Lieutenant Casper Collins: Fighting the Odds at Platte Bridge

6/12/2006 • Native American Indian Chiefs, Oregon Trail, Wild West

A general hinted he was a coward; some said he was a showoff. But most hailed 20-year-old Lieutenant Caspar Collins as a hero for what he did one day in the summer of 1865–lead 20 men, unfamiliar to him, against anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 Indians just outside Platte Bridge Station in what is now Wyoming. Casper, the city in central Wyoming, was named for the young lieutenant, but is spelled differently. So, too, a nearby creek and a mountain. A fort bearing his name (with the second ‘a’ left intact) has been restored and houses a museum.

As a youngster back in Dogwood Knob, the family home in Hillsboro, Ohio, Caspar liked to draw pictures of Indians and tepees. But on this July day, far from his boyhood home, he saw more Indians than he had drawn in his life. And there would be no going home again.

The Battle of Platte Bridge, like many other frontier events, had its roots in the westward migration. Covered wagons that jolted along the Oregon Trail in 1865 were crossing the North Platte River at Platte Bridge. Tensions with the nearby Indians were high because buffalo hunters continued to slaughter bison and treaties continued to be broken. The Civil War had drained fighting power from the western outposts; the Indians had more freedom to harass emigrants and cut telegraph lines. But with war’s end in April, more soldiers headed West to deal with the Indian problem.

For years the North Platte Valley had been the domain of such Indian tribes as the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho. In 1864, General Alfred Sully fought a three-day battle in North Dakota that drove even more Sioux south toward the North Platte River. Sully and other officers considered all the Plains Indians hostile, and certainly more Indians began to show hostility after Colonel John M. Chivington led his 3rd Colorado Cavalry against a peaceful Cheyenne village at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. The infuriated Cheyenne and their Arapaho allies ripped up telegraph wire, ambushed emigrant wagon trains on the Oregon Trail and attacked white settlements in early 1865.

In this tense environment, a violent confrontation at Platte Bridge Station, a stockaded outpost on the south bank of the North Platte River near a 1,000-foot-long bridge, was not so surprising. The bridge was the last crossing of the North Platte, and destruction of the bridge and station would disrupt emigrant travel. ‘Platte Bridge was a strategic point,’ wrote S.H. Fairfield in 1904. ‘It was here that the savages from the Powder River country crossed to the lines of travel on the southern overland route where they reaped a rich harvest….The military forces at Platte Bridge Station were a hindrance…and the redskins were determined to remove the soldiers out of their path.’

In July 1865, the 11th Ohio Cavalry’s designated commander, Lieutenant Henry Clay Bretney, who had his headquarters at Platte Bridge Station, arranged for Lieutenant Collins, stationed at Sweetwater Station near Independence Rock, to take a detail of 10 men east to Fort Laramie to pick up remounts for Sweetwater. Bretney gave Collins permission to remain at Fort Laramie a few days while his detail returned.

In the meantime, back at Platte Bridge Station (located between Sweetwater Station and Fort Laramie), the Kansas and Ohio troops stationed there not only skirmished with Indians but also feuded among themselves. It all came to a head on July 12 when Captain James Greer of the 11th Kansas Cavalry attempted to usurp command from Bretney. But, as Bretney later said, ‘the Kansas boys had to ‘hunt cover’ and allow the Ohio boys to conduct the station as they saw fit.’

When Major Martin Anderson arrived to take command four days later with 40 men of the 11th Kansas Cavalry, he didn’t like what he saw at the station. He decided it would be best to banish Bretney and his Ohioans to Sweetwater Station to the west. And so, when 11th Kansas Cavalry Sergeant Amos J. Custard, escorting a wagon train to Sweetwater, obligingly arrived at Platte Bridge with 16 dismounted men of Company H and 11 men of Company D, Anderson acted. He had Bretney and his men, along with three six-mule army wagons of supplies, accompany Custard to Sweetwater. Of the 11th Ohio, only Sergeant Merwin and his crew of three remained behind to man the mountain howitzer.

By this time, Lieutenant Collins had finished his errand at Fort Laramie but was in no rush to return to Sweetwater. The Indians had burned some buildings at Rocky Ridge Station (near South Pass) and had left some scalped and mutilated bodies staked out here and there. Setting out alone seemed foolish, so he planned to wait until he could hook up with some patrol passing through.

Collins’ plans did not meet with General Patrick Connor’s approval. In fact, the Fort Laramie commander became downright agitated.

‘Why have you not returned to your post?’ Connor asked sternly.

Collins started to explain.

‘Are you a coward?’ the general interrupted.

‘No, sir!’

‘Then report to your command without further delay.’

The general’s words must have stung young Caspar Collins. For many months he had been helping to guard the overland routes. According to one author, ‘He had ridden through blizzards on the desert; had forded treacherous mountain streams, and had soldiered under dangerous and adverse conditions….Never had he shirked his duty.’

The men at Fort Laramie apparently did not see things Connor’s way. According to one account, they persuaded Collins, who was hurriedly preparing for the 179-mile trip to Sweetwater, to wait a while longer. Collins waited until July 20, when he accompanied Corporal Paul Grimm and 11 men of the 11th Kansas Cavalry with the mail ambulance.

All was excitement when Collins, Grimm and the others arrived at Platte Bridge Station about 4 p.m. on July 25. Just across the river, Indians had gathered to taunt the soldiers with obscene words and gestures. The soldiers fired the mountain howitzer but refused to be lured away from the station by Indian decoys. Some of the Indians swam their horses across the river below the bridge in an attempt to run off some stock. In the skirmish that followed, the soldiers, led by Captain Greer, killed a Cheyenne chief, High-Backed Wolf. Private John Friend of the 11th Ohio later wrote, ‘The first day in the afternoon the Kansas men killed an Indian, scalped him and hung the scalp on a stick on top of the quarters.’

The Indians withdrew from the south side of the river, and an eerie silence settled over the station as night fell on the 25th. The soldiers expected the Indians to come back looking for revenge. Ammunition was low, and the soldiers ‘ran bullets’ and loaded cartridges. Sentries were on the alert. The Indians did not return that night, but Major Anderson did receive a surprise visitor–Lieutenant Bretney.

Bretney–last seen being escorted to Sweetwater by Sergeant Custard–and a detachment of 10 men of the 11th Ohio and Captain A. Smyth Lybe of the 6th U.S. Infantry had left Sweetwater for Fort Laramie, where they intended to draw pay for their companies. Supper time had found them at Lower Willow Springs, again in the company of Custard, who was on his way back to Platte Bridge Station with the three empty mule-drawn wagons. Bretney had wanted to spend the night in the relative safety of the station and had urged Custard to do the same. The sergeant had declined, saying the animals were too tired to continue that night.

As soon as he arrived at the Platte Bridge Station, Bretney hurried to Major Anderson’s quarters. His urgent knocking awakened the major.

‘Major,’ said Bretney, ‘a rescue party should be sent at once to your wagon train at Willow Springs Creek….The men…are camped about 25 miles from here….I did my best to persuade the sergeant…but he said his horses were too fatigued.’

‘They are well armed,’ was Major Anderson’s brief response.

‘I know that, but there is danger of the Indians surrounding them and cutting them off,’ continued Bretney. ‘Help should be sent at once. There is no time to lose.’

Major Anderson rejected Bretney’s idea by turning over in bed and going back to sleep. Bretney, however, was not so eager to sleep. He kept his horses saddled in the square of the courtyard, to be ready at a moment’s notice.

The arrivals of Caspar Collins and the mail ambulance and Henry Clay Bretney and his men gave Platte Bridge Station a fighting force of 119 men. Already there were four men of Company G, 11th Ohio, with the howitzer; three men split off from Custard’s group; 14 men of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (‘Galvanized Yankees’); 70 men of Company I, 11th Kansas; and five commissioned officers of the 11th Kansas (Major Anderson, Captain Greer, Lieutenant Clancy, Lieutenant William Drew and Lieutenant George M. Walker).

Daybreak on the 26th found Custard pushing his wagon train eastward along the telegraph road. The Indian war party had advanced during the night to the hills north of the station. Some Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, hiding behind the low bluffs to the west, and a large party of Sioux, waiting east of the fort on both sides of the river, were ready to spring the trap.

That morning after breakfast, the vacillating Major Anderson called his officers together for a council of war. All agreed that the Indians would likely attack the wagon train as soon as it appeared. Help must be sent. The question was, who should lead the force? Anderson was out; he had to command the post. Captain Greer had led the troops in the skirmish the day before. Captain Lybe and his infantry had only old Springfield muskets. Lieutenants Walker, Drew and Clancy were on sick call or otherwise unavailable. Perhaps they were motivated by a powerful desire to keep their scalps intact.

At 7 a.m., Anderson ordered Lieutenant Collins, Sergeants Adolph Hankhammer and Isaac Pennock and Corporal Henry Grimm of the 11th Ohio Cavalry to take 25 11th Kansas Cavalrymen, carrying seven-shot Spencers, to relieve the train. Still stung by General Connor’s remark questioning his courage, the red-haired lieutenant dressed in his new uniform bought at Fort Laramie and borrowed two revolvers from his friend Bretney.

‘You must not go, Caspar,’ Bretney said to Collins. ‘The hills are alive with Indians–the relief should have been sent out during the night–I warned Major Anderson…it means certain death now.’

‘It is not your place to go,’ said another comrade, John Friend.

‘I’m not a coward, John,’ Collins said.

‘It’s not that; it isn’t always brave for a man to attempt something that is plain foolhardy.’

‘I know what it means to go out…but I’ve never disobeyed an order. I’m a soldier’s son.’

Bretney and Friend failed to persuade him. While Collins prepared to leave, Bretney, who had already fallen from Anderson’s grace, tried to reason with the major. In a heated argument, Bretney protested that the men should be led against this ‘vast horde’ by an officer they knew. But Anderson would not change his mind.

Collins, with no horse of his own, accepted a high-strung gray horse from a soldier. With Bretney’s revolvers in the top of each boot, Collins presented his cap to a friend to ‘remember him by,’ and moved the detail out at about 7:30 a.m. in what was described as a ‘jaunty and debonair’ manner.

‘He bade his two friends at the fort…a last farewell,’ wrote historian Alfred Mokler. ‘He seemed to have a premonition that he was about to ride into the valley of death, but he did not falter. He was deeply impressed with the thought that after he crossed the Platte River bridge, the next bridge he should cross would lead him into that ‘undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,’ but he went bravely forward.’

Anderson apparently gave no order for a rear guard. Bretney took it upon himself to borrow a Spencer carbine from Sergeant Merwin of the artillery and follow along behind Collins across the bridge with his 10 troopers. Bretney marched to the bluff on the north, and the infantry troops under Captain Lybe formed a skirmish line west of Bretney to prevent the Indians from cutting off a retreat.

Collins and his party rode across the bottomland up to the bluff and turned west. Indians that could be seen from the fort were hidden from Collins. With loud enthusiasm, they stormed out of the hills and sagebrush. When Collins saw the Indians attempting to flank him, he wheeled his men by fours left into line, facing Cheyenne warriors coming up from the river, and ordered his men to charge. Then two parties of Indians rushed in upon his rear. When several of his men had been wounded and he himself shot in the hip, he ordered retreat.

Sebastian Nehring, not understanding the order, dismounted to fight in a washout. Grimm yelled in German to run for the bridge. It was too late; no one saw Nehring alive after that. George Camp was wounded, his horse killed. As he crawled on hands and knees, an Indian tomahawked his head. George McDonald also died on the battlefield. Hankhammer’s wounded horse carried him safely from the fight but dropped dead at the bridge.

Only one man stood between the retreating troops and the avenging Indians. Severely wounded, Collins fought to keep back the Indians while his men rode at breakneck speed to the bridge.

What happened next is not certain. One account says that Collins was surrounded at once and shot down. Another account is more dramatic. When he finally had clear passage to the bridge, Collins supposedly heard a cry from the ground, ‘For God’s sake, don’t leave me here.’ Collins then turned and lifted the wounded man from the ground, putting him on his own horse. The nervous horse whirled about, throwing the injured man to the ground and then bolting. Collins, with an arrow in his forehead, was carried by the panicked animal into the midst of the Indians. With both revolvers drawn and the bridle reins in his teeth, the lieutenant fought until he was overpowered by the Indians and carried out of sight.

The dismounted men under Bretney and Lybe kept up a constant fire to cover the retreating horsemen; then Bretney and his 10 men ran down the hill and, with Lybe’s Galvanized Yankees, fell back to sand ridges near the bridge until all had crossed. The furious 10-minute fight certainly would have resulted in far more casualties if not for the bridge and Bretney’s covering fire. Sergeant Pennock wrote in his diary: ‘It was a terrible ordeal to go through….In the charge we lost about five killed and about twelve wounded. Lieutenant Collins was killed. Everything was in full view of the station.’

At 9:30 a.m., Anderson called an officer’s conference. Bretney, furious and grief-stricken over the death of his friend, came in yelling and throwing punches. When the air cleared, Captain Greer was down and Bretney was in the guardhouse. Shortly, the unrelenting Bretney sent word to Anderson that he would take 75 men and the howitzer and go to the relief of Custard. Anderson refused on grounds that they were needed to defend the fort.

It was still morning when Anderson sent Lieutenant Walker and a detail to repair the telegraph line about two miles east of the station. Anderson said that a flag signal would be sent if any Indians were sighted and the howitzer fired to warn the party to return immediately.

Walker sent four men ahead about a quarter mile to watch for Indians. Work had just begun when the flag was waved and the howitzer fired. The men dropped the wires and mounted their horses. Lieutenant Drew of the 11th Kansas, who had watched from the station, later wrote, ‘The cavalry advanced until they overtook the boys on foot (Lybe and the infantry), and then most of them turned to assist the four men on outpost from Walker’s command, although Lieutenant Walker’s horse got under such headway that it did not stop until it had carried him safely in the station, without his having fired a shot.’ And this from a fellow Kansan!

The four men sent in advance were soon in trouble. Indians charged out of a ravine, and while the white men discharged their weapons, other Indians rode out of another ravine behind them. One of the warriors drove a spear into the heart of a soldier named Porter, who fell dead. Another speared a soldier named Hilty, penetrating his lung, and then attempted to strike another soldier, McDougal. But McDougal pressed his revolver against the Indian and fired his last cartridge. Hilty, clinging to his horse, and the other white men then made a mad dash back to Platte Bridge Station.

About the same time, a large group of Indians had gathered on the bluff northwest of Platte Bridge Station where Collins’ party had been attacked. Mitchell Lajeunesse, a half-blood scout who lived in a tepee near the station, ventured out. He discovered that the Indians were squabbling, much as the bluecoats had done. The Cheyenne warriors called the Sioux warriors cowards for not taking the bridge, and the Sioux accused the Cheyenne of ‘friendly fire’ when they came down the hill after the retreating soldiers. According to Lajeunesse, the Indians nearly came to the point of turning their weapons on each other.

Custard, meanwhile, was still headed eastward along the telegraph road, having broken camp and hitched up the mule teams at dawn on July 26. The wagon train crossed the alkali flats, rode along the ‘Rock Avenue’ past the ‘Devil’s Backbone’ formations and Emigrant Gap. Custard and his men were unaware of the tumult up ahead at Platte Bridge.

About 9 a.m., east of Red Buttes, he encountered a telegraph patrol of 30 men of the 11th Ohio. For several days, mounted warriors had blocked their way back. They hailed the wagon train with great joy and invited them to join forces with them behind the breastwork of wagons they had set across a small peninsula. According to one of the patrol, Custard said, ‘You Ohio fellows, decked out in buckskin and fringe, think you know too much about this Injun business. We have been South, where fighting is done, and we know how to do it.’ A string of profanity floated down to the Ohio men as they watched Custard and his wagons scale the dividing ridge.

About 11:30 a soldier from the station spotted the wagons hurtling up the last little ridge west of the fort. The Indians didn’t miss the wagons either. Sergeant Merwin and his crew fired the howitzer as a warning.

Custard detailed Corporal James Shrader to take four men and ride ahead to see what the firing was about. Indians who had been hidden by the bluffs sprang forward in the northeast, east and south. Cut off, the riders plunged into the river. Private Edwin Sumners, seeing 15 Indians approach, refused to go along and was last seen being pursued by several warriors. Shrader and Private James Ballau reached the south bank. Ballau’s horse was shot from under him. His last words were, ‘Jim, what shall we do? We shall all be killed!’

After a brief skirmish, Shrader and the two other advance riders abandoned their horses and took to the sagebrush and a deep ravine. They crept over several ridges. As they ran the gantlet toward the post, about 20 Indians tried to head them off. Soldiers at the fort called out for the trio to take to the gully while they covered them. A group went out to meet them, and all reached the stockade safely, probably only because the Indians turned their attention to Custard’s wagon train.

After the Indians had cut Shrader off from the wagon train, some of them began attacking the train about noon. Custard’s force, in more of a frantic stampede than an orderly maneuver, managed to corral the wagons into a hollow south of the road. As the whooping Indians charged the wagon corral from the east, the soldiers grabbed their carbines and repulsed them, inflicting many casualties. While the Indians retreated, the soldiers hurriedly formed barricades of bedding, bales and boxes. Most fired from under the wagons,but four men inside one wagon did deadly execution through slits cut in the canvas cover.

Still, the Indians surrounded them. For four hours, the soldiers fought on, doing all they could to hold off the enemy. Sergeant Pennock, watching from the fort, later penned in his diary: ‘All this we could plainly see from the station, but we could do nothing for them….We could see the Indians in swarms charge down on our boys when they would roll volley after volley into them.’ Lieutenant Walker stated that the Indians scattered ‘like a flock of birds shot into.’

Seeing the futility of charging ahead, the Indians began to dig trenches with knives and tomahawks; they carried logs and rocks over to roll forward as a movable breastwork and fired their guns and arrows into the unprotected west side of the corral. Closer and closer they moved. It was about 4 p.m., and the end was finally near. After firing a volley, according to one account, the Indians with savage yells’seemed to spring out of the ground’ from all around. A hand-to-hand struggle ensued. Then, suddenly, the yelling and firing ceased. From the station, the soldiers saw a cloud of smoke rise; the wagons were burning. There were no survivors in Custard’s ‘Last Stand.’

The wagon train fight, in which 20 soldiers had held off about 1,000 Indians for four hours, became known as the Battle of Red Buttes. The wagons had rumbled past those hills 10 miles to the southwest earlier, but that is the lone link. Still, the name stuck.

As nightfall approached on the 26th, with no telegraph communication to the outside world and with 28 soldiers killed and many wounded, Anderson hired Mitchell Lajeunesse and his brother to carry orders to Deer Creek Station 28 miles to the east. One of them rode a captured Indian pony noted for its speed and endurance. They left about 10 p.m. and arrived early the next morning.

As ordered, a Lieutenant Hubbard telegraphed Fort Laramie to report the action and then took K Company on a forced march to Platte Bridge Station. The survivors cheered lustily at the arrival of the 50 men at 3 p.m. on July 27. The Indians withdrew. But there would be other skirmishes for the army in the area until October 19, 1867, when General Order 36 stated that ‘troops, munitions, and all useful materials…be removed as rapidly as possible to Fort Fetterman.’

Yet, Lieutenant Caspar Collins’ ride into eternity would be remembered. In November 1865, the War Department declared that Platte Bridge Station would be renamed Fort Caspar in honor of Lieutenant Caspar Collins. When Fort Caspar was abandoned two years later, the Indians burned what was left of it, but in 1936, the fort was rebuilt, and it is now a national historic place managed by the city of Casper, Wyo.

This article was written by Doris Soule and originally appeared in the December 1996 issue of Wild West.

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