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Lieutenant Col. William 0. Collins, Eleventh Ohio Cavalry,
Commanding Eastern Sub-District of Nebraska.
Report February 15, 1865
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
HEADQUARTERS WESTERN SUB-DISTRICT OF NEBRASKA, Fort' Laramie, Nebr. Terr., February 15, 1865.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report that about 4 o'clock on the evening of Saturday, the 4th instant, I was informed by telegraph that Mud Springs, a telegraph station 105 miles east of Fort Laramie, was attacked by Indians. There were at Mud Springs Station at that time nine soldiers and five citizens, one of the latter connected with the telegraph company and the others herding stock in the vicinity for Messrs. Creighton and Hoel [Hod?]. I immediately ordered Lieutenant Ellsworth, commanding Company H, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, then at Camp Mitchell, a post fifty miles east of Fort Laramie and fifty-five miles west of Mud Springs, to proceed without delay, with all the men lie could spare, to the relief of Mud Springs Station; to travel all night, and if possible reach there by morning. He obeyed the order promptly, and was at Mud Springs by daylight the morning of the 5th, with thirty-six men, making the distance in twelve hours without stopping. In the meantime I left Fort Laramie about 7 p. m. on the 4th instant, with about 120 men, consisting of detachments of different companies of the Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry and part of Company D, Seventh Iowa Cavalry Volunteers, being all that could be mounted and spared from Fort Laramie. My command traveled all night and reached Camp Mitchell during the forenoon of the 5th instant.
The night was severely cold and several men were so munch frozen as to be unable to precede any farther. After a short rest I took twenty-five men and went rapidly forward, reaching Mud Springs about 2 o'clock the morning of the 6th instant. The balance of the command followed under Captain Fonts, Seventh Iowa Cavalry, and reached Mud Springs about 8 o'clock the same morning, having made 105 miles in thirty-six hours, including stoppages. The small party with me made the same distance in seventeen hours, actual travel, and thirty hours, including the delay at Camp Mitchell. I found that the Indians had been in great numbers on Pole Creek on the 3d instant; that on the 4th they began to appear about Mud Springs, attacked the station, stole the stock there, consisting of about 15 ponies and horses belonging to citizens, 1 mule and 3 horses belonging to the Government, also the cattle herd of Messrs. Creighton and Joel, which was on Rankin's Creek about four miles distant; that on the morning of the 5th, soon after the arrival of Lieutenant Ellsworth, they had appeared around Mud Springs in large numbers, seemed surprised at the increase of men at the station, and after a little firing their attack ceased, but many continued in sight on the hills all day. At daylight on the morning of the 6th instant they began to come over the bluffs from all directions, and about the time of the arrival of the main body they commenced a desultory firing and made efforts to cut off some of the party coming in. It was evident that they had come to take the post and expected to do so. The men and stock were fatigued by night travel, all chilled and many frostbitten. The station is also utterly indefensible, being surrounded by hills and knolls full of gullies, enabling the Indians to ambush and creep upon us at points where they could not be reached by a cavalry charge. Shortly after our main body got in they attacked us in force amid with great boldness. The suddenness of the attack, the condition of the men, and the character of the ground interfered with proper discipline and system on our part, and the fighting at first was rather miscellaneous. We found it necessary to imitate the Indians, get under banks and creep up to favorable positions, watch for an Indian's head, shoot the moment it was shown, and pop down at the flash of his gun. The men got quite handy at this game and soon made any ground occupied by the Indians too hot for them. It was common to see a soldier and an Indian playing ‘bo-peep’ in this manner for half an hour at a time. At one time there were some 200 Indians behind a hill and in its ravines, where they could -come within seventy-five yards of the buildings at the station. From this point arrows came in showers, the Indians shooting them [were] were keeping entirely out of sight. The arrows were apparently discharged at an angle of about forty-five degrees, making a curve and descending upon us at about the same angle. Many horses and mules and some men were wounded in this manner. It became evident that this point must be cleared, and arrangements were made for two parties to charge, one on foot to drive them out, the other on horseback to head them off, when the Indians, finding half a dozen rifles leveled at each head that was shown, abandoned this position. We immediately took possession of it, dug a ride-pit on the highest point, and had no more trouble from that quarter. After about four hours' fighting, we began to press them back in all directions and soon drove them off.
About 2 o'clock their fire slackened amid they withdrew into the hills but many continued in sight on the bluffs until dark. In this day's fight we had seven wounded, three of them seriously, and some horses and mules killed. The loss of the Indians must have been at least thirty in this engagement. Most of the officers and men estimate it to be much greater. It is impossible, however, to be certain, as their dead and wounded are immediately carried off; indeed, it is common for the warrior to be fastened to his horse so that his body will be brought off in case of accident. The number of warriors engaged was from 500 to 1,000, the latter probably nearer the mark. They were armed with rifles, revolvers, bows and arrows. Many were mounted on American horses and there were white men or Mexicans among them. They had plenty of ammunition. Mini-balls were common, and they were bold and brave. They generally shot too high; else we should have suffered much more. Early in the engagement I telegraphed to Maj. Thomas L. Mackey, commanding at Fort Laramie, to send down a field piece, it appearing difficult to dislodge the Indians from their sheltered positions without one. Directly afterward the line was cut. About 3 o'clock I sent a strong party to repair it. The break was found about a mile west and mended. Soon afterward it was cut again. At dark another party was sent out and found two poles cut down and the wire gone for four poles at or near the same place. By taking wire from the line east it was repaired, so that we were able to keep up communication with Fort Laramie. During the night we fortified and prepared to take the offensive. In the morning no Indians were in sight. Leaving Captain Fonts in command of the station, we reconnoitered in force ready to meet them and found the whole country covered with trails. They seemed to concentrate and tend generally toward the springs on Rush Creek about ten miles distant, and we satisfied ourselves that their main camp was there. Before daylight on the morning of the 8th, Lieut. Brown, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, arrived with a howitzer, having come from Fort Laramie in thirty-four hours including stoppages. On the morning of the 8th an expedition was organized for pursuit, Captain Fonts being left in command of the station. The country is very broken and in Indian fighting an attempt to surprise is always probable. The camp was found where we expected, at Rush Creek Springs. It was deserted, but there were evidences that it had been recently and hastily left; that they had been there about three days and were in great numbers. The camp covered several miles. Over 100 beef cattle had been slaughtered in it. Empty oyster, meat, and fruit cans were plenty. Flour sacks, a quantity of codfish, and indications of the spoils of ranches and trains were scattered everywhere. Quantities of meat cut up for use and skins pegged down for drying and tanning were left upon the ground. Pressing forward on the now fresh trails, in four or five miles we reached the valley of the Platte, near the mouth of Rush Creek. When within a mile of the river we came in sight of the Indians on the other side scattered over the plains between the bluffs and the river, grazing their horses. There were no tepees or lodges, no travois or lodge poles, no women, children, or dogs in sight. They had all gone forward into the bluffs which at this point are about five miles north of the river, leaving the warriors only behind. The lodge trails were very broad and fresh, apparently made that morning and the evening before.
It was now clear we had underestimated the numbers against us. With a field glass they could be distinctly seen and examined. There were at least 2,000 warriors in sight. It was evident that all the hostile Indians that had been committing depredations and holding the countries along the South Platte were concentrated here. The river was about half a mile wide and frozen over. While we were looking for a crossing they saved us the trouble by commencing to swarm down to the river-banks and come over on the ice, not opposite, but one or two miles above and below us. We had barely time to corral our train before they were upon us on every side. The position chosen was the best we could get, but there were many little sand ridges and hollows under cover of which they could approach us. A very great change had come over the men since the morning of the fight at Mud Springs. They were rested and free from excitement, had confidence in their officers, obeyed orders, and went to work with a will. Sharpshooters were pushed out, and the hillocks commanding the camp occupied, and rifle-pits dug upon them. The Indians of the plains are the best skirmishers in the world. In rapidity of movement, sudden wheeling and hanging over steep and difficult ground, no trained cavalry can equal them. Hunting the buffalo is the best possible school. We were not strong enough to charge or scatter. It was necessary to be prudent, and at first take the defensive. They dashed up very boldly, but soon fell back from our bullets, and resorted to their old game of skulking and sharp shooting. At this game they were well met by our men. At one point we were greatly annoyed by a party of ten or fifteen behind a little knoll about 400 yards distant, and it became evident they must be dislodged. A detail was made of sixteen mounted men, part from the detachment of Company D, Seventh Iowa Cavalry, and part from a detachment of the First Battalion, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. The party was placed in command of Lieutenant Patton, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, and he was ordered to charge at full speed, revolvers in hand, to clear out the Indians behind the hillock, and, having done so, wheel and return immediately. It was admirably done; the sulkers were routed and fled. In the meantime there were from 130 to 200 Indians on the rising ground beyond the contested hillock, which was about midway between us and them. When they saw the charge they swarmed down to save their men, and our party had a short hand-to-hand fight with their advance and then wheeled and returned as ordered. In this charge we lost two men, Private John A. Harris, Company ID, Seventh Iowa Cavalry, who fell in the fight, and Private William H. Hartshorn, Company C, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, a veteran, who was on a very spirited horse, and either his own ardor or inability to control his horse, or both, led him forward into the thickest of the Indians, and we saw him no more alive. Many Indians were killed and wounded in this charge. They fell immediately back before our fire as the charging party returned. A small party immediately went out and brought in the body of Harris. The Indians had no time to scalp him or take his arms or clothing, and they were brought in with him. The body of Hartshorn was found next morning about one mile from our camp, horribly mutilated, with ninety-seven arrows sticking in it. It is not unlikely that some chief of note was killed by him, or some one else led the charge, and that each one of his relations and friends put an arrow in him and left it, as it is sometimes their custom. Both bodies were brought to Fort Laramie for burial. I desire especially to call attention to the conduct of Lieutenant Patton and his little body of men. The charge was a very gallant one, and the desired objects were fully accomplished. Toward night we could not bring the Indians in reach of our fire. They retired behind the hills and were returning across the Platte until dark, when very few seemed to be on the south side of the river.
About sundown an incident worthy of notice occurred. Private Miller, Company C, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, had shot an Indian, and he lay on the ice in plain sight about half a mile distant. Our enemy retreating and night coming on, horses and mules were ordered to be watered a few at a time, not in the river, but at the creek, which was the nearer. A party going by mistake toward the Platte, where the dead Indian lay, a cry was raised and the Indians on both sides came flocking to the point, evidently supposing that we were after the body. Recall was sounded, our men came back, and the Indians retired, but in the morning the body was gone. The Indians never permit their killed to fall into the hands of their enemies if it is possible to prevent it. We camped on the battleground and continued to prepare and occupy favorable positions during the night and morning. About sunrise on the 9th they began to come over above and below, until some 400 mounted warriors were counted, without any apparent diminution of the number left on the north side of the river. They found us ready, skirmished about for a while exchanged a few shots, and then began to recross and put off rapidly for the bluffs. At noon very few were to be seen. They were evidently hurrying away into the sand hills to overtake their families that had gone on the day before. A few scouts could be seen on the other side of the river, left to watch us, and when we moved up the river we saw them, eight in number, crossing to our deserted camp like wolves, to pick up some-thing as a trophy or to dig up or scalp any dead they might find. Farther pursuit would have been injudicious and useless. With their numbers they could at any time compel our small party to corral and fight. We could drive them off and follow again with the same result, but could not afford to give them the least advantage. In following them to L'Eau-qui-court we should be in the sand hills, when they would have had greatly the advantage in ground and where our stock could not subsist. In each engagement the Indians fired everything around them that would burn. We continued to see the smoke of their fires as they went north for at least fifty miles. We broke camp about 2 o'clock, moved up the Platte about fifteen miles, where the command was divided, part under Lieutenant Brown, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, going on to Camp Mitchell and Fort Laramie, which had been left with insufficient garrisons, and the remainder returning to Mud Springs with me. On the morning of the 10th I took about seventy-five men and proceeded to Pole Creek, to open communication with Julesburg.
At Pole Creek we met Captain Wilcox, Seventh Iowa Cavalry, with his command, repairing the line. On the 11th we started to return to Fort Laramie. Made Pumpkin Creek, ten miles west of Mud Springs, that night. On the 12th made Camp Mitchell, forty-five miles, and on the 14th reached Fort Laramie, fifty miles. We found the Pole Creek Station burned, and between that point and Mud Springs the poles were gone for ten miles and a halt consecutively. East of Pole Creek Station they were reported gone for a still greater distance. The Indians had evidently good teachers and did their work well. They have got over their superstitions idea that it is bad medicine to touch the telegraph. Of the conduct of the officers and men connected with the expedition I cannot speak too highly. In extreme cold weather, in the dead of winter, the main body marched nearly 400 miles in ten days, much of the time by night, without tents or shelter, camped on the ground, often without fire, on short rations and forage, and met and repulsed in every engagement a brave and cunning foe, numbering at least ten, probably fifteen, to one. Their patience and endurance, their cheerfulness anti courage, their readiness to obey, and promptness and skill to execute could not be surpassed. The expedition was organized into four squadrons, the first composed of a detachment from Company D, Seventh Iowa Cavalry, officered by Captain Pouts and Lieutenant Haywood; the second, of a detachment from Company I, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, officered by Captain Apt, Lieutenants Harlan and Moloney; the third, of a detachment from Company H, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Ellsworth; the fourth, of a detachment composed of men from Companies A, 13, C, and D, of the First Battalion, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, officered by Lieutenants Patton and Herrimaim; and the howitzer in charge of Lieutenant Brown, commanding a squad of men, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, sufficient to man the piece. Assistant Surgeon Zeigler, Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, accompanied the expedition. Captains Glenn, regimental commissary, and Reeves, assistant district inspector, both of the Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, were also with it as volunteers without command, being anxious to take part in an Indian fight, in which they were fully gratified. Lieutenant Harlan acted as quartermaster and commissary, and Lieutenants Herriman and Moloney as adjutants, the first at the commencement of the expedition and the last at its close. All did their duty well and I do not feel at liberty to particularize, except in the case of Lieutenant Patton and his party. Their charge was a very brilliant affair; challenged and received universal praise. Mr. Martin Hogan, telegraph operator, was employed as guide and did valuable service. The howitzer, under command of Lieutenant Brown, was admirably served, but did not prove as useful as was expected owing to time defective character of the ammunition, many of the shells failing to burst at all and some bursting at the muzzle of the gun. I append the report of Lieutenant Brown upon the subject, and ask that proper steps be taken to condemn such of our ammunition as is worthless or doubtful and that better be furnished to time troops stationed in the mountains. Much of the howitzer ammunition at Fort Laramie has been in the magazine for eight or ten years. All supplies for this service should be of the best quality, as they are forwarded but once in the year and mistakes cannot be seasonably corrected. The casualties attending the expedition were much fewer than could have been anticipated. It arises from the fact that the Indians, when near us, fired too high, not understanding their new arms and ammunition, and that our men obey d orders, fought systematically, and manifested great prudence and adroitness in imitating the Indian cunning. Moving and fighting in the Indian country is a distinct branch of the service that few understood and that can only be learned by actual service.
In the engagement at Mud Springs 3 men were wounded seriously and 4 slightly. In the battle at the mouth of Rush Creek 2 men were killed, 9 wounded. In addition to this, 10 men were seriously frostbitten in our night marches, making a total of 28 killed amid disabled.
The total loss of the Indians in all time engagements is variously estimated from 100 to 150. I append the report of Asst. Surg. A. F. Zeigler, and as to casualties also his supplemental report, detailing the brutalities inflicted upon time body of Private W. H. Hartshorn, Company C. It is well to know the character of time enemy we have to deal with. This party of Indians has rarely been equaled in size. It is usually difficult for large numbers to remain long together for lack of subsistence, but in this case their stolen stock and plundered stores furnished them abundant supplies. The party was made up of all the Cheyennes, Ogalallas, and Brule Sioux south of the Platte, together with probably a few Kiowas, Arapahoes, and perhaps some straggling Apaches and Commanches. It numbered from 800 to 1,000 lodges and from 2,000 to 3,000 warriors. The last-named bands are most likely on and south of the Arkansas River for the winter, but many come up to depredate on the main and South Platte when grass comes. The party we met has no doubt gone north to the Powder River country, to join the hostile Indians there, and may be expected to continue their depredations along the North Platte till severely punished. Their probable route from where we left them will be through the sand hills to L'Ean-qni-court, then across the heads of White River avid the South Fork of Cheyenne to Powder River. Small parties may remain, but the main body will go there to secure their families and recruit their stock until spring. They are well armed and mounted; have many rifled muskets and plenty of ammunition, including mini-cartridges with ounce balls; are full of venom and bent on revenge for the loss of their people south. So soon as they reach the Indians north, they will excite and perhaps compel them to become hostile. The posts on the Platte, especially Deer Creek and Platte Bridge, which are within 100 miles of Powder River, will be in immediate danger. More troops should be sent out here immediately to hold the posts in the sub-district, and when spring opens important expeditions should be organized to penetrate the center of their country.
Having been nearly three years in this service and being about to leave it, I venture to add a word as to the policy to be pursued. I beg to repeat the suggestions which I have heretofore made, that the permanent cure for the hostilities of time northern Indians is to go into the heart of their buffalo country and build and hold forts till the trouble is over. A hasty expedition, however successful, is only a temporary lesson, whereas the presence of troops in force in the country where the Indians are compelled to live avid subsist would soon oblige them to sue for peace and accept such terms as the Government may think proper to impose. The Black Hills, Big Horn Mountain, Yellowstone country, are all rich in minerals, but this wealth cannot be made available while hostile bands of Indians are roaming over the country. If these Indians could be induced to remove north toward the main Missouri and remain there, it would open up an immense region for mining and agriculture, which cannot be now reached. They would be in a fine buffalo country, and out of the way of collisions with the whites, which are always liable to occur if they are near together. It would also separate them from the southern Indians, and prevent the plotting and combining which now exists between them. There are two points I would respectfully indicate as suitable locations for the posts spoken of, one about the bead of time Little Missouri of the Mandans near the Three Buttes, and the other at some proper place on Powder River. An expedition starting from the Missouri near Fort Pierre and following the old traders' trail west of the forks of the Cheyenne, thence to the head of the Little Missouri of the Mandans, thence to Powder River, would be joined at some proper post by another from Fort Laramie, and if in sufficient force it could hardly fail to accomplish its object.
I am, captain, your very obedient servant,
WM. 0. COLLINS,