Thursday, September 17, 2015


9/17/1862, is still the bloodiest day in American history (and may it never be bested!), but I've decided to go with a little less gore for today's moment in time ... Civil War over for three years, but out west the ongoing conflict for control of the land between Indians, settlers, and the American Army explodes into violence in the northern part of what is now the state of Colorado (near the present-day town of Wray) ... a scrap the history books will call the Battle of Beecher's Island (or if you prefer, the Battle of Arikaree Fork, as some now call it).
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Site of the Fight - 1917

Acting on a request for help from Colorado Governor Frank Hall, after a summer that has seen 79 settlers killed in Indian attacks on farms, ranches, way stations and the major routes through the territory, Civil War cavalry hero, General Philip Sheridan, commanding the Department of the Missouri, orders his aide, Major George Alexander Forsyth of the 9th Cavalry, to create a mobile force of 50 crack shot frontiersmen (48, if Forsyth and his executive officer, Lieutenant Fredrick H. Beecher, a Civil War veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg, aren't counted) to give the Indians a big dose of their own hit-and-run tactics.  Hand-picked for their marksmanship and other wilderness survival skills, along with the personal baggage carried, each man is issued a Spencer repeating rifle.  In August of 1868 the force rides out for the first time and by September 5th are encamped at Fort Wallace, Kansas ... without having sighted a trace of any hostile Indians.
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"Little Phil"
James William Forsyth.jpg 
Spencer Repeating Rifle

On the morning of 9/10/1868, the group rides out on a mission to find a raiding party of about 25 Indians which has attacked a freight train near the Kansas Pacific Railroad railhead of Sheridan, Kansas (only a few miles from Fort Wallace).  Following the trail for several days, despite the beaten path growing a lot larger than from being made by just 25 Indians, Forsyth's command beds down for the evening on 9/16 in Colorado, at a south bank location known as the "Dry Fork of the Republican River" (now the Arikaree River) ... unaware that they are only 12 miles downstream from a large group of encampments of Ogalala Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians.  The Indians though, know exactly where Forsyth and his men are ... and a dawn attack, led by Roman Nose, the war leader of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, is planned to overrun the intruders the next morning.
Roman Nose - Fort Laramie - 1868

Restless, sensing trouble, Forsyth is up before light and sets the battle in motion when he spots a feathered head silhouetted as it creeps along the dawn's skyline ... rifle grabbed and fired, the first warrior of the day is sent to his happy hunting grounds in the sky.  The shot also instantly alerts the rest of the scouts, and awake, the men's horses are prevented from being stampeded by another group of Indians moving towards the men's mounts (only a few pack mules are lost, but sadly they carry most of the men's ammo and eats). Surprise destruction thwarted, the command of 50 men is nonetheless about to be swamped into oblivion by hundreds of Plains warriors (estimates of the Indian count involved in the battle vary from a 200 low to an over 1,000 high), Forsyth averts disaster by quickly accessing the situation, ordering his command to saddle up, and leading a mad gallop for the best defensive position in the vicinity ... a small sand bar island in the Republican River.  A near thing dash, Forsyth and his men make the sand bar ahead of the Indians, with just enough time to jump off their horses, pull their rifles, and start blasting away at the charging Indians behind them ... charging Indians that take a turn at being surprised; their's the shock at the amount of fire power being sent their way by the repeating rifles of the scouts.
The Battle of Beecher's Island

And in one of the initial charges, the scouts land a blow major blow to the Indians by killing Roman Nose!
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The Charge of Roman Nose by Frederic Remington

A menace to pioneers since losing family in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, Roman Nose is known as one of the finest Indian warriors of the time (called Bat in his youth, he is Hooked Nose to the Cheyenne, a name which of course is butchered into Roman Nose by upset pioneers and soldiers that survive coming in contact with the man) ... six feet of sun bronzed muscle that goes into battle wearing pieces of the stolen uniform of an Army general, carrying his own seven-shot Spencer rifle (hung from his saddle), four large Navy revolvers stuck in his belt, with an arrow strung bow in his left hand, mounted on a fine war horse, and possessing a magical war bonnet which he believes makes him invulnerable in battle.  Invulnerable if he follows certain rules liking never shaking hands with anyone, or eating food that has come in contact with any kind of metal ... sure enough, a few days before Beecher's Island, Roman Nose is served a piece of fry bread by a Sioux cook that had used an iron fork in its preparation (unable to complete a series of rituals that will cleanse him, he at first stays out of the battle until an elderly warrior named White Contrary chastises him for his lack of participation and he mounts up and rides to his death).  Shot off his horse by an unknown scout, the death of Roman Nose causes the Indians to immediately change their tactics, and instead of more frontal assaults that would have eventually destroyed Forsyth and his command, the battle devolves into a series of smaller attacks by handfuls of warriors attempting to count coup, and off-and-on sniping, as targets present themselves, at the survivors on the sand bar.
Roman Nose Wearing His Magical War Bonnet

On the sand bar, now named Beecher's Island by Forsyth after Lt. Beecher is struck in the head by a bullet and dies, a defensive perimeter is established using brush, rocks, some digging, and the dead horses of the group ... and the command survives its first day and night of battle ... barely.  It is never known how many Indians perish on the first day (or for the whole battle), but a count of the casualties for the scouts is as easy as having row call in the morning ... Lt. Beecher, Acting Surgeon J. H. Mooers, and Scouts George Culver and William Wilson are killed, and 15 other men are wounded, including Forsyth, who sports a minor head wound to go with a bullet fractured leg.  And they are also down the two men that volunteer to sneak out and go for help at Fort Wallace (two more men, Scouts John J. Donovan and Allison J. Pliley will leave two nights later on the same mission) ... Simpson "Jack" Stilwell and Pierre Trudeau.
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Beecher Island Fight
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On the Sand Bar

For the next eight days, the men of Beecher's Island fend off repeated Indian attacks (Forsyth will be wounded two more times and another scout will be killed), lingering summer heat, eating rotting horse and mule meat, drinking out of muddy holes, swarms of blow flies, and the ever-present stench of all the dead animal stock and men strewn about the area.  Rescue finally arrives on the morning of September 25th!


While the scouts endure their island tribulations, Stilwell and Trudeau have their own traumatic adventure trying to make it to Fort Wallace. The journey of the pair begins with a three mile crawl through the Indians surrounding the island.  The men then remain in hiding until night, and when it is dark, walk in the southeastern direction of Fort Wallace ... a routine they repeat each day and night while surviving on spoiling horse meat (Trudeau will grow so sick and weak that he requires assistance to stand upright) until they eventually reach the fort.
Simpson E. "Jack" Stilwell
Stilwell Later In Life

Word received and believed, the fort responds immediately.  Unsure of the exact location of Forsyth and his command, three rescue parties are sent off on different routes ... leading the Buffalo Soldiers of Troop H & I of the 10th Cavalry Regiment is Lieutenant Louis H. Carpenter (he will receive the Medal of Honor for his relief of Forsyth, and for his actions at the Battle of Beaver Creek, when two weeks later he creates a defensive position which saves a supply train from 500 marauding warriors ... at the end of his career he reaches the rank of brigadier general), Major Brisbin in charge of two troops of the 2nd Cavalry, and Captain Bankhead with 100 men of the 5th Infantry. Relief finally obtained, Carpenter and his men secure the area, then pitch tents up wind where the air seems healthy and doesn't smell of carrion.  Wounded moved and treated, rations given out and consumed, Forsyth's command and all the rescue parties rest up for three days before making their way back to Fort Wallace.  Butcher bill complete when Scout Walter Armstrong dies at the compound's hospital, Forsyth's nine day stay on Beecher's Island costs his command 6 dead and 16 wounded (for his actions saving his small force, Forsyth will receive a brevet promotion to brigadier general ... he will retire from the Army in 1890, die in Rockport, Massachusetts at the age of 77, and is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery).
Black and white picture of Louis Carpenter, a white male in his US Army uniform and a large mustache. His Army uniform has a high collar with an emblem of crossed swords and the letters U.S. next to it. He is wearing a round hat with an emblem of an eagle clutching something.

A minor skirmish in the ongoing war for control of western American, some of the battle's truths become the myths and legends for future generations ... hero leader, villain leader, screaming savages, stalwart frontiersmen, arrows and bullets flying everywhere, suicide mission volunteers, and of course, the cavalry riding to rescue just in the nick of time ... and if you don't believe me, just check out the part in the beginning of The Searchers where John Wayne and a handful of pals stop an assault of hundreds of Comanche Indians, charging across a river ford, by knocking the war bonneted warrior leader off his horse with a well placed bullet.  
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Wayne At The River

The Real McCoy of that Hollywood moment though is why today mattered ... 9/17/1868 ... 147 years ago today ... the Battle of Beecher's Island begins!

Achilles by George Capp (The Death of Roman Nose)
1905 Monument

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