Across The Fence
Bloody Pocket: The Final Battle
The military activity in Dakota Territory during the final days of December 1890 included the 7th U.S. Cavalry and the 8th U.S Cavalry. Their intended purpose was to track down the bands of Sioux who had left their respective reservations. Indians who stayed within the boundaries of their reservations were considered friendlies. Those who were not on the reservations were labeled as hostiles and were to be rounded up and returned by force, when needed, and by deadly force if necessary. Many of Spotted Elk’s Miniconjou, Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa and Red Cloud’s Brule had left their designated reservations and were heading towards the Pine Ridge Reservation. Some were trying to distance themselves from the turmoil being caused by the Ghost Dance and many were desperate to secure the food and clothing allotments that had failed to arrive. Food was scarce and adequate clothing and shelter was imperative due to the already severe winter conditions.
It was the 7th Cavalry, under the command of Colonel James W. Forsyth that surrounded and attacked the 350 Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek. The massacre at Wounded Knee, officially designated as a battle, is often said to be the last battle in the conflict between U.S. troops and the Native Americans. This forty-years of turmoil is collectively referred to as The Indian Wars. However the final, official, battle was actually fought on December 30, 1890, the day after Wounded Knee.
It is estimated that nearly 50 Indians were able to escape the mass killings at Wounded Knee. Those who escaped were mostly women and children who fled south, across Wounded Knee Creek in hopes of finding safety at the Pine Ridge Reservation. The morning of the 30th brought the brutal beginnings of a three-day blizzard that gripped the badlands and the Pine Ridge country with sub-zero temperatures, blinding snow and fierce winds. The fate of those, who survived the bullets, then fell into the icy hands of a Dakota blizzard. Several had been wounded, many suffered from fatigue and hunger, and most of them died of exposure, as they struggled to traverse the steep ridges and cedar-filled canyons. There were few who actually reached the sanctuary of the reservation.
Col. Forsyth dispatched Company K, of the 7th Cavalry, to pursue those who fled and return them to their respective reservations on the Cheyenne River, Standing Rock and Rose Bud. The pursuit took the troopers to a place called ‘Bloody Pocket’ on White Clay Creek, about 15 miles north of Pine Ridge near the Drexel Mission. It was at this place where Forsyth’s Company K was met with armed resistance from the Lakota bands who had gathered there. Forsyth’s men were quickly surrounded, according to some accounts, by as many as 4,000 Sioux. If that number is correct, the impending battle could well have been a repeat of the Custer fight but apparently the troopers were able to hold off the attacking Sioux who had them pinned down. This battle would become known as the Drexel Mission fight.
I have been unable to find much information about the Drexel Mission fight. No doubt, somewhere in military archives there are records of the battle but readily available details are scarce. I have found no information of casualties, either Sioux or soldiers, and most accounts indicate it was more of a siege than a battle although it is said that shots were fired. However, I might speculate on the circumstances. If the number of Sioux was in fact 4,000, or anywhere near that number to as little as 500, and Company K consisted of the average number of 30 troopers, then one might easily assume that the Indians had few, if any, effective weapons. The accounts that I found agree that Company K was pinned down so it must be assumed that they were sufficiently surrounded by enough warriors to eliminate the chance of escape and that there was adequate firepower to keep the troopers in a defensive position. Apparently a messenger was able to break out and get word back to the main body of the 7th for reinforcements.
During the Drexel Mission battle, back at Wounded Knee Creek, Major Guy V. Henry had arrived after a forced march of 300 miles from Fort McKinney. This march, conducted under extreme winter conditions is reportedly one of the most remarkable marches in U.S. military history. Major Henry was in command of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, Companies, D, F, I and K, famously known as The Buffalo Soldiers. It was the Sioux who had given the name ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ to the troopers of the 9th Cavalry which was made up of former slaves and free men of African ancestry.
Despite days without rest, Major Henry and his command proceeded immediately to the bloody pocket where Col. Forsyth and his men were trapped and waiting for rescue. When the 9th Cavalry reached the mouth of the canyon they assembled for battle and deployed one of the Hotchkiss guns. Major Henry divided his men into two battalions, one battalion for each side of the Bloody Pocket canyon. With the Hotchkiss gun blazing away and the four companies of soldiers sweeping the perimeter, the Sioux made a speedy retreat from the battle. Major Henry boasted that the battle was of one of the 9th Cavalry’s most celebrated triumphs. The Sioux had been routed and the battle won with not a single soldier being killed.
Wounded Knee and the Drexel Mission fight had brought the year 1890 to a bitter and bloody close. The Great Sioux War had at last come to an end and now perhaps, there could be peace. Unfortunately, there was yet one final act of war.
On January 7th, 1891. A young Brule Sioux named Plenty Horses, shot and killed Lieutenant Edward W. Casey near the Stronghold Table in the Badlands of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Plenty Horses explained the killing in these words, “Five years I attended Carlisle and was educated in the ways of the white man. When I returned to my people, I was an outcast among them. I was no longer an Indian. I was not a white man. I was lonely. I shot the lieutenant so I might make a place for myself among my people. I am now one of them. I shall be hung, and the Indians will bury me as a warrior.”
Plenty Horses stood trial at Fort Meade where he was defended by two lawyers, George Nock and David Powers, who had donated their services. They argued that since the United States was in a state of war with the Sioux, Plenty Horses had killed Lt. Casey, who was caught spying on the Sioux encampment at the Stronghold, in an act of war. The argument continued that if the United States was not in a state of war with the Sioux, then Wounded Knee and the Drexel Mission fight were not acts of war but were then nothing more than murder.
General Miles testified that the U.S. was indeed engaged in a war with the Sioux and that Wounded Knee and the Drexel Mission fight were acts of war. Obviously, the United States was compelled to consider the Sioux at Wounded Knee as combatants who were being held as prisoners of war and had retaliated in armed resistance. The ensuing battles were then acts of war as well as the actions of Lt. Casey and Plenty Horses. Plenty Horses was acquitted which also exonerated the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry and gave controversial legitimacy to the twenty Congressional Medals of Honor that were given to soldiers who fought at Wounded Knee and Bloody Pocket.
There were a total of not more than 1,500 soldiers who fought for less than an hour at Wounded Knee, against fewer than 100 Sioux warriors, and twenty Medals of Honor were given. By contrast, 64,000 South Dakotan’s, including many Sioux men, fought for four years in World War II. Among them, only three Medals of Honor were awarded.
It was said by a Sioux elder that the ‘wasichu’ (the whites) “… made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.”
Perhaps it is true that wars are sometimes necessary to preserve freedom and maintain civility among nations but it seems the cost, in terms of human life, suffering, bitterness and prolonged hatred is far too high a price to pay.
I hear the words of an old protest song from the 60s, “Where have all the soldiers gone. Gone to graveyards every one. When will we ever learn…”
The history of our nation has presented us with many lessons to be learned and has, at times, been a harsh teacher. An even though we cannot change the past, we can shape the future. May this year of 2013 be a truly Happy New Year, a year when old wounds are healed, a year when hope becomes reality. Let there be peace on earth among all nations and may God bless America.
M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, cowboy poet and entertainer. To contact Tim, e-mail; [email protected]