Red River War - Lyman's Wagon Train


Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
After the battle of Adobe Walls several of the Comanche and Kiowa bands left the reservation and returned to the plains. The Indians conducted a number of raids in New Mexico and Colorado along with a few in the traditional Comanche raiding areas of Texas. They were determined to make one final attempt at nomadic life on the open plains.

The Battle of Adobe Walls provided the justification necessary for Generals Sherman and Sheridan to mount backbreaking expeditions aimed at putting the Southern Plains Indians down for good. They first submitted a new policy of enrollment and disarming for friendly Indians who wished to remain on the reservations. All others would be pursued and destroyed regardless of whether they were on reservation land. The policy of safety inside the reservation borders came to an abrupt end. Secretary of War Belknap approved the policy on July 20th and Sheridan immediately set his plan into motion.

The army would send five columns into the Texas Panhandle and Staked Plains region where the Indians were thought to be living. Each column to come from a different direction, they would strike deep into the canyons and chase the tribes as far and as often as possible even if pitched battles proved elusive. The Indians would not be permitted to prepare for winter and be compelled to surrender. Two columns would come from the Department of the Missouri. A column under Colonel Nelson A. Miles out of Fort Dodge, Kansas would ride south with the 6th Cavalry (8 companies) and the 5th Infantry (4 companies). Their route led toward the Washita River into the middle of the Texas Panhandle where the tributaries of the Red River cut deep canyons into the Staked Plains. Commanded by Major William R. Price, the second column from the Dept. of the Missouri would move east from Fort Union, New Mexico and drive the tribes into Miles column. The Department of Texas was ordered to send three columns. One from Fort Sill in the Indian Territory under Lt. Col. Davidson, one from Fort Griffin under Lt. Col Buell, and a third from Fort Concho under the command of Colonel Ranald Mackenzie. The three columns from Texas fell under the overall command of Mackenzie whose experience in mapping the Staked Plains was considered essential to operations in that area.

On getting the message about terms for remaining safe on the reservation, many of the Kiowa had a hard time accepting the situation. Extremely superstitious the Kiowa feared being counted or enumerated in any way. The proposed register and census frightened them to the extent that more Kiowa may have left the reservation after Adobe Walls than participated in the battle itself. Some of the big chiefs like Satanta and Big Tree finally agreed to the terms and signed on for peace. Their time in the Texas prison left quite an impression. However, Lone Wolf, Maman-ti, and Big Bow took their camps and struck out for the Panhandle.

The Comanche bands proved more reluctant to come in. First, the Quehadi Band had never signed any treaties with the whites and Chief Quanah had little intention of signing one now. His band started the war with the Buffalo Men at Adobe Walls and they had no reason to believe protection would be granted to them. The Penateka Comanche who had remained peaceful for some 20 years and never joined the fight anyway would register and remain at the reservation. Other than the Penateka only a couple of small villages under He Goat and Elk Chewing of the Yapparika signed up for protection at Fort Sill. Most of the Comanche stayed out on the Plains. These included all of the Kotsotekas and Quahadis along with most of the Yapparikas and Nokonis. Their chiefs included Quanah Parker, Wild Horse, White Wolf, and Mow-way.

The orders from General Sheridan did not provide much coordination between the expeditions leaving each commander free to operate as the situation progressed. Colonel Miles and Colonel Mackenzie (along with Custer) were each promoted to Major General in the Civil War at very young ages. The generous rank was actually a brevet promotion so they all returned to lesser rank when the war was over. The heavy casualty rate among officers during the war provided excellent opportunities for advancement. Now that the war was over the army shrank dramatically and competition for each promotion was extremely fierce. Very anxious to get in the field before Mackenzie, Colonel Miles led his column south out of Fort Dodge on August 11 about a month before the Texas columns started. It would be his first Indian campaign. Scouts Bat Masterson and Billy Dixon were among the group of Buffalo Hunters and newsmen attached to the Miles column. The scouts were commanded by Lieutenant Frank D. Baldwin.

Baldwin and his scouts left Fort Dodge with the main column but split off to ride ahead once they reached the Brazos. Miles reinforced Baldwin with an 18 man detachment under Lt. Henely. The small group rode around to the south and then back north to Adobe Walls. Once there Baldwin came upon a rather grisly sight. The buffalo hunters had cut off the heads of 12 dead Indians from the battle back in June and mounted them on the gate posts around their corral. Not surprisingly, Baldwin failed to mention the severed heads in his later correspondence with his 'Darling Wife'.

Baldwin led his small force away from Adobe Walls for the purpose of riding back and reporting to Colonel Miles. On the morning of August 19th, about 75 Indians appeared on a nearby hill only 50 yards from the camp. They taunted the soldiers by firing into their camp while Baldwin organized his Delaware scouts and soldiers for the chase. Baldwin described the action, "The chase was continued for some time, a distance of about twelve miles through the sand hills and over a very rough country. We captured several ponies. There is no chance of ever being able to tell how many we killed or wounded, as they will run greater risks to take away the body of one of their slain than they will to get a scalp of a white man. We returned from the chase about 8pm and moved into the stockade" about 8 miles from Adobe Walls. The skirmish was the first battle of the Red River War campaign. Baldwin believed they killed or wounded about 50 Indians in the fighting.

Battle of Red River

Baldwin's detachment rejoined Miles on the 22nd and began a pattern of extended day patrols in all directions from the column. On each patrol a cavalry detachment would ride about 30 minutes behind the scouts to protect them in case of trouble. This pattern continued for several days when they struck the "main Indian trail" at the Sweetwater and turned to follow. It's always hot in Texas during the month of August but 1874 seemed especially harsh. According to Miles, "the heat was almost unendurable, the thermometer ranging above 110 degrees in the shade, daily. We were marching through what was at that season a desert waste."

Over the next three days the column seemed closer and closer to the Indians. On the morning of August 30th Miles had moved his men about two miles when they reached an opening through the steep bluffs along the south side of the Llano Estacado. It was about 8am when Lt. Baldwin led the scouts into the hills only to have "a band of about two hundred and fifty Indians charged upon them from the bluffs on both sides."

Baldwin showed his usual cool deliberate courage under pressure. Miles tells us he "handled his men with consummate skill, while the whole Indian force sprang from their places of concealment lining the bluffs. Baldwin's frontiersmen quickly took position, dropped on the ground, and used their effective rifles to the best advantage. His friendly Delawares went quickly into action and their veteran chief, Old Fall Leaf, over whose head the storms of more than seventy winters had blown, his gray hair streaming in the wind, exposed himself conspicuously as he rode up and down his line encouraging and leading his men. The little force held its ground until reinforced by the rapid advance of the cavalry, which deployed at a gallop as they moved forward."

The battalions formed into a line with "rapidity and enthusiasm". Miles ordered Lt. Pope to bring the Gatling guns into position to support the assault. Captain A. R. Chaffee commanded his men, "Forward!, If any man is killed I will make him a corporal." From the first advance the Indians began a rapid retreat over some very rough country. Miles later described the running battle that followed. "They retreated precipitously, and were followed for twenty miles over the roughest ground that I had until that time ever seen men fight upon. Over the rugged hills and buttes, and the jagged ravines and covers, and across the dry bed of the Red River which was now covered with white, drifting sand where at times a great river flows, then up the right bank into the canyon of the Tule', a branch of the Red River, through the burning camps full of abandoned utensils, went the flying Indians. The retreat and pursuit were kept up with the utmost energy, descending into deep canons and scaling bluffs almost impassable, some portion of the Indians now and then attempting to stem the tide at some favorable point, upon which the troops would instantly charge and carry their stronghold, until at last the Indians were so closely pressed they could not even make a show of re-forming, but sped away demoralized and in full flight."

Colonel Miles discovered the army now had a serious problem. The long running fight had them far ahead of the supply wagons and his soldiers were now out of water. They searched the riverbed in each direction but found only one small pool of water and it was so full of gypsum and alkali as to be undrinkable. Some of the men "resorted to the extreme of opening the veins of their arms and moistening their parched and swollen lips with their own blood." Lieutenant Baird of the 5th infantry wrote a poem describing the event. In part it reads:
"Dust-Stained, wearied and parched,
Thirsting, ready to die,
We ask for one cooling drop,
Which sullenly thou dost deny,
Wile, up from thy burning sands,
As from venomed serpent's eye,
Come sparkles of parched brine
Which hope of aid deny"

The Indians escaped up the escarpment to the Staked Plains of the Llano Estacado with only a handful of casualties. Miles had only two men wounded. In light of being so far from his supplies, Miles believed his army was in no condition to chase them further. The next day he led the men up the plateau but saw no future in further pursuit. His supply train remained several miles to the rear and the Colonel decided to move backwards to the wagons and make camp. He consoled himself on the Indian escape, "While they undoubtedly rejoiced in their escape and were gratified at their ability to move with greater rapidity than the troops, at the same time they had received their first lesson in our tenacity of purpose and ability to remain with them in their most favored haunts and secure retreats."

According to at least one later report from an Indian source all that Miles accomplished was getting himself drawn into a long and costly goose chase while the Indians slipped happily away. The Cheyenne Chief Whirlwind poked fun at Miles for his habit of firing the cannon at dawn and dusk. "Sundown, shoot'um big gun -BOOM- tell every Indian for fifty miles where he camp. Every morning shoot'um big gun -BOOM- tell every Indian fifty miles he still there. Umph. Heap big bull."

Battle of Lyman's Wagon Train

After setting up camp on the dry fork of the Washita River, Colonel Miles sent Captain Wyllys Lyman and a detachment of 28 rifles from Company I of the 5th Infantry to meet a supply train coming from Battle Creek. Lt. Frank West and 20 troopers from the 6th Cavalry came along as escorts. Traveling 120 miles in 5 days, the well worn party arrived at the confluence of Oasis Creek and the Canadian River on September 5th. It took a couple of days to actually locate the supplies and get the transfer made to Lyman's wagons before they started back to Miles camp on the morning of the 9th.

Lyman noticed the Indians trailing along his flanks right from the start. Wasn't long before a large group appeared on the crest of a ridge some 800 yards to the front. Lyman pulled his wagons into a close train and posted skirmishers out to each side. He sent Lt. West out with a patrol but the Indians simply scattered and vanished in front of them. As the column continued on Indians took potshots at them from long ranges. They stopped at a water hole and refilled canteens and kegs before proceeding on toward the Washita River. About 12 miles out Lyman encountered a deep ravine that required quite a bit of effort. As the mules and teamsters struggled, the Indians showed "themselves openly and boldly like disciplined cavalry." Once out of the ravine some 70 warriors charged to within 100 yards before swerving off to the right in front of Lt. Lewis and the skirmishers who were set in the rear of the column. Lyman later described the action, "He (Lewis) had skillfully handled his skirmishers according to his own judgment up to this time, and when this attack was making, he shifted his line to meet it to the right and rear of the train and opened fire. The enemy swerved around the rear of the train, and accordingly, Lt Lewis removed his men across to cover it. Here he was subjected to a heavy fire from several directions." Unfortunately, Sgt. Armond was shot dead and Lt. Lewis was shot in the knee before the warriors were driven off. Lewis was "wholly disabled" but the train was saved.

During Lewis's stand in the rear of the column, Lyman saw the seriousness of their situation and ordered the wagon train into a circle. As they pulled forward, one side remained flat against a steep hillside while the other side bowed out to form a large D shape. He ordered the infantry to dig rifle pits along a ring 20 yards out from the wagons. The situation quickly deteriorated into a classic Indian siege.

The first night was quiet. Lyman used the time to supervise defensive improvements at each corner of the corral as well as the rifle pits. They pulled the horses and mules inside the enclosure and waited for an assault.

Beginning early the morning of September 11th the warriors started up with long range shots designed to keep the soldiers nervous. At one point a regular wild west show began. "The Indian practice of circling early began around our front and increased until it became a wonderful display of horsemanship. Savages, erect on their ponies with shining spears and flaming blankets and lofty fluttering headgear, dashed along the ridges with yells and defiant and insulting attitudes, appearing and swiftly disappearing, showing portentous against the sky in the bright sunlight. This wild entertainment appeared to be intended to divert attention from their dismounted firing parties."

The tactics continued until darkness fell at which time the warriors came closer with their taunts. They frequently ventured close enough to shout into the camp loudly announcing the soldiers faced "heap Comanches and Kiowas". Once daylight arrived the warriors would move back but kept up the firing. In addition, "occasional pony dashes were made until on the eleventh two savages were stretched, when this ceased."

By morning of the 12th, Lyman's men were out of water and getting desperate. Lieutenant West led his remaining cavalry to clear a ridge just beyond a nearby water hole. With that cover, Sergeant Mitchell took a 15 man infantry detachment and "leading and handling his men beautifully, and rapidly using his own deadly rifle - and the wounded and choking men and animals were relieved of their thirst."

Ironically, the drought broke just after that water hole incident and a violent thunderstorm struck. The rain continued throughout the following day turning the corral and camp into a giant puddle. Lyman could see large groups of Indians filing off to the north and leaving his area. Unknown to the wagon train, the Comanche and Kiowa were alerted to the advance of Major Price into the northern Panhandle from the forts in New Mexico. With the rain making siege tactics less effective, the majority of Indians were moving on to face Price. Lyman had thirteen dead and wounded soldiers.

Before the warriors left the area a young man named Botalye made a one man charge against the train. He rode right between the rifle pits and into the camp before unloading a pistol and racing back out the other side. All without a scratch. The chiefs praised Botalye's courage but suggested he not take such a risk again. Without hesitation, Botalye kicked his pony into a gallop and made a second dash through the army positions. Coming out again without a scratch, Botalye again defied the chiefs by making a third pass. And then a fourth before the chiefs finally convinced him to stop. Young Botalye would now be known as, "He Would Not Listen to Them."

Lyman spent the evening worrying about Miles. He was very aware that Miles column would now be running out of supplies and the wagon train needed to get back on the trail. While Lyman considered the situation, Schmalsle and a group of scouts arrived in camp with news that K Company of the 6th Cavalry was approaching with an ambulance for the wounded. At the same time Lyman was besieged, Miles had moved the entire column north to a point close to the Washita. They were able to move on the morning of the 14th and quickly made the rendezvous with the main column. Even though the link-up was made, Miles requested additional supplies and protection from General Pope. This request flabbergasted Pope who took the opportunity to hold Miles up and order him to camp on the Washita where supply lines could be secured from his own column and not by dispatching additional soldiers to Colonel Miles. Much to Miles continued frustration, the major focus of the Red River War was about to become Ranald MacKenzie, his closest competition for the next available promotion to Brig. General.

Quotes and sources:

[ame=""]Personal Recollections and Observations of General Nelson A. Miles, Volume 1 (Personal Recollections & Observations of General Nelson A. M) (v. 1): Nelson A. Miles, Robert Wooster: 9780803281806: Books@@AMEPARAM@@[/ame]

[ame=""] The Buffalo War: The History of the Red River Indian Uprising of 1874 (9781880510599): James L. Haley: Books@@AMEPARAM@@[/ame]

[ame=""] Conquering the Southern Plains (Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars, 1865-1890) (9780811700191): Peter Cozzens: Books@@AMEPARAM@@[/ame]

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