It was June 1867 and General William Tecumseh Sherman was puzzled.
What was Custer doing and more importantly where was he? Sherman, the great Civil War general who had scored significant victories in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia, was now part of a post-Civil War army. One of the most important campaigns for the U.S. government in the late 1860’s was to put an end to atrocities committed by plains Indians, specifically in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska.
If there was a beginning and ending to what was called the Indian Plains Wars, the common consensus is that Sand Creek started it and Summit Springs ended it, both occurring in Colorado Territory between November of 1864 and July of 1869. What Sherman was about to do was start in motion a horrible disaster that would entail a group of young U.S. Cavalry soldiers.
Between Col. John Chivington’s savage attack on Kiowa and Cheyenne at Sand Creek, Colorado Territory in 1864 and General Carr’s and Buffalo Bill Cody’s attack on Cheyenne Dog Soldiers at Summit Springs, Colorado Territory in 1868, there were numerous other significant battles between the army and various tribes of the plains. The most significant were the Fetterman Massacre (the entire 69 soldiers of Capt. William Fetterman’s group killed in northern Dakota Territory in 1866 a few miles from Ft. Kearny), Wagon Box, Hayfield, Beecher Island, Washita, and Soldier Springs. These battles were grudge matches between two groups who deeply hated each other; the hostilities punctuated with scalpings, mutilations, kidnappings, and torture on both sides.
The reason for Chivington’s attack at Sand Creek is varied but primarily inspired by the murder of Nathan and Ellen Hungate and their two young children by Cheyenne Dog Soldiers June 11, 1864. The mutilated bodies of the unfortunates were recovered from their settlement 35 miles southeast of Denver and viewed by the soldiers that would eventually attack Black Kettle’s Cheyenne settlement later that year at Sand Creek in the southeast portion of Colorado Territory. However, the Sand Creek encounter exacerbated the problem.
In an effort to end the Indian raids throughout the American Plains, General Sherman had Custer search for Indians who were attacking farms and ranches throughout southern Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and northern and central Kansas. Sherman learned from St. Louis that Custer was on the Republican River somewhere near Benkelman, Nebraska awaiting supplies from Ft. Wallace, a Kansas military post due south approximately seventy miles. Sherman sent word to Ft. Sedgwick just outside current Julesburg, Colorado for a dispatch to be sent to Custer immediately ordering him to “proceed with all his command in search of the Indians toward Fort Wallace and to report to General Hancock, who will leave Denver for same place today.”
Two days earlier a contingent of soldiers and scouts had successfully ridden from Ft. Sedgwick to Custer’s camp without Sherman’s orders and without incident. Now a new envoy was to be created headed by Lt. Lyman Kidder. Kidder, though only twenty-five-years old, was no novice to the army. He had Civil War experience and had re-enlisted twice.
Lt. Kidder, led by Sioux scout Red Bead, and ten very young soldiers, headed south from Ft. Sedgwick, just outside of current Julesburg, Colorado to Benkelmen, Nebraska. He did not find Custer and headed due south to Ft. Wallace in Kansas. About half way there, somewhere between June 29th and July 1, he met a large war party of Cheyenne and Sioux. Ten to five miles north of Beaver Creek in Kansas the war party began chasing Kidder and his soldiers. Eventually the battle ended in a ravine just a few yards north of Beaver Creek when all the soldiers and Red Bead were killed by several hundred Sioux and Cheyenne led by Sioux chief Pawnee Killer. To make a point, the Sioux and Cheyenne made sure the bodies were mutilated, had 20-40 arrows, and evidence that some had been burned. Custer would write in his memoirs My Life on the Plains that the soldiers had killed at least two Indians and though the soldiers’ horses were faster than the Indians’ pintos, the Indians’ mounts had the advantage of endurance.
Custer wrote, “How painfully, almost despairingly exciting must have been this ride for life! A mere handful of brave men struggling to escape the bloody clutches of the hundreds of red-visaged demons, who, mounted on their well-trained war ponies, were straining every nerve and muscle to reek their hands in the life- blood of their victims. . .
“Hastening, in common with many others of the party, to his side, a sight met our gaze which even at this remote day makes my very blood curdle. Lying in irregular order, and within a very limited circle, were the mangled bodies of poor Kidder and his party, yet so brutally hacked and disfigured as to be beyond recognition save as human beings. . .
“Even the clothes of all the party had been carried away; some of the bodies were lying in beds of ashes, with partly burned fragments of wood near them, showing that the savages had put some of them to death by the terrible tortures of fire. . . “
When Kidder’s party failed to arrive at Ft. Wallace, Kansas, Custer began a search and found them with the help of his scout William Comstock on July 12. Custer wrote, “Every individual of the party had been scalped and his skull broken . . . except the Sioux chief Red Bead [the scout], whose scalp had simply been removed from his head and then thrown down by his side . . . this circumstance told us who the perpetrators of this deed were . . . none other than the Sioux, led in all probability by Pawnee Killer.” Pawnee Killer and Custer had met at peace talks only weeks earlier. Even though Kidder and his soldiers had new-tech Spencer Carbines, seven-shot, caliber .56/50 rifles and a Remington .44 revolver, they were too few in number compared to the war party that grossly outnumbered them.
Just a few days earlier several of Custer’s men deserted the company (1867). The second time a group walked off in broad day light, he sent a contingent after them with orders to shoot to kill. At least one was killed and several injured.
Custer faced a court martial and was suspended for a year. However, this happened after Custer’s heroic rescue of two young women kidnapped from Kansas settlements, a rescue that was punctuated by bravery and brilliant negotiations by Custer and often over looked by those who label Custer the ultimate fool in fighting Indians. In March of 1869, Custer found a Cheyenne village in the Texas panhandle. Custer had two objectives: to send the Cheyenne to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma Territory reservation and rescue two women who were kidnapped by the Cheyenne in Kansas. Custer knew that the women may be killed if he attacked the village; this was a lesson he learned when Black Kettle’s Cheyenne had killed two white captives upon Custer’s attack at Washita in November of 1868. Custer rode into the Cheyenne camp with just an interpreter and spoke with their chief Medicine Arrow. The chief called Custer a treacherous man and insulted him by wishing him bad luck by pouring the ashes of his peace pipe on Custer’s boots. Eventually, with some patience and diplomacy Custer won the release of the two women.
The Kidder Massacre site is partially on private land of the Kuhrt Farm in Kansas about 12 miles north of Edson, Kansas on SH 28, northeast of Goodland, Kansas. Two markers, on public land, show significant details concerning the incident.
Timeline of Significant conflicts of the Indian Plains Wars (1864-1869)
- Sand Creek, Colorado Territory, current Kiowa County, November 29, 1864
- Bozeman War / Red Cloud’s War – Fetterman Massacre , Dakota Territory (current Wyoming, Powder River Country), December 21, 1866
- Kidder Massacre, Beaver Creek, Kansas, currently Sherman county north of Edson, Kansas, June 27-July 1?, 1867
- Wagon Box / Hayfield, Dakota Territory, August 2, 1867
- Beecher Island, Colorado Territory, September 17-26, 1868
- Washita Battle, Oklahoma Territory (current Roger Mills County), November 27, 1868
- Soldier Springs, Oklahoma Territory, Oklahoma, December 25, 1868
- Summit Springs (aka Susanna Springs), Colorado Territory, July 1869
Plaque at site:
About 7/1/1867, Lt. Lyman S. Kidder with ten men of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and an Indian guide, were attached by Indians one mile east of this marker. On 7/12/1867 their mutilated bodies were found by Lt. Col. George A Custer, who ordered the unidentifiable remains buried on the spot in a common grave.
In March 1868, the bodies were recovered by a detachment from Fort Wallace under command of Lt. Frederick H. Beecher, 3rd U.S. Infantry, who later that year was to die at the Battle of Beecher Island in northeastern Colorado. Kidder’s body, identified by a shirt he wore, was taken to St. Paul, Minnesota by his father. The others were reburied at Fort Wallace but in 1886 were removed to the Fort Leavenworth military cemetery.
A picture of the plaque and other sites can be found with this picture slideshow:
Thumbnails with commentary:
Ambrose, Stephen. Crazy Horse and Custer – The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, Anchor, New York, 1975.
Custer, George A. My Life on the Plains, Lincoln, Nb., 1952.
Brininstool, E.A. Fighting Indian Warriors, Indian Head Books, New York, 1953.
Johnson, Randy. A Dispatch to Custer: The Tragedy of Lieutenant Kidder, Mountain Press Publishing, 1999.