The Plains Indians Wars, the fight between two civilizations for control of the American frontier, was a very unchristianlike war of extermination. Both sides committed atrocities. One of the most notorious was the Battle of the Washita in 1868, the biggest shootout of the era in present Oklahoma. There, George Armstrong Custer—who had earned the hatred of many Southerners for his brutal tactics in the Shenandoah Valley during the War Between the States—and his Seventh Cavalry regiment thundered at dawn into a snow-blanketed Cheyenne village on the Washita River in northwestern Oklahoma.
As was often the case, both sides shared blame. The Cheyenne had ignored their Medicine Lodge Treaty settlement commitment and gone somewhere else, and some of them had raided and killed white settlers. Custer and his men, under orders from his Civil War commander Philip Sheridan, who had burned a wide swath of the Confederacy to the ground, responded by wiping out much of the village, including women and children, as well as two Cheyenne chiefs who had allied themselves with the United States.
Despite many 21st-century accounts to the contrary, it was, indeed, a battle, not a massacre. Historian Gaston Litton criticized Custer’s lack of “mercy” and abundance of “martial spirit,” but he also wrote, “The Indian women wore leggings and buffalo robes, which rendered them not easily distinguishable,” and suggested that they likely fired upon the soldiers. Though many of the warriors were away hunting, not all were. Twenty white soldiers died in the battle, including one detachment that was wiped out, the Cheyenne murdered a white female prisoner and her infant, and Custer, surrounded and outnumbered by warriors, barely got himself and his command out of the area alive and back to Fort Supply, through a brilliant series of nighttime maneuvers.
In the end, no less than Edward Everett Dale, dean of Oklahoma historians, proclaimed the Battle of the Washita, “the most important conflict between soldiers and Plains Indians ever fought in Oklahoma.”
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Oklahomans Vol 1:
Ancient - Statehood
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