Satisfied that he’d made all the preparations he could, Forsyth retreated to the tent he shared with his second in command, Lt. Beecher. They talked about the fight they were about to take on and they talked about their families and made other small talk. The fact they were going up against the fearsome warrior, Roman Nose seemed to bother both men but neither of them really wanted to talk about it.
They knew they were outnumbered and the only real chance they had was to try to catch the enemy off guard by attacking them while they were still asleep. The plan was to hit them at 4:00 the next morning.
What they didn’t know, was that they had been lured into a trap. The 150 Cheyenne warriors they had followed to this place in the middle of nowhere had been joined overnight by warriors of the Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and the Ogala Souix tribes, making them a combined force of somewhere between 750 and 1000 strong.
It was still a couple hours before sunrise on the morning of Sept. 17, 1868, the men were 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 snuck past the sentry’s position and into camp in an effort to stampede the men’s horses and leave Forsyth and his men stranded on foot and 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.
Forsyth knew he had lost the chance of a surprise attack and need time to consider his next move.
It was 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 take them to report 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 became apparent just how much trouble they were in. The Indians had started to crest the hills overlooking the 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 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 (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 the best they could. Lt. Forsyth used the time to dig out the lead ball that been buried deep in his thigh.
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.