Title: The Indian Campaign

Periodical: New York Times

Date: August 17, 1876

Author: C. M.

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Something of the emotions which overcome one on finding that the friend you have called on is not at home were experienced by Gen. Merritt's command when, after an eight days' march to Gen. Crook's supposed camp, we found that the place had been abandoned some time before. Such an event was not, indeed, wholly unexpected, and Gen. Merritt had sent forward two couriers to Gen. Crook with a letter, requesting that a guide be sent out to meet us at Fort Phil Kearny; but when, at daylight this morning, we passed that abandoned and sadly memorable post, there was no one to meet us, and it was supposed the camp had not been moved. The road was followed through the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains for five hours, until the last high ridge was crossed and we looked down upon the wide and level plain traversed by Goose Creek, a tributary of the Tongue River—which is itself a tributary of the Yellowstone. Here Gen. Crook's camp should have been, but it was not. Not a living thing was observable on the wide stretch of gray-green grass. Far as the eye could see across level and hill there was nothing giving evidence of its occupancy by man. Soon the scouts discovered the abandoned camp on the other or north side of the creek, but where the force had gone to no one seemed to know. The column was halted and camp made. Scarcely had this been done when in came a scout Gen. Crook had sent out to meet us at Kearny, and soon after our two couriers came back, tired out and unsuccessful. One of them had ridden his horse to death, but they had not found Gen Crook. Gen. Crook's scout had missed us at the fort, while he had been hidden in the bushes beside the creek, and perhaps had been asleep when the column passed along the road. Gen. Crook, he informed us, was encamped fifteen miles west and north of his old camp, and we were to await further advices before moving. He further explained that the smoke from burning prairie which obscured the sky north and east of us was from fires kindled both by Gen. Crook and the Indians. The situation at the time the scout left his command was a little uncertain. The Indians, it seemed, had moved off south, which we had heard on our march to this place, and supposed, as a consequence of this move, we should strike some bands of them, or at least cross their trail. We did neither, and at sundown this evening other couriers came from Gen. Crook with dispatches to the effect that the Indian scouts had found that the southern trail of the enemy turned north after passing in the rear of the command, and that the Sioux were all massed north of the ground held by the General. This information gave great satisfaction, since it promised a decisive battle instead of long months of tedious and troublesome scouting after scattering bands. We are now looking forward to a big affair, in which no one, even the most experienced, anticipates anything but a crushing defeat for the Sioux. It will not, however, be done without probably heavy loss on our side, and everybody wonders why Gen. Crook did not send for artillery. A section of it would demoralize the largest body of Indians ever gathered, and clear any cañon into which they could get.

Though the mass of the Indians are north of Gen. Crook, it is not a little singular that we have not seen a single Indian on our march here. The corps of eleven scouts, under command of Lieut. Young, who was specially detailed for the service on account of his long Indian experience, have scouted the country every day in advance and on either flank of the column for a distance of from two to eight miles; but the report has been always the same—neither Indians nor signs of them. This, however, is no indication that they have not seen us. On the bank of Powder River, close beside the ford in a grove of cottonwoods, we came upon what appeared to be an abandoned outfit of a party of miners. Three light wagons stood there just as they had been drawn into camp—horse harness, clothing, mining tools, cooking utensils, and all the miscellaneous débris of a camp was scattered about as if the owners, surprised by Indians, had jumped upon their horses and suddenly fled. A valise was found some little distance from the camp containing a bundle of papers and letters, but these gave no clue to the identity of the party, for they were addressed to and signed only by the Christian or first names. The discharge of an infantry soldier named Lee was one of the papers found. Who the party was no one has been able to discover. The scouts were unable to do more than surmise. On the other side of the river the signs of a comparatively recent Indian camp were evident, and it was probably the sudden approach of this body of Indians which had caused the mining party to fly. If they were seen at all by the Indians there can scarcely be any doubt of what their fate was. Away up in the heart of this region, far from any place of succor, there was little chance of escape if the enemy pursued them. Beyond this characteristic discovery and the distant fires visible from this camp, nothing was seen and nothing has been seen indicative of the recent presence of the enemy in this section of country.

But, because of this Gen. Merritt relaxed none of his vigilance either on the march or in camping. After the first day out from Fetterman the road was cleared far ahead and on the flanks before any one moved out of the camp, and Cody with the other scouts was out all the time. Every prominent point along the road was occupied in advance by the lookouts; every ravine which might conceal an enemy was looked into, and when the open country was passed and the foothills entered, the precautions were redoubled. Every possible provision was made against a surprise, and more particularly against a night attack on the camp, which would have been made, if made at all, to stampede the stock. Each camping-ground was admirably selected for purposes of defense, though certainly not for convenience to water. The lines of the camp described a wide crescent, the ends resting on the edge of the bluff overlooking the creek we happened to camp near. The semi-circle was made by the lines of tents and the wagons, and inside this the vast herd of horses and mules was brought at night and picketed and hobbled. During the afternoon, the stock fed outside the lines under strong guard; and at night three lines of guards were out, and a stable guard among the herd inside. At no moment was the camp left unguarded or unwatched. Every night after the second an attack was looked for with more or less certainty. We camped upon the same places where Gen. Crook had camped last Spring, when he went out against Crazy Horse, and where he had been troubled by the enemy; but we were not molested, and on no occasion was an alarm sounded. Some of us felt a little anxious on the night when camp was made on Crazy Woman's Fork. The valley of this stream, a tributary of the Powder River, is a favorite stamping ground of the Sioux, and it so happened that a little before sundown a furious wind-storm sprung up, which would have made it impossible to hear a shot fired to leeward, and this happened to be the infantry side of the camp, which was ours, where the guard was composed of the raw recruits who had been hurried to the front. At this point, also, was an open stretch of level country, across which the Indians would probably have made their rush if they had come at all. Nothing worse than having everything in camp, including ourselves, covered and half smothered with fine dust, occurred during the night, and one lying awake could hear faintly the responding cry of the several posts calling their number, the hour, and "all's well." This system of having the outposts call the hours is something peculiar to Gen. Merritt, and will probably be dropped when Gen. Crook takes hold of the command, for his idea is to keep silence and let the enemy be caught as he steals up. In reference to the infantry recruits it should be said that they have done very well on the march. They were mounted, and on the trip up have became so well drilled in cavalry tactics that it is difficult to distinguish them from the regular cavalry when they are in a column. Lieut. Seaton is in command, with Lieuts. Rockefeller and Plummer. There has been no opportunity to put the men through their own drill, and as they are perfectly green, there is considerable work to be done to get them in proper shape. They are good men and willing, but it is a striking commentary on the policy of economizing the Army as has been done, so that men just picked up in the recruiting offices in New York and Philadelphia should have to be hurried into the field before they know how to load their muskets. An army of 25,000 men scattered over so vast a territory as the United States necessarily reduces the several commands to mere squads, and a young officer who has been eight years in continuous service in the Army told me that until he joined Gen. Merritt's column on this expedition he had never seen so large a body of American troops collected together. Gen. Merritt's column, be it remembered, consists of just about seven hundred men.

A great feature of the expedition is the corps of scouts. There are some eleven or twelve of them, and their chief is Cody, better known as "Buffalo Bill." Like all great men, he has his imitators. One of the fellows in the corps has obtained the sobriquet of "Buffalo Chips," because he acts as a "striker" to Bill, and wears his hair long, after the fashion of that famous individual. "Chips" is not a bad scout, and probably dreams of the time when he, too, shall go East, and as the great scout of the Big Horn pocket his thousands from nightly crowded houses. He killed the first buffalo seen on the march, but it was an awfully tough old bull. Next day another was killed, which proved to be of about the same consistency of fibre, and that completes our game list, except a few antelope. There is very little game up in this Big Horn region, or at least that part of it we have passed over. The Laramie Plains were full of antelope; here one may march all day and not see one. There are, however, abundance of old buffalo skulls lying about, showing that the big game is known here. Most of the hunting is done by the scouts, and well their unfortunate horses must know it, for they ride them mercilessly. As a class, these men have rather a bad reputation—most of them being dangerous and good-for-nothing rascals, who take to their risky business because it pays well. Cody, however, is an exception, and stands high in the estimation of those he serves. Another hunter is old Gen. Carr, Lieutenant Colonel of the Fifth Cavalry, who until we got into very dangerous country has been trotting about the flanks of the column and banging away with a double-barrelled shot-gun at the sage hens and rabbits with uniform non-success. Indeed, the old gentleman could not apparently hit a barn door, but he shoots and shoots as if something dropped at every discharge, while most of the time the only effect has been to make nervous people jump in the saddle when they hear the reports. One cannot tell in this country what shooting may indicate, and I have to confess humbly to being scared pale when one morning while watering my horse with some others at a little water hole, a sudden volley was fired somewhere and the bullets came singing just over our heads. That the rear guard had been "jumped" by Indians and a fight begun seemed certain, but it was only a squad of men shooting into a flock of sage hens which had got up.

The only disagreeable incidents of our march have been the bad water and intense heat. Until the foothills of the mountains were entered, water was found only in pools in the beds of what are marked on the maps as creeks, but which, as a rule, only have running water in them during the Spring months. Wells were dug in many of the camps. This was not so heavy a work as might be supposed. A hole was made about five feet deep in the bottom land, and a cracker-box sunk. In about half an hour the water rose in this, comparatively clear and cool, vastly better than the muddy and warm liquid found in the pools, which, however, is not saying much. When Clear Fork was reached the men were almost inclined to cheer at the sight of the ice-cold water, which was more appreciated by us after the stuff we had been drinking than if the stream had been flowing champagne. Good, cool water is a rare luxury in this section of the country, and only to be had when the mountains are neared. Here the water coming from the melting snows has not had time to get warm, and as the beds of the streams are rocky it is free from the mud which soon discolors it further out on the plains. As to the heat, it has been almost suffocating. Leave your gun out in the sun, and the barrel will become so hot that that you cannot hold it in your hand. The nights, too, were warm, which in this region is rather unusual. But sudden changes of temperature are common. On the day we camped upon Crazy Woman's Fork the wind-storm which came up in the evening was preceded during the afternoon by a sudden fall in the temperature of probably 25°. Half the officers in the command were bathing at the time, and on coming out of the water the cold wind chilled one to the bone, though when undressing fifteen minutes before it was so hot that a shady spot to perform the operation was desirable. Under the shadow of the mountains in this camp the nights are cool and refreshing, though the days are hot. The stream is full of delicious trout, and the grass is good. This foothill region would make a magnificent grazing country, and, as the buffalo Winter here, it is reasonable to suppose that cattle could do so. Some day it will be a great cattle region, but that day is yet in the far future. C. M.