[See also...An uncelebrated anniversary and Witnesses to Carnage.]
It was derisively called "Baker's Battle," but 'twas not a famous victory. Just another rip in a onetime "hero's" tattered reputation.
In the late, late hours of August 14, 1872, Major Eugene Baker was in his tent at Pryor's Creek, a tributary of the Yellowstone, just north of the Wyoming-Montana border. He was sodden-drunk -- again. Just as he had been two years earlier when he hit a camp of defenseless, friendly Piegans on the Marias River and slaughtered some 200 old people, women, and children. He got away with it that time. At the moment, though, he had the job of protecting Colonel F. V. Hayden's survey of the Northern Pacific Railway line; his 400-man escort force was facing much tougher odds.
A thousand Sioux warriors, en route to attack Crow enemies, chanced upon the unready survey camp. They could hardly believe the easy pickings -- some Sioux scouts killed a watchdog and easily made off with some saddles and six Army mules tethered right by Baker's tent. They wanted the camp's horse herd, and wasichu scalps. Based on his early record, the Major should have been able to handle this midnight raid.
Baker was a West Pointer who graduated 12th in his 1859 class. In the Civil War he rose rapidly to the rank of major and brevet colonel for his daring service in the Armies of the Potomac and Shenandoah. He fought Indians in the Northwest before he was posted to Wyoming and Montana in 1869. By the time he encountered the Sioux, he had picked up the scornful nickname "Piegan Baker" for his butchery of the Piegans two years earlier -- and he was a certified, unhealthy alcoholic.
It was after midnight when Baker's officers managed to rouse him and ask for orders. As mean drunks in authority tend to do, he cursed out his subordinates for cowardice and overheated imaginations. He flatly disbelieved that there were any Indians about, and he ordered that the soldiers be kept in their tents. Captain Charles Rawn and Captain Lewis Thompson eventually took matters into their own hands, and by 2 a.m. the Sioux had been fought off. By then, Baker was ready to send some cavalry "busters" after the raiders -- but he either changed his mind, had another drink, or forgot. It had, in fact, been a near-disaster for the surveyors and the soldiers.
The Army's body count tallied one officer, one enlisted man, and ten Indians killed; five officers and two civilians wounded. Later, the Sioux maintained that a hundred warriors had been killed and forty wounded -- they probably carried away most of their casualties. Whatever -- this time Baker, whether he realized it or not, had been in a real battle. Hayden and his surveyors packed up and left, disgusted and alarmed by their "protectors."
After this farcical and near-disastrous engagement, Baker's career careened downhill. Captain Seneca Norton, of Baker's 2nd U.S. Cavalry, charged Baker with arresting him while the commander was drunk. Baker was convicted and sentenced to a dishonorable discharge -- but General Sherman, a fellow West Pointer, reduced this to six months at half-pay. Subsequently, Baker was shuffled from post to post, relegated to buying cavalry remounts and other innocuous tasks.
And so it went for this decorated onetime hero, one of Little Phil Sheridan's favored officers. Now he was merely a surly, dangerous dipsomaniac, a self-humiliating loose cannon. Not long after the debacle by the Yellowstone, a Mrs. Mary Barr accused him of "undue influence" in orchestrating her young daughter's "fake marriage to a worthless soldier." Brushed off by the Army, Mrs. Barr threatened a civil action.
The Montana writer Martha Edgerton Plassmann, daughter of the Territory's first governor, witnessed Baker on one of his wild sprees at the Overland Hotel in Fort Benton. She reported in a newspaper story that "a blear-eyed waiter" told her the next morning that Baker "was no officer or gentleman."
The medical insults to Baker's liver and kidneys accelerated. Despite many lengthy sick leaves, and support from the officer corps, he steadily became more and more of a sad embarrassment to the Army. At the age of forty-seven he died of cirrhotic complications, still in a ranking officer's uniform, at Walla Walla. The Army grudgingly paid $150 for his coffin but refused to pay for his body to be transported to his home town of Fort Ann, New York. "Sic transit gloria...."
Stan Gibson is a retired teacher living in southern Alberta, Canada.
Jack Hayne is a rancher in northwestern Montana.
National Archives, Washington, D.C.: (1) Service Record, Eugene M. Baker, Adjutant General's Office; (2) "Chronological List of Actions, Etc., with Indians, from Jan. 1, 1866, to Jan., 1891," Adjutant General's Office.
_Battle Drums and Geysers..._ by Orrin & Lorraine Bonney. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1970.
Montana Historical Society, Helena, MT: "The Piegan War," by M. E. Plassmann (typescript in MHS Mss. Collection 78, Box 2).
Witnesses to Carnage
Washita - Chapter One
Washita - Chapter Two
Washita - Chapter Two
Washita - Chapter Three
Washita - Conclusion
Cumulative First Nations Site Index
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