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Valor: Ambush on the Washita

By Jon Guttman
10/31/2017 • Military History Magazine

William Koelpin

 U.S. Army

Medal of Honor

Upper Washita River, Texas

Sept. 9, 1874

On Sept. 9, 1874, Sergeant William Koelpin found himself on a knoll near Texas’ Upper Washita River, tending to his 14 men and dashing to and from the nearest water hole, all under fire from Kiowa and Comanche Indians. Though Prussian by birth, it was in the Wild West he earned his adopted country’s highest award for valor.

Born in what is now Poland on Oct. 5, 1847, Wilhelm Koelpin apparently served in the Prussian army in 1866. In 1870 he arrived in New York, where he anglicized his name and joined the Army. By June 1874 he was a sergeant in Company I, 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., fighting Indians in the Red River War.

That summer Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, in concert with Brig. Gens. Christopher Augur and John Pope, devised a strategy to separate renegade Indians from those who agreed to keep to their reservations in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Any Indians who did not report to their agencies by August 3 would be deemed hostile. After that date Army columns were to converge on the Texas Panhandle and bring the holdouts to decisive battle.

On August 11 Colonel Nelson Miles led four companies of the 5th Infantry and mounted troops of the 6th Cavalry south out of Fort Dodge, Kan. Nearly three weeks later his scouting force, under Lieutenant Frank Baldwin, fought off an attack by 200 Cheyennes. But the column had run short of supplies.

Loath to withdraw while the other columns were advancing, Miles sent back 36 wagons, under 6th Cavalry Captain Wyllys Lyman, to rendezvous with a supply train. Koelpin oversaw 35 of the Company I soldiers escorting the supply train. Meanwhile, several Indian war bands had tried to report to their agencies, only to be rebuffed for missing the deadline. Now they were riding westward. Their route would unwittingly cut off Miles from his supply lines and put them on a collision course with Lyman’s wagon train.

On September 6 Miles learned of a large war party camped to his rear. Concerned over the fate of his supply train, he dispatched Baldwin and three scouts to contact it. On the morning of September 9, some 250 Indians encountered the wagon train south of the Upper Washita and opened fire from long range. The wagons kept rolling for a dozen miles until they reached Gageby Creek in mid-afternoon. As the train approached the crossing, Indians rushed it from all sides. Lyman immediately corralled the wagons.

The attackers killed a sergeant and wounded a lieutenant and a civilian teamster in the initial attack, then besieged the wagons. It was then Koelpin took 14 riflemen to the top of a knoll some 50 yards from the wagons and engaged the enemy at ranges from 300 to 600 yards. His occupation of the knoll kept the Indians from closing to a more effective range. The long-range firefight lasted three days, and several times Koelpin dashed back to the wagons to pick up ammunition and water for his men. The soldiers’ accurate fire drove back several determined Indian attacks.

On the night of September 10 or 11 Lyman dispatched one of his scouts, William F. Schmalsle, to report the wagon train’s plight. Evading pursuing Indians, Schmalsle made it back to camp. Concerned that a relief column of soldiers might attack their villages, the Indians ultimately lifted the siege of Lyman’s train.

The Red River War ended on June 2, 1875, when the final 400 holdouts surrendered at Fort Sill. Meanwhile, on April 23 Congress had awarded Koelpin the Medal of Honor for his actions during the clash on the Washita.

William Koelpin retired from the Army on May 29, 1901, and died in New York on Jan. 2, 1912. On Oct. 7, 2000, the 88th Brigade of the New York Army National Guard unveiled a new headstone, with a plaque memorializing Koelpin and his unit, at Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens.

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