Elliott’s friend, Captain Frederick Benteen of H Troop, considered Custer’s hasty withdrawal as an abandonment of Elliott and his men.[16]


In the end, the Battle of Washita was an overwhelming victory for the United States military. The attack was strategically and tactically sound and the Indians were caught sleeping as Custer was able to achieve the element of surprise. The Native American villages were completely razed to the ground. Prior to the burning of the villages, the soldiers were ordered to take or destroy all pertinent supplies. They were to leave nothing unscathed in order to prevent the tribes from returning to replenish themselves. The best ponies and livestock were seized by the cavalry. As they were unable to feed the great number of equine members of the Indian village, between 800 and 900 healthy animals were killed.[17]As Cavalrymen, the destruction of healthy horses was troubling to most.

The casualty statistics have never been accurately pinpointed, however; the most consistent numbers claim that 103 Indians were killed and 53 taken hostage. The 7th Cavalry suffered twenty-one killed, including Major Elliot, and fourteen wounded, including T.W. Custer.[18] The following decade proved to be even more bloody and destructive as the vile Indian Wars continued in the American West.


  1. Lt. Col. Melbourne C. Chandler, Of Garry Owen in Glory: The History of the Seventh United States Cavalry Regiment (Annandale, VA: The Turnpike Press, 1960), 2.
  2. Chandler, 2.
  3. A troop J was never utilized in military units as the handwriting of the time resulted in I and J looking too similar. So as to avoid any confusion, J was simply eliminated.
  4. “George Armstrong Custer Court-Martial: 1867 - The Court-martial, The Aftermath,” Law Library, Jrank, <a href="http://law.jrank.org/pages/2594/George-Armstrong-Custer-Court-Martial-1867.html">George Armstrong Custer Court-Martial: 1867 - The Court-martial, The Aftermath</a>.
  5. Chandler, 5.
  6. Robert M. Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), 114-129.
  7. Charles J. Kappler, compiler and editor, Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties — Vol. II: Treaties(Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904), 977-989.
  8. Quoted in Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indians, 1866-1891 (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 150-52.
  9. Lieutenant F.M. Gibson, unpublished account of the Battle of the Washita, quoted in Chandler, 8.
  10. Gibson, quoted in Chandler, 14.
  11. Gibson, quoted in Chandler, 19.
  12. Jerome A. Greene, Washita, The Southern Cheyenne and the U.S. Army: Campaigns and Commanders Series, vol. 3 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004),183-84.
  13. Larry Sklenar, To Hell with Honor: Custer and the Little Bighorn (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 35.
  14. George Armstrong Custer, My Life on the Plains: Or, Experiences with Indians (New York: Sheldon and Company, 1874), 220.
  15. Sklenar, 32.
  16. Jeffry D. Wert, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 273-76.
  17. Gibson, quoted in Chandler, 21.
  18. Gibson, quoted in Chandler, 21.

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