Beecher Island Fight 1868

1868 was a bloody year on the American Frontier. All over the great plains Sioux and Cheyenne War parties were intent on ransacking villages, settlements and individual ranches. They had also been busy destroying telegraph wires, and attacking wagon trains. This was not good news for former Civil War hero, now commander of the Division of the Missouri, Philip Sheridan. He was, in fact, intent on striking back. As a Civil War veteran Sheridan, like many of his ilk, was supremely frustrated by the tactics of the Indians. Their hit and run tactics, superb horsemanship and ability to dissolve into the wide open spaces of the plains made them a very different proposition than the Confederate soldiers they had been used to fighting.
Sheridan decided to send out an elite force of hardened soldiers to take the Indians on at their own game. They were to be led by a young Major by the name of George A. Forsythe. Forsythe had enlisted in a Chicago regiment of dragoons in 1861 and had risen from private to brevet brigadier general during the Civil War. He became an aide to General Sheridan himself. All of his men were hand picked, frontier veterans. When they marched out of Fort Wallace, Kansas they were lightly equipped and carried Spencer repeating rifles with 140 rounds of ammunition and Colt Army revolver and 30 rounds of ammunition. Ten days into their campaign, they found themselves following an Indian trail that was heavily worn. It was apparent that at least three villages were on the move somewhere ahead of them. A scout warned Forsythe that the numbers ahead were too much for them. Forsythe’s response was, “Enlisted to fight Indians, didn’t you?”
Later that day they turned off the trail and halted in the Arikaree Valley. 12 miles up river the massive Indian encampment had just learned that they were being trailed by the soldiers. The warriors in the camp began gathering their ponies and applying their war paint. At the head of the warrior forces was a formidable Cheyenne who was known to the whites as Roman Nose.
Meanwhile Forsythe’s men, unaware that they had been discovered by the Indians, set about making camp for the evening. At dawn the next day, however, the Indian warriors were lying in wait on the bluffs overlooking the camp. The Indian forces numbered about 600. As the sun rose, eight young warriors made an attempt to stampede the soldier’s horses. The cries of the Indians alerted the soldier’s and their pickets were able to avert the attempted stampeding of the horses. The main body of soldiers quickly prepared for a fight.
The Indians streamed down on the Soldier camp from all sides. The first charge was driven back. After repulsing the second attack, Forsythe ordered his men to break for the small island that lay just across the river. Making it to the island, the soldiers tied their horses in a circle around them to provide a living barricade. As one made signs of fleeing for his life, Forsythe drew his pistol and announced that he would kill any man who tried to leave.
The soldiers now frantically tried to dig rifle pits in the sand with their tin plates and hunting knives. Meanwhile the Indians plan was to ride over the entire island and completely destroy the soldiers. But when they reached the island the heavy fire from the Spencer repeaters drove them back. The massive advance of Indian horses broke as it came upon the circle of soldiers and swarmed around it’s edges. A second charge ended in a similar result. The next charge was led by Roman Nose as he entered the fray for the first time. This gave a great boost to the attacking forces. Forsythe ordered his men to reload as the mass of Indians approached. They would fire as one massive volley. When the Indians were 50 yards away Forsythe yelled, “Now!”
The volley cut into the attacking force, felling men like flies. But the advance kept coming. The volleys from the soldiers continued and more Indians fell. As the advancing Indians were just about on top of the soldiers a bullet from a soldier slammed into the back of Roman Nose. The great leader was knocked from his horse. Seeing their leader down, the other Indians faltered and passed by.
Five of Forsythe’s men had been killed including the man who the island would be named for, Lieutenant Frederick Beecher. Forsyth himself had been struck three times. The Indians continued to charge sporadically, but their resolve had gone. That night Forsythe managed to send off two scouts to Fort Wallace for help. When reinforcements arrived a few days later, the soldiers had been reduced to eating the putrid meat of their dead horses. The Indians had disappeared into the hills. Forsythe, in agonising pain from a bullet wound that he had dug out his thigh himself, was found coolly reading a copy of Oliver Twist by the reinforcing army. The siege of Beecher’s Island was over.

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