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Battle of Powder River
Part of the Big Horn Expedition, Great Sioux War of 1876
PR120 CloseUpC.jpg

The Powder River looking north on the battlefield.
Date March 17, 1876
Location Powder River, Montana Territory, 45 05 18 N 105 51 28 W
Result Native American Victory
Northern Cheyenne
Oglala Lakota Sioux
 United States
Commanders and leaders
Two Moon
He Dog
Little Coyote
Short Bull
Wooden Leg
United States Joseph J. Reynolds
United States Anson Mills
United States John G. Bourke
United States Frederick W. Sibley
United States Frank Grouard
60-250 379
Casualties and losses
4-6 killed, including women and children
3 wounded
4 killed
6 wounded
66 frostbitten[1]

The Battle of Powder River, also known as the Reynolds Battle, occurred on Friday, March 17, 1876, in Montana Territory, United States. The attack on a Cheyenne Indian encampment by Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds initiated the Great Sioux War of 1876. Although destroying a large amount of Indian property, the attack was poorly carried out and probably solidified Lakota Sioux and northern Cheyenne resistance to the U.S. attempt to force them to sell the Black Hills and live on a reservation.[2]


Brevet Major General, Colonel Joseph Jones Reynolds.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) granted the Lakota Sioux and their northern Cheyenne allies a reservation, including the Black Hills, in Dakota Territory and a large area of "unceded territory" in what became Montana and Wyoming. Both areas were for the exclusive use of the Indians, and whites, except for government officials, were forbidden to trespass. In 1874, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills caused the United States to attempt to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux. The U.S. ordered all bands of Lakota and Cheyenne to come to the Indian agencies on the reservation by January 31, 1876 to negotiate the sale. Some of the bands did not comply and when the deadline of January 31 passed, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Q. Smith, wrote that "without the receipt of any news of Sitting Bull's submission, I see no reason why...military operations against him should not commence at once." On February 8, 1876, General Phillip Sheridan telegraphed Generals George R. Crook and Alfred Howe Terry, ordering them to undertake winter campaigns against the "hostiles".[3]

In bitterly cold weather, Brigadier General George Crook, commander of the Department of the Platte, marched north from Fort Fetterman near Douglas, Wyoming on March 1. General Crook's objective was to strike against the Indians while they were at their most vulnerable in their winter camps. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and their followers were thought to be on the Powder, Tongue, or Rosebud rivers. Crook's force consisted of 883 men, including United States Cavalry and Infantry, civilian packers, scouts, guides, and one newspaper reporter.[4] Crook's highly valued chief scout was Frank Grouard, who had lived among the Lakota and spoke their language.[5]

The soldiers had to heat their forks in the coals of their fires to prevent the tines from freezing to their tongues. A blizzard on March 5 deposited over a foot of snow and significantly delayed Crook's progress. Temperatures fell so low that the thermometers of the day could not record the cold. Crook's column slowly followed the Bozeman Trail north to Old Fort Reno, reaching it on March 5. There, the expedition established its supply base, leaving the wagons and Infantry accompanying the column, Companies C, and I, of the 4th United States Infantry Regiment, under Captain Edwin M. Coates. The five Cavalry battalions then marched to the head of Otter Creek. On March 16, the scouts saw two Indian warriors observing the soldiers. They identified the Indians as Oglala Lakota and believed that the camp of Crazy Horse might be nearby. Crook affected indifference to the Oglala, but at 5 p.m. he divided his command and sent Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds (a West Point classmate of President Ulysses S. Grant, and a combat veteran of both the Mexican-American War, and Civil War) on a night march with about 379 men, with rations for one day, following the trail of the two Oglala's southeast toward Powder River. Crook kept with him about 504 men. That night Frank Grouard and the other scouts in the soldiers advance, followed the two Oglala Sioux warriors's trail in the snow. The trail led right to what they were looking for, an Indian village, which they described as containing more than 100 lodges, on the west bank of Powder River. The scouts immediately reported this information back to Colonel Reynolds.[6]

The plan of attack[edit]

In frigid weather, Reynolds' plan was for one battalion, Companies I, and K, of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry under the command of Captain Henry E. Noyes, to descend the steep hills on the south side of what would be Hospital Bluff to the valley floor. One Company, (K) under Captain James Egan, was to attack the southern end of the village, while the other Company (I), under Captain Henry E. Noyes, was to capture the Indian's large horse herd, estimated at about 1,000 animals, which was grazing and spread out through the valley on both sides of the river. A second Cavalry battalion, Companies E, and M of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, under the command of Captain Anson Mills, was to attack the village simultaneously from the west, and the remaining Cavalry battalion, Company E, of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, and Company F of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, under the command of Captain Alexander Moore, was to occupy the ridge's north and west of the village, to prevent the Indians from escaping in that direction.

The battle[edit]

The village, however, was a mile further distant north than anticipated, with the result that only Captain James Egan's 2nd Cavalry Company K, of 47 men, accompanied by Second Lieutenant John Gregory Bourke, and the newspaper reporter Robert Edmund Strahorn, charged into the village from the south, while the other companies were delayed by the distance and rough terrain.[7]

The Indians, now identified as Cheyenne and a few Oglala Sioux, were surprised. An eighteen-year-old Cheyenne warrior in the village named Wooden Leg remembered, Women screamed. Children cried for their mothers. Old people tottered and hobbled away to get out of reach of the bullets singing among the lodges. Braves seized whatever weapons they had and tried to meet the attack. The Cheyennes hurried to shelter their women and children while retreating northward out of the village, and then took up positions on the bluffs overlooking the village, and directed fire toward the soldiers now in the village. Several Cavalrymen of Company K, 2nd Cavalry were wounded early in the battle and a number of cavalry horses were killed or wounded. Captain Egan was reinforced in village by several more companies. When Colonel Reynolds arrived there, the soldiers were still under fire. He ordered everything in the village destroyed, including dried buffalo meat. The village and supplies proved difficult to burn, and when fire reached the gunpowder and ammunition stored in the tipis, they exploded. First Lieutenant John Gregory Bourke, a member of General Crook's staff, commented on the richness of the goods in the village: bales of fur, buffalo robes, and hides decorated with porcupine quills. The buffalo robes would have been useful to the soldiers, as they were freezing. Bourke later estimated that 66 men suffered from frostbite, including himself. By 2:00 p.m., three soldiers had been killed and six wounded.[8]

The Indian village area is in the upper left of the photo. Surviving soldiers withdrew from the battlefield across the river from left to right. Photograph taken from hospital bluff looking north, October 16, 2012.

The battle had lasted five hours when, at 2:30 p.m., with the destruction of the village complete, Reynolds ordered his soldiers to withdraw, and the men made their way across to the east side of the frozen Powder River. During the retreat, Private Lorenzo E. Ayers, a member of Company M, 3rd Cavalry was seriously wounded in an arm and leg, and was left behind in the Indian village. Although saddler Jeremiah J. Murphy of Company F, 3rd Cavalry did make an attempt to rescue Ayers, he was subsequently "cut limb to limb" by vengeful Indians. For his actions Jeremiah J. Murphy would later be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on October 16, 1877.

The last action of the battle took place about 1 mile (1.6 km) mile south of Hospital bluff, when First Lieutenant William C. Rawolle, commanding the rear guard, Company E, 2nd Cavalry, dismounted 8 of his men in a defensive skirmish line. Lieutenant Rawolle's line remained in place for only a short time, although First Sergeant William Land reported that during this time he shot an Indian warrior from his horse. In Reynolds's premature haste to withdraw, he left behind the bodies of three dead soldiers, with one in the village,[9] and two at the field Hospital as well as the badly wounded Private Ayers. The soldiers withdrew 20 miles (32 km) south that afternoon and evening, crossing and recrossing the frozen Powder River as needed, up the river to the confluence of the Powder River and Lodge Pole Creek (now called Clear Creek), arriving there at 9:00 p.m. in an exhausted condition. However, General George Crook with the other four companies and the pack train was not there as he said he would be, as he had camped ten miles to the northeast and had failed to inform Colonel Reynolds of his location.[10]

The Cheyenne recaptured all but 100 of their horses the next morning, March 18, during a snowstorm as the exhausted guards were negligent. It was not until noon that day that Reynolds finally rendezvoused with General Crook. The reunited column returned to Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory, arriving on March 26, 1876.[11]

Although the Cheyenne and Lakota had only four to six people killed, and two to three others wounded during the battle, they lost most of their property. The warrior Wooden Leg later said that The Cheyennes were rendered very poor. I had nothing left but the clothing I had on...My eagle wing bone flute, my medicine pipe, my rifle, everything else of mine, were gone. The women and children walked three days to reach the Oglala Sioux village of Crazy Horse farther north on the Powder River, where they were given shelter and food. On the way, several of the Cheyenne's froze to death. The army stated that the village consisted of about 104 lodges, including tipis and wikiups, while Cheyenne accounts said the village had about 40-65 tipis, and about 50 other structures. The number of warriors involved in the engagement was from 60 to 250, while there were around 379 United States soldiers and civilians.[12]


Crook's column returning to Fort Fetterman, Leslie's Illustrated News, 1876.

Colonel Reynolds was accused of dereliction of duty for failing to properly support the first charge with his entire command; for burning the captured supplies, food, blankets, buffalo robes, and ammunition instead of keeping them for army use; and most of all, for losing hundreds of the captured horses. In January, 1877, his court-martial at Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory found Reynolds guilty of all three charges. He was sentenced to suspension from rank and command for one year for his conduct. His friend and West Point classmate, President Ulysses S. Grant remitted the sentence, but Joseph J. Reynolds never served again. He retired on disability leave on June 25, 1877, exactly one year after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Crook's and Reynolds's failed expedition and their inability to seriously damage the Lakota and Cheyenne at Powder River probably encouraged Indian resistance to the demands of the United States.[13]

Medals of honor[edit]

Three Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers for their actions during the battle. They were:


Native Americans

Killed in action-

Wounded in action-

United States Army

Killed in action-

Wounded in action-

The battlefield[edit]

At the beginning of the 20th century, a schoolteacher named Frank Theodore Kelsey filed a desert claim for land along the Powder River, land that encompassed the Reynolds battle site. Kelsey would later become a Montana state senator, and helped to get the soldiers' monument placed near the village site in 1934, but died in 1937. Since then, the battlefield has changed hands over five times. Now, the Powder River / Reynolds Battlefield, located on private land at [45 05 18 N 105 51 28 W], is accessible by Montana Secondary Highway 391 (Moorhead Road), along the Powder River, in Powder River County, Montana. It is about 1 mile (1.6 km) north of the present-day unincorporated community of Moorhead, Montana and about 34 miles (55 km) southwest of the present-day town of Broadus, Montana.

The monuments[edit]

In 1919, a historian named Walter M. Camp learned that while the four soldiers killed in the battle had been left on the field, no headstones had been erected. With help from Major H. R. Lemly and General Anson Mills (Mills had commanded the 1st Battalion, 3rd Cavalry at the Battle), headstones were prepared by the Quartermaster Corps and shipped by train to Arvada, Wyoming on the Powder River. In a January, 1920 address by Walter Camp to the Order of Indian Wars in Washington, D. C., he stated that the headstones would "be placed on the battlefield next summer." Despite this fact, the headstones would remain in storage in Wyoming for another 14 years. In October, 1933, Mr. Camp's 1920 address was reprinted in "Winners of the West," and came to the attention of Mr. D. C. Wilhelm of Gillette, Wyoming, who informed the writer that the headstones were still in storage. On Memorial Day, May 30, 1934, with help from the American Legion, Montana State Senator Frank T. Kelsey, and others, a stone and concrete monument embedded with the soldiers' headstones was placed on the Powder River Battlefield, and still stands today.[14]

Northern Cheyenne flag, painted on the Cheyenne monument

Across the county road from the soldiers' monument, is the Cheyenne monument, a sandstone boulder painted with the flag of the Northern Cheyenne tribe.

United States' Officers at the Battle[edit]

Order of battle[edit]

Native Americans, Chief's Old Bear, Two Moon, and Little Coyote (Little Wolf). About 60 to 250 warriors.

Native Americans Tribe Leaders

Native Americans

Northern Cheyenne


Lakota Sioux


United States Army, Big Horn Expedition Powder River Detachment, March 16–18, 1876, Late Major General, Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds, commanding.

Big Horn Expedition Battalion Companies and Others

     Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds, commanding

1st Battalion

   Captain Anson Mills

2nd Battalion

   Captain William Hawley

  • not present, at Otter Creek, Montana
3rd Battalion

   Captain Henry E. Noyes

4th Battalion

   Captain Thomas B. Dewees

  • not present, at Otter Creek, Montana
5th Battalion

   Late Lieutenant Colonel, Captain Alexander Moore

6th Battalion

   Captain Edwin M. Coates

  • not present, at Otter Creek, Montana
Pack Train

   Thomas Moore, Chief Packer

  • not present, at Otter Creek, Montana
Medical Department

   Assistant Surgeon Curtis E. Munn

Scouts, Guides, Unattached Soldiers, and Civilians

   Major Thaddeus Stanton, Chief of Scouts

United States Army, Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds, 3rd United States Cavalry Regiment, in command. About 379 Soldiers and Scouts.

  • 2nd United States Cavalry Regiment.
    • Company E, 53 men, First Lieutenant William C. Rawolle.
    • Company I, 56 men, Captain Henry E. Noyes.
    • Company K, 47 men, Captain James Egan.
  • 3rd United States Cavalry Regiment.
    • Company A, 1 man, Second Lieutenant Charles Morton.
    • Company E, 69 men, First Lieutenant John B. Johnson.
    • Company F, 68 men, Captain Alexander Moore.
    • Company L, 1 man, Second Lieutenant John G. Bourke
    • Company M, 68 men, Captain Anson Mills.
  • Scouts, Unattached Soldiers, and Civilian, 18 men.

In popular culture[edit]

In 1951, Hollywood produced a fictional movie starring Van Heflin, Yvonne De Carlo, Jack Oakie, and Rock Hudson, released in the United States under the name Tomahawk, In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, it was given the name Battle of Powder River, although the plot was actually based on events of Red Cloud's War (also known as the Powder River War) of 1866-8, rather than on the Reynolds battle of 1876.

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ 1876 Annual Report of the Secretary of War .p.29
  2. ^ Greene, Jerome A. Lakota and Cheyenne: Indian Views of the Great Sioux War, 1876-1877 Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994, p. xvi
  3. ^ Commissioner of Indian Affairs to Secretary of the Interior, January 31st, 1876; Secretary of the Interior to the Secretary of War, February 1st, 1876; Colonel Drum to Gen. Terry and Gen. Crook, February 8th, 1876, National Archives.
  4. ^ Collins, Jr., Charles D. Atlas of the Sioux Wars, Second edition, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006, Map 14, 15
  5. ^ Vestal, Stanley (2008). New Sources of Indian History 1850-1891. Read Books. p. 339. ISBN 1-4437-2631-1. Retrieved 2009-04-25. 
  6. ^ Porter, Joseph C. Paper Medicine Man: John Gregory Bourke and his American West Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986, pp. 30-32
  7. ^ Porter, pp, 32-35
  8. ^ Porter, pp. 34-36
  9. ^ [In June 1876 the burned remains of a human skull and cavalry uniform were found by George Armstrong Custer at the Powder River battlefield; see "Boots and Saddles" Chapter 34 Custer letter to his wife June 17, 1876]
  10. ^ "Reynold's Attack on Crazy Horse's Village on Powder River, March 17, 1876" [1], accessed 8 Jan 2013
  11. ^ Bourke, John Gregory On the Border with Crook Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971, pp. 279-280
  12. ^ Porter, p. 36; Green, pp. 3, 7, 12
  13. ^ Vaughn, J. W. (1961). The Reynolds Campaign On Powder River. University of Oklahoma Press. 
  14. ^ Brown, W. C. "Reynold's Attack On Crazy Horse's Village On Powder River, March 17, 1876". http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nalakota/wotw/military/reynoldsattackcrazyhorsevillage_wotw043034.html. 

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