Indian War in the West: The Siege of Beecher Island

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During the Cheyenne Indian Wars, Major George Forsyth and his scouts were besieged in misery and starvation for days after the Battle of Beecher Island.

After the ferocious fighting of September 17, 1868 in the Battle of Beecher Island, its intensity began to ebb from massed frontal assaults led by the slain Roman Nose to intermittent sniper fire from the remaining Cheyenne Indians. Encumbered by dead, dying, and wounded, Major George Forsyth found himself under siege by a numerically superior enemy in conditions similar to what Major Marcus Reno and his command would experience at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Siege, Blood, and Desperation

As the sun rose on September 18, the severely injured Forsyth took stock in his situation. Of the 50 men that had fought on Beecher Island with him, only 28 had escaped death or injury. All of the horses and mules of the command were either dead or stolen. Their meager rations had been lost in the chaos the previous morning. His second in command, Fredrick Beecher, and his surgeon were killed in action. The men had no water and could not retrieve any from the Arikaree River without risking being shot by Indian shooters on the surrounding hilltops. To make matters even worse, that September was unseasonably warm and the island sparsely covered with a few alder bushes in its center and a young cottonwood tree on its eastern end. Before long, the intense sunlight was inflicting great agony on the wounded.

Searching for Relief

One of his scouts managed to dig down deep enough in the loose sand of the island for the hole to fill with water. The most basic of medical care was provided by the untrained men with no supplies. Forsyth realized he desperately needed help to save his command. That night, he sent two scouts to slip through enemy lines and deliver a message to Colonel Bankhead at Ft Wallace 85 miles to the south. Traveling only in darkness, they managed to evade hostile Indians and arrived at the fort three days later.

Unsure if his message would successfully be delivered, Forsyth again sent scouts with dispatches the following two nights. One pair was turned back by enemy sentries but the other pair managed to slip through. In his dispatch that they carried to Colonel Bankhead, Forsyth described his command’s dire circumstances: “I am on a little island, and have still plenty of ammunition left. We are living on mule and horse meat and are entirely out of rations. If it was not for so many wounded, I would come in, and take the chances of whipping them if attacked… I can hold out for six days longer if absolutely necessary, but please lose no time.”

Misery in Waiting

As they days passed by, all shooting stopped and the Indians had completely withdrawn by September 22. Wounds and starvation would now become the enemies. In the burning heat, their horse meat had rotted and their injuries laden with infection and maggots. Forsyth operated on himself, using his razor to remove the bullet lodged in his thigh. He consented for the uninjured to travel to Ft Wallace. Instead, they decided to stay with their stricken comrades and wait for relief to arrive. Help would not come until September 25, nine days after the initial attack on Beecher Island.