Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

History of South Dakota / Battle of Slim Buttes


There's a remote part of South Dakota away from major roadways, but about 150 years ago was alive with action during the Sioux War of 1876. The area is filled with South Dakota history and is definitely worth a visit. If your western road trip happens to take you near the northwest corner of South Dakota, there is a monument that serves as a memorial to a battle that has somewhat faded from our historical memory.

The monument which stands about one mile west of Reva South Dakota on Hwy 20 is all about the Battle at Slim Buttes. As to the number of troops and Native Americans involved in this particular battle, the numbers aren't overwhelming. Nevertheless, the repercussions of the Battle at Slim Buttes were widespread in regards to the Sioux War of 1876.

The Weeks After the Little Bighorn Defeat

So much has been chronicled about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, including on this site, but the Battle of Slim Buttes was directly related to what happened to George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry in June of 1876. The story of the army's response to Custer's defeat is often overshadowed by the debate over what exactly happened and who, if anyone, was to blame at the Little Bighorn including some of the investigations that ensued. The steps the army took immediately after Custer's defeat is an interesting story. The U.S. Army troops in the area of Slim Buttes in 1876 were there because of the shocking defeat of Custer's troops a few months earlier. They were there to end the Sioux War one way or the other.

battle of the rosebud
Battle of the Rosebud
The three highest commanders responsible for the actions after the Little Bighorn were Generals Philip Sheridan, George Crook and Alfred Terry. While Sheridan was the head of the Department of the Missouri and headquartered in Chicago, Both Generals George Crook and Alfred Terry, under the command of Sheridan, were directly involved in the theater during the Little Bighorn Battle.

Crook was in command of a force moving up from the south as one of the three key columns trying to trap the hostiles along the Little Bighorn River.Without going into fine detail about the plan, which has been discussed in great length many times, Crook's troops were driven back south by the hostiles after the Battle of the Rosebud which took place on June 17th. As a result he never linked up with Terry's forces, which did include Custer. Crook's involvement in June 1876 was that he wasn't involved because he couldn't reach the rendezvous point. He finally camped his troops along the Goose Creek where his rear supply train would come to.

Chasing the Sioux

The Sioux bands started to move eastward as a large group during July and August of 1876. Crook's forces joined up with Terry's and started to move eastward as well. The goal of course was to catch up with the hostiles and either to defeat them and/or drive them back to the Indian agencies. There was also concern that more Sioux didn't leave the reservation and join their brothers. As a result, the army took over control of the reservations from the Indian Department. Any renegade Indians who did happen to show up at the agencies were immediately disarmed and had their ponied taken away.

general george crook statue
Statue of George Crook at Fort Omaha
What took place prior to the Battle of Slim Buttes, and is a big part of South Dakota history, after Crook separated from Terry's troops could only be called the most rigorous and nearly impossible long march in U.S. Army history.

What was to ensue over the following few weeks would try the most skilled soldier to the limits of human endurance. Both General Terry and General Crook reported directly to General Philip Sheridan who's headquarters were in Chicago.

The Hardest of Marches

Instead of leading his troops toward a supply depot on either the Yellowstone River or further east at Fort Lincoln, Crook became concerned for the safety of Deadwood in the Black Hills. This was about 180 miles south of his current position. Crook's concern was that Deadwood and other small mining camps around it would be attacked by the Sioux. As a result, he decided on a march to Deadwood while rations were almost exhausted. Much of what took place during this arduous march would be chronicled by the journalists who were embedded in his command. The excellent book, Slim Buttes, 1876 by author Jerome A. Greene gives a detailed description of the long march, the slaughtering of cavalry horses necessary to feed the troops and the accidental Battle of Slim Buttes that took place during this journey toward Deadwood.

general philip sheridan memorial
Statue of Gen. Philip Sheridan, Washington, DC
Some of the troops under Crook's command were decidedly against this change of plans. The troops were tired and had been marching through rain and hail storms and the thick mud they produced. They were well aware of the rations situation and were put on half rations due to this. Yet, some did want to engage the hostiles and the turn south to Deadwood seemed that they were giving up the chase.

 In other words, some felt that the entire march, as difficult as it was, was turning into a waste of time and energy. The supply situation went from bad to worse. More played out horses were slaughtered for food. Cavalry troops were forced to march with the infantry. Many questioned General Crook's decisions.

Captain Anson Mills

When the command was a few days ride out of Deadwood, Crook made the decision to send a detachment up ahead to Deadwood to both notify the town of their position and at the same time buy and bring supplies back to the camp where Crook decided to hold the troops for a while.The detachment sent to the Black Hills was commanded by Captain Anson Mills. Along with Mills was 150 select cavalrymen. Crook ordered that the detachment avoid conflict with the hostiles during their journey. The detachment was sent for supplies to aid the larger group and were not sent out as scouts. While Mill's detachment of 150 troops made their way toward the Black Hills one of their non soldier scouts spotted Indians with game piled on their horses. When Mills heard of this he surmised correctly that there was certain to be an Indian village somewhere in the vicinity.

Battle of Slim Buttes

At this point Captain Mills made the decision to locate the village. When they neared the area they dismounted. They wished to get closer and ascertain the size of the camp and didn't want noise from their mounts to give them away. When the village was located on the banks of the Moreau River which today is named Gap Creek, Mills and several others including their scouts approached on foot. They saw the village but could not figure out it's size. One thing the troops in Crook's command knew was that Custer's attack on the Little Bighorn without first knowing the size of the enemy camp was a contributing factor to his defeat. Everyone in Mill's detachment knew that this was a critical element and especially since their numbers were only 150. As for the Indians, they had no idea about Mills' detachment. They were well aware that Crook was in the general area but not that one of his detachments was anywhere nearby.

george crook headquarters
Crook's Headquarters, Whitewood, Dak Terr
After discussing the situation with his officers, Captain Anson Mills decided that a daybreak attack would take place the next morning. The army had embraced surprise dawn attacks as the preferred method. This went all the way back to the Civil War days. In this instance, Mills would attack with three columns. The right and left would be on foot. The center column would be mounted and would tear through the village, stampeding the Indian ponies and shooting at whatever they could. Mills had hoped that the attack would be over in one clean sweep. The Indians would be killed or captured and any provisions they could find would be sent to Crook's starved soldiers.

What transpired was a bit different. The problem was that many warriors were able to flee south and west of the village and fired at the troops from the rocks and buttes above their former camp. The swift victory that Captain Mills anticipated didn't materialize. What occurred was a standoff where Indians in the rocks took shots at troops rummaging through the lodges in the village below. There was also concern that some of the warriors who fled would bring in reinforcements from Indian camps that were nearby. If that occurred, Mills attack against an undetermined size Indian village could have the same end results as Custer's attack.

Crook to the Rescue

Captain Mills sent a courier back to General Crook's encampment further north. Fortunately Crook did not stay encamped as long as anticipated and was moving forward when the courier reached him announcing the Indian fight Mills' troops were involved in.

Crook and his troops set out in the direction of the village to reinforce Mills. Crook's command reached the Indian village, joined the fight and after a full day and the loss of several men took the village as well as some captives, mostly women and children who were hiding in the rocks above. The Battle of Slim Buttes took place on September 9 and 10, 1876, about 2 1/2 months after Custer's defeat.  Interestingly, while rummaging through and destroying the Indian lodges, Crook's troops discovered several items taken from Custer's command. Cavalry shirts, a Seventh Cavalry guidon and several other personal military effects were found.

The estimates of those killed in this battle were two cavalrymen and one civilian scout. After the battle ended and the dead were buried, Crook headed for Deadwood Dakota Territory where he would be welcomed along the way with supplies brought out by the citizenry. A courier had been sent to notify the town of Crook's nearby position. When the troops eventually made it to Deadwood they were greeted with a great ovation.

Significance of the Slim Buttes Battle

It's interesting to look back at the Battle of Slim Buttes. This was not a large scale decisive battle of the Sioux War but it was a significant battle and victory for several reasons. For one thing, it was the first military victory for the U.S. Army in the Sioux War. General Crook often thought of the Battle of the Rosebud as a victory but it was not. His advance was pushed back by the hostiles and if anything it was a draw of sorts. Custer's Little Bighorn defeat a week later was a disaster. It was important that the army have some type of victory and the Battle of Slim Buttes satisfied that. In fact, though the Battle of Slim Buttes came about by chance while Captain Mills was on another assignment, the results of the conflict did much to raise the army's morale.
surrender of crazy horse
Crazy Horse surrender, May 1877

There were battles after Slim Buttes in November and January of 1877. If anything, these battles and the fierce winter weather helped convince the renegades that continued fighting of the army was futile and the only realistic option for their survival was to return to the reservations. This of course would finally take place in 1877 with General Crook accepting a surrender of sorts from Crazy Horse and his followers. This surrender in May of 1877 was the end of the Sioux War that began in the summer of 1876.

You may be interested in the following related articles we've published. George Crook-Frontier Soldier,  the Death of Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance Movement and a Steamboat and the Sioux War.

The Indian Wars in the west would however continue on and off for about another fourteen years. There were the Apache battles in the southwest and the Nez Perce War in the northwest. According to most historians, the Indian Wars ended in December 1890 with the death of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee. The year 1890 was also the official end of the American western frontier as stated by the Bureau of the Census.

Two additional books I would recommend are General George Crook: His Autobiography and A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn by author James Donovan.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)


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