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Archive for Sunday, March 5, 2006

Both sides of frontier battle show savagery, bravery

March 5, 2006

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Few travelers driving home to Kansas from Colorado would be tempted to take the two-hour detour north from Burlington to visit Beecher Island, though the site of the extraordinary battle is prominently marked on the map. It's a long trip through an almost featureless landscape to see a remote, negligible spot.

We were road weary, on the tail end of a 5,000-mile drive from Anchorage, Alaska, and anxious to get home. But as we neared the turnoff, a rumor of distant war whoops, the shouts of soldiers, the thunder of ponies and the barking of rifles awakened a powerful digressionary tug. We exited I-70, headed north and followed Gen. George A. Forsyth and his men 140 years into the past.

In 1868, Gen. Phil Sheridan had commissioned Forsyth to lead a scouting party in search of marauding Indians in Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas. Forsyth recruited 50 men, many of whom had gotten their training in the "bitter civil strife of 1861 to 1865," for the dangerous assignment that paid only a dollar a day.

A good story teller with a flair for vivid detail, Forsyth evokes the pristine wilderness they discovered as they left civilization behind: "The fresh air of the plains : the herds of buffalo, which scarcely raised their heads from their feeding grounds as we passed, the bands of antelope : the chirping bark of the prairie dogs, the sneaking gray wolf startled into a run."

They were drawn not just by the beauty of country, but by the "fascination that the danger of campaigning in an enemy's country ever holds for a soldier."

Leaving Fort Hays in early September for the headwaters of the Solomon River, they soon came upon evidence of a great sun dance, a sign of Indians preparing for war. At the scene of a recent Indian attack on a freight train, they found pony tracks and the thread of a trail that grew larger and larger until it expanded into a virtual highway, rutted with tent poles, strewn with fresh horse manure, pieces of half-dried buffalo meat, old moccasins and baskets.

Clearly, they were pursuing an ominous multitude. Some of the men argued against the folly of going forward. Forsyth rebuked them. They had enrolled to fight Indians, he replied. He kept to himself his concerns about their inferior numbers and their dwindling supplies.

On Sept. 16, they camped across from a small island in the Arickaree, a shallow stream that flows into the Republican River. Several times during the night, Forsyth rose, "restless, anxious and wakeful," and visited his sentries. Just as the sun was rising, something caught his eye, a furtive movement nearby in the grass. He heard the "soft thud of unshod horses' hooves upon the grass," and caught a glimpse of "waving feathers" crowning the scalp locks of three mounted warriors.

With no more warning, the first attack was on. A group of warriors rushed the camp, shouting, beating drums and rattling dried hides in an attempt to stampede the soldiers' horses. Forsyth's scouts drove them off, but as the sun rose they faced a frightening spectacle.

"Oh, heavens, General," said one of the men. "Look at the Indians." Indians seemed to be growing up out of the ground, "on foot and on horseback, from over the hills, out of the thickets, from the bed of the stream, from the north, south and west, along the opposite bank, and out of the long grass on every side of us."

They were completely surrounded. Their situation appeared hopeless - perhaps a thousand Indian warriors to their 50 men. Nevertheless, Forsyth resolved at least to make the enemy, "pay dearly for the lives of my scouts before ornamenting the ridge poles of their lodges with our reeking scalps." He ordered his men to occupy the little island, which was at best a mere foot above the water. From that vulnerable position, they awaited their doom, while Indian women and children gathered to watch the action from the vantage of a hill.

They had fought off a few sallies when a Goliath of a warrior suddenly appeared, riding up and down the Indian lines. "He was the very beau ideal of an Indian chief," writes Forsyth, "the most perfect type of savage warrior it has been my lot to see : Beautifully formed, and, save for a crimson silk sash knotted around his waist, and his moccasins on his feet, perfectly naked. His face was hideously painted in alternate lines of red and black, and his head crowned with a magnificent war bonnet (decorated with) buffalo horns, eagle feathers and heron plumes."

It was the legendary Roman Nose. Striking his palm across his mouth, the great chief let out a terrifying war whoop. For an instant, Forsyth was "lost in admiration for the glorious charge."

"On they came at a swinging gallop, rending the air with their wild war whoops. Crash! On they came. Crash! Still they sweep forward with yet wilder yells. Crash! Can I believe my eyes? Roman Nose is down."

The loss of their leader deflated the Indians, but they kept up the attacks for eight days. Forsyth's scouts rationed their precious bullets and had to eat the flesh of their dead horses to survive. On the first day, Forsyth himself was shot in the thigh, leg and head. Maggots swarmed in one of his wounds towards the end. His second in command, Lt. Beecher, along with the party's surgeon "joined the silent majority." On the ninth day, a rescue party and an ambulance arrived, summoned by scouts Forsyth had sent out on the first night. The Indians had disappeared...

An eerie peace hovered around the battle site when we visited last Labor Day. A few campers were parked in the lot. Nearby was a small church, a modest building for meetings, some picnic benches, a broken water pump. An obelisk with an account of the battle stood surrounded by grave stones of the dead scouts. A map showed the place where Roman Nose fell. A level hill top was easy to identify as the spot where the Indian spectators gathered to watch the action, cheering the warriors when they charged, jeering at them when they fell back. Beecher Island was a barely discernible protrusion rising slightly above the dry stream bed. The site of so much bloodshed was now tranquil, a well-earned place of eternal rest.

Forsyth's account is politically incorrect by today's standards. He refers to the Indians as "savages" and "red devils" and boasts of the courage of his "Anglo-Saxon" men. But he also credits the Indians with skill, bravery and gallantry. The diaries of some of Forsyth's men boast of their own practice of scalping Indians they killed, a reminder that distinctions we make between "civilization" and "barbarism" are often dubious.

The Beecher Island Battle Memorial Assn.'s account of the battle makes thrilling reading. The stories told in it have the ring of authenticity. They offer a glimpse of a time, not that long ago, when the country was young, the frontier boundless and the future still full of undiscovered promise.

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