The Face of War


Little Big Horn . . . Rosebud . . . Sand Creek . . . Washita . . . Summit Springs . . . Slim Buttes . . . Beecher’s Island. . . .

Many of us are familiar with the big battles of the Indian Wars. They have been written about, they have been portrayed in film, their lessons have been studied by young and old about to go to modern wars. From fights such as the above, we unavoidably come away with a somewhat romantic notion of the IW’s. We see brilliant war bonnets in the sun, we hear bugles sounding the charge, and there, of course, is Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill or California Joe riding headlong into the fray. But let us not forget that first and foremost the IW’s were WAR. And not just any war either, but a messy guerrilla war. While colorful battles make for compelling reading, the essence of the IW’s were very much like any other irregular war—the one-on-one, face-to-face encounter. For every Washita and Rosebud, there were a hundred incidents such as the following. . . .

On September 27, 1868, a column of cavalry was just concluding a day’s march on the high and dry plains of far western Kansas. Ahead was the sandy, shallow South Fork of the Republican River. Sigmund Shlesinger, a Jewish army scout, and his friend, Ben Clark, were riding a little in advance of the rest.

“Before Clark and I descended to the bottom, we looked around and saw four Indians running toward three horses,” Shlesinger later wrote. “Three of them jumped on their horses and in great agitation galloped away through the water to the other side of the river and kept on to the south as fast as their ponies could carry them, leaving their companion behind. He ran after them, but of course could not overhaul them. . . . [W]e noticed two or three of our company . . . hasten down to the bottom toward the Indians.”

One of those bearing down on the lone warrior was Jack Peate.

Just before he came to the river he dropped a woman’s white skirt and soon after a calico dress; then, as the race grew warmer (we were on the rolling ground south of the river now), he dropped his blanket. The sport, to us, was now becoming exciting. The boys shooting at the Indian whenever they could. The Indian was running very, very fast, but we were gaining on him slowly. He would not run in a straight line; he would jump several times to the right, then back to the left, still rushing ahead. . . . [The] bullets were striking the ground all around him. It looked as if the Indian would get to the deep canon still a half mile away, where his comrades had passed out of sight, when a shot from a . . . rifle . . . broke the Indian’s right leg above the knee. . . . After hopping a few feet he sits down and faces the foe. The few hundred feet that still separate us is soon passed over. As soon as the Indian faces us he commences to fire, being armed with a Colt’s navy revolver. . . . Then something seems to be the matter with his revolver; he looks into it and throws it on the ground. Not a shot was fired by our party while advancing after the Indian discarded his revolver. . . . [H]e was a young man, perhaps twenty-five years of age. . . . He was chanting a weird song and did not offer any resistance. He knew what his fate would be and showed no fear.

The next morning, Peate returned to the spot. “The wolves had held a banquet there,” he noted, “and a few bones was all that remained of the warrior of yesterday.”

Also in the area were the graves of several Indians, including one inside a white tepee.

Again, Jack Peate:

We went into the lodge and found that it was the tomb of a medicine man. . . . The Indian was placed on a scaffold that was eight feet high. Fastened to the scaffold was his war bonnet and a large drum. He was wrapped in blankets and a buffalo robe and tied on the scaffold. The posts on one side of the scaffold were torn away by the boys so we could have a better look at the good Indian. The body was then rolled to the edge of the canon and it rolled from there to the bottom.

Sigmund Shlesinger also was there:

All the bodies were pulled down from their lofty perches. This may seem a wanton sacrilege, but not to those who have suffered bodily torture and mental anguish from those very cruel savages. I had no scruples in rolling one out of his blankets, that still were soaking in the blood from the wounds that evidently caused his death, and appropriating the top one that was least wet. This Indian had on a headdress composed of buckskin beautifully beaded and ornamented, with a polished buffalo horn on the frontal part and eagle feathers down the back. When I took this off, maggots were in the headpiece. I also pulled off his earrings and finger rings, which were of tin. He was so far decomposed that when I took hold of the rings the fingers came along, and these I shook out.

(from my Scalp Dance–Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865-1879)