This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Summer 2017, Volume 63, Number 3)

POWDER RIVER: Disastrous Opening Of The Great Sioux War

By Paul Hedren. University of Oklahoma Press 2016. 452pp. Illus. Maps. End Notes. Bibliography. Index HB. $34.95.

The assault on 17 March 1876 of six cavalry companies, drawn from the 2nd and 3rd Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds, on 105 lodges of Cheyenne Indians, marked the beginning of the Great Sioux War of 1876. Although the army swiftly occupied the village and routed its occupants, the latter rallied and counter-attacked, driving out the troopers, killing four and wounding six. Altogether, more than sixty horses were killed, or died of exhaustion. The Indian pony herd, captured by the army, was recaptured by the Indians.  The lodges containing meat, saddles and buffalo robes were all destroyed.

Apart from the Custer fight on 25-26 June 1876, there have been relatively few accounts of the other significant encounters against the Lakota and Cheyenne, who either resided permanently in the Powder River country, or alternatively joined them in summer for the annual buffalo hunts. Prior to the Little Bighorn there were two major engagements:  the Rosebud on 17 June and the Powder River fight on 17 March.  Accounts of both engagements were written by a Colorado attorney named J. W. Vaughn, whose work With Crook at the Rosebud, was published in 1956. Subsequently he wrote the definitive work (until now) on the Powder River fight, entitled The Reynolds Campaign on Powder River, published in 1961, coincidentally also by the University of Oklahoma Press. Inevitably the question arises, was another volume necessary in the absence of the significant controversy which has engulfed the Little Bighorn campaign?

The author justifies its appearance by pointing to the additional material that has surfaced during the past 55 years, which is a fair enough point. However, in adding much that Vaughn omitted he, to some extent, negates this advantage by not reproducing either the after-action reports of the officers who participated, or the rosters of the six companies which took part in the attack, valuable components in Vaughn’s comprehensive account, simply because Vaughn had already published them. Yet his supporting notes frequently refer to the reports.

So the inevitable conclusion seems to be that to obtain the fullest account of the engagement, the serious student needs to consult both volumes. There are also differences in style and emphasis. In 1961, the main controversy concerned the identity of the village that Reynolds attacked:  was it a Cheyenne village, or was it the village of the Oglala, Crazy Horse? The issue was then in doubt. The second concerned style. Vaughn’s work focussed on the engagement and the events immediately leading up it, presumably in the belief that his readers would already be familiar with the background; Hedren, however, introduced a much broader landscape and much more data. Finally, Vaughn’s avocation was metal detecting at various battlefield sites, including the Rosebud, Fetterman and Little Bighorn battlefields, and he used these findings to support his conclusions. On the plus side, Hedren has included part of the Review carried out by the Judge Advocate General in the proceedings of the courts-martial that followed the battle, something which Vaughn apparently overlooked.

The author, a retired Superintendent in the National Park Service, is already well-known for his excellent works on the Sioux Wars and needs no introduction here.

Sixty years ago, the Sioux Wars were largely, though not exclusively, the province of the amateur historian.  The most prominent professional historian was Dr. Edgar I. Stewart and his Custer’s Luck, although discounted in recent years, remains a major source book. Robert M. Utley of the National Park Service was also a significant player. But the majority of writers – Colonel Graham, Edward S. Luce, Charles Kuhlman, Fred Dustin, Earl A. Brininstool et al – were not professional historians as such, so that their work lacks some of the disciplines associated with that profession. The principal interest was the event, not its setting. This applies equally to other Western subjects. The pre-eminent writers on ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, Jesse James, and the Lincoln County Wars were prominent Westerners, but Westerners have tended to be enthusiastic amateurs, concentrating on minutiae, but under-emphasising the overall context in which events took place. Vaughn’s book fell within this category. Events prior to 1874 were ignored and even those immediately preceding the campaign were covered in 42 pages.  Paul Hedren, on the other hand, traces events back to 700 A.D. which some may feel to be a little tenuous and the expedition does not leave Fort Fetterman until page 99! Vaughn devoted 72 pages to the engagement; Hedren,77. The main differences in length are to be found in the copious End Notes – 44 pages, whereas Vaughn used footnotes; the Bibliography – 18 pages, compared with Vaughn’s 2; Illustrations – Vaughn had 17, Hedren has 40 and 5 Maps, compared with Vaughn’s single map. Furthermore, several of the illustrations have not been published before. To sum-up, Hedren’s work is far more comprehensive than Vaughn’s.

Yet this reviewer felt a sense of some unease at times when evaluating his remarks. Hedren does not seem to have realised that volunteer ranks ceased to apply after the end of the Civil War and that Reynolds commanded the Department of Texas in his regular rank of colonel, not as a major general of volunteers.  He states that Crook, lieutenant-colonel of the 23rd Infantry until 1873, knew and respected the officers of the regiment, stationed in 1875 in his Department of the Platte, “and they respected him.” He gives no authority for this opinion and fails to explain why, in that case, the 23rd did not furnish companies, either for the March campaign or those for the summer campaign. He dwells on the possible reasons for Crook selecting Reynolds to command the expedition from Fort Fetterman, but if the generally accepted version is correct – that Crook felt kindly towards Reynolds it reflects poorly on Crook’s judgement.  Reynolds had no Indian warfare experience and admitted as such to Crook; he had no field officer to support or replace him in the event of his incapacity either.  And the composition of the expedition highlights a glaring deficiency invariably ignored by writers: the absence of sufficient field officers to co-ordinate battalion actions. None of the Second Cavalry’s four field officers stationed in the Department of the Platte participated in the 1876 war, although the regiment furnished eight companies during the year. As Hedren rightly points out, Crook had had no experience of Plains Indian warfare and the vast areas over which the Sioux and Cheyenne were roaming. Neither did his subordinates. Yet, Colonel John E. Smith, who had commanded Fort Phil Kearney from 1867, was stationed at Camp Douglas and Innis N. Palmer, colonel of the 2nd Cavalry, had been stationed at Forts Laramie and Russell for ten years. Major Eugene M. Baker, who had served in Montana and fought the Indians there, was on detached service at Fort Laramie. None of these officers participated in the 1876 war.

There was another factor that was to bedevil Crook’s tenure as Department Commander: his 1873 two-grade promotion from lieutenant-colonel, 23rd Infantry, to brigadier-general by presidential order. This was an army where seniority alone had dictated promotion, not competence or merit. In October 1873, Reynolds had out-ranked Crook; this was abruptly reversed, not on the basis of a major triumph, but the defeat of relatively small bands of Apaches. The promotion caused deep resentment as was evidenced in 1882 when 86 officers sent a circular to the President urging him not to promote Crook to major-general, remarking that the 1873 promotion had been to “the prejudice of every Colonel of the line.”  These had included Ranald. S. Mackenzie, John Gibbon and Nelson A. Miles – and Innis N. Palmer and John E. Smith. That the colonels of the line regiments resented Crook’s promotion is clear and Crook must have been profoundly aware of it. Promotions beyond the rank of colonel were by selection and as there were only five brigadier-generals, such promotions tended to be very slow. In Reynolds’ case, however, he had suffered misfortune in Texas and Crook may have hoped that gratitude for being offered the opportunity of redeeming his career would have outweighed any sense of grievance that he would otherwise have had.

Hedren describes in detail the courts-martial that followed the engagement. One captain was tried in April 1876, convicted, but was only sentenced to be “reprimanded by the Department Commander in General Orders.” He swiftly rejoined his company and commanded the 2nd Cavalry battalion in Crook’s summer campaign. Reynolds and another company commander were tried by court-martial in early 1877. Hedren’s coverage of their proceedings is very thorough; he also includes the Judge Advocate General’s review, which Vaughn omitted.  Strangely, although he comments that the J.A.G. noted that although Crook gave no positive formal orders, but simply expressed his wishes, this was sufficient to sustain a charge of disobedience of orders, Hedren seems to have overlooked the significance of this finding as weakening any defence Custer might have offered had he survived Little Bighorn. Nor does he note that the Judge Advocate General considered that the charge of disobedience of orders fell, not within the purview of Article 21 of the Articles of War, which could in theory carry the death penalty, but Article 62, which covered offences which were “not capital” and all “disorders and neglects,” and where lesser punishments were awarded. The reason given being that Reynolds was not attempting to defy authority when failing to carry out Crook’s wishes.  Reynolds was also charged under Article 42 with “misbehaviour in the face of the enemy”, which could carry also the death penalty. And if he escaped the firing squad under the first two charges, he could face mandatory dismissal for “conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman” as provided in Article 61! He also faced further charges under Article 62 for his conduct during the engagement.

The composition of the Court, containing thirteen officers, was formidable. The Department Commander of the Missouri, Brigadier General John R. Pope was the president, assisted by seven colonels, three lieutenant-colonels and two majors. Major David G. Swaim, the Judge Advocate, was an experienced member of the small Judge Advocates Corps, who, two years later would be appointed Judge Advocate General and promoted to brigadier-general. Guilty verdicts were handed down – but heavily qualified. Reynolds was convicted of Disobedience of Orders; acquitted of Misbehaviour before the enemy – but instead convicted for conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline; and convicted on the general charge of conduct to the prejudice of military discipline, but of only one of the five specifications. He was acquitted of the charge under Article 61, thus escaping mandatory dismissal. The sentence was relatively mild considering the nature of the charges: suspension from rank and command for one year.

President Grant, nearing the end of his term of office, remitted the sentence, and Reynolds retired on 25 June 1877, an embittered man, leaving behind a legacy of ill-will. 

All in all, it had been a disastrous campaign, bearing in mind that the number of troops engaged probably exceeded the number of warriors in the village. The cavalry companies involved that day would not serve in the summer and autumn campaigns – Egan’s Company K, 2nd Cavalry, accompanied Crook late in the year but did not accompany Mackenzie in his attack on the Cheyenne village of Dull Knife in November.

In summary, this is an excellent account of the fight, although in the reviewer’s opinion, Vaughn’s work continues to have considerable value. Possibly, it would have been enhanced had the author brought into comparison other, similar actions, such as Mackenzie’s attack on the Cheyenne Village; or Custer’s in November 1868. Winter attacks were invariably preferred by the army, and most were successful. Powder River was an exception. A section detailing the reasons for this would have been helpful. But in spite of its absence the work is strongly recommended.

Francis B. Taunton


English Westerners' Society  

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