Last week we left off with Lt. Forsyth checking on the men he had stationed as sentries on the hills overlooking their camp, to make sure they knew what he expected from them.
Satisfied, he rode back to camp to make his final preparations for tomorrow’s battle. He knew they were outnumbered by something like three to one and knew their only real chance in defeating the enemy was to launch an attack while they were still asleep. With that in mind he had decided to have his men up and ready to go by 4:00 the next morning.
What he didn’t know, was that he had fallen into a trap. The 150 or so Cheyenne warriors he and his men had been following were joined overnight by warriors of the Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and the Ogala Souix tribes, making a combined force of around 750.
It was still a couple hours before daylight on the morning of Sept. 17, 1868, the men were already busy breaking camp, saddling up their horses, and making final preparations for the battle that lie ahead, when out of nowhere came the first rifle shot from one of the sentries posted on the hills surrounding the camp.
Eight or nine warriors had managed to sneak past his position and into camp in an effort to stampede the their horses and leave Forsyth and his men abandoned, making them easy targets. Once it became clear that wasn’t going to work, the warriors disappeared back into the night just as fast as they had appeared.
It was all quiet for the next hour or so. Then just as the sun started to rise, shots rang out from the rest of the sentries. The men came riding into camp as fast as their horses could carry them and reported they were being surrounded on all sides by more hostile Indians than they’d ever seen at one time.
In no time at all it was apparent just how much trouble they were really in. The Indians had started to crest the hills overlooking their camp. They were lined up on both sides of the river as far as the eye could see.
Forsyth knew if he and his men were going to have any chance at all of surviving they had to find some kind of cover, and quick. He ordered them to retreat to a small sandbar (island) in the middle of the river about a hundred yards just south of their position. It was a pretty good size sandbar with one lone Cottonwood tree and a large growth of Willows growing around it. It wasn’t much, but he knew it was the only chance they had.
They made a mad dash toward the island. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds either. The river back then was a lot wider and deeper than it is today. There were parts where the water came up to the men’s chests but they all made it.
Just as they made it to the island, the Indians started their attack. It was vicious. The air was filled with hot lead and arrows and it didn’t let up. Right off the bat, Forsyth was shot in the leg, and his second in command, Lieutenant Fredrick H. Beecher was killed. Most of the horses were killed and fell where they stood. Struggling to stay alert, Forsyth ordered his men to use the dead horses for cover and to start digging holes in the soft sand (think foxholes) with their tin plates, rifle butts, or their bare hands.
The plan worked, and after an hour the Indians became frustrated and called off the initial attack and retreated back over the hills they had come from to regroup. The men on the sandbar realized they were getting good cover and used this time to re-enforce their holes in the sand and to tend to the wounded as best they could. Lt. Forsyth used the time to dig the lead ball that been buried deep in his thigh out.
It was somewhere around noon that day when Forsyth and his men watched as the Indians gathered again. They knew they were making plans for another attack. They also noticed that in the middle of the gathering was a big, tall Indian who seemed to be doing most of the talking. They knew at once it was none other than Roman Nose himself.
They didn’t have to wait long for the plan to unfold. Roman Nose led a party of about three hundred warriors in a direct assault on their position from a small ravine to the west, as the rest of their war party tried to sneak in from both sides of the river using the tall grass for cover.
What Roman Nose and his warriors didn’t know, was that Forsyth and his men were all armed with a new type of rifle, the .56 Cal. Spencer Seven-Shooter. The Indians were well aware of the damage a single shot rifle was capable of but this was the first time they’d ever came up against a repeating rifle. To say the least, the results were devastating.
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