United States Army Responses
to NCAI statement

August 2, 1999

Memorandum for Chief of Public Affairs

Subject: Pine Ridge Campaign


  1. This memorandum responds to the inquiry implied by the e-mail enclosed as TAB A. We believe we are called upon to establish that Pine Ridge in fact qualifies as a campaign, to establish that the medals of honor awarded therein reflected appropriate levels of valor, and to comment on the incidence of non-combatant casualties. Let us undertake each of these tasks in turn. Supporting information can be drawn from brief accounts by respected historians, attached as TABS B, C, and D. Congressional testimony from 1976 by William G. Bell, CMH Historian, on the same subject appears at TAB E.
  2. The criteria whereby military operations are characterized as a campaign are not rigorously precise. See TAB F for a discussion of how the Army has historically identified official campaigns, and TAB G for appropriate extracts from AR 600-8-22 "Military Awards." Factors that are generally considered in identifying a campaign include:
  1. Appreciable Forces Involved. Although numbers involved are not specific criteria, a campaign streamer is expected to represent a significant effort. The Pine Ridge Campaign required – 5 cavalry regiments out of the Army’s then total of 10, and 9 infantry regiments out the Army’s then total of 25 – or 37% of the Army’s existing combat units. See TAB H for a comparison of this ratio with representative campaigns for other wars.
  2. Appreciable Risk to Combatants. A campaign is not merely an exercise or show of force. The forces involved in the Pine Ridge Campaign found themselves in several serious firefights, including "murderous, face to face melee, [wherein] Indians and soldiers shot, stabbed, and clubbed one another." Total casualties for the campaign were 27 killed and 44 wounded out of – 5,500 engaged – or 1.3 percent. Again see TAB H for a comparison of this ratio with representative campaigns from other wars.
  3. Appreciable Geographic Scope. Overall operations ranged widely through Nebraska, the Dakotas and beyond. The distances involved were rendered even more challenging by severe winter weather. Few contemporary commentators have the frame of reference necessary to appreciate the hardships involved in campaigning through hundreds of miles on horseback in December and January in the Dakotas. One contingent was isolated by a snowstorm for ten days and had to make its way out through five-foot drifts. All had to sustain themselves and their mounts under arduous circumstances through extended distances.
  4. A Series of Operations or Actions. Although attention has tended to focus upon the singular incident at Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890, the campaign extended through a much longer period from initial deployments on 17 November 1890 through final review on 21 January 1891. It featured multiple converging columns, several lethal engagements, and a reasonably coordinated series of reinforcements, reliefs, interceptions, and disarmaments.
  5. Directed Towards a Strategic Purpose. The United States’ late Nineteenth Century "national strategy" included gathering American Indians on reservations in order that they might be better controlled and "civilized." In theory, the inefficient land use of nomadic hunting would be replaced over time with farming and animal husbandry, permitting far denser agricultural populations – of which American Indians would be part. The Army did not invent the Reservation Policy; indeed, many senior Army officers criticized it. The Army was nevertheless given the mission of enforcing the Reservation Policy during those periods wherein the Indian Bureau lost control. The Pine Ridge Campaign fulfilled the nation’s strategic purpose by restoring order in and around the Ghost Dance troubled Dakota reservations when the Indian Bureau conceded loss of control, and local white communities took alarm. Then, as now, the Army did not pick and choose the wars it would fight on behalf of the American people.
  6. Noteworthy Accomplishment. The expectation is that campaign streamers will reflect deeds and accomplishments in which soldiers and units can take pride. The ardors of winter campaigning have already been discussed. A few vignettes particularly stand out, like the fifty-mile all-night ride of the 9th Cavalry – Buffalo Soldiers – ending in the dramatic relief of the 7th Cavalry at Drexel Mission. The 8th Cavalry was similarly timely in rescuing a small detachment of Indian Police when their attempted arrest of Sitting Bull went bad. Ironically, the first fatality of the campaign was Lieutenant Harry Bull Head, Indian Policeman, who intrepidly led this small detachment into the heart of those he considered "reactionaries" while in the service of the United States – his country. There is far more to be proud of in the Pine Ridge Campaign than revisionist atonement literature might suggest.
  1. The procedures whereby Medals of Honor were awarded in the Nineteenth Century were less methodical than they are today, and the then existing awards system was not the beneficiary of the currently existing gradient of awards for valor. Indeed, at times the results seem almost quixotic – seven men on San Juan Hill in 1898, for example, being given the award for recovering the same mortally wounded officer. Citations are thinly written, see TAB I. There was, nevertheless, rough justice in the results, and the thirty awardees from the Pine Ridge Campaign seem to have fallen within reasonable bounds. Through the citations we can catch glimpses of such soldiers as: Sergeant George Loyd fighting on bravely after having been seriously wounded through the lung; Private Joshua B. Hartzog gamely rescuing his wounded commander under hostile fire and carrying him out of harm’s way; Corporal Paul H. Weinert resolutely taking charge of the artillery after its commander went down; and First Lieutenant Benjamin H. Cleever intrepidly leading the advance across the partly frozen White River to rescue fellow cavalrymen under duress. These seem the kinds of deeds awards for valor are intended to recognize. Please remember that these soldiers did not perform such extraordinarily acts out of any particular commitment to the "national military strategy" or the Indian Reservation Policy, they performed them to keep faith with their fellows – as soldiers generally do.
  2. The incident at Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890, wherein 62 women and children died alongside a somewhat larger number of Sioux warriors, clouds the memory of the Pine Ridge Campaign. It raises at least two issues; the extent of the Army’s culpability in the deaths, and the degree to which such incidents are an argument against recognizing the valor and sacrifice of campaign participants overall – particularly those not involved in them.
  1. Three sober accounts by distinguished historians, see TABS B,C, and D, clearly establish that the Army did not intend noncombatant casualties in the campaign, indeed, operations were designed to disarm potential hostiles as quietly as possible, and the overwhelming force of the 7th Cavalry brought to Wounded Knee was intended to awe the encampment into quiet submission. Soldiers put themselves at considerable risk entering the encampment to search for arms, but expected no trouble given their overall numerical advantage. A scuffle with one Indian who refused to give up his rifle led other Indians firing a volley through the crowd, cutting down soldiers and Indians alike. Understandable nervousness on both sides then precipitated a general and confused melee. In the era before smokeless powder, the confusion increased with each round fired at such close quarters. It is not clear how many of the Indian noncombatants were hit by Indian fire, and matters were complicated by the fact that a fraction of the Indian women were combatants themselves. Genders and ages were difficult to distinguish given the heavy winter clothing. There may have been excesses on the part of individual soldiers, but unit leadership did in fact attempt to limit noncombatant casualties. In retrospect the most questionable 7th Cavalry response was the artillery shelling of a ravine wherein the Indians had taken refuge, without a clear appreciation of whether they were still combatants or not. The operational commander, Major General Nelson A. Miles, took the incidence of noncombatant casualties seriously, convened a court of inquiry immediately, and suspended the regimental commander – he was subsequently exonerated and reinstated. The subsequent, extremely careful, disarmament of other bands – to include the artful siege-like neutralization of a major encampment at White Clay Creek – demonstrated the lengths the Army would go to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. The words of historian Robert M. Utley make our point best: "Wounded Knee was not deliberate; overcharged emotions touched off a bloodbath that neither side intended or foresaw. Nor was it indiscriminate; the troops tried to spare women and children, and did spare many, but they were mixed up with the men and often impossible to identify in the smoke and confusion."
  2. A larger issue is the role incidents such as Wounded Knee should play in disestablishing campaign credit and awards – particularly for those not involved. Of the 5,500 soldiers involved in the campaign, about 500 were at Wounded Knee – nine percent of the total. Wounded Knee was a single engagement on a single morning in a sixty plus day campaign. Setting aside the fact that the 7th Cavalry seems to have been unfortunate rather than culpable, what are we doing if we make our campaign streamers and awards contingent upon present sensitivities to such incidents? TAB J depicts the entire roster of units receiving Pine Ridge Campaign participation credit. TAB K depicts campaign streamers associated with some of our more famous incidents of noncombatant casualties – sometimes through misconduct, but more often through miscalculation. Should Korean War or Vietnam veterans be denied campaign ribbons because of the mistaken of the few? To this point, Army Policy has been to use campaign streamers and awards to recognize the deserving, and censure and the Uniformed Code of Military Justice to discipline the guilty or negligent. This dichotomy seems good policy.
  1. Let me conclude this discussion by again drawing on the words of Robert M. Utley: "Thus, the frontier army was not, as many of its leaders saw it, the heroic vanguard of civilization, crushing the savages and opening the West to settlers. Still less was it the barbaric band of butchers, eternally waging unjust war against unoffending Indians that is depicted in the humanitarian literature of the nineteenth century and the atonement literature of the twentieth. Rather, the frontier army was a conventional military force trying to control, by conventional military methods, a people that did not behave like a conventional enemy and, indeed, quite often was not an enemy at all. This is the most difficult of all military assignments, whether in Africa, Asia, or the American West. The bluecoats carried it out as well as could be expected in the absence of a later generation’s perspective and hindsight. In the process they wrote a dramatic and stirring chapter of American history, one that need not be diminished by today’s recognition of the monstrous wrong it inflicted on the Indian."


We do have reason to believe that the Pine Ridge Campaign is appropriately characterized as a campaign, that the Medals of Honor won therein were deserved, and that Wounded Knee was an isolated and unintended incident.

John S. Brown, Brigadier General USA, Chief of Military History



We have extensively reviewed the events of the Pine Ridge campaign and we believe that Pine Ridge is appropriately characterized as a campaign. Records also affirm that the Medals of Honor received by 23 soldiers who participated in the campaign were deserved, and that Wounded Knee was an isolated and unintended incident.

Q1: What are the criteria for categorizing a military action as a campaign?

A1: There are several criteria considered when characterizing a military operation as a campaign. The number of forces involved, risk to combatants, geographic scope, a series of operations, strategic purpose, and noteworthy accomplishment are but a few of these.

Q2: How extensive has your investigation/research been?

A2: Historians at the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) consulted primary and secondary sources in preparing a response to concerns of the National Congress of American Indians regarding the Pine Ridge Campaign. Primary sources included contemporary accounts of the Pine Ridge Campaign prepared by Army participants and contained in the War Department Annual Report for 1891. CMH historians also reviewed contemporary Army accounts of the campaign to verify unit campaign participation and compared the Pine Ridge Campaign with other Army campaigns. The CMH staff also consulted scholarly accounts of the Pine Ridge Campaign by acknowledged scholars in the field of American Indian policy and the history of the Army in the nineteenth century. In addition, CMH historians referred to the 1976 hearings on Wounded Knee before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which contained testimony by CMH historian William G. Bell and contemporary documentation pertaining to the Pine Ridge Campaign and Wounded Knee.

Q3. How long has the investigation/research taken?

A3: The U.S. Army Center for Military History (CMH) performed a total of appropixamately 80 hours of research and professional support in response to the concerns of the National Congress of American Indians regarding the Pine Ridge Campaign. This effort entailed the services of at least eight historians. In addition, Mr. Bell spent two weeks (80 hours) in investigation and research, preparing for his testimony before Congress in 1976 on this subject.

Q4: Should not incidents such as those at Wounded Knee be considered when characterizing an action and recognizing those who participated in the larger context?

A4: Wounded Knee is a constituent element within the more inclusive Pine Ridge Campaign. The campaign extended over an appreciably larger geographic area than a single location and encompassed operations or actions that occurred both before and after the incident at Wounded Knee. Both individuals and units, many of which were not involved at Wounded Knee, received recognition during the Pine Ridge Campaign for actions deserving their own merit. To relate all such actions to the singular incident of Wounded Knee would constitute a disservice to individual service members and units that have performed actions deserving of recognition.

Q5: Does not Wounded Knee more or less characterize the Army’s actions in this campaign?

A5: Wounded Knee was a single engagement on a single morning in a sixty-plus day campaign. Wounded Knee was an isolated and unintended incident during a more extensive military campaign.

Q6: How does the Army respond to the National Congress of American Indians characterization of actions at Wounded Knee as a Massacre?

A6: The loss of life suffered by Native Americans at Wounded Knee was not the result of deliberate plans or policy of the U.S. Army. The Army commitment of a large number of soldiers at Wounded Knee was intended to awe the encampment into quiet submission and thereby avoid casualties on both sides. While the initial search for arms among the Indians proceeded peacefully, overcharged emotions and nervousness caused an unpredictable occurrence to trigger a general and confused melee in which both soldiers and Indians suffered casualties. Contemporary official accounts and scholarly accounts of Wounded Knee underscore the prevailing confusion that made it difficult for soldiers to distinguish combatants from noncombatants, to discern gender and age of Native Americans, and to curb all acts of excess that individual soldiers may have committed. The convening of a court of inquiry to investigate the incidence of noncombatant casualties shortly after the conclusion of the events at Wounded Knee reflected the seriousness with which the Army viewed allegations of indiscriminate killing of noncombatants. To characterize Wounded Knee as a massacre – the killing of considerable number of human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty, or mercilessly – overlooks the absence of premeditation, efforts to peacefully pacify the encampment, attempts to spare women and children once the melee began, and the Army’s sincere efforts to investigate charges of wanton killing of noncombatants after the incident.


A Petition To Rescind The Wounded Knee Medals...

Massacre at Wounded Knee

First Nations

This site is maintained by JS Dill

Comments regarding this site will be appreciated...