Classic Essays

Unburying the Truth at Wounded Knee

hlhawthorne-usna-photo-01A firsthand report from an army officer who was there

Introduction: John Greenway, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado and a specialist in the history of American Indians has found thirteen errors on the first page of the introduction to Dee Brown’s bestseller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He also has evidence that the author plagiarized two chapters of the book. As an antidote to this barefaced tour de force of Redskin propaganda, we reprint a letter to the Cavalry Journal on April 5, 1938 by Colonel Harry L. Hawthorne (pictured), who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at the Wounded Knee shootout.

AS A PARTICIPANT in the engagement at Wounded Knee Creek, I will quote freely from a report made by me in 1931 to the Historical Division of the War Department. In this engagement my station was on a low hill overlooking the camp occupied by the Indians, and from which I could view the disposition of our troops, and every detail of events which led up to the opening of the fight, and the final dispersion and pursuit of the Indians.

The disposition of the troops at Wounded Knee Creek and that of the captured Indians were such as to place us at a fatal disadvantage. Had the Indians not assumed the offensive, for which there was absolutely no excuse, the terrible consequences to both sides would have been avoided. I have always believed that it was the faulty disposition of our forces together with certain superstitious beliefs of the Indians … which prompted them to make their dash for the open country, and encouraged them to hope for success. To this thought is added the fact that the day before, with a much smaller force opposed to them, their surrender to Major Whitside with two battalions, 7th Cavalry, and a detachment of artillery at Porcupine Creek was meek and quiet and combined with expressions of friendliness and peace.

Big Foot’s band had been cut off at the crossing of the White River in the attempt to reach the Bad lands and was shortly after captured by Colonel Sumner’s force. The assurance of a desire to surrender was accepted, but with the usual undependable promises of the Indians, they took up their flight during the night.

Two squadrons of the Seventh Cavalry under Major Whitside with two mountain guns and pack animals left camp at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28, 1890 on receiving reports from scouts that Big Foot was at Porcupine Creek, about nine miles to the east. The Indians when met at the Porcupine were in battle array, painted and stripped. After some parleying, the Indians surrendered and were marched under guard to our bivouac at Wounded Knee Creek where they formed their camp in a rough semicircle close to our own. Here were assembled the braves, their families, impedimenta and a herd of about one hundred and fifty ponies.

The night passed peacefully, during which the third squadron of the Seventh Cavalry with General Forsyth arrived and additional artillery under Captain Caprom. Major Whitside, having learned that Big Foot was ill, sent the surgeon of the command to visit him. He was suffering from pneumonia and was attended by our surgeon several times during the night.

Big Foot
Big Foot

The Indian men had been summoned to a powwow and leaving their tepees they appeared wrapped in their blankets, with their arms concealed under them, a fact unknown to our Commanding Officer at the time. They sat down in the open space within their camp and during the talk, details from the cavalry passed among the tepees looking for their arms. This resultless search proved that the Indians had their rifles with them and they were called upon to give them up as a preliminary to terms of surrender. Big Foot, lying on a litter, had been brought out of his tepee at the first gathering of his men and was present among them during the entire scene. While waiting for a decision by the Indians their Medicine Man began a dance and chant. A few minutes after this, our interpreter, much alarmed, reported to General Forsyth that he was inciting his people to arise and attack the whites and that their ghost shirts would protect them from the bullets of the soldiers. In a moment the Indians were on their feet pouring volley after volley into two troops of dismounted cavalry standing near and in close order. This sudden, wholly unexpected and unprovoked attack by the Indians was so fierce and overwhelming that the ranks of the soldiers facing them melted away with scarcely a shot in reply leaving about twenty-five dead and thirty-five wounded on the field.

The remainder of the command was partly in camp, partly beyond the Indian camp across the dry bed of a stream, and partly on hills to the east overlooking the Indian camp. Edgerly’s troop was mounted near the foot of this hill and took no part in the fight in the initial stages. The mounted troops beyond the camp did not fire a shot at this time. Two one-pounder mountain guns, single loading, firing percussion shell, and commanded by me, did not open fire until this first phase was over and the Indians in full retreat.

After mowing down the surprised soldiers in their immediate front, the Indians, passed among their herd, men, women, and children, except a number who dropped into the dry bed behind the tepees, where they kept up a hot fire to cover the passage of the pony herd.

As the herd passed up the valley in a dense cloud of dust, it was impossible to see individual Indians. Occasionally one could see a blanketed head, but whether man or woman, it was not possible to tell. My guns first opened fire on the Indians who had entered the river bed and who were firing at the troops on the hill. After some three or four shots, this fire by the guns was discontinued because of possible harm to the troops beyond the river and the guns were turned against the head of the herd, hoping to bring it to a standstill. About two and certainly not more than three shots were fired at this objective. The mounted cavalry pursued, capturing some and forcing a number of braves into a ravine where they were subsequently surrounded.

The first phase, including the Indians’ sudden attack, the movement of the herd and the scattering of the band did not occupy more than ten minutes, if that. It was the subsequent pursuit of the Indians and the slow process of forcing them out of their concealed positions in the ravine which kept up the fight for, I think, about two hours. So far as I remember there were no Indians killed in their tepees, and not any women or children.

The general firing was not started by the shooting of Big Foot as alleged by Indian authorities. I doubt, if anyone, even an Indian, knew just when he [Big Foot] was shot. The general firing by the troops was begun after the onslaught by the Indians themselves.

That night our force, burdened with its dead and wounded, fell back to Pine Ridge Agency and went into camp.

Our Commanding Officer was more than willing for a quiet and peaceful surrender by the Indians. At the time of their capture on December 28th, Major Whitside had strongly urged them to give up without a fight. The next day General Forsyth in pursuance of instructions insisted on the surrender of their arms before marching to Pine Ridge. In his belief in the sincerity of their desire for peace, he allowed a somewhat faulty disposition of a part of his command . . . .

The fight at Wounded Knee was wholly unnecessary. There was no act nor demand by the army which could have justified this violent and savage attack by the Indians. All that was asked of them was that they return to the reservation and that they surrender their arms as an act of good faith.

Very truly, H. L. Hawthorne

As a postscript to Wounded Knee, we turn to Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, one of America’s foremost military historians and himself part Indian:

There is no doubt who started that day’s fight, though it is often called a massacre. Forsyth may have been clumsy and his soldiers have been rude and provocative, but deliberate Sioux action, so timed as to indicate that it had been well plotted, initiated the slaughter. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee may be a lovely phrase. [It was cooked up by the Majority renegade poet Stephen Vincent Benet.] It is still a false and misleading sentiment, dignifying conspiracy and honoring treachery.

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Source: Instauration magazine, January 1977

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1 Comment

  1. aa
    June 21, 2015 at 12:23 pm — Reply

    The Federals committed so many unthinkable atrocities in the 4 years war, I don’t think that outfit can place their honor above any enemy without being saturated in hypocrisy.

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