Powder River: Disastrous Opening of the Great Sioux War, by Paul L. Hedren, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2016, $34.95
The Great Sioux War of 1876 is arguably the best-known conflict to have pitted the U.S. Army against American Indians primarily because of the stunning June 25–26 upset at the Little Bighorn River. Among the campaign’s lesser-known clashes are two earlier strategic defeats of forces under Brig. Gen. George Crook—the June 17 Battle of the Rosebud and the March campaign along the Powder River. In his detailed study of Crook’s Powder River campaign Paul Hedren draws on a prodigious amount of research, from Army records and firsthand accounts as well as the recollections of Indian participants. The result is a compelling tale of textbook Army preparation and execution undone by circumstances that demanded more mobility and flexibility than Crook, despite his prior experience fighting Apaches, was able to muster.
Although casualties in the climactic clash—a March 17 raid on a Northern Cheyenne village under Chief Old Bear that troops mistook for Crazy Horse’s Lakota camp—were relatively low on both sides, its failure proved embarrassing and detrimental to the Army. Old Bear’s band reportedly had been en route to the Red Cloud Agency when attacked by troops under Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds. The soldiers burned tepees, destroyed food stocks and supplies and captured the Cheyenne pony herd. Soon thereafter, however, Old Bear’s warriors managed to recover most of the ponies, thus undoing the campaign’s primary objective. Moreover, the attack drove many Cheyennes into the Lakota camp. Chief Two Moons of the Kit Fox society addressed Crazy Horse in council that night: “All right. I am ready to fight. I have fought already. My people have been killed, my horses stolen; I am satisfied to fight.”
Reynolds’ decision to burn the Indians’ stores also left his own men seriously low on food as it retired. Most egregious of all, perhaps, was the colonel’s callous response to an appeal from Captain Anson Mills to return to the battle site for wounded Private Lorenzo Ayers. “You can do nothing,” Reynolds replied. “If you go back, you will renew the engagement and lose 20 men. You must move on.” Hedren relates the latter’s fate, according to Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg, an eyewitness:
Bear Walks on a Ridge then fired his muzzle-loading rifle. His bullet hit the soldier in the back of the head. We rushed upon the man and beat and stabbed him to death. Another Cheyenne joined us to help in the killing. He took the soldier’s rifle. I stripped off the blue coat and kept it. Two Moons and Bear Walks on the Ridge took whatever else he had and they wanted.
Army officials soon recognized the Powder River expedition for the debacle it was, and Hedren devotes much of his book to the court-martial proceedings that followed for several of its officers. He delves into the ironic award of Medals of Honor to two troopers for trying to save the wounded Private Ayers, though neither succeeded.