The Forgotten Battalion - Wagon Box Fight
Winners of the West
Volume 5     Number 8     July 30, 1928
Transcribed from CD recorded 8/99 Keystone, SD

The Forgotten Battalion

(Being a short chronicle of some of the hardships and conditions endured by Indian War Veterans in the Phil Kearney Massacre of December 21, 1866 and The Wagon Box fight of August 2, 1867 as chronicled by comrade William Murphy Commander Spokane Camp number16 National Indian War Veteran Spokane Washington).

(Continued from June issue)

The Wagon Box Fight

About July 1st 20 men were detailed from company 8 to guard the Gilmore and Porter Bull Train. They had the Wood Contract and had established their camp about 6 miles from the Fort. They used only the running gear to haul the logs on so used the wagon boxes to form a corral about 200 or 300 yards from the timber. The logs were hauled out to the corral and the teams circled around the corral and some loaded and some hauled logs and top loaded at the corral. They could haul a full load from the corral to the Fort but only a small load out of the timber. These logs were some 16 to 18 feet long. August 2nd the day of the fight, the Indians charged up to these wood piles, which were 15 or 20 feet from the corral. The Wagon boxes were of the Prairie Schooner type about 5 feet high with an extra board about 14 inches high to go on top of the boxes.

On July 31st the Indians had tried to drive off the cattle that were grazing between the Pineys about a mile from the foot of the mountain. They tried to stampede the cattle but the men at the corral ran out on each side and stopped the cattle. The Indians tried hard to get a civilian by the name of Brown. Some of the Soldiers at the Corral managed to give the Indians a hot time and several were hurt before they abandoned the idea and picked up their men. A boy about 15 years of age who was with the civilian and hid in the brush and was not injured. Both this man Brown and the boy were in The Wagon Box Fight the only civilians in the fight.

I was with a detail of 6 men and a Corporal guarding a train a mile or so from the Gilmore and Porter train. We saw the skirmish but took no part in it. This corral was burned the day of the wagon box fight and the Indians followed the men to the timber and tried to burn up some of the oxen. They fastened them to trees but only killed 5 or 6 head. During the years we were there, the Sioux Indians never followed men into the timber. It was on August 1st that Company C relieved 20 men of company A. Company C was a strong Company and General Smith knew the Indians would be after revenge. About 8:00 August 2nd the men on the Picket Hill saw a large body of Indians on the east side of the big pine and signaled the Fort. The Picket Hill was south of the Fort and one could see all over the valley and watch the wagon corral and the men from the time they entered the timber or came out and all the way to the Fort. The men at the Fort saw the Indians about the time the Picket did. They cut port holes through the wagon boxes, scattered the ammunition along the boxes, removed the end gates so they could move freely around the circle and piled [oxy yokes] and logs at the two ends of the corral which was circular in form.Smith immediately called out most of the available men to go to their relief and though he had been sick for some days, he went with his men as far as the foot of Sullivan's Hill. The relief got there in time and the men at the corral were surely glad to see them. They were a hard lot to look at. The day was hot and the sun was beating down upon them in the wagon beds. The smoke from their guns had colored their faces and they looked as though they had used burnt cork on their faces. Red Cloud was fooled this time. Red Cloud with 3,000 warriors could not defeat 38 men. Up until about the 1st of June we had been armed with the old Springfield muzzle loading rifles. The men at the wagon bed were armed with Needle guns, single shot, using a copper cartridge. They were good for 8 to 10 shots and after that it was necessary to eject the shell with a ramrod as the ejector cut a groove in the rim of the cartridge. There were 38 men in the corral, and the Gilmore and Porter men that the soldiers were guarding were in the timber, some 50 or 60 men, soldiers and civilians. The Indian's did not molest them. There were only 3 men killed in The Wagon Box fight.

In the summer of 1867 the government built a log cabin some 300 yards from the Fort and on the banks of the Big Piney, also a footbridge for the Indians to cross. There were about 2,000 Crow Indians on the east side of the Big Piney. About the same time that the Indians came there were six, six mule government teams that arrived with goods for the Indians. There was an Indian agent at the Fort that we called Doctor. I will not give his name for he is now gone, where all good preachers go. The soldiers guarded the cabin the agent and his goods. We also had a guard on the end of the footbridge to keep the soldiers from visiting the Indians. The Indians had also put a guard on their end of the bridge to keep the Indians from crossing the Piney. We thought the goods were to be given to the Indians, but judging from what I saw the Indians paid several times the value of what they got. For a folding pocket looking glass about 3 inches across a beaver skin or two buckskins was the price. The goods consisted of beads, calico, blankets and all kinds of trinkets that an Indian would like. Our interpreter John Sted was busy for about 10 days. The six, six mule teams went back loaded with furs. When the Doctor got back to Omaha, he published a long article in an Omaha paper stating that a foreigner could travel anywhere on the Plains and not be molested by the Indians. I noticed however, that he had a guard of 20 men all the way to Fort DA Russell.

The Crow Indians were not very well pleased with the treatment they had received and the young ones got quite ugly. When they went away they passed by Gilmore and Porter's wood train and helped themselves to what they wanted. They got a pile of ox bows and two of the Indians would pull to see if they could pull it straight without breaking it. The bows were of good Hickory, but owning to the dry climate, some of them broke which made Mr. Porter angry and he knocked one of the Indians down with one of the broken bows. The Indians then went away. It seemed that they wanted the bows to make a bow with. There were Indian camps scattered about along the Piney all the time after the first winter. The old Squaws were inveterate beggars and a hard looking lot. They were dirty, their hair was matted and most of them had nearly all of their fingers cut off. I had thought at first that they were frozen off but later learned that this was the way they mourned for the dead. I still believe that they were frozen off, as they were beasts of burden, packing wood through the snow sometimes for long distances and with poor tools with which to cut the wood. The men folks and younger squaws burned the wood as fast as they could get it in the winter- time.

Iron Bull was the war chief of the Crows at that time and ruled with an iron hand. General Smith asked him to keep the Indians at their camp. He put a guard at the east end of the bridge, but some of them would ford the Piney and get into the Fort. The Indian police armed with rods 6 or 7 feet long would get after them and if they caught any of the squaws or bucks would give them a good flaying. I saw one Indian in our quarters, whom the Indians had whipped with their switches. He got angry and as he had smuggled a bow and arrow he stood them off. One of the police hunted up the chief. When the chief got there he hit the troublesome Indian on the head with his tomahawk and he was a good Indian, maybe ever after. The Indians dragged him off to their camp.

One day when the Indians were trading at the cabin, they tied an Indian to a tree and the squaws and children with switches sticks and stones punished him severely. I only saw the last part of the show. The Indian broke loose and the and the squaws and children scattered. After knocking over some squaws he lit out over the bluffs with very little if any clothing. At first we thought he was a Sioux or a Cheyenne prisoner until we saw his head. He had the hair trim of the Crow Indian. We inquired of several Indians as to what he had been doing and finally one said "he heap bad Indian he never come back". The Indian men were looking on but took no part in the performance unless they had tied him to the tree. When the Crows were at the Fort they would hold war dances lasting most of the night. When a war party got to camp we could tell by the action of the squaws what success they had had. Sometimes the squaws would go up over the bluffs crying.

Some may not understand how they scalped the dead. They ran the knife around the edge of the hair and took off all the scalp. Some tribes cut the scalp up in small pieces and braided it in with their own hair making "a scalp lock". They are then, in their own estimation, heap brave and look pretty and they smell oh so sweet. The summer of 1867 the 2nd battalion 18th US infantry became the 27th US infantry and that year a treaty was made with the Indians for the abandonment of Fort's Reno, Phil Kearney, C. S. Smith and the Bozeman Road. The Indians were not to molest us and were to be peaceable, but that made no difference to Red Cloud or Spotted Tail. They were never known to keep a treaty.

The great game country along the Bozeman trail was a myth. All the time we were in that country I do not believe I saw more than a 100 buffalo. It was a fine grass country however. I only speak of the country along the Bozeman Trail. There may have been buffalo east of that where Campbell and cook counties are now.

About the 1st of June General John E. Smith was called east and Captain Heart had command. He was a good man.

We asked Jim Bridger how the Indians lived in the winter and he replied that only for their pony and dogs many of them would starve. Some of them also went to the government post. It has been said that Red Cloud was a great warrior. Here is a typical example of his actions.

The Picket Hill at Fort Phil Kearney overlooked the fort and one could see a man with the naked eye and could count all the men in the post. The Indians however had field glasses and spy glasses so they could easily count the men. After the Pickets retired for the night the Indians would get on the Picket Hill and copy all of our signals for the enjoyment of those in the fort. After the massacre we had not more than 150 men sick and wounded included while Red Cloud has 6,000 or 8,000 men. The Crow Indians told us the next summer, that at the time of the massacre, Red Cloud got his warriors together to take the three forts, changed his mind and decided to take Phil Kearney first, then divide warriors and massacre the troops at Fort C. S. Smith and Fort Reno, but the 81 men put up such a stiff fight he gave it up as a bad job. Think of it, 81 men were too tough to be palatable for Red Cloud and 6,000 warriors. We abandoned the three forts about the middle of July 1866 and marched to Forts D A Russell. After living so long away from where there were any vegetables and having a lot of cripples with the scurvy, we thought the government would furnish vegetables. But not one vegetable did we get. The men chipped in [most .. traded] bacon, coffee, and flour for vegetables. During the three years I was in the army the government never furnished us with any vegetables. Ours was indeed a "forgotten Battalion".

After a rest of about four, days my Company (Company A), was detailed to guard the UP Railroad from Sidney, Nebraska to Cheyenne. Six men in a non-com were at each station with headquarters at Pine Bluff's, a distance of about a hundred miles. I had charge of about six men at Buford Station about thirty-five miles from Cheyenne, Wyoming and east of there. The rest of the regiment was sent down in Nebraska to hunt Indians on the Republican and Blume, who had been killing settlers and freighters. The soldiers captured a few prisoners and brought them back to North Platte, Nebraska. They were turned loose a short time later, given some rations and told to be good. I suppose they were until the next spring. Two Indians, Chief's I think, were sent to Omaha barracks held for some time, and then shipped home.

In the spring of 1869 I went to work for J. W. Ilif, a cattleman. His stock ranged along north of the South Platte where the towns of Eaton and Greeley are now located, thence east to Freemont's Orchards, Nebraska and north to the UP Railroad. He was the only cattleman in the country at that time. I road all over the country from Fort Collins to Sidney and north to Pumpkin Creek and Walnut's Forks, Forest creek. One man, a Mr. Sims, had a few cattle on the head of Forest Creek and Dick and Dan Latham on the Fort Laramie crossing. In nearly two years riding I never saw a buffalo. The report was that the government had beat the Indian out of such a wonderful hunting ground. They said the whole country was full of game and they believe the Indians were robbed. As I remember the Indians were paid for every foot of land that was taken away from them. When I was working for Ilif, the Indians would pass back and forth going south into Kansas and Nebraska and north up into the Dakotas and Wyoming. They burned one of our ranches in the winter of 1869. It was close to where Grover, Colorado now stands. But we were all well armed and they kept clear of us. They left a trail occasionally and killed cows so they could get the unborn calves to eat. They left their mark sometimes along the UP. They killed several people at different times. Once I remember was at Pine Bluff where they killed a son of "Pine Bluff" Tracy. They took toll at the Bluff's several times also at Sidney, Nebraska and at Point of Rocks west of Sidney.

Sometime about the middle of May 1870 they ran off a band of Ilif's horses from Simpson Canyon, Chalk Bluff's. The horses were at North Platte in possession of the Sioux Indians the next year. Once later in the spring of 1870, two of us were driving a heard of beef cattle to Cheyenne from the Simpson Canyon. At Chalks Bluff's we ran into a band of Indians, seventeen in number. The Indians didn't start anything and we did not either. That was about seven miles east of Cheyenne. Many of the Indians we fought were peaceable at later fights. We had to fight them all at one time or another. At the same time of the Custer massacre June 26, 1876 for example, the Arapaho Indians were on the Wind River Agency and the Cheyenne in the Indian territory, being fed by the government. The site of the Fetterman massacre Dec 21, 1866 was about sixty miles south of the Custer field and ten years earlier in time.

The summer of 1866 the Black Feet killed 7 men in at the wood camp.

For a year or two before the Custer massacre my partner Pete Hanna and I had a contract to haul Indian goods to the warerooms at Camp Carlin and some to the I. W. French warerooms on the corner of 15th and Eddy's Streets Cheyenne Wyoming. The goods consisted of flour, bacon, coffee, sugar, hard tack and some boxes of merchandise. There was a large quantity of it. From Cheyenne the goods were freighted by Bull trains and mules to a Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Agency Dakota. Some years afterward they moved the depot to Sidney, Nebraska and freighted the goods from there, as it was a shorter haul. At the time of the Custer massacre Sitting Bull's children, squaws and old men were well taken care of at the Agency while he was out killing settlers and stealing stock. Some writers said the old men and squaws were the ones that mutilated the Custer dead, but this was not so as for they were not there.

In the later part of the year 1927, Governor Johnson of Oklahoma, made a statement printed in the Kansas City Star stating that the Indians always kept their agreements and all treaties, especially the treaty of 1867 laying all the blame on the government for all of the Indian Wars. I can only be charitable and credit him with ignorance and good intentions. Certainly his statement lacked truth. This was directly opposite from most experiences of those having to deal with the Indians. I do not claim that all the wrong was one sided but I do claim that the Indians could never be trusted and never paid any attention to the treaty in question. Red Cloud in particular, to the best of my knowledge, never kept a treaty he made. I was at a reunion at Sheridan, Wyoming in 1908 and was told that the Crow Indians were nearly self-supporting at that time after thirty-five years. The government had built quarters on the land, given them stock and teachers to show them how to farm and raise good stock, and yet after thirty-five years with all of this assistance, they were nearly self-supporting.

Little publicity or public recognition has ever been given to the Indian War Veteran and his accomplishments. They are indeed a forgotten people and the only ones in American history so treated. They seem to have been put in the same class with the police in the city. They were so placed for the purpose of being shot at and abused. Their deeds were in a country little known and against an enemy that was not a national menace as in other wars. The natural result was that they were shelved when other veterans were getting pensions and monuments. They traveled through snow and cold without shelter and were expected to do the impossible such as traveling fifty to a hundred miles in a day on foot to get to the scene of some depredation by Indians. The popular idea was that they were no good anyway. If the settlers that now enjoy their ranches in Nebraska, Wyoming, the Dakotas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Minnesota and all of the Western States would stop and think, they would find that at least one Indian War Veteran lost his life for every township in the entire territory described.

All of the old timers in Cheyenne will remember my bunkie John Donavon. He had three arrow wounds, one from a poisoned arrow that left a running sore. He was also a Civil War Veteran. He tried to get a pension for many years. I suppose when they saw he was a regular soldier they pigeon holed his application for he was rejected several times. He finally got $16.00 per month. He died many years ago but lived in the 900 block East 21st Street Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In 1908 when I went to the reunion in Sheridan, Wyoming, Colonel Carrington, with his wife, five soldiers and two citizens were all we could rally. All but three are now dead. Mrs. Wheatly the wife of the Wheatly that was killed at the massacre married a man by the name of Breckenridge and lived on a ranch about five miles up the river from Fort Laramie. As I remember she had two boys when she lived with Phil Kearney. Lieutenant Grummond's widow married Colonel Carrington. James Bridger was with us all the summer of 1866 up until late in the fall. If Carrington and the officers had followed the advice of Bridger, I do not think there would have been nearly as many of our men killed. He told the officers not to follow the Indians and to send more men on escort duty, but they thought he was old and did not know anything about Indian Warfare. As I knew him he was nothing like the Jim Bridger as pictured in the film "The Covered Wagon" which I saw in 1926. I never saw him under the influence of liquor and I know he did not have any squaws along with him. He must have been between 60 and 70 years of age at that time, but he was quite spry was a good story-teller and could speak the Indian language.

To correct a wrong impression about Colonel Fetterman, I wish to make one statement for those that may be interested. He was charged with disobeying orders. I am sure he did not disobey orders the morning of the massacre. Major Powell told some of the troop about the massacre, but in the Phraseology of the day he was "squelched". When I was in Sheridan in 1908 there was a distinct feeling in the air that I should not say anything about it. The party went out to where The Wagon Box fight was held but did not take John Stawn or me along. I was on the massacre ground in July of 1908 and noted that the ledge of stone where the men were massacred was gone completely. It had been removed for some reason but it would have been better to have left it. It was about where the monument now stands.

Just a little side light and a few comments on how the regular soldier was treated by Uncle Sam in those days. In the first place he was not taught anything about "first aid" and was not furnished anything for first aid use unless at a Fort. Men were sent out on escort of Wagon Trains and if wounded had nothing to bandage the wound or stop the bleeding. Usually the wounded man was put on top of the freight wagon on the goods in it and in the summer this was next to the wagon sheet where he would burn up from the rays of the sun and in winter it was freezing cold. Often it would be several days before the wounded man could see a Doctor. You will have noticed from this article that there was no Doctor at the Fetterman massacre none at The Wagon Box fight and there was never one sent out with escorts in those days.

I trust that I have portrayed some of the events and conditions of the times in such a manner, however rambling, that a little more light will have been shed on some of the history of the times and more interest aroused for the survivors of those wars. They are the unsung heroes of a forgotten Battalion TOO LONG FORGOTTEN.