Battle of Powder River

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Battle of the Powder River
Part of the Great Sioux War of 1876
Crook's column returning to Fort Fetterman, Leslie's Illustrated News, 1876.
Date March 17th, 1876
Location Powder River, Montana Territory
45°26′34″N 105°24′33″W / 45.44278°N 105.40917°W / 45.44278; -105.40917 (Broadus, Montana)Coordinates: 45°26′34″N 105°24′33″W / 45.44278°N 105.40917°W / 45.44278; -105.40917 (Broadus, Montana)[1]
Result Cheyenne Victory
Oglala Lakota Sioux
 United States
Commanders and leaders
Old Bear
Two Moon
Joseph J. Reynolds
100-150 379
Casualties and losses
1-3 killed
1-3 wounded
4 killed
6 wounded[2]

  • Several Cheyenne women and children froze to death during the battle.

The Battle of Powder River occurred on March 17th, 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.[3]


Battle commander Joseph J. 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 U.S. 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 31st, 1876 to negotiate the sale. A few bands did not comply and when the deadline of January 31st 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 8th, 1876, General Sheridan telegraphed Generals George Crook and Alfred Terry, ordering them to undertake winter campaigns against the "hostiles".[4]

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 and Crazy Horse and their followers were thought to be on the Powder, Tongue, or Rosebud rivers. Crook's force consisted of 883 men, including in addition to United States cavalry and infantry, civilian packers, scouts, guides, and a newspaper reporter.[5] Crook's highly valued chief scout was Frank Grouard, who had lived among the Lakota and spoke their language [6]

A blizzard on March 5th 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. The soldiers had to heat their forks in the coals of their fires to prevent the tines from freezing to their tongues. Crook's column slowly followed old Bozeman Trail to the head of Otter Creek. On March 16th, 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 the Powder River. That night Grouard and the scouts, leading the soldiers, found an Indian village, which they described as containing more than 100 lodges, on the west bank of the Powder River. [7]

The Battle[edit]

The Powder River as it looks about 100 miles upstream from the battlefield, in northern Wyoming.

In frigid weather, Reynolds' plan was for one battalion, Companies I, and K, of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry under the Captain Henry E. Noyes, to descend the steep bluffs on the south to the valley floor. One Company, (K) under Captain James Egan, was to attack the village, 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 along the river. Another 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 third 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 northwest of the village, to prevent the Indians from escaping in that direction. 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, including Lt. John G. Bourke, charged into the village from the south, while the other companies were delayed by the distance and rough terrain.[8]

The Indians, now identified as Cheyenne and a few Oglala Sioux, were surprised, but quickly rallied, sheltering their women and children, while retreating northward out of the village, and then taking up positions on the bluffs (which were supposed to be occupied by soldiers, but were not) overlooking the village and directing fire toward the soldiers now in the village. Several Cavalrymen of Company K, were wounded early in the battle and their horses were killed and wounded. Captain Egan was slowly reinforced as the other companies came into position. When Colonel Reynolds arrived at the village, the soldiers were still under fire. He ordered everything in the village destroyed, including dried buffalo meat that the hungry soldiers on half rations could have eaten. The village and supplies proved difficult to burn, and the resulting exploding ammunition in the tipis was hazardous to the troopers. Bourke commented on the richness of the goods in the village -- the bales of fur, buffalo robes, and hides decorated with porcupine quills. The burning buffalo robes would also have been useful as the soldiers were freezing. Bourke later estimated that 66 men suffered from frostbite, including himself. At this point of the engagement, three soldier had been killed, and six wounded.[9]

The soldiers were under fire for five hours when, at 2:30 p.m., the destruction of the village completed, Reynolds ordered his soldiers to withdraw. In the retreat, a badly wounded Private was left behind, although there was one attempt to rescue him. The soldiers withdrew 20 miles south that afternoon and evening up the Powder River, to the confluence of the Powder River and Lodge Pole Creek, arriving there at 9:00 p.m., in an exhausted condition. However, General George Crook was not there, as he had camped ten miles to the northeast, and had failed to inform Reynolds of his new location. In Reynolds's premature haste to withdraw, he left behind the bodies of three dead soldiers, as well as a badly wounded private who was subsequently "cut limb to limb" by vengeful Indians.[10]

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

Although the Cheyenne had only one to three men killed and one to three wounded in the battle, they lost most of their property and, in the words of one Cheyenne, were "rendered very poor." The women and children walked three days to reach the village of Crazy Horse, where they were given shelter and food. Several may have frozen to death. Although the army stated that the village consisted of more than 100 lodges, Cheyenne accounts said the village had about 65 lodges. The number of warriors the army faced was probably fewer than 150.[12]


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 25th, 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]

The Battlefield[edit]

The Powder River/Reynolds Battlefield is located on private land, along the Powder River, in Powder River County, Montana, about 34 miles from present-day Broadus, Montana.

In Popular Culture[edit]

In 1951, Hollywood produced a fictional movie loosely based upon the historical battle, starring Van Heflin, Yvonne De Carlo, Jack Oakie, and Rock Hudson. The movie was released in the United States under the name Tomahawk, and entitled Battle of Powder River in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Order of battle[edit]

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, 1st Lieutenant William C. Rawolle.
    • Company I, 56 men, Captain Henry E. Noyes.
    • Company K, 47 men, Captain James Egan.
  • Scouts, Unattached Soldiers, and Civilian, 18 men.

Warriors, Chief's Old Bear, and Two Moon. Warriors Wooden Leg, Bear-Walks-On-A-Ridge, and Powder Face. About 100 to 150 warriors.


  1. ^ "Broadus, Montana". Geographic Names Information System, U.S. Geological Survey. 
  2. ^ 1876 Annual Report of the Secretary of War .p.29
  3. ^ Greene, Jerome A. Lakota and Cheyenne: Indian Views of the Great Sioux War, 1876-1877 Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994, p. xvi
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Collins, Jr., Charles D. Atlas of the Sioux Wars, Second edition, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006, Map 14, 15
  6. ^ Vestal, Stanley (2008). New Sources of Indian History 1850-1891. Read Books. p. 339. ISBN 1-4437-2631-1. Retrieved 2009-04-25. 
  7. ^ Porter, Joseph C. Paper Medicine Man: John Gregory Bourke and his American West Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986, pp. 30-32
  8. ^ Porter, pp, 32-35
  9. ^ Porter, pp. 34-36
  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. 

Further reading[edit]