Thursday, May 26, 2011

War Correspondence from the Front Lines: Slim Buttes

General George Crook pictured here led the soldiers at the Slim Buttes fight. Slim Buttes is located in the northwestern corner of South Dakota. Just south of Slim Buttes, going towards Spearfish, is Crow Buttes, where not ten years earlier, the Lakota defeated the Crow Indians in a gunfight there.
War Correspondence from the Front Lines: 
Slim Buttes, Conflict On The Northern Plains
By Dakota Wind
SLIM BUTTES, S.D. - Note: Fintery’s account of the Slim Butte Fight took place three months after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

As we were about to break camp, on the morning of September 9th, a packer named George Herman rode up in hot haste to General Crook, bearing a dispatch from Colonel Mills, which announced that his detachment and attacked and captured, that morning, an Indian village of forty-one lodges, a large herd of ponies, and some supplies. The Sioux were still fighting to regain what they had lost, and the colonel requested reinforcements. He was then seventeen miles south , at Slim Buttes, on a tributary of Grand river. General Crook at once selected one hundred men, with the horses, from the 3d Cavalry, fifty from Noyes’ battalion of the 2d [Cavalry], and the 5th Cavalry, and, accompanied by his staff and the commanding officers of the different regiments, rode forward to the assistance of his subordinate. Mills, not anticipating an Indian fight, had allowed his men only fifty rounds of ammunition each, and Crook was alarmed lest the Sioux should compel him to expend his last cartridge before assistance could reach him. Finerty followed General Crook to the captured village. The Lakota retreated to gather together reinforcements to crush the white offense. Finerty speculates that the Lakota thought that Mills was alone like Custer before, because they weren’t anticipating Crook’s arrival to back Mills. The capture of the village took a few minutes at about 10 o’clock according to Finerty. Milles dispatched the scout Gruard to track the fleeing Lakota, which he did for about four miles. Mills then determined to attack the next morning.

Of course it rained all night, and while yet dark, the colonel moved forward his attachment, together with the pack mules, two miles. Then he halted the packers, fearing heir beats praying would alarm the Indians, dismounted all his cavalry, except twenty-five men under Schwatka, of Omaha, a well-known scout, and some other guides, went with Gruard and joined in the subsequent charge. Mills arriving in the edge of the ravine where the redskins sle[t securely, as they thought, sent Lieutenant Shwatka with his twenty-five mounted men, to drive off the pony heard [sic]. The ponies were stamped at once, but rushed for the village and alarmed the Indians.

A photo of Slim Buttes from Bob's Blah Blah Blog. There are plenty of beautiful and haunting images of Slim Buttes online, and blogs of people who visited that site. Plenty of antelope roam the range there, and an antelope research station is also at Slim Buttes. 

Von Leutwitz and Crawford, with fifty men each, on foot, surrounded the lodges and charged. There was a ripping of canvas and buffalo hide, as the Sioux had no time to untie the strings of the lodges and, therefore cut the tents with their knives. The soldiers fired a volley which the Indians returned in a desultory way. Almost at the first shot, Lieut. A. H. Von Leutwitz, of Troop F, 3d Cavalry, fell with a bullet through his right knee joint. This gentleman had served in the Austrian and Prussian armies, had fought at Montebello, Magneta, Solferino, all through the Italian campaign of ’59, had distinguished himself at Gettysburg and other great battles of our war, and had escaped comparatively unscathed. Yet his hour had come, and he fell wounded in a miserable Indian skirmish the very first man. Colonel Mills and Lieutenant Crawford then led on the soldiers and made short work of the village, although the Indians kept up a scattering fire from the bluffs.

When daylight came, the Sioux made matters much hotter, and the soldiers who were much exposed on that bare bluff were almost at their mercy. Mills sent back for his train, which came up with Moore, Bubb and R.A. Strahorn, all of whom behaved in a gallant manner during the skirmish which followed. Lieutenant Crawford acted fine judgment, and was spoken highly of by the soldiers who participated in the affair. Shwatka did his work in a thorough manner, and made a mark of which he may well be proud. But Mills is peculiar, and occasionally the reverse of politic, which to some extent neutralizes his undeniable ability as an officer. Yet, for all that, Crook’s column can never forget his brilliant dash on September 9, which saved it from much greater privation. He captured a large amount of dried provisions, 2,500 buffalo robes, and many other campaign luxuries which Indians appreciate as much as white men.

Anson Mills recovered this guidon from American Horse's band at the fight at Slim Buttes. The guidon was carried into battle at the Little Bighorn a few months earlier. 

One of the gallant Custer’s guidons, Colonel Keogh’s gauntlets, five horses of the 7th Cavalry and several other relics of the fated regiment were among the prizes secured. A party of Sioux, unable to make their escape, took refuge in a sort of deep, brush-covered gully, just above the site of the village, on the eastern slope, dug intrenchments [sic] with their hands and knives, and could not be dislodged by Mills’ detachment. In an attempt to drive them out, nearly all the casualties occurred. Private John Wenzel, of Troop A, 3d Cavalry was killed, and Sergt. Ed Glass, of Troop E, one of the boldest non-commissioned officers in the army, was shot through the right forarm. Several other soldiers were wounded in attempting to carry this fatal den.

The firing of the Indians from the bluffs compelled the soldiers to throw up temporary breastworks, which saved them particularly serious damage. The riding mule of Mr. Moore, and a horse belonging to Troop I were shot from the “lava bed” arrangement. Mills, when he sent back for his train in the morning, had the good sense to send for re-enforcements at the same time. Crook arrived a little after 11 o’clock, and immediately attacked the Indian burrow in the gully. In that affair he displayed to the fullest extent his eccentric contempt for danger. No private soldier could more expose himself than did the General and the officers of his staff. I expected to see them shot down every moment; for Charley White, the well-known scout, was shot through the heart, just across the ravine, not ten paces from Crook. Kennedy, of the 5th Cavalry, and Stevenson, of the 2d, were wounded, the one mortally and the other dangerously, beside him, while many other soldiers had hair-breadth escapes. The boys in blue, although unquestionably brave, did not quite relish the idea of being shot in the digestive organs by an unseen and “ungettable” enemy, but their officers rallied them without difficulty, heading the assault musket or carbine in hand. Besides General Crook and his staff, Major W.H. Powell and Major Munson, of the infantry, Major Burke, of the same branch of service; Lieut. Charles King, of the 5th Cavalry; Lieutenant Rogers, and the ever gallant Lieut. W. Philo Clark, of the 2d Cavalry, took desperate chances in true “forlorn hope” fashion. The guide, Baptiste Pourier, already so distinguished for bravery, fought his way into the cavern, and succeeded in killing one of the male Indians, ingeniously using a captive squaw as a living barricade between himself and the fire of the other warriors. He took the scalp of the fallen brave in a manner that displayed perfect workmanship. Scalping is an artistic process, and, when neatly done, may be termed a satanic accomplishment. Lieutenant W. Philo Clark would later study the universal Plains Indian sign language and write of it in such detail, that his notes were edited and compiled into a book, “The Indian Sign Language” was became required reading at West Point Military Academy for several years.

Clark's book "The Indian Sign Language" is one of the most detailed examinations of the Plains Indian sign language, however, there are no illustrations or photographs to reference from. There are, however, other really good books out there that do. Do a search at Barnes and Nobles or Amazon and get yourself a copy. 

Crook, exasperated by the protracted defense of the hidden Sioux, and annoyed by the casualties inflicted among his men, formed, early in the afternoon, a perfect cordon of infantry and dismounted cavalry around the Indian den. The soldiers opened upon it incessant fire, which made the surrounding hills echo back a terrible music. The circumvallated Indians distributed their shots liberally among the crowing soldiers, but the shower of close-range bullets from the latter terrified unhappy squaws, and they began singing the awful Indian death chant. The papooses wailed so loudly, and piteiously, that even the hot firing could not quell their voices, and General Crook ordered me to suspend operations immediately. Then Frank Gruard and Baptiste Pourier, both versed in the Sioux tongue, by order of General Crook, approached the abrupt western bank of the Indian rifle pit and offered the women and children quarter. This was accepted by the besieged, and Crook in person went to the mouth of the cavern and handed out one tall, fine looking women, who had an infant strapped to her back. She trembled all over and refused to liberate the general’s hand. Eleven other squaws, and six papooses, were then taken out, but the few surviving warriors refused to surrender and savagely re-commenced the fight.

Then our troops re-opened with a very “rain of hell” upon the infatuated braves, who, nevertheless, fought it out with Spartan courage, against such desperate odds, for nearly two hours. Such matchless bravery, electrified even our enraged soldier into the spirit of chivalry, and General Crook, recognizing the fact that the unfortunate savages had fought like fiends, in defense of wives and children, ordered another suspension of hostilities and called upon the ducky heroes to surrender.
This image is said to be that of the elder American Horse. The younger, a nephew, also named American Horse, rose up to lead his uncles band of Oglala Lakota.

After a few minutes’ deliberation, the chief, American Horse – a fine looking, broad-chested Sioux, with a handsome face and a neck like a bull – showed himself at the mouth of the cave, presenting the butt end of his rifle toward the General. He had just been shot in the abdomen, and said, in his native language, that he would yield, if the lives of the warriors who fought with him were spared. Some of the soldiers, who lost comrades in the skirmish, shouted, “No quarter!” but not a man was base enough to attempt shooting down the disabled chief. Crook hesitated for a minute and then said – “Two or three Sioux more or less can make no difference. I can yet use them to good advantage. Tell the chief,” he said, turning to Gruard, “that neither he nor his young men will be harmed further.”

This message having been interpreted to American Horse, he beckoned to his surviving followers, and two strapping Indians, with their long, but quick and graceful stride, followed him out of the gully. The chieftan’s intestines protruded from his wound, but a squaw – his wife perhaps – tied her shawl around the injured part, and then the poor, fearless savage, never uttering a complaint, walked slowly to a little camp fire, occupied by his people, about 20 yards away, and sat down among the women and children. The surgeons examined the wound, pronounced it mortal, and during the night American Horse, one of the bravest and ablest of the Sioux chiefs, fell back suddenly, and expired without uttering a groan.

This photograph was taken by Stanley J. Morrow, of a family that was taken prisoner at the fight at Slim Buttes. 

It seems to have taken Finerty some time to acknowledge the fortitude and bravery of the Indian foe, which at first was only haltingly begrudged, now seemingly flows as he sees the enemy less a savage antagonist and more as desperate human beings with reasons of their own to fight. Finerty’s sympathetic account of the victims of the Slim Buttes Fight here now follows.

Crook under the surrender of the chief, took all the survivors under his protection, and ordered the dead and wounded to be taken from their stronghold. Let the country blame or praise the General for his clemency, I simply record the affair as it occurred. Several soldiers jumped at once into the ravine and bore out the corpses. The warrior killed by Baptiste Pourier was a grim looking old fellow, covered with scars and fairly laden down with Indian jewelry and other savage finery. The other dead were three squaws – one at first supposed to be a man – and, sad to relate, a tiny papoose. The captive squaws, with their children, came up to view the corpses. They appeared to be quite unmoved, although a crowd of half-savage camp followers, unkempt scouts and infuriated soldiers surged around them – a living tide. The skull of one poor squaw was blown, literally, to atoms, revealing the ridge of the palate and presenting a most ghastly and revolting spectacle. Another of the dead females – a middle-aged woman – was riddled by bullets that there appeared to be no unwounded part of her person left. The third victim was young, plump, and, comparatively speaking, light of color. She had a magnificent physique, and, for an Indian, a most attractive set of features. She had been shot through the left breast, just over the heart, and was not in the least disfigured.

“Ute John,” the solitary friendly Indian who did not desert the column, scalped all the dead, unknown to the General or any of the officers (of ignored by), and I regret to be compelled to state a few – a very few – brutalized soldiers followed his savage example. Each took only a portion of the scalp, but the exhibition of human depravity was nauseating. The unfortunates should have been respected, even in the coldness and nothingness of death. In that affair, surely, the army were the assailants, and the savages acted purely in self-defense. I must add, in justice to all concerned, that neither General Crook nor any of his officers of men suspected that any women or children were in the gully until their cries were heard above the volume of fire poured upon the fatal spot.

That was a particular picture of Indian warfare at Slim Buttes. There a dead cavalry horse lay on his side on the western bank of the bloody burrow, while Tom Moore’s mule, his feet sticking up in the air, lay on his back about thirty years nearer to the abandoned tepees. On the southern slope of the embankment, in the line of fire, face downward, the weight of his body resting on his forehead and knees, the stiff, dead hands still grasping the fully cocked carbine, two empty cartridge shells lying beside him, lay John Wenzel. He had been shot through the brain – the bullet entering the left jaw from below, and passing out through the top of his head – by either American Horse or Charging Bear, after having fired twice into the gully. He, doubtless, never realized that he had been hit, poor fellow. Wenzel knew more about a horse than, perhaps, any man of Troop A, 3d Cavalry, and used to attend to my animal before he was detailed, for the reason that he was well mounted, to accompany hat [sic] to him, fatal advance movement of Colonel Mills. Diagonally the opposite, on the northern slope, lay the stalwart remains of Charley White – “Buffalo Chip,” as he was called – the champion harmless liar and most genial scout upon the plains. I saw him fall and heard his death cry. Anxious to distinguish himself, he crept cautiously up the slope to have a shot at the hostiles. Some of the soldiers shouted, “Get away from there Charley, they’ve got a bead on you!” Just then a shot was fired, which broke the thigh bone of a soldier of the 5th Cavalry, named Kennedy, and White raised himself on his hands and knees in order that he might locate the spot from whence the bullet came. As he did so, one of the besieged Indians, quick as lightning, got his range and shot him squarely through the left nipple. Charley threw up his hands, crying out loud enough for all of us to hear him, “My God, my God, boys, I’m done for this time!” One mighty convulsion doubled up his body, then he relaxed all over and rolled like a log three or four feet down the slope. His dead face expressed tranquility rather than agony when I looked at him some hours later. The wind blew the long, fair locks over the cold features, and eyes were almost perfectly closed. The slain hunter looked as if he were taking a rest after a toilsome buffalo chase. Last, and also least (in size I suspect from Finerty’s account, not in importance as it would seem to read today) the slaughtered Indian papoose, only about two months old, lay in a small basket, where a humane soldier had placed the tiny body. Had the hair of the poor little creature been long enough, “Ute John,” I believe, would have scalped it also.

A horse drawn strecher carries a wounded soldier from the fight at Slim Buttes. Photo by Stanley J. Morrow.

With all this group of mutilated mortality before them, and with the groans of the wounded soldiers from the hospital tepee ringing in their ears, the hungry troopers and infantry tore the dried Indian meat they had captured into eatable pieces, and marched away as unconcernedly as if they were attending a holiday picnic. It was, indeed, a ghastly, charnel-house group – one which, if properly put on canvas, would, more than anything I have read of, or heard described, give the civilized world a faithful picture of the inevitable diabolism of Indian warfare. Most of our dead were hastily buried by their comrades, but the bodies of the Indians, both male and female, were left where they fell, so that their friends might have the privilege of properly disposing of them after we had left. The Sioux Indians, so far as known, never place their dead in the earth, so that leaving the bodies above ground was of no particular consequence in their case. During the afternoon, American Horse, and some of the squaws, informed Gen. Crook, through the scouts, that Crazy Horse was not far off, and that we would certainly be attacked before nightfall. The General, under the circumstances, wished for nothing better.

As Lieutenant Lawson was about to preside over funeral rites for the fallen soldiers, the troops were fired upon at once. The terrain of Slim Buttes offered modest protection to Crazy Horse’s war party. Crook’s men quickly mounted a counter offensive. Gen. Merritt took command of the soldiers in the vicinity of the burials; Col. Chambers made for the southern bluff to flank the Lakota war party; Col. Royall led the offense on the northern and north-western bluff; Major Noyes led to the 2nd Cavalry to protect the eastern flank of Crook’s command. The soldiers ascended the bluff, Slim Buttes actually offered more protection for them as they made their way up, than to the Lakota who had the high ground. The Lakota mounted a strike from horseback against the 3rd Cavalry from out of a ravine in the northwestern angle of the bluffs, led by a mounted warrior on a quick white horse, whom Finerty speculates must be Crazy Horse.
This map comes from the Command and General Staff College's "Atlas of the Sioux Wars." Though there isn't a close-up of the flight at Slim Buttes as there is of the Little Bighorn or the Battle of the Rosebud, this one documents the dispersal of the Lakota and Cheyenne after the battle of the Little Bighorn. It does note where the Slim Buttes fight is, in the north west corner of South Dakota.

Like the Napoleonic cuirassiers at Waterloo, they rode along the line looking for a gap through which to penetrate. They kept up a perpetual motion, apparently encouraged by a warrior, doubtless Crazy Horse himself, who, mounted on a fleet, white horse, galloped around the array and seemed to possess the power of ubiquity. Failing to break into that formidable circle, the Indians, after firing several volleys, their original order of battle being completely broken, and recognizing the folly of fighting such an outnumbering force any longer, glided away from out front with all possible speed. As the shadows came down into the valley, the last shots were fired, and the affair of Slim Buttes was over.

Finerty estimates that Crook lost about thirty men in this “battle.” They settled down for rest that night after hasty burials presided over by Sergeant Van Moll and a small party of soldiers from Troop A. General Crook’s surgeon, Dr. McGillicuddy attended American Horse’s last hours, noting the Lakota’s zest for life to the end. They broke camp the next morning, September 10th, 1876.

The rear guard of the column consisted, that morning, of two troops of the 5th Cavalry, commanded by Captains Summer and Montgomery, under Gen. E.A. Carr. They remained dismounted, until all the rest of the command had filed by them, bound for “the Hills.” Scarcely had they mounted their horses, when they were attacked most determinedly by Indians secreted in the ravines that abound that region. But they were veterans, and coolly held their ground. They lost many wounded, but none killed outright. The Indians on the other hand, were unfortunate, and left five warriors gasping upon the sod. Crazy Horse, convinced that Slim Buttes was not the Little Bighorn, drew off in despair, and the remainder of the march was made without molestation.


  1. Does anyone know the names of any of the Indians killed in that battle? I have a special reason for wanting to know. Any help on this will be greatly appreciated.

    1. I don't know any names, but I'll look and if I find anything I'll post an update.

    2. Thanks, Got it all worked out. Was password problem.