A first hand account of the Indian Wars in the West
Those interested in the history of the Plains Indians Wars of the United States of America may well have heard of this book by John F. Finnerty, for it is an acknowledged classic of the period. Finnerty was one of that dauntless breed of newspaper correspondents who joined the army in the field to report these exciting episodes in the winning of the West at first hand. These courageous, professional writers, who of course exist to the present day, combine eye-witness experience with the ability to translate what they have seen expertly into words. In the old West—as today—the task cost some of them their lives. Finnerty reported for the Chicago Times newspaper and in 1876 he was dispatched to the western plains to witness the subjugation of the Sioux Indian tribe and their allies. He was to find himself present at some of the most notable events in the history of the period and within these pages the reader will be transported to the Battle of the Rosebud and the Sibley Scout. Finnerty’s words give an immediacy to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, to Merritt’s fight on the War Bonnet and the fight at Slim Buttes. Finnerty joined the army on campaign again in 1879 for the actions that finally broke the Sioux and brought Sitting Bull to captivity.
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Soon, however, the restless foe came back upon us, apparently reinforced. He made a vigorous push for our centre down some rocky ravines, which gave him good cover. Just then a tremendous yell arose behind us, and along through the intervals of our battalions, came the tumultuous array of the Crow and Shoshone Indians, rallied and led back to action by Maj. George M. Randall and Lieut. John G. Bourke, of General Crook’s staff. Orderly Sergeant John Van Moll, of Troop A, Mills’ battalion, a brave and gigantic soldier, who was subsequently basely murdered by a drunken mutineer of his company, dashed forward on foot with them. The two bodies of savages, all stripped to the breech-clout, moccasins and war bonnet, came together in the trough of the valley, the Sioux having descended to meet our allies with right goodwill.<br>
All, except Sergeant Van Moll, were mounted. Then began a most exciting encounter. The wild foemen, covering themselves with their horses, while going at full speed, blazed away rapidly. Our regulars did not fire because it would have been sure death to some of the friendly Indians, who were barely distinguishable by a red badge which they carried. Horses fell dead by the score—they were heaped there when the fight closed—but, strange to relate, the casualties among the warriors, including both sides, did not certainly exceed five and twenty. The whooping was persistent, but the Indian voice is less hoarse than that of the Caucasian, and has a sort of wolfish bark to it, doubtless the result of heredity, because the Indians, for untold ages, have been imitators of the vocal characteristics of the prairie wolf. The absence of very heavy losses in this combat goes far to prove the wisdom of the Indian method of fighting.<br>
Finally the Sioux on the right, hearing the yelping and firing of the rival tribes, came up in great numbers, and our Indians, carefully picking up their wounded, and making their uninjured horses carry double, began to draw off in good order. Sergeant Van Moll was left alone on foot. A dozen Sioux dashed at him. Major Randall and Lieutenant Bourke who had probably not noticed him in the general mêlée, but who, in the crisis, recognized his stature and his danger, turned their horses to rush to his rescue. They called on the Indians to follow them.<br>
One small, misshapen Crow warrior, mounted on a fleet pony, outstripped all others. He dashed boldly in among the Sioux, against whom Van Moll was dauntlessly defending himself, seized the big sergeant by the shoulder and motioned him to jump up behind. The Sioux were too astonished to realize what had been done until they saw the long-legged sergeant, mounted behind the little Crow, known as “Humpy,” dash toward our lines like the wind. Then they opened fire, but we opened also, and compelled them to seek higher ground. The whole line of our battalion cheered “Humpy” and Van Moll as they passed us on the home-stretch. There were no insects on them, either.<br>
In order to check the insolence of the Sioux, we were compelled to drive them from the third ridge. Our ground was more favourable for quick movements than that occupied by Royall, who found much difficulty in forcing the savages in his front—mostly the flower of the brave Cheyenne tribe—to retire. One portion of his line, under Captain Vroom, pushed out beyond its supports, deceived by the rugged character of the ground, and suffered quite severely. In fact, the Indians got between it and the main body, and nothing but the coolness of its commander and the skilful management of Colonels Royall and Henry saved Troop L of the 3rd Cavalry from annihilation on that day. Lieutenant Morton, one of Colonel Royall’s aids. Captain Andrews and Lieutenant Foster of troop I, since dead, particularly distinguished themselves in extricating Vroom from his perilous position.<br>
In repelling the audacious charge of the Cheyennes upon his battalion, the undaunted Colonel Henry, one of the most accomplished officers in the army, was struck by a bullet, which passed through both cheek bones, broke the bridge of his nose and destroyed the optic nerve in one eye. His orderly, in attempting to assist him, was also wounded, but, temporarily blinded as he was, and throwing blood from his mouth by the handful, Henry sat his horse for several minutes in front of the enemy. He finally fell to the ground, and, as that portion of our line, discouraged by the fall of so brave a chief, gave ground a little, the Sioux charged over his prostrate body, but were speedily repelled, and he was happily rescued by some soldiers of his command.
Several hours later, when returning from the pursuit of the hostiles, I saw Colonel Henry lying on a blanket, his face covered with a bloody cloth, around which the summer flies were buzzing fiercely, and a soldier keeping the wounded man’s horse in such a position as to throw the animal’s shadow upon the gallant sufferer. There was absolutely no other shade in that neighbourhood. When I ventured to condole with the colonel he merely said, in a low but firm voice, “It is nothing. For this are we soldiers!” and forthwith he did me the honour of advising me to join the army! Colonel Henry’s sufferings, when our retrograde movement began, and, in fact, until—after a jolting journey of several hundred miles, by mule litter and wagon—he reached Fort Russell, were horrible, as were, indeed, those of all the wounded.<br>
As the day advanced. General Crook became tired of the indecisiveness of the action, and resolved to bring matters to a crisis. He rode up to where the officers of Mills’ battalion were standing, or sitting, behind their men, who were prone on the skirmish line, and said, in effect, “It is time to stop this skirmishing. Colonel. You must take your battalion and go for their village away down the cañon.”<br>
“All right, sir,” replied Mills, and the order to retire and remount was given. The Indians, thinking we were retreating, became audacious, and fairly hailed bullets after us, wounding several soldiers. One man, named Harold, received a singular wound. He was in the act of firing, when a bullet from the Indians passed along the barrel of his carbine, glanced around his left shoulder, traversed the neck, under the skin, and finally lodged in the point of his lower jaw. The shock laid him low for a moment, but, picking himself up, he had the nerve to reach for his weapon, which had fallen from his hand, and bore it with him off the ground. Our men, under the eyes of the officers, retired in orderly time, and the whistling of the bullets could not induce them to forget that they were American soldiers. Under such conditions, it was easy to understand how steady discipline can conquer mere numbers.