Some of the Indians returned to their camp and brought their guns back to the soldiers. Fearing that some weapons were still concealed, Forsyth ordered a physical search of the Lakota men present in the council, along with a search of the camp. The search of the camp caused confusion, excitement, and fear among the women and children in the camp. The excitement in the camp caused consern among the men in the council ring.
During the confusion of the search, a shot was fired in or near the council. On one can say with certainty which side fired the first shot. Some argue that a soldier fired first, other contend it was an Indian. That question may never be satisfactorily answered. At the sound of that first shot the troops opened fire. Most historians agree at least some of the Lakota men had rifles concealed under their blankets, but the vast majority were unarmed.
Most of the enlisted men were new to the frontier. Many were recruits from the East with minimal training, and over forty percent were immigrants.60 Approximately fifty percent of the enlisted winners of the Medal of Honor were born outside the United States.61 A few did have considerable experience in the plains. At least eight of the officers and several noncommissioned officers were veterans of the 1876 Custer attack at the Little Bighorn. Within moments the troops and the Lakotas were plunged into bitter, close quarters fighting, followed by attempts by Indian survivors to escape.
Once the fighting started the officers lost control of the inexperienced troops. The officers were unable, or unwilling, to stop their men from shooting at all retreating figures, and carnage ensued. If the officers did try to stop the soldiers from shooting women and children, as according to later testimony, they were wholly unsuccessful.62 No one can say for certain how many were killed or wounded. Some authorities have put the total number of Indian killed in excess of 250.63
By comparison the army's casualties were light. Soldiers had been placed in a hollow square surrounding the Lakota in the council circle. The large number of casualties in companies A, B, I, and K who faced one another across the council circle has lead to the conclusion then and now that a great many soldier casualties were the result of cross fire.
In a confidential letter General Miles lamented the loss of life and severely criticized the placement of the soldiers:
Wholesale massacre occurred and I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee. About two hundred women and children were killed and wounded; women with little children on their backs, and small children powder burned by the men who killed them being so near as to burn the flesh and clothing with the powder of their guns, and nursing babes with five bullet holes through them....Col. Forsyth is responsible for allowing the command to remain where it was stationed after he assumed command, and in allowing his troops to be in such a position that the line of fire of every troop was in direct line of their own of their own comrades or their camp.64Officers who were present offered evidence that troops were injured by friendly fire. Asst. Surg. Charles B. Ewing stated:
I have reason to believe that some of our men were killed by the fire of others of our troops. I base it from the position of the troops. Most injury was inflicted upon Captain Wallace's Troop K....Located as the troops were, and firing as they did, it was impossible not to wound or kill each other.65Lt. Alexander R. Piper, Eighth Infantry, who was stationed at nearby Pine Ridge Agency, expressed an opinion commonly held in the ranks: "The Cavalry began shooting in every direction, killing not only Indians but their own comrades on the other side of the circle."66
Several years later Capt. Edward S. Godfrey, who commanded Company D of the Seventh Cavalry, wrote:
I know the men did not aim deliberately and they were greatly excited. I don't believe they saw their sights. They fired rapidly but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies, and dogs...went down before that unaimed fire...67One Officer, in justifying the killing of women stated it was hard to differentiate,
. . . bucks from squaws because they were all wearing blankets" in the same article he says the bucks "flung off their blankets and with nothing but breech clouts and light ghost shirts...68It is known that many of the wounded Indians suffered from multiple gun shot wounds, several had compound fractures, a few had multiple compound fractures. Some had both multiple gunshot wounds, and compound fractures. It would be safe to assume that many of those killed also suffered from multiple wounds.69
Several days after the massacre General Miles relieved Colonel Forsyth and charged him with incompetence for putting his men in positions to cause casualties from cross fire. Miles appointed a board of inquiry to investigate, but Forsyth was absolved of any wrongdoing and returned to his command. The decision had less to do with Forsyth's conduct than with the infighting between factions of the officer corps and Washington interference.70
In spite of - or maybe because of - the general turmoil and debate surrounding the Wounded Knee operation, thirty-two men were cited for their actions in the fight. This figure does not include those officers recommended for brevet promotion. A total of twenty-five men were recommended for the Medal of Honor. Of these recommendations twenty were approved, and medals were issued.71
Circumstances surrounding these awards necessitate closer examination. The number of medals is considered excessive by many critics of the army's conduct, and it seems high even by the standards then in place. Taking into account the number of medals awarded, the duration of the actual fighting, the number of combatants, and the number of causalities, and comparing these figures to other battles the numbers do seem disproportional.
If it were assumed all of the Lakota men were armed (they were not), the odds against them would still have been five to one. Reports give the duration of the actual armed resistance from the Lakota at Wounded Knee from ten minutes to one hour.72
By way of comparison the 1877 battle at Bear Paw Mountain, Montana, was a five-day siege. The army suffered a casualty rate of thirty percent, yet there were only nine Medals of Honor awarded. The Battle of Wolf Mountain later the same year pitted about 600 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors against a force of infantry numbering 436 men. The fighting raged for five hours on snow and ice covered ground. The later stages of the battle were fought in a blinding snowstorm. Yet only three Medals of Honor were awarded for this action.73
The three officers who were awarded the medal were all reported as having been wounded in the action at Wounded Knee. These officers were recommended years later in contrast to the enlisted men who were recommended within a few weeks.
In February 1891 five officers from the Seventh Cavalry were recommended for brevet promotions, nominal, almost honorary, promotions to higher ranks without any of the material benefits. Absent from this list were two officers who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor. In March of 1891 another letter was submitted asking for the honorable mention of certain individuals. This letter did include the names of the two officers in question.74 Brevet considerations were turned over to Col. Edward M. Heyl of the Inspector General's office for investigation. He never recommended, nor were any of these officers accorded, a brevet promotion. General Miles disapproved rather forcefully in both cases:
The recommendations for brevets or for honorable mention for such field officers is, in the opinion of the department commander, an insult to the memory of the dead, as well as to the brave men living. 75Nevertheless, a Medal of Honor was granted to 2nd Lt. Harry L. Hawthorne who was serving with Light Battery E of the First Artillery at Wounded Knee. His citation read for "the gallantry, coolness, discretion, and effect with which he handled and served his guns in action."76 According to one account Hawthorne was not a key factor in the battle.77 Hawthorne was also recommended for brevet promotion shortly after the fight. In fact, Capt. Allyn Capron, his commanding officer, recommended he be elevated two ranks.78 General Miles at that time made the statement cited above, yet almost two years later Miles forwarded the recommendation to the war department and said he "concurred."79
Lieutenant Hawthorne's wound was so severe that he was forced to spend several years away from field duty. One of his assignments was professor of Military Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He eventually gave up that post because of teasing he received from the students. This harassment was directed toward the army in general and at Hawthorne in particular. The students believed there had been a massacre at Wounded Knee and blamed Hawthorne and the army. Astonishingly, a man who was allegedly so courageous under hostile fire could be intimidated to the point of quitting his post by the tormenting of college students.80 Hawthorne's checkered career after Wounded Knee was not an exception among the other Medal of Honor winners.
Lt. John C. Gresham was awarded the medal in March 1895. The recommendation was made by Capt. Charles A. Varnum, the commanding officer of Troop A, who gave no reason for the delay. There is an unsigned, undated letter in Gresham's personnel file which states that no records could be found of Gresham's wounds, and curiously the regimental returns for January 1891 show him "on duty."81 There is, however, a mention elsewhere that during the fighting Gresham "received an abrasion on the nose from a passing bullet."82
Some officers questioned saw nothing to warrant special mention for Gresham.83 His citation reads for going "into a ravine and dislodging Indians."84 He apparently took twenty men and entered the ravine to the south of the Indian camp where many women and children were subsequently found dead or wounded.
Later in his career Gresham was implicated in a case where funds belonging to a student in his charge were missing. There is no record of the outcome, but he was ordered to retire within six months after these allegations were made.85 A medical report tells of his "outbreaks of fury over trivial matters... mental depression objectively shown by a permanent expression of dissatisfaction."86
Ernest A. Garlington of Troop A was also wounded in action and, like Gresham, was omitted from the first list of men who had distinguished themselves. Garlington's medal was not awarded until September 1893.
Colonel Forsyth recommended Garlington in March 1893 after he learned that Lieutenant Hawthorne had received a Medal of Honor. According to his citation Garlington was ordered to prevent the Indians from escaping up the ravine. This was accomplished by taking a portion of his troop behind the cut banks at the road crossing and holding it. The Indians tried this route and could not escape this way "without leaving the ravine and exposing them to galling fire from other troops. As a consequence only a very few did escape."87
Two years earlier General Miles had said giving Garlington a brevet promotion "would be an insult." He now recommended the citation when he forwarded it to the Commanding General of the Army.
A number of enlisted men also received the Medal of Honor. The majority of the recommendations for the award were made by the troop commander and corroborated by other officers. The recommendations then passed through the chain of command. Most of them went to Colonel Forsyth, then General Miles, and then to the War Department in Washington. In ten of seventeen cases Miles made "no remarks."88 In cases where no officer actually saw the meritorious act, affidavits from other enlisted men were used. The majority of the citations simply read "for gallantry," or "for bravery," with few if any details of the specific act of heroism.
The character of the men who made up the enlisted ranks appears to be less than desirable. Most were the unemployed immigrants from the eastern cities, and the Army was a way out of poverty. By the 1890's it had become such a large problem that in 1894 congress pass legislation which required anyone making his first enlistment be able to read, write and speak English. Some enlisted as a means of circumventing civil authorities. General Miles acknowledged these problems when he wrote some years latter.
The soldiers are now very largely American born and taken from every section of the country, and very many of the most respected families are represented among them.89Further support is offered by one of the civilians who helped bury the dead Indians after the fight. When asked about the soldiers at Wounded Knee, Frank French said, of the soldiers,
A rotten type of inhuman beings. Some of the soldiers in them days was [sic] outlaws and ruffians caught by the law. They were given their choice of going in the Army or going to jail. They always took the Army. Of course, there were some good men but the bad type predominated. It was a disgrace to invite them to a private home or to any public gathering.90Musician John E. Clancy of Company E, First U.S. Artillery, offers a prime example of the soldiers character. He was among the enlisted men awarded the Medal of Honor. He received his on January 23, 1892. His citation stated that he had rescued wounded soldiers.
Clancy was court-martialed eight times during his career, twice between the massacre at Wounded Knee and the receipt of his medal. A letter from Lieutenant Hawthorne, his commanding officer, stated Clancy was not recommended for a Medal of Honor or even honorable mention.91 Is it possible Clancy was recommended to help him gain leniency from yet another court-martial?
Cases like Clancy's caused the army to review its policy on the Medal of Honor, and add paragraph 199-1/2 to its regulations. "Neither a Medal of Honor nor a Certificate of Merit will be awarded in any case when the service of the person recommended, subsequent to the time when he distinguished himself, has not been honorable."92
In the case of Pvt. Mosheim Feaster, Company E, Seventh Cavalry, the officer who recommended him was over a quarter of a mile away at the time of his heroic action. However, three affidavits attesting to his acts were given. The three men who signed these statements were friends of Feaster and fellow members of Troop E. All three of these witnesses were also given Medals of Honor. Feaster's citation was for "extraordinary gallantry."93
A few years after Wounded Knee the Army modified it's regulations on the Medal of Honor. The new regulation stated:
(a) Medals of Honor will not be awarded to officers or enlisted men except for distinguished bravery or conspicuous gallantry, which shall have manifested in action by conduct that distinguishes a soldier above his comrades, and that involves risk of life, or the performance of more than ordinarily hazardous duty. Recommendations for the award will be governed by this interpretation of extraordinary merit.Pvt. Marvin C. Hillock, Company B, Seventh Cavalry, was cited by Captain Varnum, who said he was "wounded but continued to perform duties."95
(b) Recommendations should be made only by the officer in command at the time of the 'action,' or by an officer having personal cognizance of the specific act for which the medal is granted. The recommendation must be accompanied by a detailed recital of the circumstances, and by certificates of officers, or affidavits of enlisted men,who were eye-witnesses of the act. The testimony must. . . describe specifically the act or acts by which the person in whose behalf the recommendation is made `most distinguished' himself, and the facts in the case must be further attested by the official reports of the action. . . "94
Sgt. George Loyd of I Company, Seventh Cavalry, a veteran of the Little Bighorn attack, was on his sixth enlistment. He was presented his Medal of Honor on April 16, 1891, for "bravery." Two years, almost to the day, after the fight at Wounded Knee he committed suicide. The only mention in the regimental record is that he died "by shooting himself through the head."96 Upon being notified of Loyd's death the war department ordered his troop commander to return the Medal of Honor, but Lieutenant Garlington, his company commander, had lost the medal.97 The lost Loyd medal generated considerable correspondence between Garlington and the Adjutant General between January 17 - February 27, 1893. To this day the whereabouts of this medal is unknown.
Pvt. Mathew Hamilton of Company G was awarded the medal in May 1891 for "conspicuous bravery in rounding up and bringing to the skirmish line a stampeded pack mule" during the fight. General Miles did not approve.98 Company G was not in a direct line of fire. Common sense would dictate any animal frightened by gunfire would run away from the shooting. It seems Hamilton was awarded the Medal of Honor for riding away from the fighting.
Sgt. Albert W. McMillan, Company E, was cited for "exposing himself to the enemy."99 He was promoted to sergeant major prior to April 6, 1891. For reasons for which no records have yet been found, he was demoted to private before his discharge on September 21, 1892.100
In addition to Sergeant McMillan the names of four other men, all from Company E, appear on the original citation. They include Sgt. William G. Austin, Sgt. John F. Tritle, Pvt. Hermann Ziegner, and Pvt. Thomas Sullivan. All are listed for bravery and exposing themselves to the enemy. All except Sergeant Tritle were awarded a medal. McMillan's medal was for conspicuous bravery.101 No reason is known for the denial of a medal to Tritle.
Cpl. Adam Neder from A Company, Seventh Cavalry, was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Capt. Myles Moylan for "gallantry in action."102 One of the citations says Neder was wounded; then that entry is struck through.
Sgt. Frederick E. Toy, a twenty-six year veteran from Company G, was cited "for bravery displayed while shooting hostile Indians." This wording appeared on the original copy of the citation. It was changed on the final citation, after the original was rejected by the War Department. Captain Winfield S. Edgerly, his commanding officer, rewrote the recommendation stating Sergeant Toy did "deliberately aim at and hit two Indians who had run into the ravine." Edgerly avoided mentioning the age or sex of Toy's victums. Toy was presented the medal in a public ceremony, which a leading illustrated weekly found unique enough to warrant its notice and praise.103
Jacob Trautman, a first sergeant from Company I, was granted the medal for "distinguished conduct in killing one Indian." His enlistment expired shortly after the fight, and he volunteered to stay until the campaign was over. This was also given as a reason to award him a Medal of Honor.104
Sgt. Bernhard Jetter of Troop K was awarded a medal for "killing an Indian who was in the act of killing a wounded man of B Troop."105 The ranks of both troops B and K were on the front line between the Lakota men and the Indian camp they were trying to reach. At this point one can presume the Lakotas only wanted to escape. Would a man in fear for his life stop to kill a wounded soldier, or continue his escape? There is a mention of Jetter's "bravery" at the Drexel Mission fight (December 30) on his citation. This has caused some confusion as for which conflict he was awarded the medal.
Pvt. George Hobday, a cook from Company A, was cited for "gallantry and was noticed by several officers." Information from draft copies of his recommendation indicated his primary act of bravery was "voluntarily leaving his work as cook."106
Sgt. James Ward, Company B, "fought one Indian while taking guns."107 Ward was also reported as having been wounded, though no other records, medical or otherwise, could be found to support this.
Pvt. Hermann Ziegner from Company E was awarded the Medal of Honor for "conspicuous bravery."108 No record of the original citation could be located.
Perhaps the most famous enlisted man to receive the medal for Wounded Knee was Cpl. Paul H. Weinert, the gunner from Company E, First U.S. Artillery. Weinert was cited for "firing his howitzer at several Indians in the ravine."109 This ravine was adjacent to the Lakota's camp, and many noncombatants sought shelter there. With his gun less than three hundred yards away, his firing inflicted terrible damage, undoubtedly killing and wounding many women and children.
It seems astonishing that Weinert was not wounded in the hail of fire from the besieged Indians. According to his own account the Indians in the ravine were firing furiously as he worked his gun:
Bullets were coming like hail from the Indian's Winchesters. The wheels of my gun were bored full of holes and our clothing was marked in several places.110Contrary to Weinert account, other sources state that a rear guard of only three or four Indian men holed up in this "pit" or "pocket," as it has come to be called.111 Later in the decade Weinert, adorned with his Medal of Honor, toured with Buffalo Bill Cody's wild west show as a member of its color guard.112
Pvts. Joshua B. Hartzog, John Flood, and George Green were the other members of this gun crew and were similarly recommended for the Medal of Honor.113 Hartzog and Weinert received the medal. Flood and Green did not; they were only mentioned in orders.114 General Miles did not recommend any of these be approved. There was never any explanation as to why two of these men received the medals and the others did not.
In 1916 the U.S. Congress saw fit to review all Medals of Honor awarded to that date. A panel of five retired general officers was named to review each case. Headed by General Miles, the board met approximately every two weeks for six months during which time all of the 2,625 Medals of Honor were reviewed. Over the next few months they would meet approximately every two weeks. In these meetings, which all proceedings were confidential and accordingly not recorded, all 2,625 Medals of Honor were reviewed. In one meeting lasting 1 hour and 55 minutes, 33 cases were decided. Another which lasted 2 hours, 44 cases were resolved. Yet another meeting lasting 2 hours and 10 minutes a total of 82 awards were reviewed. The time spent could not have been sufficient to review the facts in each case. This has the appearance of a good public relations ploy, or perhaps just a cover up.
In January 1917 the panel concluded its review. Some medals were disallowed because they had been awarded to civilians. In another case during the Civil War 864 medals had been given to the men of the Twenty-seventh Maine Volunteer Infantry. The medals, partly an inducement to reenlist and partly a clerical error, were all revoked. None of the medals given for service at Wounded Knee were rescinded. General Miles was awarded a Medal of Honor in 1892 for gallantry in the Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville. His most recent biographer noted that sixty-five other applicants also received medals that year, which somewhat diluted its prestige.115
In their report the review panel acknowledged that Medals of Honor were awarded very liberally in the past. By 1917 the guidelines for awarding a medal had been tightened, and the board recognized that some past actions would no longer qualify for awards. Rather than revoke more medals the board decided to base their judgments upon "the standard established by the authorities at the time of the award."116 [U.S. Congress. Senate. General Staff Corps and Medals of Honor. 66th Cong. 1st sess. S. Doc. 58:112.] Had the board used the more restrictive standards set by 1917 the Wounded Knee medals would undoubtedly have been rescinded.
Curiously, as prolific a writer as General Miles, no mention of his service on the board could be located in any letter, note, or memorandum he ever wrote. No record of the board can be found, save the Senate document cited in this paper. That document is insufficient to determine the internal workings of the board. History has little choice, but to conclude this review board was just another example of the Army cover-up and mis-information campaign dealing with Wounded Knee.
The Congressional Medals of Honor given to the 20 Soldiers for the fight at Wounded Knee Creek, on December 29, 1890 were best summed up by a colleague over 20 years ago.
At that time neither of us had ever heard of Wounded Knee. He was speaking of the upcoming Court-Martial of then Lt. William Calley for his role in the massacre of civilians at Mi Lia, South Viet Nam. He said of Calley. "Hell they ought to give him the Congressional Medal of Honor, after all it takes a lot of guts to kill women and children."
The legacy of Wounded Knee lives on.
Comments to the author, Jerry Green...
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