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Instead of pursuing the fleeing Indians, however, the white men now decided to take a break. Carson’s orders might seem perplexing, but his men had been fighting or marching for thirty hours. They relaxed and ate whatever hardtack or raw bacon or salt pork they had stuffed away in their haversacks, drank from what Pettis described as “as fine a running brook of clear cold water as I ever saw on the frontiers,” and told stories of the day’s heroics. Their horses grazed peacefully in the lush uncropped grasses. Carson’s plan was that, after their rest, the men would mount up and move against the Comanche villages and destroy them. This seemed reasonable enough. But as would soon be apparent, it was actually a setup for the sort of slaughter that would take place twelve years later at the Little Bighorn.
Less than half an hour had elapsed when the Indians began again to mass on the open ground in front of the old adobe ruins, and again the soldiers heard the “sharp, quick whiz of the Indians’ rifle balls.” They also heard something very strange: a bugle blaring periodically from the enemy’s ranks, blowing the opposite of whatever the army bugler blew. If the federal bugles sounded “advance,” he would blow “retreat.” And so on. The Indian bugler was every bit as good as the white buglers, and each time he blew the soldiers would erupt into laughter, in spite of themselves.
The battle resumed at full intensity, and it soon became clear that the Comanches and Kiowas had figured out at least some of the deadly antipersonnel characteristics of the howitzers. The chiefs spread their warriors out. “Their policy was to act singly,” wrote Pettis, “and avoid getting into masses.” The tactic worked, and the howitzers were only fired a few times. On one of those occasions,
the shell passed directly through the body of a horse on which was a Comanche riding at a full run, and went some two or three hundred yards further on before it exploded. The horse, on being struck, went head-foremost to earth, throwing his rider, as it seemed, twenty feet into the air with his hands and feet sprawling in all directions.23
The Indians meanwhile had mounted a furious attack. Numbers of them had dismounted and were laying down a withering fire from the high grass, while riders swooped along the front, firing their rifles from beneath their horses’ necks. Something else was happening, too, as the battle raged into midafternoon, that Carson and his officers could not help noticing. This was the arrival of more and more warriors from the large Comanche village that lay visible downstream on the Canadian River. They came up steadily, in groups of fifty or more. At some point, probably around three o’clock, Pettis estimated that Colonel Carson’s modest Second Cavalry was facing an Indian cohort of three thousand, under the command of legendary Ten Bears, the principal Yamparika band chief of the 1860s and a man who had actually been to Washington in 1863 and received a peace medal.24 (Kiowa chief Tohausan also figured prominently in the battle.) Though Pettis’s estimate of enemy force is undoubtedly high—that number would have accounted for most of the Comanche and Kiowa warriors in existence in 1864—the soldiers now began to fear for their own safety. Their supply train, for one thing, was guarded by a mere seventy-five men, and Carson could see large numbers of Indians begin to stream toward his rear.
It was to Carson’s credit that at three-thirty p.m., having engaged the Indians for the better part of five hours, he gave the order to fall back. Though his decision was vigorously opposed by most of his officers, who believed their troops should move forward and take the village before them, the Ute and Apache leaders advocated retreat. Carson listened to the Indians. He sent skirmishers out in his front, rear, and on both flanks, and very carefully made his return march, while the Indians continued to attack him on all sides. His idea was to return to the smaller Kiowa village, burn it, then move out. His force reached that village just before sundown. It was full of Indians. Carson was now surrounded by the full Indian force, which meant ten-to-one odds. He ought not to have survived, any more than Custer survived his own deadly, and not entirely dissimilar, blunder years later.
That he did is entirely due to the lethal little howitzers. Carson ordered them dragged to the top of a small sand hill near the Kiowa village. And now they boomed forth case and canister, driving the Indians back out of the village and allowing the whites in. They plundered it—the lodges were full of coveted buffalo robes—and then burned it down, while the deadly case shot sung through the twilight air. One round hit squarely amid some thirty to forty Indian riders. Darkness fell and the retreat continued. The Indians followed Carson’s men for a while, and scared them into riding almost continuously for four days. But they did not ever renew their attack. They had just fought one of the largest battles ever fought on the Great Plains.
The version of the Battle of Adobe Walls that went into the military records was noteworthy for its complete inaccuracy. The report stated that Carson and his force
attacked a Kiowa village of about 150 lodges near the adobe fort on the Canadian River in Texas, and, after a severe fight, compelled the Indians to retreat, with a loss of 60 killed and wounded.25 [Estimates were of 30 killed and 30 wounded.]
Carson had not beaten anyone. He had narrowly avoided the massacre of his own troops, as he himself conceded on more than one occasion. Without the howitzers, “few would have been left alive to tell the tale,” he said later. His own losses were not inconsequential: seven dead (six whites and one Indian) and twenty-one wounded (seventeen whites and four Indians). He had retreated under cover of darkness. Captain Pettis later spoke with a Mexican trader who was at the Comanche camp at the time of the battle. Wrote Pettis:
The Indians claimed that if the whites had not had with them the “guns that shoot twice,” referring to the shells of the mountain howitzers, they would never have allowed a single white man to escape out of the valley of the Canadian, and I may say, without becoming immodest, that this was often the expressed opinion of Colonel Carson.26
Carson’s was not the only punitive expedition launched in 1864. Four days later, and several hundred miles to the north, a former Methodist preacher turned territorial officer named J. M. Chivington presided over the bloodiest, most treacherous, and least justified slaughter of Indians in American history. It would pass into legend and infamy under the name of the Sand Creek Massacre. Cheyennes were the victims.
Chivington was a product of his times. A tall, imposing man with a barrel chest and a thick neck, he had spent much of his time setting up Sunday schools in the Colorado mining camps. In the personnel vacuum left by the onset of war in the east, he had risen to the position of brigadier general in the U.S. Army, commanding a large, unreliable, often drunk gang of second-rate soldiers who constituted the territorial volunteers in Colorado. The Cheyenne and Comanche attacks of the summer and fall had created a feeling of grim panic in the streets of Denver. Citizens were desperate, sometimes hysterical; everyone knew someone who had been attacked or killed. Whatever sympathy the horse tribes may once have inspired was gone. The idea now was to annihilate them, both in retribution for what they had done and to prevent future attacks. Chivington was their champion, and he believed God was on his side. “Damn any man who sympathizes with the Indians!” he said. “I have come to kill Indians, and I believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.”27 To encourage recruitment into the volunteer units, he displayed the mutilated corpses of a white family of four next to the enlistment table. He spoke enthusiastically of “taking scalps” and “wading in gore.”28 His instructions to his men, which later became famous, were unambiguous: “Kill and scalp all, big and little. Nits make lice.”
At eight o’clock in the evening of November 28, 1864, under a starry winter sky, Chivington and seven hundred territorial troops advanced from Fort Lyon in the Colorado territory, riding in columns of fours. The next morning they attacked the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle—a village that had just made a truce with the white soldiers. But Chivington’s purpose was only to kill Indians, and that is what he did. He began by pounding th
e lodges with the fragmenting shells from four mountain howitzers. And then his men streamed in, many drunk or hungover from the night’s drinking, slashing and shooting indiscriminately. At the time of the attack, there were some six hundred Cheyennes in the camp. Of these, no more than thirty-five were warriors. Most of the men were out hunting buffalo. There is little point in describing in detail what happened. Children were shot, point-blank. Babies were bayoneted. Saddest of all was the sight of the Indians huddling around a large American flag that had been draped over Black Kettle’s tipi. They gathered and flew white flags and the women opened their shirts so there could be no mistaking their sex, and waited patiently for the soldiers to see that the Indians were friendly and stop the killing. Instead, they were cut down. When the smoke had cleared and the screaming had stopped, three hundred Cheyennes lay dead. All were scalped, and many were mutilated. One man had cut out a woman’s private parts and exhibited them on a stick.29
The massacre quickly became public, mainly because a number of Chivington’s soldiers were disgusted by what had happened and later told their story to the press, but also because the victors had not been shy of bragging about what they had done, of which they were proud, initially at least. Chivington’s return to Denver, in fact, was triumphant, the newspapers full of stories praising him. Chivington himself proclaimed that “Posterity will speak of me as the great Indian fighter. I have eclipsed Kit Carson.” (Carson responded: “Jis to think of that dog Chivington and his dirty hounds up thar at Sand Creek. His men shot down squaws and blew the brains out of innocent children. You call sich soldiers Christians, do ye?”)30 At a theater in town the Colorado troopers had displayed their trophies for cheering crowds: tobacco pouches made from scrotums, fingers, scalps, purses made from pudenda cut from Cheyenne women.31 As the details became known, a wave of revulsion swept through the corridors of power and influence in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. The Sand Creek Massacre would have an enormous and lasting effect on the Indian policy that was made in those places. It is interesting to note, though, that such gut-churning shame and disgust was largely confined to the east. The protest over the killing of women was not echoed by any such sentiments in Indian country, where everyone knew that women were often combatants (they were not, in this case). Nor was there any outcry on the frontier over the use of the mountain howitzers against a sleeping village, as there was in the east.32 What Chivington had done was what many people in the west, including the regular army, believed had to be done. The army’s distaste for Chivington had more to do with style and with the savagery of his raw recruits. He had, after all, attacked a village under truce. Otherwise, it was clear from the reaction on the raw frontier that it was long past the time when it had become morally justifiable to kill Indian women and children.
PEACE, AND OTHER HORRORS
THE END OF the Civil War in the spring of 1865 and the collapse of the Confederacy brought final and complete chaos to the frontier. Before there had been at least a pretense of organization. Now there was nothing. The militias disappeared from the federal lands. For a period of months there could be said to be no government at all in Texas, no systems, no authority, no power. It must have seemed to the People that the good old days had returned, that the Great Father’s war had done something strange and permanent and magical to remove their old enemies from the borderlands. The Comanche numbers were still small—there were only, we must remind ourselves, maybe four thousand of them out there holding up the advance of western civilization—but a good deal of their old power had come back, and with it had come the old arrogance. Their social organization was still based on warrior status—there was, indeed, no other form of social advancement—their wealth still consisted of stolen horseflesh, and now once again they had the unfettered ability to make splendid war throughout the borderlands, both on whites and Indians.
The weird time warp persisted: As teenagers, Quanah and his peers were living, hunting, and raiding just as their fathers and grandfathers had done, as though hundreds of thousands of white people were not poised to rush headlong into Comanche lands at the first sign of weakness or opportunity. The tribe had a thriving new business, too, to add to selling stolen horses and captives: cattle thieving. These years had seen the beginning of the great cattle operations in Texas. In the west, the Quahadis had transformed themselves into a sort of bovine clearinghouse. They stole cattle from Texas—Charles Goodnight put the number rustled during the Civil War years at an astonishing 300,000 head—and traded them through Comancheros to government contractors in New Mexico, who sold them to the U.S. Army.1 General Carleton, to be precise. In some cases, they were actually selling Carleton back his own cattle. In exchange, the Comanches received the guns and ammunition—increasingly revolvers and high-quality carbines—that had been deployed against Kit Carson at Adobe Walls. The business was so good that some wealthy Anglo-Americans got into it, furnishing capital to the Mexican traders.2 Carleton knew all about this ingenious commercial two-step and it made him furious.
What had happened was that the state and territorial militias, the core of frontier defense for four years, had simply melted away. In the Confederacy they were forcibly disbanded. But they disappeared in Union areas as well. There were political and organizational reasons for this. During the war large numbers of volunteers had been raised under the government’s emergency powers. These were the troops under the command of Carson and Chivington. With the end of the war few wanted to remain on permanent duty, and thus most of them were now released. The U.S. military, meanwhile, was undergoing a rapid downsizing that by 1866 would draw the total number of troops down to seventy-five thousand, and the eight thousand regulars that Ulysses S. Grant sent to Texas as an army of occupation were entirely concerned with affairs other than fighting Indians. When the governor of Texas later tried to fill this military void with state troops, the federal government refused to allow it. Demilitarizing the South was a priority of the reconstruction era, and Washington was not going to permit rebellious Texas to raise its own armies again. Nor was Congress, groaning under an enormous war debt, inclined to spend money on costly campaigns against a relatively small group of savages who posed no direct threat to the nation.
There was something else, too, that contributed to this lack of will to stop Indian raiding on the western frontier. This was the particular and very strong belief shared by many people in the civilized East that the Indian wars were principally the fault of white men. The governing idea was that the Comanches and other troublesome tribes would live in peace if only they were treated properly, and the farther its devotees were from the bleeding frontier, the more devoutly they believed it. This was the old fight between the army, who knew better, and the “rosewater dreamers” in the Indian office, who called their uniformed adversaries “butchers, sots determined to exterminate the noble redmen, and foment wars so they had employment.”3 As General John Pope later observed, the army found itself in a no-win position. “If successful, it is a massacre of Indians; if unsuccessful, it is worthlessness or imbecility, and these judgments confront the Army in every newspaper and in public speeches in Congress and elsewhere—judgments by men who are absolutely ignorant of the subject.”4 Reports of Chivington’s massacre and white atrocities in Minnesota seemed to prove what the army’s critics were saying.
The notion that the trouble with Plains Indians was entirely due to white men was spectacularly wrongheaded. The people who cherished it, many of whom were in the U.S. Congress, the Office of Indian Affairs, and other positions of power, had no historical understanding of the Comanche tribe, no idea that the tribe’s very existence was based on war and had been for a long time. No one who knew anything about the century-long horror of Comanche attacks in northern Mexico or about their systematic demolition of the Apaches or the Utes or the Tonkawas could possibly have believed that the tribe was either peaceable or blameless. Except in the larger sense, of course. The Comanches had been first o
n that land, if that counted for anything, and the westering Anglo-Europeans were the clear aggressors. If the taibos agreed to stop the advance of their civilization precisely at the 98th meridian, and kept their western settlements bottled up beyond the Rockies, and refused to build transcontinental railroads or permit pioneers to cross the plains on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, then a lasting peace might have been made with the Comanches. But these same Indian advocates would never have denied the fundamental right of white Americans to fully possess their continent.