WASHITA BATTLEFIELD, Okla. — After traveling through a foot of new snow just before dawn, a bugler sounded charge as Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry splashed across the Washita River into the sleeping Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle on Nov. 27, 1868.
When the surprise attack by about 700 troopers was over, 38 Cheyenne and 22 troopers lay dead. Custer’s men burned 51 lodges, shot more than 800 horses, and captured 53 women and children.
The statistics come from information provided by the National Park Service, which manages the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site. Located about two miles west of Cheyenne in western Oklahoma, the site is about an eight-hour drive from Killeen.
A visitor’s center contains a bookstore and museum operated by the park service. Visitors can take a short drive from the center to an overlook of the battlefield. There, one can see the knoll from which Custer watched the progress of the battle and the treeline near the site of Black Kettle’s village.
A walking trail winds through the battlefield past part of the river, which means “big hunt.” It’s an easy hike through some beautiful scenery.
The museum tells the story of the battle within the larger framework of the tragic Indian Wars. Some see the Washita battle as a massacre. In fact, even during Custer’s time, some saw it that way.
To the museum’s credit, it neither glorifies nor demonizes Custer or the 7th Cavalry. It points out that Custer was following the orders of his superior, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, commander of the Department of the Missouri, who organized the winter campaign in which the 7th Cavalry took part. Sheridan’s goal was to attack the Native American tribes when they were the most vulnerable.
Museum exhibits do a good job of balancing the stories of the Native Americans, the soldiers and the settlers in this great “clash of cultures” that led to what we call the Indian Wars.
The museum points out that the military was often caught between the Native Americans and settlers.
It quotes Gen. William T. Sherman in 1867 as saying to the secretary of war, “It is a grievous wrong to force our soldiers into the unnatural attitude in which they now stand, when the people of the frontier universally declare the Indians to be at war, and the Indian commissioners and agents pronounce them at peace, leaving us in the gap to be abused by both parties.”
Whether battle or massacre, Washita had some important consequences, according to the National Park Service. One was the acceptance of reservation land by many Native American bands because their winter supplies of food and clothing were destroyed in the lodge fires.
Another was the establishment of Custer as the nation’s preeminent Indian fighter.
The National Park Service is helping preserve the site of an important event in American history and teaches visitors about the violence of the Indian Wars, simply concluding, “The tragedy of Washita occurred within this humanity in conflict. We are still living with the legacies of that conflict — the legacies of western expansion.”
For more on Washita, go to www.nps.gov/waba/index.htm.