This Date in Native History: On November 27, 1868, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an early morning attack on a band of peaceful Cheyenne living in western Oklahoma.
The surprise attack, known as the Battle of the Washita River, is hailed as one of the first substantial American victories in the wars against the Southern Plains Indians.
“Prior to this, the Southern Plains Indians—the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the Kiowa and Comanche—they were running circles around the Army,” said Joel Shockley, a park guide at Washita Battlefield National Historic Site. “At the time, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were known as the fiercest Indians in the area.”
Custer, touted as a Civil War hero, had been suspended for one year after being convicted of desertion and mistreatment of soldiers. Ten months into this punishment, he was reinstated to lead a campaign against Cheyenne Indians who had raided settlements in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Custer and 150 men of the 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked at dawn on November 27, after marching all night, said Shockley, who is Choctaw and Cherokee. Their target was a camp of about 300 Cheyenne living with Chief Black Kettle, who almost exactly four years earlier had survived the dawn massacre at Sand Creek, in Colorado.
In his field report, Custer stated that three of his four columns charged as one, and that “there was never a more complete surprise. My men charged the village and reached the lodges before the Indians were aware of our presence.”
Custer rode a black stallion that morning, historian Mary Jane Warde wrote in her 2003 book, Washita. After shooting one Cheyenne man, Custer took a position on a knoll to watch the battle. In his field report, he described the scene.
“The lodges and all their contents were in our possession within 10 minutes after the charge was ordered,” he wrote. “But the real fighting, such as has rarely been equaled in Indian warfare, began when attempting to clear out or kill the warriors posted in ravines and underbrush; charge after charge was made, and most gallantly too, but the Indians had resolved to sell their lives as dearly as possible.”
Within a few hours of the attack, Custer’s men had destroyed the village and killed as many as 103 Cheyenne, including Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman. Custer then ordered his men to destroy “everything of value to the Indians,” Warde wrote. That included slaughtering more than 800 horses and mules.
Custer calculated the number of human deaths by asking each of his men how many people he killed, Shockley said. By the time Custer returned to Fort Hayes, the count had risen to 140.
“Custer was trying to redeem himself with the Army,” Shockley said. “It is believed that many of these officers counted the same people two or three times.”
Cheyenne estimates put the death toll much lower, Shockley said. The tribe reported 50 to 60 people were killed, including 12 women and six children.
Of the 53 people taken captive, most were women and children. Custer likely used the hostages as “human shields,” a strategy he used often during the Indian wars and wrote about in his 1874 book, My Life on the Plains: Or, Personal Experiences with Indians.
Although the incident is called a battle, it was more of a massacre, Shockley said. Custer’s orders were to go to the Washita River and follow it until he found the hostile Indians.
Before he reached the hostile group, however, he discovered Black Kettle and his peaceful village. Black Kettle was leading his people to reservation land and out of harm’s way, Shockley said. “The irony is that Custer basically stumbled on him.”