Black Kettle and the other chiefs left Fort Cobb in late November; with food and supplies from the Agency and travelled in heavy snow to their villages on the Washita which they reached on the 26th November. The previous evening, a war party of 150 young warriors from the camps of Black Kettle, Medicine Arrow and Little Robe had returned to the Washita encampment. They had raided white settlements in the Smoky Hill River area of Kansas.
General Sheridan had earlier decided on a winter campaign against the Cheyenne, reckoning that if he could destroy the Indians’ shelter, food and livestock, the warriors, plus their women and children would be at the mercy of the elements and would be forced to surrender. He sent Custer’s Seventh Cavalry to hunt down the raiders in the Washita area while sending a column from Fort Lyon in Colorado and another from Fort Bascom in New Mexico to converge on the Indian winter camping grounds and on the 26th, Major Joel Elliot and a scouting party of the Seventh, picked up the trail of the raiding war party. On the same day, a party of Kiowa returning from a raid on their Ute enemy reported to Black Kettle that they had seen a large trail leading southwards towards the Washita camp. The Cheyenne chief discounted the information as he did not believe that US soldiers would operate this far south in such wintry conditions. The Kiowa proceeded to their village further along the river, but one of their number called Trails the Enemy, decided to stay overnight with friends in Black Kettle’s camp.
On the same day Black Kettle received another warning of approaching soldiers, this time from a warrior called Crow Neck who had abandoned an exhausted horse the previous day and had headed out to collect it. He said that he had seen a large body of men and believed them to be soldiers.
That evening, Black Kettle held a council in his lodge with his other chiefs. He told them of his meeting with Hazen and what he had learned about Sheridan’s war plans. The council decided that once the deep snow had cleared they would send out runners to talk to the soldiers and make it clear that Black Kettle’s people wanted peace. Meanwhile they decided to move camp the next day downriver to be closer to the other Indian camps.
Major Elliot meanwhile, reported back to Custer and the troops followed the trail of the raiding party until nightfall, when they rested briefly until there was sufficient moonlight to continue. When they reached Black Kettle’s village, Custer split his force to surround the village with orders to attack from all sides at dawn when the buglers would signal the attack by playing the regimental tune “Garry Owen”.
At daybreak the soldiers attacked, the first Indian to die was Double Wolf who, seeing the charge, fired his gun to alert the camp. Trails the Enemy was also awake, intending to start out early for the Kiowa camp. Double Wolf was shot down in a fusillade of shots and Trails the Enemy hurriedly organised a rearguard to hold the soldiers off until the warriors could arm themselves. The Cheyenne warriors rushed from their tipis and began firing at the soldiers from the surrounding trees and ravines.
The soldiers shot at everything that moved, soon overwhelming the camp and killing all before them. Many of the Indians attempted to flee on horseback but were pursued by the cavalry. Black Kettle and his wife Medicine Woman were shot in the back and killed as they tried to escape. Major Elliot and a troop of 20 cavalrymen chased after the fleeing Indians against Custer’s orders. He is said to have cried out, “Here’s for a brevet or a coffin” as he galloped forward.
His force ran into a mixed band of warriors from the other villagers who had come to Black Kettle’s aid. The soldiers were killed in one merciless charge. Custer ordered the destruction of the camp and belongings and, after rounding up 200 horses to carry away captives, had the 675 remaining horses slaughtered to deny their use to the Indians.
Custer noticed the gathering bands of Indians and now realised that Black Kettle’s camp was only one of many villages along the river and decided to withdraw. His failure to determine the fate of Elliot and his men before withdrawing further damaged his poor reputation among his fellow officers and caused deep resentment in Captain Frederick Benteen, a friend of Elliot’s who, eight years later, failed to come to Custer’s aid at the Battle of Little Big Horn where Custer’s habit of attacking Indian villages before proper scouting would eventually cost him his life. Custer took 53 women and children captive during the battle and had them placed among his troops, using them as human shields to prevent the assembling Indians from attacking. This was to become a regular feature of his strategy.
Estimates of the Indian death toll vary, but a figure in the region of 136 is likely. Custer’s losses were 21 killed and 13 wounded.
Custer sent a report of the attack to General Sheridan stating that, “by an actual and careful examination after the battle” his men found the bodies of 103 warriors, although no count had actually been made. His figure was a guestimate based on reports from his officers the next day when they were back in Camp Supply.
The attack provoked some powerful criticism in the press and among fellow soldiers. An article in the Leavenworth Evening Bulletin notes, “General Sandford, General Tappan and Colonel Taylor of the Indian Peace Commission unite in the opinion that the late battle was simply an attack upon peaceful bands that were on the march to their new reservation”. The New York Times similarly reported, “Colonel Wynkoop, Agent for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, has published his letter of resignation. He regards General Custer’s late fight as simply a massacre”. The Fort Cobb Indian Agent, William Griffenstein, told Custer that the Seventh Cavalry had attacked friendly Indians on the Washita. Custer’s superior officer and friend General Sheridan, coming to Custer’s defence, ordered Griffenstein out of Indian Territory and threatened to hang him if he returned.