The discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1875 triggered a wave of western expansion that was sure to spark conflict between fortune seekers and the mighty Sioux Nation along with their northern Cheyenne allies. In the spring of 1876 U.S. Army troops were on-the-move preparing for hostilities between miners and Indians. 1st Lieutenant H.H. (Henry Hobart) Bellas with the 6th cavalry was stationed at Ft. Elliott in what would later become known as the Texas Panhandle. His troop had just returned from a “scout” on the Staked Plains (Texas Panhandle + eastern New Mexico) when orders were received for his troops to move north and join with Army Departments of the Platte and Dakota. While on the march to Ft. Dodge (Kansas) Bellas and troops were camped on Commission Creek when he received word that Custer “through rashness had met his fate”. Custer’s command was totally annihilated on the Little Big Horn, June 25, 1876.
Three or four days later Bellas’s cavalry unit arrived in Ft. Dodge. Here they took a train to Cheyenne. From there they traveled north 200 miles to Red Cloud Agency, Nebraska, where they joined with other companies and battalions staging for a winter campaign against hostile Indians. The Lieutenant describes a successful night ride of nearly 1,000 riders surprising the camps of Red Cloud and Red Leaf at first light. The only sounds during the ride was “the thunder of the column as it tore along over the frozen ground”.
Lt. Bellas then describes the large Powder River Expedition which was composed of six squadrons of cavalry, three battalions of infantry with a pack train of 400 mules. Nearly 3,000 persons (soldiers, guides, packers, cooks, scouts, doctors and others) departed Red Cloud Agency on November 1, 1876, on a mission to find and destroy the winter camps of Sioux warriors, under Crazy Horse, and Cheyenne allies. While searching for the winter camps the Expedition crossed the Platte River twice and passed through Forts Laramie and Fetterman before reaching the head of the Powder River in the Big Horn Mountains. The long column moved along steadily using Cloud Peak as a reference point arriving at abandoned Fort Reno on the Powder River a week later.
The planned surprise attack on Crazy Horse was called off when a small band of Cheyenne warriors spotted the column and raced ahead to warn the Sioux camp. General Crook quickly reasoned that the warriors probably did not warn the Cheyenne camp so he reversed the column and headed for the Cheyenne’s winter camp on the Big Horn. On the evening of November 23rd 12 Troops of cavalry (100 men per troop) started a rapid ride through the mountains in order to strike Dull Knife’s Cheyenne warriors the next morning. They approached the camp in the early morning light after riding 25 tough miles through the night.
Sounds of bugles echoed back and forth between the canyon walls as the soldiers charged through Dull Knife’s camp. The warriors responded fiercely from the hills surrounding the camp but their resistance soon feel silent as they ran out of ammunition which had been left in the camp. Soldiers found many remnants from Custer’s battle in the razed camp as well as branded cavalry horses. Silk guidons, officers’ blouses, overcoats, hats, caps, watches, etc. were scattered everywhere.
This pivotal winter campaign, with temperatures as low as 40 below on Christmas day, was the beginning of the end of the Indian wars on the frontier. Crazy Horse and Dull Knife’s bands surrendered the following spring. Interestingly, Crazy Horse was murdered soon after he surrendered. The story is in an earlier blog post. Bellas and his troops went sent south to address international issues with Mexico.
It is interesting to read the words of one of Custer’s fellow officers as he describes cavalry life on the western frontier. Just a little scratching on the internet found that Henry Hobart Bellas was from a well-connected and well-to-do family. At the time, these connections were necessary to become an officer and a gentleman. Bellas served in the Civil War and graduated from Harvard in 1867. President Grant appointed him as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry on October 1, 1873.
Here are some links for more information on the Indian Wars and some ads from that Recreation magazine. Follow the first link to get information and location coordinates in case you want to visit this site. The other links have background and more Bellas information. The battle location is 43*32’27” N and 107*32’19” W.