Battle of Powder River was 1st of 3 that Cavalry lost to the Indians in Montana

2002-07-02T23:00:00Z Battle of Powder River was 1st of 3 that Cavalry lost to the Indians in MontanaBRETT FRENCH Gazette Outdoor Writer The Billings Gazette
July 02, 2002 11:00 pm  • 

MOORHEAD - There's a reason folks don't hear much about the battle of Powder River near here.

"If you're in a battle and get whipped, you don't talk about it much," says George Fulton, 59, a Moorhead-area rancher and 30-year student of the fight.

On March 16, 1876, what was thought would be a one-sided fight between the U.S. Cavalry and outnumbered Cheyenne and Sioux warriors turned into a defeat and resulted in the expulsion of the officer leading the charge, Col. Joseph J. Reynolds.

The loss was the first of three for the U.S. Army in southeastern Montana that year, culminating in the defeat of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

Today, a pyramid made of cemented round river rock and four brass plaques marks the Powder River battlefield, about 35 miles south of Broadus. The plaques bear the names of the four soldiers killed there. The monument, erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Gillette, Wyo., in the late 1940s, sits atop a bluff overlooking a pastoral bend in the river shaded by cottonwood trees.

The battlefield is below the bluff on private land.

Reynolds' defeat at Powder River may have stirred up the Indians. Most certainly it turned some Cheyenne against the army. The Indians believed they were entitled to hunt between the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, as long as they didn't harass white settlers crossing the plains.

But Gen. Phil T. Sheridan and the War Department wanted the "hostile" Indian bands in Montana rounded up and returned to their reservations. In 1876, Sheridan conceived a three-pronged movement. Custer would come from the east, Gen. George Crook from the south and Gen. Alfred Terry from the west along the Yellowstone River.

Crook's force was sizable - almost 900 officers, enlisted men and civilians. Accounts differ on what his orders were. Some say Sheridan wanted to attack the Indians while they were still in their winter camps. Others say Crook was only to scout the area, saving his horses for the coming summer campaign.

Setting out on March 1, Crook's cavalry wound its way north from Fort Fetterman along the Bozeman Trail. Along with Reynolds, who was in charge of the Third Cavalry, they trudged through spring blizzards, snow and drifts.

To ward off the subzero cold, one aide said the soldiers were "shrouded from head to foot in huge wrappings of wool and fur."

Storms pummeled the men for four days. Indian braves tried to run off the column's cattle at night. At Fort Reno, Crook decided to leave the cattle and supply wagons behind.

According to Fred H. Werner's book, "The Soldiers Are Coming!", each soldier was to have either one buffalo robe or two blankets. No tents were taken. A pack train carried an extra 100 rounds of ammunition per soldier, in addition to the 100 rounds each man packed.

After unsuccessfully searching north for Indian encampments, scouts finally found a village along the Powder River to the east. On March 16, after marching 20 miles, two Indians were seen at Otter Creek. Crook ordered a 30-mile night march of 320 soldiers of the Second and Third Cavalry out of fear that the retreating Indians would warn the encampment. Traveling light, the soldiers had only a day's ration of hard bread.

Crook ordered Reynolds to capture the ponies and supplies and chase the Indians off. Crook stayed behind with the rest of the company to protect the pack train and would meet Reynolds the following day at the mouth of Lodgepole Creek.

The army expected to find 500 to 800 warriors under the leadership of the Sioux chief Crazy Horse. But Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg, in his biography by Thomas B. Maquis, said it was his band led by chief Two Moon that was camped along the Powder River and that they were only 40 lodges - maybe 60 warriors.

Warned of the soldiers' approach, the Indian camp sent out sentinels that night. But the scouts missed the soldiers in the blizzard and the darkness. At 7 a.m. on March 17, Reynolds launched his attack. In two units the soldiers rode quietly up on the sleeping camp.

According to Wooden Leg, an old man going out to pray on a hilltop first saw the soldiers and yelled an alarm.

"Women screamed. Children cried for their mothers. Old people tottered and hobbled away to get out of reach of the bullets singing among the lodges," Wooden Leg said.

Wooden Leg had a muzzle loader but no bullets. So he mounted a pony and attacked with bow and arrows. Racing to his lodge for a shield and medicine objects, he carried children away from the battle.

Reynolds quickly took the surprised camp and ordered the lodges burned.

Fulton donated items he found at the battle site to the Powder River County Museum in Broadus. The items include an Army belt buckle, a shell casing and a key.

But as the soldiers looted and torched the camp, warriors returning from a hunt took up positions in the trees and hills.

"When the warriors got back they ran the soldiers off," Fulton said.

Fulton said Reynolds' green troops fired an average of 60 rounds apiece - over 1,900 rounds. Yet only one Indian was killed and one injured. The Indians fired one round to every 100 of the soldiers, Fulton said, but killed four soldiers and crippled six.

The four soldiers killed in the Indian counterattack were Pvts. Peter Dowdy, Michael McCannon, L.E. Ayers and George Schneider.

Undoubtedly tired by the 50-plus miles of marching, fatigued by 36 hours without sleep after days of sleeping out in the cold with no tents, the soldiers just wanted to rest, Fulton said. "They just didn't want to mess with the Indians."

In his hearing, Reynolds complained that his orders weren't being followed. Capt. Henry E. Noyes, who was charged with taking the Indian ponies, stopped to make coffee afterward, only later going to the aid of his comrades.

Pestered by the Indian snipers, Reynolds gave up trying to loot the camp and ordered a retreat to the south at about 1:30 p.m. Left behind were the four dead soldiers, fresh meat from the Indian camp and some of the soldiers' buffalo coats.

"So precipitate was Reynolds' withdrawal, in fact, that the bodies of several troopers who had been shot in the action were abandoned to the malignity of the savages," wrote Cyrus Townsend Brady in his 1904 book "Indian Fights and Fighters."

To compound matters, Crook wasn't waiting at the mouth of Lodgepole Creek when Reynolds arrived. That meant another cold night out with limited or no rations. During the night, some of the Indians, including Wooden Leg, returned to steal back their ponies.

Crook arrived the next day to find four men dead and abandoned on the battlefield, six men wounded, 66 men frostbitten or disabled by the cold and some of the Indian ponies already stolen. Disgusted, he ordered the column back to their supply train at Fort Reno, about 90 miles away. Warriors followed, trying to steal more ponies, before Crook ordered the horses killed.

The soldiers returned to Fort Fetterman, near present-day Douglas, Wyo., on March 26, ending a 27-day round trip of 485 miles. Besides the men killed and injured, Crook lost 60 horses and 32 mules.

Crook wasted no time filing charges against Reynolds.

Reynolds' career was essentially over after his defeat at the Powder River. In January of 1877, a court of inquiry in Cheyenne, Wyo., suspended Reynolds from rank and pay for one year. His old classmate, President Grant, stepped in, and Reynolds accepted disability retirement in June 1877.

Fulton said Reynolds was an easy scapegoat in the Powder River battle. He blames Crook for not supporting Reynolds.

"He could've been there and helped, but he didn't," Fulton said. "Crook was careful to keep himself in shape."

Other authors who have studied the battle agree. Robert Utley, in "Frontier Regulars," called the court's findings "cruelly injust."

John J. Reyolds Born on Jan. 4, 1822, in Kentucky and raised in Indiana, John J. Reynolds graduated 10th in a class of 39 from West Point in 1843 - the same class as Ulysses S. Grant. Reynolds served on the frontier and taught at West Point. During his Civil War service, Reynolds received two commissions for gallant and meritorious service. In 1866 he was named colonel in the regular army. He took disability retirement from the army in 1877. Little is written about his later years. Reynolds died in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25, 1899, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

He went on to write, "No militarily sound explanation has been given for (Crook's) division of his command before the battle of March 17."

Emboldened and unified by the Powder River battle, Indian tribes joined forces along the Little Bighorn River.

Crook set out once again at the end of May to round up the gathering Sioux and Cheyenne. His contingent included more than 1,000 cavalry and infantrymen, 50-some officers and 262 Crow and Shoshone scouts.

On June 17, 1876, while his troops took a coffee break along Rosebud Creek, Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Chief Crazy Horse attacked. Caught off guard, Crook's men suffered 28 casualties, another 56 were wounded.

Discouraged once again, Crook returned to present-day Sheridan, Wyo., to await reinforcements. Since Crook didn't meet up with the other army commanders - Custer, Terry and Col. John Gibbon - he missed the battle at Little Bighorn.

Ever since, the Powder River battle has lived in the shadow of the more disastrous Little Bighorn, though it was the first of three decisive cavalry defeats.

"It was the first battle but it didn't amount to much," Fulton said. "The fight wasn't much of a fight, but it made a lot of noise."

Brett French can be reached at 657-1387, or at

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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