The Forgotten Battle Of Soldier Spring
The Daily Oklahoman, Sunday, September 13, 1936
By CAPTAIN W. S. NYE
EDITOR'S NOTE: For part of the material presented herein the author is indebted to Mr. George Hunt, well-known Kiowa historian and interpreter. Mr. Hunt arranged conferences with a number of old Kiowas and Commanches who have personal knowledge of the events described, and accompanied the author in several trips to the battlefield. The white accounts were obtained in the old files of the adjutant general's office, and in the manuscript division, library of congress. It was interesting to find that the Indian accounts agreed with the reports of the whites in practically every particular, except as in the number of casualities.
Three weeks after the Cheyenne chieftain, Black Kettle, and 100 of his people were killed by Custer's Seventh cavalry in the battle of the Washita, another fight between soldiers and Indians took place in what is now southwestern Oklahoma. Through the years the spotlight [ ] continuing publicity has burned on Custer's exploit. But the other battle is forgotten. At the time it occurred it was overshadowed by the deeds of the colorful Custer; there was no one to tell of its excitement and romance. Hence there is today scarcely a mention of it in history. The scene of the action is unmarked and unknown.
In the autumn of 1868 Maj. Gen. P. H. Sheridan was assigned the task of driving into their reservations the hostile savages of Indian Territory. General Sheridan immediately planned a comprehensive campaign which involved a convergence on the Indians from three directions. The main body of troops, commanded by Lieutenant Col. George A. Custer (brevet major general;), and accompanied by Sheridan himself, was to strike south or slightly southwest from an advanced base later known as Camp Supply; a second column under Maj. Eugene Carr was to march southeast from Fort Lyon, Colo.; the third force, commanded by Maj. A. W. Evans, was to move east from Fort Bascom, New Mexico.
The operations of the Camp Supply column, which resulted in the battle of the Washita, are well known. Major Carr's expedition came no farther south than the upper Canadian river, and accomplished nothing. This article will tell what Major Eavan's force did toward compelling the surrender of the Indians.
Major Evans's command, which assembled at Fort Bascom early in November of 1868, was organized as follows:
Commanding officer, Maj. A. W. Evans, Third cavalry. (Evans held the brevet rank of lieutenant-colonel.)In those days cavalry troops still were referred to as "companies." The troopers were armed with sabers, pistols, and Spencer repeating carbines; their uniforms were of the Civil war pattern blue tunics and trousers, long overcoats with short capes. Both cavalry and infantry companies averaged (in Evans's command) about 40 men each, so that the total strength of the command was about 300 men. This included the personnel of the howitzer battery, which consisted of 20 infantrymen who had had previous service in the artillery. The cannon were small mountain howitzers, drawn by four mules each; 100 rounds of spherical case shot, shell, and canister were carried in the caissons.
Adjutant, First Lieut. Edward Hunter, Twelfth infantry.
Quartermaster, Second Lieut. A. A. Von Leittwitz, Third cavalry.
Surgeon, Acting Assistant Surgeon L. H. Longwill.
Company A, Third cavalry Captain Hawley.
Company C, Third cavalry Captain Cain.
Company D, Third cavalry Captain Hildeburn
Company F, Third cavalry Captain Cushing
Company G, Third cavalry Captain Monahan and Lieutenant Mulford.
Company I, Third cavalry Captain (brevet major) Tarlton and Lieutenant King.
Company I, Thirty-seventh infantry Captain Gageby and Lieutenant Baird.
Howitzer Battery Lieutenant J. K. Sullivan.
This expedition left Fort Bascom on November 18, and marched down the Canadian river along its north bank. After proceeding 185 miles east they reached Monument Creek, in the panhandle of Texas. Here Colonel Evans established an advanced supply depot, protected by a small redoubt and garrisoned by a few infantry soldiers. Leaving all but three of the wagons, and all of the tentage, at this point, Evans continued his march eastward.
After advancing 42 miles Evans struck an Indian trail leading south. He crossed the Canadian and followed this trail toward the North Fork of Red river. On December 23 he arrived near the western extremity of the Wichita mountains, which in this region are bare, detached masses of granite. The most northwesterly of these peaks, which Colonel Evans's Mexican guides told him were the Cejas Sabinas, are know today as Headquarters mountains, and are located near the present site of Granite, Oklahoma.
In front of the troops was the wide, sandy course of the North Fork, curving southeast through the hills toward other peaks which the Mexicans said were the Sierra Juamnes (Wichita mountains.) Still other mountains could be seen to the east and southeast. The column crossed the river early on the morning of the twenty-fourth. The Indian trail had disappeared among the rocks, but Colonel Evans deduced that he could circle the mountains to the south and pick it up again where it emerged on the east. He did not care to march his men through the hills because there was no forage there for the horses and because the water of the North Fork was alkaline.
Thirteen miles north of where the soldiers were shivering on the prairie the North Fork of Red river makes a sweeping bend to the northeast. The mountains end here, except for a scattering of small isolated peaks. At the base of the last high peak, just north of the bend in the river, was an extensive grove of trees in which was camped the Noconee Commanches. This was one of the wilder bands, one which had furnished many raiders who had committed outrages at Gainesville and Spanish Fort, Texas, during the autumn. The principal chief of the Noconees was Horseback, but he, being friendly to the whites, at this time probably was at Fort Cobb. Chief Arrow Point was in charge of the village, assisted by Howea Habbey-wake, Chee-na-boney, and several other subchiefs
Near the junction of Elk creek and the North Fork, five miles east of the Comanche camp, was a band of Kiowas under Woman's Heart. These Kiowas were part of the group which had fled south after the battle of the Washita: their village was at Sheep Mountain (named in honor of an order of warriors known as the "Society of Wild Sheep"). There were also small bands of Comanches other than Noconees in the vicinity. All of these Indians, both Kiowas and Comanches, had been ordered by the government to report to their agent at Fort Cobb, in order that they might be kept separate from the hostile savages against whom Sheridan's columns were operating. But they had remained "out." and consequentely were chased as hostile.
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On Christmas day this hope of the Indians was shattered for the soldiers turned north and headed straight toward the village. Colonel Evans had decided to circle back to the northwest in an effort to discover some trace of the Indians.
It was a bitter day. The troopers doggedly turned their horses heads into an icy, penetrating wind. A thin snow streaked through the frosty air and collected like fuzz on the desolate prairie. Nevertheless the commander kept his mind on his task. Mexican scouts were sent out on the flanks to look for fresh signs of the enemy.
Shortly after mid-day Colonel Evans struck the North Fork, opposite the mouth of Devil's Canyon where Colonel Dodge's Dragoon Expedition had visited the old Wichita village in 1834. Two of the scouts came in to report that they had seen and conversed with a pair of Indians nearby.
These individual warriors seemed to be watching the progress of the command. Colonel Evans determined to neglect them no longer; he sent Major Tarlton with his company, which happened to be at the head of the column, to capture them. Then, not supposing that any great number of the enemy were near, Colonel Evans led the remainder of the command upstream and prepared to go into camp. It was his purpose to take shelter under the side of the mountain, so that the men might enjoy Christmas day as well as possible under the circumstances.
Evans hoisted his eyebrows in surprise. Adjutant Hunter, who was standing beside him, asked to be allowed to take forward one section of the howitzer battery. Evans gave his consent, and also sent along Captain Hawley's company as "supports" for the guns. Finally, Evans became alarmed. He packed up and took the rest of the command toward the sound of the fighting.
What happened was this: When Chief Arrow Point learned that Tarlton and his men were trotting directly toward the Comanche village, he hastily assembled his warriors and rode out to drive the soldiers back. Contact was made about a mile west of the Indian village, between the mountains and the north bank of the river. At the outset the Indians were too much for Tarlton. The major sent for help. When Captain Monahan arrived with his company, Tarlton assumed the offensive, and slowly pushed the Indians back through the sand and scrub oak.
Presently Tarlton's detachment emerged on a level plain about 800 yards wide, on the far side of which was an extensive group of woods. Grey tepees could be seen here and there among the trees, with Indians running around in great excitement. The resistance of the Indians stiffened. The warriors were bravely covering the withdrawal of their women and children. But their tactics were of the customary ineffectual Indian pattern. Instead of making planned, concentrated assaults on the troops, they rode forward individually. Each brave circled across the firing line, trying to see how close he could ride without being hit. This method of fighting was colorful. It was according to the ancient custom. But it did not stop the steady advance of the cavalry.
About this time Lieutenants Hunter and Sullivan arrived with two howitzers, closely followed by Captain Hawley and his company. Acting under Lieutenant Hunter's direction Sullivan brought his pieces into battery. He barked out a few short commands. The cannon slammed out a volley. The first round was a dud. The second exploded among the Comanche tepees.
The results were marvelous. The Indians had been engaged industriously in packing their belongings. The bursting shell stirred them up like a nest of ants. They evacuated the village immediately and completely, going off three or four to a horse, or scrambling up the sides of the mountain. The noise of the cannon, thrown back abruptly from the cliffs, and rumbling through the chill air of the canyons, stampeded the large herd of Indian horses which had been pastured beyond the village. The frightened animals thundered east across the shallow river and lost themselves among the sand dunes on the south bank.
Tarlton was not concerned with them at first. He was occupied with the more numerous warriors in his immediate front. Parallel to his skirmish line, and about 300 yards away, was a wooded draw through which flowed the little creek which rises at Soldier Spring. From the shelter of this gully the warriors were dashing out in half-circles across the face of the troops.
It was exactly like a modern "western" cinema. The Indians were gaily and fancifully dressed; gleaming against the dull winter sky were their scarlet-and-white war bonnets and bright streamers tied to the manes and tails of their ponies. They shook their painted shields vigorously at the soldiers and screamed unintelligible insults. They astonished the troopers with their audacious horsemanship. They maintained a constant refrain of high-pitched yipping, punctuating the vocal effort with shots fired over and under their horses' necks. It was awe-inspiring. But ineffectual.
Tarlton lay happy in what he thought was a snug position until he noticed that bullets fired by the Indians on the mountainside were beginning to strike close to his men. About the same time he saw large numbers of other warriors riding south along the far bank of the river, evidently intent on crossing in his rear.
These new arrivals were Kiowas from Woman's Heart's village, and from the bands of Kicking Bird, Satank and Stumbling Bear, which had fled southwest from the Washita when Sheridan captured Lone Wolf and Satanta. They had been attracted to the scene by the sound of Sullivan's howitzers. On their arrival in the vicinity they had formed a plan to surround Tarlton's little force and "wipe it out." Evidently they did not know that Evans was near by with reenforcements. The scheme was to divide into two groups opposite the mouth of Soldier Spring creek, one party deploying along this creek to attack the soldiers frontally, while the other group crossed the river to the southwest in order to envelop Tarlton's right and rear.
These soldiers should have been diverted and pinned to the ground by the frontal attack. But this latter attackthe "pivot of maneuver" was slow. The Indians in this group had galloped up the north bank of Soldier Spring creek hoping to conceal behind the trees their movement into the attack position. When they wheeled to the left to cross the creek they found the banks so high and precipitous that they could not cross. So they continued riding upstream looking for a better place to cross.
This delay saved Tarlton. Colonel Evans arrived with the three remaining cavalry companies; Captain Gageby's infantry were toiling along not far behind. Evans took in the situation at a glance. Quickly he threw Companies C. D. and I. to the river bank to protect Tarlton's right and rear. It was not a moment too soon. Tarlton already was commencing to withdraw. The Indians on Soldier Spring creek, having crossed nearer the source of the stream, were on the point of launching their attack. This assault would have caught Tarlton in the midst of his retreat; it is doubtful if the arrival then of the additional companies could have saved the situation.
In a few minutes Gageby's infantry arrived. Evans had them take up the double-time, and pushed them forward to the left, near the present site of Soldier Spring school. Meantime Tarlton continued to retire by successive waves, the even-numbered files walking to the rear, while the odd numbers covered the movement, and vice versa.
This retreat was accomplished without loss until the very last. All of the men had regained the shelter of the grove except one trooper in the center of the line, who evidently had not heard the order to retreat. Fascinated by the barbarie display in his front, he had not noticed that he was alone. Suddenly, realizing his predicament, he sprang up and started running to the rear.
Mamaday-te, a Kiowa, bounded after him like a tiger. The soldiers in the grove scarcely dared fire for fear of hitting their own man. Mamaday-te, galloped close to the fleeing soldier. His pistol flashed. Almost at the same instant he wheeled back to Soldier Spring creek. The trooper kept on running toward his comrades. Then K'op-ah-hodle-te (Kills Enemy Near Mountain) dashed forward. He overtook the cavalryman just before the latter reached the grove. He thrust at the fugitive several times with his lance. The white man fell, grievously hurt. K'op-ah-hodle-te did not risk stopping to make coup by touching his fallen enemy with his hand. He sped back to his own people, untouched by the shower of bullets sent after him.
Toward sunset Evans ordered all of his troops to retire to the grove and make camp. Captain Gageby sent word that he could not withdraw without many of his men being picked off by Indian sharpshooters perched on the mountain to his left. Evans therefore made arrangements to dislodge these hostilities by driving north to cut them off from their friends. For this purpose three companies were sent forward dismounted and deployed, under Major Tarlton.
Several hundred yards beyond his former position on the high ground Tarlton came upon a large isolated rock. As he approached the rock a party of Indians who were concealed behind it scurried out to the left toward a clump of woods which lies south of the spring. It seems strange that the Indians did not run straight to the rear, but they explain that they believed that there was less chance of being hit if they rode across the front of the troops. Evidently their theory was correct, for although Tarlton poured several volleys upon them at a range of only 150 yards, no dead Indians were found.
After gaining the shelter of the woods the Indians fled toward Soldier Spring. Tarlton's men poured several enthusiastic volleys in that direction, but without apparent result. To this day one may pick flattened lead bullets from the rocks around Soldier Spring.
As the Indians faded away the troops returned to the grove, where they constructed a fortified camp. The Indians returning to spy upon the camp from a safe distance, saw the white men lighting little fires to cook their supper. This nonchalance on the part of the soldiers, almost in the midst of a battle, greatly surprised the Indians. It convinced them that the whites must have overwhelming strength concealed in the woods. They therefore made no further attacks in force, but contented themselves with firing occasional shots from the mountainside. This shooting produced better results than all their previous display of martial spirit. One soldier was killed and several were wounded. Nevertheless the troops seemed unperturbed. They commenced to burn the Comanche village.
Bonfires glowed brightly among the trees until early midnight. It had been a rich Indian village of 60 lodges. The soldiers burned everything, including supplies of corn, flour, sugar, coffee (all drawn from the government), buffalo robes, mats, tools, weapons, cooking utensils, and parfleche (leather pouches). They did not even spare the buckskin dolls, miniature tepees and travois, and other playthings left by the Indian children.
In the morning it was evident from the trails left by the Indians that they had fled in two directions. Part of them had gone west toward the Staked Plains, while the rest had turned northeast in the direction of Fort Cobb. Colonel Evans at first decided to return to his base on Monument creek, there to refit, then strike south to flush out the refugee Indians from the breaks in the Cap Rock (canyons at the edge of the Staked Plains). On second thought he marched northeast to locate General Sheridan. Evans gives as his excuse for this change of plan the fact that he was nearly out of supplies. This reason is peculiar. By his own confession the colonel had destroyed in the Indian camp enough food to have lasted him until the end of the campaign. Either he was unreasonably fastidious in his diet, or strangely shortsighted.
At any rate he moved out on the twenty-sixth and marched to the Washita river, where he went into camp at the mouth of Rainy Mountain creek, near the present site of Mountain View. He believed that General Sheridan was somewhere in the vicinity.
Sheridan, who was at Fort Cobb when this intelligence arrived, sent several friendly Indian scouts up the Washita to locate the warlike party of white men. Some of these Indians returned to Fort Cobb in a few hours; they were considerably dismayed. They said that they had seen the white men, but every one of them had it in his face to kill them. On the twenty-ninth, however, Colonel Evans had a conference with several of these scouts from Fort Cobb. They agreed to guide his representatives to General Sheridan.
The Battle of Soldier Spring was a singularly bloodless affair. Evans lost two men killed and several wounded. The Indians say that Arrow Point was their only loss. Nevertheless the fight had far-reaching results. It cut down the morale of the "out" Indians, showed them that they were not safe in their distant hiding places, and caused many of them to return to the agency. It was an important part in General Sheridan's main plan to subdue the Indians.
The site of this engagement is in Kiowa county, a few miles west of
the town of Roosevelt.