The Fight on the War Bonnet; Killing of Yellow Hand
by Buffalo Bill
"The First Scalp For Custer"
from "Indian Fights and Fighters"
by Cyrus Townsend Brady
On Saturday, July 15, 1876, the Fifth Cavalry, under General Wesley Merritt, was marching toward Ft. Laramie, under orders to join Crook. At noon word was received from the agency that a body of Cheyennes, numbering, perhaps one thousand warriors, who had heretofore remained quiet on the reservation at the Red Cloud Agency, on the White River, South Dakota -- the Pine Ridge Agency -- was about to break away and join the Indians in the field. Their minds had been inflamed by the story of Crook's defeat and the account of the disaster to the 7th Cavalry. They thought they saw unlimited opportunities for plunder, scalp-taking and successful fighting -- therefore they decided to go on the war-path without delay. There were not troops enough near the agency to prevent this action, which was entirely unsuspected anyway.
The orders for Merritt to join Crook were imperative; but, in view of the news, the general decided to disregard them for the present. He realized that he could preform no better service than heading off this body of Cheyennes, and either defeating them and scattering them, or better still, forcing them back to the agency.
The trail they would have to take would cross a creek in the extreme southeast corner of South Dakota, called the War Bonnet, some eighty-five miles, by the only predictable route from where the Fifth Cavalry then was. The Indians were a much shorter distance from it. Merritt would have had to march around, practically three sides of a square, owing to the configuration of the country, to reach that point, which was the best place for miles around, within the knowledge of W.F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) his chief scout, to intercept the flying Cheyennes.
Merritt did not hesitate an instant after learning the news. He put his command in motion immediately, and by a forced march of thirty-one hours, got to the crossing in good time. There was no evidence that the Cheyenne had passed. The troopers hid themselves in ravines under the bluffs, and waited for the Indians.
Early on the morning of July 17th, the pickets, commanded by Lieutenant Charles King, observed the approach of the Indians. At about the same time Merritt's wagon train, under Lieutenant Hall, with two hundred infantrymen spoiling for a fight, concealed in the wagons as a guard, was observed toiling along, some four miles to the southeast, in an endeavor to reach the rendezvous on the War Bonnet. The regiment remained carefully concealed, and the Indians, in high glee, thought they had the train at their mercy.
So soon as he sighted the Cheyennes, Lieutenant Hall dispatched two troopers of his small cavalry escort ahead to the crossing to apprise Merritt that the Indians were at hand. An advance party of Cheyennes, superbly mounted and led by a gorgeous young chief, determined to intercept these troopers, who were ignorant of their peril. The two soldiers came down one trail that led through a ravine, the Indians came up another which led through another ravine. The troopers and the Cheyennes were hidden from eachother, but both were in plain view of the picket on the hill. The two trails joined at the foot of the hill. The plain back of the wagon-train was black or red, rather -- with the Indians coming up rapidly, although they were not yet near enough to attack.
Merritt and one or two other officers, with Buffalo BIll and a few of his scouts and several troopers joined King on the hill. The main body of the Indians was too far away to attack, so the little advance party determined to wait until the Cheyennes, who were endeavoring to cut off the two soldiers, were close at hand and then fall upon them. Everybody withdrew from the crest of the hill except Lieutenant King, who was to give the signal, when the party below should sally around it and fall on the Cheyennes.
King, who has described the situation with masterly skill in his "Campaigning with Crook", flattened himself out on the brow of the hill, with nothing showing but the top of his hatless head and his field glasses, and watched the soldiers rapidly galloping up one trail and the Indians more rapidly rushing down the other. He waited until the Indians had almost reached the junction. Merritt's escort and Cody's scouts raced around the hill, and dashed slap into the faces of the astonished Cheyennes. Two Indian saddles were emptied in the twinkling of an eye. Such was the impetus of their charge that the Indians scarely had time to rein in their steeds before the white men were upon them.
Buffalo Bill shot the leader of the war party, a famous young chief named Yellow Hand, through the leg. The bullet also pierced the heart of the pony Yellow Hand was riding. Both crashed into the earth. In spite of his pain, Yellow Hand dragged himself to his feet and fired at the scout, killing his horse. The two, not twenty paces apart, exchanged shots the next instant. The Indian missed, but Buffalo Bill sent a bullet through Yellow Hand's breast. The Indian reeled, but before he fell Cody leaped upon him and drove his knife into his gallant enemy's heart. Yellow Hand was a dead Indian when he struck the ground. "Jerking the war bonnet off, I scientifically scalped him in about 5 seconds."
Yellow Hand had recognized Buffalo Bill, and had virtually challenged him to this duel. "The first scalp for Custer." shouted Cody, waving his trophy in the air.
Some of the other Indians had now come within range. They opened fire on the little party; the bullets zipped around them in every direction, one narrowly grazing General Merritt. They nicked a horse here and there but, as usual, their marksmanship was execrable.
As the little party charged the Indians, Merritt had directed King to order the rest of the regiment to advance. In the midst of the firing, the splendid troops of the dandy Fifth came bursting through the ravines and over the hills, making for the Cheyennes on the gallop. At the same time Lieutenant Hall's infantrymen scrambled out of their wagons and sent a few volleys at the Cheyennes at long range.
A more astonished body of Indians the United States has probably never contained. They hadn't the slightest idea that there was a soldier within five hundred miles, edxcept those in the wagon which they had planned to capture. They had anticipated no trouble whatever in joining Sitting Bull, and now they found themselves suddenly face to face with one of the finest cavalry regiments in the service. What were they to do? They hadn't much time to decide, for the cavalry were after them at ful gallop. They turned and fled incontinently. They stood not on the order of their going, but went at once.
If they could get back to the reservation, they would be free from attack. They fled at the highest possible speed of their horses, throwing aside everything they possessed save their guns and ammunition, in their frantic desire to get away. For thirty miles Merritt and his men pursued them with the best will in the world to come up to them; but the horses of the soldiers were more or less tired from their long march of the day before, and the Indians, lightly equipped and on fresh horses, finally succeeded in escaping. By nightfall the whole party was back on the reservation. Thereafter care was taken that they found no further opportunity to go on the war-path.
The cooperation of this splendid body of Indians with that under the
command of Crazy Horse might possibly have turned the scale in some of
the hotly contested battles, and Merritt's promptness was greatly commended
by the authorities, Buffalo Bill received the chief glory of the little
adventure from his dramatic duel with Yellow Hand, in full view of soldiers