- Washita Memories: Eyewitness Views of Custer’s Attack on Black Kettle’s Village
On 27 November 1868, the United States Seventh Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked a group of Cheyenne Indians camped alongside the Washita River in present-day Oklahoma. These followers of Black Kettle were considering their options in the face of intense pressure to accept a sedentary existence and a ruthless strategy of continual pursuit invoked by General Philip H. Sheridan. In the Fall of 1868 the Army units assigned to the Department of the Missouri were pressured by increasing Indian depredations and violence to embrace an aggressive and far-reaching strategy to pacify the region. The violent encounter between Custer and Black Kettle epitomized these efforts and sealed the fate of the Cheyenne.
The incident on the Washita River prompted immediate controversy and exposed the tensions between two government entities responsible for Indian affairs. The Indian Bureau labeled the event a "massacre" while those in the War Department referred to it as a "glorious victory." This battle has [End Page 927] received relatively little attention from scholars who tend to consider Sheridan's large-scale objectives in the years after the Civil War or focus on Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Richard Hardorff's in-depth and insightful consideration of this event is a welcome contribution to understanding a major military encounter.
The context of the battle is thoroughly and astutely described in an excellent introduction which traces Cheyenne history in the nineteenth century, considers the effects of cultural and population decline, and describes the pertinent issues surrounding the armed encounter on the Washita River in November 1868. The bulk of the narrative consists of first-hand accounts of the battle from virtually every perspective—civilian, army, Cheyenne, representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, newspaper correspondents, and the like. Many of these sources originate from the period of the battle, while others are collective memories recorded decades after the event. A total of forty-five informants combine to provide a complete description and analysis of this battle and reveal the multiple layers of historical interpretation that can be applied to a single event.
The entire narrative benefits from the very thorough and accurate introductions that precede the various accounts as well as detailed notes that provide extensive information on a large number of topics, ranging from specific geographic references to minibiographies of those involved in the battle. The structure and organization of the book is a model for scholars writing on specific military encounters and provides important ideas for those concerned with the Indian wars.
Richard Hardorff does not shy away from the controversies that surround the attack on Black Kettle's village. The sources are balanced and include accolades and criticisms of Custer's actions, particularly his steadfastness in executing Sheridan's policies and his culpability for the massacre of seventeen soldiers from his command led by Major Joel H. Elliott.
Washita Memories is the definitive work on this battle. It is an essential source for both scholars and those devoted to military history and the Indian wars of the 1860s and 1870s.
New Rochelle, N.Y.