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6th U.S. Cavalry

Medals of Honor

Washita River, Texas

September 12, 1874

During the Red River War, Colonel Nelson A. Miles, commanding a U.S. Army column against renegade Indians in the Texas Panhandle, sent four enlisted men—Sergeant Zachariah T. Woodall and Privates John Harrington, Peter P. Roth and George W. Smith—of the 6th U.S. Cavalry and civilian scouts William “Billy” Dixon and Amos Chapman back to a supply depot with dispatches concerning a wagon train siege on the upper Washita River. At dawn on Sept. 12, 1874, more than 100 Comanche and Kiowa raiders attacked the detachment.

The couriers quickly dismounted to make a stand on a knoll, but cover was sparse, as Indians retreating from the wagon train fight a few days earlier had burned off the prairie grass. Within moments Smith, tending the horses, took a bullet through the lungs. When he fell, the mounts stampeded with the men’s supplies.

Outnumbering their quarry 25-to-1, the Indians circled the five able-bodied men while keeping up a steady fire. The couriers were excellent shots, especially Dixon, who that June had participated in the Battle of Adobe Walls and was credited with hitting an Indian nearly a mile away with a borrowed .50-90 Sharps buffalo gun, a feat hailed as the “shot of the century.”

Though the sharpshooters were able to keep the milling Indians at a distance, soon Harrington and Woodall took hits, Chapman’s left knee was shattered, and Dixon suffered a slight calf wound.

During a lull in the attack, Dixon scrambled into a dry buffalo wallow—a natural depression in the prairie—a few yards away. By noon all but the critically wounded Chapman and Smith had also taken cover in the wallow. Using their hands and knives, the men threw up soil along the edge of the bowl to form a small bulwark, as the Indians continued their circling attack, according to Dixon sometimes riding “towards us at headlong speed, with lances uplifted and poised, undoubtedly bent upon spearing us.”

For hours the men baked under the Texas sun, desperate for water. Their continual fire did suppress the raiders’ advances, and when a chance presented itself, Dixon ran from cover, hoisted Chapman on his back and carried him back to the wallow, an act Miles later referred to as “one of the bravest deeds in the annals of the Army.”

Mercifully, an afternoon thunderstorm brought relief to the thirsty couriers and a break in the attack. As the men had run short on ammunition, Roth left cover to retreive Smith’s weapons and ammunition and was surprised to find him alive, though barely. Supporting the mortally wounded trooper on either side, Roth and Dixon carried Smith back within the makeshift fortress, where he died later that night.

By nightfall the Indians had broken off the attack.

After a long, cold night huddled in the wallow, jumping at every rustle in the grass, the men awoke to no Indians in sight. All accounts of the battle, including Dixon’s, stated the couriers had killed as many as two dozen of the raiders. When the sun rose, Dixon walked out for help.

He soon encountered a column of four companies of the 8th U.S. Cavalry under Major William R. Price. Apparently, the cavalry’s approach had prompted the Indians to withdraw. Price had his surgeon check over the injured men, but short of supplies himself he refused to leave them any food, ammunition or reinforcements. Some of his men did share a few pieces of hardtack and dried beef. As the cavalry unit moved on, Price promised to inform Miles of the couriers’ condition and send aid.

The promised aid arrived around midnight after another day under the Texas sun. A detail buried Smith’s body at the buffalo wallow, while troopers escorted the others north to Camp Supply in Indian Territory. There a surgeon amputated Chapman’s leg above the knee, and he and the others recovered and continued to serve. Miles “severely censured” Price for his failure to render further aid to the survivors. All six men who had endured the buffalo wallow fight were recommended for the Medal of Honor and received them in November 1874.


Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.