Battle of Powder River: U.S. Army Bungles Attack on Sioux-Cheyenne Camp

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Battle of Powder River: U.S. Army Bungles Attack on Sioux-Cheyenne Camp

Crook's column returns to Ft. Fetterman after unsuccessful Bighorn Expedition
Etching originally published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1876
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: March 17, 1876

Today's history report chronicles a lesser-known battle during the Indian Wars of the 1870s. Bad weather and poor intelligence conspired to cause the ultimate failure of the expedition.


The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Lakota Sioux and their northern Cheyenne allies a reservation, including the Black Hills in Dakota Territory and a large area of "unceded territory" in what became the states of Montana and Wyoming. Both areas were for the exclusive use of the Indians and whites – except for government officials – were forbidden to trespass. In 1874, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills caused the U.S. to attempt to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux.

The U.S. ordered all bands of Lakota and Cheyenne to come to the Indian agencies on the reservation by January 31, 1876 to negotiate the sale. A few bands did not comply and when the deadline passed, Commissioner of Indiana Affairs John Q. Smith wrote that "without the receipt of any news of Sitting Bull's submission, I see no reason why...military operations against him should not commence at once." On February 8, 1876, Lieutenant General Phil Sheridan – Civil War hero and commander of the Department of the Missouri – telegraphed Generals George Crook and Alfred Terry ordering them to undertake winter campaigns against the "hostiles."

In bitterly cold weather, Gen. Crook, commander of the Department of the Platte, marched north from Fort Fetterman, near Douglas, Wyoming on March 1. Crook's objective was to strike against the Indians while they were at their most vulnerable in their winter camps. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and their followers were thought to be in the area of the Powder, Tongue, or Rosebud rivers. Crook's force consisted of 883 men, including in addition to cavalry and infantry, civilian packers, scouts, guides, and a newspaper reporter.

U.S. Army

The post-Civil War army contained a mixture of urban poor, farm boys, and grizzled vets. They were paid $13/month; after being issued their blue wool uniform, they quickly found it was of such poor quality they had obtain buckskin, corduroy, or hardy flannel to replace it. Congress was very tight-fisted in the post-bellum period, and several times ordered that before new headgear, uniforms, or other equipment was issued, old stocks must first be depleted. As a result, many U.S. Cavalry units had a decided jumbled appearance.

M1873 Springfield trapdoor carbine, .45-70 caliber Standard U.S. Cavalry firearm in 1870s [Image courtesy of]
M1873 Springfield trapdoor carbine, .45-70 caliber
Standard U.S. Cavalry firearm in 1870s
[Image courtesy of]

The favored weapons of the cavalryman were the Springfield trapdoor carbine (see above) and the Colt Single Action Army revolver (below). The trapdoor carbine was created as a result of the "lessons" of the Civil war. When the Spencer and Sharps rifles were introduced, many Union officials thought soldiers had a tendency to just "blaze away" without seeing an actual target. Therefore, thousands of Springfield rifles were converted to the single-shot, breechloading "trapdoor" model. [This model was still in use by the Army until 1892, and was the firearm used by the 7th Cavalry at the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.] Many enlisted men and officers bought their own weapons, so the occasional Smith & Wesson or Remington firearm could be found in any given unit. [Cavalry sabers were still issued – and would be through the early 20th century – but were often left behind during campaigns.]

1873 Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolver, .45 caliber; Another version, manufactured with a shorter barrel, became the "Peacemaker"
1873 Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolver, .45 caliber
Another version, manufactured with a shorter barrel, became the "Peacemaker"

Prelude to the Battle

A blizzard on March 5 deposited over a foot of snow and significantly delayed Crook's progress. Temperatures fell so low that the thermometers of the day could not record the cold. The soldiers had to heat their forks in the coals of their fires to prevent the tines from freezing to their tongues. Crook's column slowly followed the old Bozeman Trail to the head of Otter Creek. On March 16, scouts sighted two Indian warriors observing the soldiers. The Indians were identified as Oglala Sioux, and it was speculated that the camp of Crazy Horse might be nearby. Crook at 5:00 pm divided his command and sent Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds (a West Point classmate of President Grant and a combat veteran of both the Mexican-American and American Civil wars) on a night march with about 320 of the 2nd and 3rd U.S. Cavalry, with rations for one day. The force followed the trail of the two Oglala southeast toward the Powder River. That night the scouts, leading the soldiers, found an Indian village, which they described as containing more than 100 lodges, on the west bank of the Powder River.

Joseph J. Reynolds (1822-1899); Engraving by J.C. Buttre, after photo by Porter; Image currently in the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC
Joseph J. Reynolds (1822-1899)
Engraving by J.C. Buttre, after photo by Porter
Image currently in the Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC

Battle of Powder River

In frigid weather, Reynolds' plan was for one battalion of two companies of cavalry to descend steep bluffs on the south to the valley floor; one company was to attack the village, the other company was to capture the Indian's large horse herd, estimated at about 1,000 animals, which was grazing along the river. Another battalion was to attack the village simultaneously from the west and the third battalion was to occupy the ridge tops northwest of the village to prevent the Indians from escaping.

The village, however, was a mile further distant than anticipated with the result that only Captain Teddy Egan's company of 47 men, including Lt. Bourke, charged into the village from the south while the other battalions were delayed by the distance and rough terrain.

The Indians, now identified as Cheyenne and a few Oglala Sioux, were surprised, but quickly rallied, sheltering their women and children while retreating northward out of the village. In addition, a hunting party returned to the village just as the cavalry attacked. Taking up positions on the bluffs (which were supposed to be occupied by soldiers, but were not) overlooking the village, the Indians directing fire toward the soldiers in the camp. Several soldiers and their horses were killed and wounded. Capt. Egan was slowly reinforced as other units arrived.

Battle of Powder River: The Plan (Map A) and the actual attack (Map B) [Image courtesy of]
Battle of Powder River: The Plan (Map A) and the actual attack (Map B)
[Image courtesy of]

When Reynolds arrived at the village, the soldiers were still under fire. He ordered everything in the village destroyed, including tons of dried buffalo meat that the hungry soldiers on half rations could have eaten. The village and supplies proved difficult to burn, and the resulting exploding ammunition in the teepees was hazardous to the troopers. Bourke commented on the richness of the goods in the village -- the bales of fur, buffalo robes, and hides decorated with porcupine quills. The burning buffalo robes would also have been useful as the soldiers were freezing.

The soldiers were under fire for five hours in freezing temperatures and howling winds. Finally, at 2:30 pm, the destruction of the village completed, Reynolds ordered his soldiers to withdraw. They marched 20 miles that afternoon up the Powder River to Lodge Pole Creek, arriving at 9:00 p.m., in exhausted condition. However, Crook was not there, as he had camped ten miles to the northeast and had failed to inform Reynolds of his new location. In Reynolds's premature haste to withdraw, he left behind the bodies of three dead soldiers, as well as a badly wounded private who was subsequently "cut limb to limb" by vengeful Indians.

The Cheyenne recaptured all but 100 of their horses during another snowstorm early on the morning of March 18, as the exhausted guards were negligent and sleepy. It was not until noon that day that Reynolds finally rendezvoused with General Crook. During the return march, with Indians harassing the column and stealing back their ponies, Crook ordered the remaining horses killed. The reunited column returned to Fort Fetterman, arriving on March 26.


Although the attackers' casualties only amounted to 4 men killed and 6 wounded, at least 66 men suffered from frostbite. Most of the men who participated in the battle were in very poor condition when the battle occurred, and then had to suffer during the return march to Fort Fetterman.

Although the Cheyenne had only one man killed and one wounded in the battle, they lost most of their property and, in the words of a Cheyenne, were "rendered very poor." The women and children walked three days to reach the village of Crazy Horse where they were given shelter and food. Several may have frozen to death. Although the army stated that the village consisted of more than 100 lodges, Cheyenne accounts said the village had about 65 lodges. The number of warriors the army faced was probably fewer than 150.

Footnote #1: Upon the expedition's return, Gen. Crook brought charges against Colonel Reynolds. He was accused of dereliction of duty for failing to properly support the first charge with his whole command; for burning the captured supplies, food, blankets, buffalo robes, and ammunition instead of keeping them for army use; and, most of all, for losing hundreds of the captured horses. In January 1877, he was court-martialed at Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, and found guilty. He was sentenced to suspension from rank and command for one year for his conduct. His friend, President Grant, remitted the sentence, but Reynolds never served again. He was retired on disability leave on June 25, 1877, exactly one year after the battle of Little Bighorn. Crook's and Reynolds's failed expedition and their inability to seriously damage the Sioux and Cheyenne at Powder River probably encouraged Indian resistance to the demands of the U.S. Reynolds died in 1899, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Theatrical release poster (1951) [Image courtesy of]
Theatrical release poster (1951)
[Image courtesy of]

Footnote #2: In 1951, Hollywood produced a fictional movie very loosely based upon the historical battle. It starred Van Heflin, Yvonne De Carlo, Jack Oakie, and Rock Hudson. The movie was released in the United States under the title Tomahawk, and was re-named Battle of Powder River in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Footnote #3: The Powder River battlefield is currently located on private land. A pyramid made of cemented round river rock and four brass plaques marks the Powder River battlefield, about 35 miles south of Broadus, WY. The plaques bear the names of the four soldiers killed there. The monument was erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Gillette, WY in the late 1940s.

Monument on site of battle of Powder River [Image courtesy of]
Monument on site of battle of Powder River
[Image courtesy of]

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Reference Footnote #3. Broadus is located in Montana, just a few miles north of the Wyoming line.

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