A fierce battle between the U.S. Army and Sioux and Cheyenne warriors 125 years ago on Montana's Rosebud Creek was as large a conflict as the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
But unlike the famous fight eight days later, the Battle of the Rosebud has been left in the historical dust.
"The Little Bighorn gets 99 percent of the ink," said Neil Mangum, superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and author of a chronicle of the Rosebud fight. "Nobody remembers the Rosebud. It's a sad thing."
Both the Rosebud and Little Bighorn battles were the result of forces set in motion years before.
The discovery of gold in the western part of Montana, drawing settlers up the Bozeman Trail through Indian hunting grounds, inflamed the Sioux and their allies.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 between the United States and several tribes closed the Bozeman Trail and its forts.
In return, Sioux chiefs agreed to move to a reservation in what is now South Dakota. The treaty set aside the Powder, Tongue and Bighorn areas as unceded lands for Indian hunting and closed to white settlement.
Although many Sioux did go to the reservations to live, younger Sioux leaders, including Crazy Horse, and some Northern Cheyenne preferred to roam and hunt the unceded region.
The Indians considered the Yellowstone River Valley part of their unceded area, and when Northern Pacific crews began surveys along the river, Indians attacked.
Things got worse when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, part of the Laramie Treaty reservation, and thousands of miners flocked to Indian lands.
More Indians left the reservation, and by the end of 1875, the U.S. government ordered the Sioux and Cheyenne back on the reservation.
When they didn't go, Gen. Phil Sheridan crafted a three-pronged plan to round up the "hostiles," as they came to be called.
An army under the command of Col. John Gibbon moved east along the Yellowstone from Fort Ellis near Bozeman, while Gen. Alfred Terry and the Dakota column, including Lt. Col. George Custer's 7th Cavalry, advanced west from Fort Abraham Lincoln. Gen. George Crook and a third force would come up from the south.
Like Custer and many other leaders of the Indian wars, Crook was a West Point graduate and Civil War veteran. Taciturn to a fault, Crook also was known for his distinctive forked beard that he sometimes braided and taped.
Crook was to march north from Fort Fetterman along the old Bozeman Trail to look for Indians; he was to defeat them in battle or drive them into one of the other columns.
Crook's force eventually consisted of 15 companies of cavalry, five companies of infantry, civilian packers and miners and 260 Shoshone and Crow scouts, including the young Plenty Coups. Totaling more than 1,300 men, it was the largest expeditionary command on the Northern Plains in more than 10 years, according to Mangum.
After reaching Goose Creek near present-day Sheridan, Wyo., Crook left behind supply wagons for a quick-strike sortie north.
Early on the morning of June 17, Crook's army stopped along upper Rosebud Creek, about 20 miles north of the present Montana-Wyoming border. The rest spot was in a wide valley bounded by 500-foot bluffs to the south and lower ridges to the north, beyond which stretched a treeless, sloping prairie.
Crook was playing cards when gunfire was heard in the distance about 8:30 a.m. The shots grew closer until a group of Crook's Indian scouts burst over the hills to the north, chased by Sioux and Cheyenne. Remaining scouts were organized into a defensive line against the charging warriors. They held the line and then pushed the Sioux back, the first in a series of charges and countercharges that characterized the battle, Mangum said.
The battle would rage six hours across nearly a 3-mile front with Sioux and Cheyenne making repeated dashes in to hit the army, then pulling back.
The attackers, who may have numbered 1,000 to 1,500, were from a village 30 miles away on Reno Creek near the mouth of the Little Bighorn. It was the same gathering of Indians that, after it had moved onto the Little Bighorn and grown even larger, would meet Custer's 7th Cavalry on June 25.
Caught by surprise, Crook rode to the bluffs north of the camp to direct the widely scattered action. Within an hour, Crook was able to gain control of the high ground on both sides of the creek.
All sides, including Crook's Crow and Shoshone scouts, fought valiantly.
On the army side alone, an estimated 25,000 rounds of ammunition were fired, including 10,000 rounds by scouts.
Among the many acts of heroism that day was the dramatic rescue of the Cheyenne warrior Comes in Sight. Facing certain death from approaching troopers after his horse was shot out from under him, Comes in Sight was saved by his sister, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, who zigzagged through enemy fire to pick him up on the back of her horse. Buffalo Calf Road Woman would fight at the Little Bighorn beside her husband.
Rosebud casualties on the Army side were 10 men killed, including one Indian scout, and 21 soldiers plus an unknown number of scouts wounded. Sioux and Cheyenne may have had similar numbers of killed and wounded, Mangum said.
After the battle, Crook wanted to go up the Rosebud to strike and hold the Indian village that he was convinced was close by. But his Crow scouts balked, fearing a trap. The general retreated to his base camp on Goose Creek.
Crook has often been made the scapegoat for Custer's demise because, although he held the battlefield at the end of the day, he didn't defeat the Indians and he failed to pursue them and possibly drive them northward into other columns of the government force.
Instead, the action boosted the morale of the Sioux and Cheyenne, which gave them a psychological edge the next week.
But Crook can't be held responsible for Custer's defeat, according to Mangum.
Crook had only enough supplies to last through June 18; he would have had to turn around the next day anyway. And Crook couldn't have informed Terry of the battle soon enough to help Custer.
Mangum finds some justification for criticisms of Crook tarrying in Goose Creek after returning from the Rosebud, although his camp was far less easily supplied than Terry's on the Yellowstone.
Mangum does praise Crook for taking charge of the battle as a field commander and overseeing the entire operation, unlike Custer who "fought the Battle of the Little Bighorn as if he were a line officer instead of regimental commander."
A new study by Rapid City historian John D. McDermott said that although Crook was criticized for his conduct of the Battle of the Rosebud, it was consistent with his unrelenting doggedness pursuing various Lakota and Cheyenne groups that year. McDermott concluded that Crook's method of pursuit and harassment was instrumental in returning the Lakota and Cheyenne back to the reservations.
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