Indian War in the West: Rescue at Beecher Island

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In a dramatic conclusion to a story of the Indian Wars, the survivors of the Battle of Beecher Island struggle for a better fate than that of George Custer.

Days after the Battle of Beecher Island and a near massacre at the hands of the Cheyenne Indians, Major George Forsyth and his battered command lay besieged and starving under the hot Colorado sun. The survival of Forsyth and his scouts rested with the successful relay of messages 85 miles to Ft Wallace for immediate relief.

Road to Rescue

After slipping through enemy lines and traveling on foot for almost five days, two of Forsyth’s scouts delivered a plea for help to Colonel Bankhead, post commander of Ft Wallace on September 22. Bankhead assembled a 100 man relief force and two howitzers from the 5th Infantry. Before leaving the fort, he sent a dispatch to a scouting detachment 35 miles away lead by Captain Lewis Carpenter of the 10th Cavalry.

Carpenter received the message on September 23. He immediately put his 70 soldiers, 17 scouts, 13 wagons, and surgeon on a quick march towards the suspected battleground. As maps for the area were not accurate at the time, Carpenter mistakenly spent a day looking for Forsyth’s command on the south fork of the Republican River instead of the Arikaree. He then struck for the correct location after finding no sign of Forsyth or the Cheyenne Indians.

On September 24, Carpenter’s scouts crossed the trail of a large band of Indians traveling away from the Arikaree River. After setting up a strong camp in case of an attack, Carpenter found several burial scaffolds erected on a hilltop containing dead Cheyenne warriors with recent gunshot wounds.

In the early morning of September 25, two of Forsyth’s scouts arrived in camp. They had been the last pair to leave the besieged Forsyth on September 19 to find help at Ft Wallace. The scouts had returned after finding the fort almost deserted and had luckily stumbled upon Carpenter’s camp. With their guidance, Carpenter moved quickly for the river with 30 mounted soldiers, stockpiles of food and an ambulance. The rest of his command followed along behind.

Relief at Beecher Island and the Lessons Learned

After living on rotten horse meat, a coyote and a few wild plums for days, Forsyth’s men spotted the 10th Cavalry approaching the river later that morning. Carpenter found the severely wounded Forsyth reading Oliver Twist as he rode up. His men were fed hardtack and bacon. The dead were laid to rest on Beecher Island. Colonel Bankhead’s column arrived in the area on September 26 along with two companies of the 2nd Cavalry that had fallen in with him along the way. Preparations were made and the entire group spent the next four days returning to Ft Wallace.

In the aftermath, Major Forsyth narrowly missed having his broken and infected leg amputated. His surgeon would use part of the lonely cottonwood tree on Beecher Island to splint it. Two years would go by before his injuries completely healed. Though the number of Indians killed and wounded was variable depending on the account told, Forsyth learned years later from a Sioux chief present at the battle that 75 had died with “heaps” of wounded. When, through an interpreter, the chief asked if Forsyth had gotten enough of a fight during the battle, he replied: “Tell him yes, all I wanted.”

The Battle of Beecher Island would cause evolution of tactics on both sides. The Cheyenne viewed their offensive movements as too costly and would rarely attack army forces in frontal assaults from that point on. Though Forsyth had proved that a small and disciplined force could defend against a much larger enemy, he had done so by the slimmest of margins. Major General Phil Sheridan of the army’s Department of the Missouri discontinued engaging scouting parties in battle. He would instead use bigger units to force the Cheyenne into submission.