Originally published on HistoryNet.com
Published Online: June 05, 2012
At war's end, more than a million officers and men were serving in the Union ranks. With the military tab topping a million dollars a day and a national aversion to large standing armies, Congress hastily whittled this number down, to slightly more than 54,000 by mid-1866.
Thanks to low pay and many administrative postings, the core fighting force was less than 25,000 men, and the morale of that inadequately housed army, often working with worn-out equipment, was poor.
Still, their officers had far more combat experience than those who led the Indian fighters before the Civil War.
The top national priority became the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a project directly threatened by the Indians of the Southern Plains—the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho—led by such smart, fierce chiefs as Satank, Satanta, Big Mouth, and Kicking Bird.
Abused by white settlers and resisting efforts to corral them onto reservations, the tribes were raiding homesteads and convoys with impunity, and slowing the railroad's expansion.
In response, Lieutenant Generals Sherman and Philip Sheridan, two of the Civil War's most feared Union commanders, developed a strategy that blurred the lines between combatants and noncombatants, bringing hard war to the West.
Had the Southern Plains Indians, ranging virtually unfettered for nearly two centuries, finally met their match?
One of the problems the Indians had is that they were never truly a unified force until it was to late. When not fighting settlers or US troops they were fighting each other. There was great animosity bteween the Comanche and Apache, for example, plus some groups like the Tonkawas sided with the US. The Tonkawas were especially feared for the cannibalistic attitude towards captives. In the book Recollections of Texas Days by Noah Smithwick he tells of the capture of a Comanche by Tonkawas and the following feast in gory detail.
The 2nd Battle of Adobe Walls was the beginning of the end of the southern plains tribes. As one warrior put it "They killed us close and they killed us far." This was in regards to the outstanding marksmanship of the buffalo hunters which included Billy Dixon's "shot of the century" which took the wind out of Quanah Parker's Comanches and their allies. As for the buffalo, the Indians had become especially dependent on it because it was an easy hunt and one buffalo provided a lot for the effort. They had lost a lot of the skills to hunt the plentiful deer, p ronghorn and other wildlife and it took much more effort to hunt these fast animals than the easily hunted buffalo.
Before the arrival of whites in the Texas Panhandle the Apaches had invaded from the north and taken the land from the Plains Village Cultures (aka Antelope Creek culture) by bloody force, then the Comanches swept in and took it from the Apache by bloody force, then the whites came on the scene and the land changed hands again, by bloody force. The names changed but the story remained the same.
On the southern plains, the Indians were rarely unified. On the northern plains, 1866 (ten years before Little Bighorn) was one of their (the Indians) banner years, culminating with the "Fetterman Massacre" in Wyoming Terr. on December 21st 1866 in which 81 men were killed in one day, an entire command wiped out to a man, by thousands of unified Indians under Red Cloud and an up and coming young leader named Crazy Horse. The tactic was a ruse to draw the US army command out of their "forward operating post" of Fort Kearney. Col. Carrington readily sent out this 81 man contingent and they were lured out further and trapped by thousands (estimates of 2,000 to 4,000) of Indians in the snow covered hills, killed and butchered.
It was an insurgency, of a tribal culture whose customs were based on family and warfare. The military bouts were usually hit and run and mostly on the ground of the enemies choice. Sound familiar?