He chose as his second-in-command Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher, another
Civil War veteran and nephew of the famous cleric Henry Ward Beecher. Dr.
John H. Mooers was brought on as surgeon, and W.H.H. McCall was chosen as
first sergeant. Forsyth gathered another 47 civilian volunteers from around
Fort Hays and Fort Harker. These men were attracted by the opportunity for
steady work and action. Because the Army had made no provision to pay the
scouts, Forsyth was eventually forced to enlist the men as part of the
Quartermaster Corps. Each was promised $50 per month, plus another $25 if he
supplied his own horse.
The scouts were a mixed group. About
half were Civil War veterans, and other were experienced frontiersmen, but
some were simply enthusiastic amateurs. From among them, Forsyth chose as
guide one of the best frontier scouts of the time, Abner "Sharp" Grover. He
was married to a Sioux woman, spoke that language fluently, and was
unmatched as a tracker.
The detachment was no sooner organized
when it was sent out in pursuit of some Cheyenne who had been raiding near
the Saline River in west Kansas. The small band set out from Fort Hays on
August 29. Their supplies and arms were in keeping with the tactics Forsyth
planned to employ. They were armed with Spencer seven-shot repeating
carbines and Colt Army revolvers. Each man carried 170 rounds of ammunition,
and an extra 4,000 cartridges were hauled by four pack mules. They also
brought a week's worth of provisions, with some extra coffee, and salt to
preserve any game they might shoot.
Eight days later they were settled in at
Fort Wallace, having spent the week in a fruitless search for Indians. This
first foray had exposed some flaws in Forsyth's idea. While many of his men
were experienced trackers, they were also operating in areas where few of
them had been before. They lacked adequate maps, and that made it difficult
to find anyone, much less an elusive and clever enemy. The scouts were
certainly mobile enough to keep up with the Cheyenne, but they were limited
by supplies to a week's campaigning. That limit meant the troop needed quick
results once on the trail.
On September 10 word reached Fort
Wallace a large war party of Cheyenne had attacked a wagon train near
Sheridan City, a settlement with a population of 150 a few miles to the
east. The scouts drew seven days' rations and rode out. Grover found the
Indians' trail almost immediately, and the party followed it in a
northwesterly direction. But the Indians employed their standard technique
of dividing and sub-dividing their numbers every few miles, thus scattering
The scouts soon lost track of the
Indians, but continued to the northwest, where there was good buffalo
country, and where they might expect to again pick up the trail.
After a couple of days, they instead
came upon the signs of what seemed to Grover to be an entire Indian village
moving north. Tracks of tent poles being dragged and the lack of game in the
vicinity indicated a group of perhaps 2,000 men, women and children was on
the move. It was at this point one man suggested that perhaps heading back
to Fort Wallace would not be such a bad idea. But after spending the better
part of two weeks searching for Indians and not finding any, Forsyth was
concerned about how Sheridan would react to the news of his abandoning a
fresh trail. He decided to press on.
By the afternoon of September 16, the
scouts had been out for a week and rations were running low. Around 4 p.m.
they arrived in a broad valley; they had reached the Arickaree Fork of the
Republican River. The river was almost completely dry, with only a shallow
trickle of water running through the middle of the riverbed. With that water
and good grazing nearby, Forsyth decided to bivouac early and continue
upstream next morning.
The scouts set up camp on the south
bank. The riverbed was about 140 yards wide at that point, with a low,
narrow island in the center. The island was about 100 yards long, with a
single cottonwood tree and overgrown with grass and alder bushes. Grover and
19-year-old Jack Stillwell reconnoitered before settling down for the night.
The horses were picketed and guards posted.
Less than 12 miles downstream stood two
large Sioux villages, plus one of Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho. Early in
the morning of September 16, Sioux scouts had spotted Forsyth's troopers.
While some went off to warn their chiefs, the rest followed as the white men
headed upstream, away from the villages. SInce Forsyth had planned to
continue upstream the next day, it's possible he might have missed the
Indians altogether had they not set an ambush.
The Sioux were led by their chief,
Pawnee Killer; the Cheyenne were led by the chiefs White Horse and Tall
Bull. Also with the Cheyenne was one of their best warriors, Roman Nose. He
had a long string of coups (physical contract with an enemy in battle) and,
though not a chief, he was considered by his people to be a natural warlord.
He once declined to become a chief on the grounds that after years on the
warpath he lacked the civil qualities to that all-round job well.
Upon receiving word of Forsyth's
location, the chiefs immediately mustered some 700 to 1,000 braves and set
out for the Arickaree. Completely undetected by Forsyth's men, they set an
ambush upstream from the island. Sigmund Schlesinger, a young member of
Fosyth's band, later recounted how lucky they were to have chosen that
particular campsite: "Had we traveled but a half a mile further, we would
have fallen into an ambush most ingeniously prepared, and the scheme so
favored by the topographical formation of the country, that had we passed
that way, not a mother's son of us would probably have escaped alive."
A unit mustered to track and harass
Indians thus found itself in hostile territory, vastly outnumbered, and
saved only by good fortune from being wiped out to a man. Forsyth's scouts
spent the night undisturbed, due to the Indians' aversion to night attacks.
They believed if a brave were killed in the dark, he would spend all
eternity in darkness. Thus they avoided night battles whenever possible.
The troopers were awakened at dawn by
shouts of "Indians!" Cheyenne braves Starving Elk and Little Hawk, along
with six Sioux, had gotten among the mounts, then rattled bells and pounded
buffalo hides to drive them off. Most accounts state that seven horses
stampeded away, but it's more likely it was the four pack mules that were
immediately lost, as the troopers were later to suffer from a lack of
medical supplies. But the roused soldiers soon drove the infiltrators away.
There was a short pause, then Grover shouted: "My God! Look at the Injuns!"
On the horizon, lined up in the drying
riverbed to the south, were hundreds of mounted braves adorned in full war
regalia. As they began their charge, Grover and Stillwell quickly realized
the precarious position they were in and suggested to Forsyth they all move
to the island and make a stand there. Forysth immediately agreed.
Once on the island, the troopers barely
had time to circle their horses, scoop shallow rifle pits with their hands,
tin cups and knives, and get under cover. The Indian attack was fierce, but
concentrated volleys from the Spencer repeaters forced them to ride around
the island instead of over it. Stillwell and two others sniped effectively
from the tall grass beneath the river bank. The battle soon settled down
into a regular siege, and with food and medicine gone, prospects were not
good for Forsyth and his little army.
A Cheyenne chief exhorted his band:
"Young warriors, we are many and the whites are few. The white bullets are
wasted. Once more and we bring the white men's scalps to our fires."
A hail of fire fell upon the scouts and
Forsyth was hit in both legs. Dr. Mooers dragged him to a centrally located
rifle pit, where Forsyth was struck again - this time in the skull.
Desperate, he confided to Mooers, "We are beyond all human aid, and if God
does not help us there is none for us."
Soon the last cavalry horse had been
killed. Several survivors later recalled that at this point they distinctly
heard an Indian cry out in English: "There goes the last damned horse
anyhow!" Some historians believe that "Indian" was actually a renegade
ex-7th Cavalry trooper named Jack Clybor.