Red Cloud’s War

The Sioux and Cheyennes enjoyed a great deal of success against the U.S. Army in the Powder River and Bozeman Trail campaigns for four primary reasons: the presence of Southern Cheyenne warriors intent on exacting revenge for the massacre of their women and children at Sand Creek; numerical superiority and intimate knowledge of the terrain on the part of the Indians; the expert ability of the Sioux and Cheyennes to engage in highly mobile guerilla warfare; and, perhaps most importantly, the inspiring leadership and stubbornness of Red Cloud.

The Southern Cheyennes had split after Sand Creek, with Black Kettle leading a portion south, while others, among them William Bent’s wife Yellow Woman and her sons, moved north to join their northern cousins. Both factions were hoping to move to an area free of white intrusion and soldiers, and those heading north to the Powder River assumed soldiers would not “dare march into that great stronghold of the Teton Sioux and Northern Cheyennes.”[1] Not long after they arrived in the north, however, Red Cloud decided to deal with the increasing numbers of soldiers in the area, and he invited the Southern Cheyennes to join him. The combined Amerindian force carried out a successful attack on Platte Bridge Station, with the Cheyenne warrior Roman Nose playing a significant part in the battle. Southern Cheyenne warriors, including the Bent brothers, also played leading roles in the attack on the Sawyers wagon train, an incident that gave Red Cloud and Dull Knife their first news of the Powder River campaign. Roman Nose continued to inspire the Cheyennes and the Sioux with his bravery and amazing feats in battle, right up to the time of his death at Beecher’s Island.[2]

The Indians outnumbered the soldiers during much of the fighting, and took advantage of this fact in battles such as the Fetterman Massacre, in which nearly two thousand Sioux and Cheyennes killed all eighty-one members of Captain Fetterman’s command. The Amerindians also had the advantage of fighting in their own homeland, and their intimate knowledge of the boundless plains and rugged mountains allowed them to fight at times and places of their choosing. Throughout the entire area of operations, the Sioux and Cheyennes enjoyed nearly total freedom of movement, as the soldiers began to fear venturing out of their few isolated forts. Crazy Horse’s decoy tactics in the Fetterman Massacre and Sleeping Rabbit’s plan to derail a train and loot its contents were typical of the irregular warfare engaged in by the Indians. Wagon trains and wood-cutting parties were defended by cavalry escorts, but the American troops were outmatched in both numbers and tactics, and deadly ambushes continued.[3]

Red Cloud’s tenacity in insisting that peace would only come about if all Americans abandoned the Powder River region was noble and inspiring to his followers. In meeting after meeting with soldiers and Indian agents, Red Cloud repeated his demands, and insisted that the Indians would never move east to the Missouri River, as was being demanded by treaty agents. Red Cloud even sent a message to Sherman at Laramie that he would not come in to discuss peace until the soldiers left the area. Humiliated and discouraged by the lack of progress, the Americans abandoned the Powder River country; just as Red Cloud had demanded, the soldiers left, and the forts were abandoned. In celebration, Red Cloud’s warriors burned the forts as the soldiers skulked away.[4]

[1] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Picador, 2007. Originally published 1971 by Holt, Rinehard and Winston), 96.

[2] Ibid., 98-99; 105-107; 165-66.

[3] Ibid., 132-39.

[4] Ibid., 145.

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