The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories

William McLaughlin - May 26, 2017

It has often been a misconception that the American Indians’ one great victory was against general Custer and that Native Americans had largely suffered endless strings of defeats. Well, the Native Americans did essentially “lose” the war for America, but they won several battles along the way. Their victories did everything from protecting their villages from destruction to winning respect and even sympathy from Americans in the later years.

Native Americans were far from peaceful, as even before Europeans arrived tribes waged massive wars against each other. Whole swaths of territory changed hands as tribes were pushed around the Americas. The Maya and Aztecs simply dominated the surrounding regions with their military might. Native tribes were fiercely proud of their warrior cultures in general. From the 16th to the 19th century and from Mexico to Ohio and even California, here are a few of the moments of pride in Native American warrior tradition.

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
The Night of Sorrows. Wikipedia

La Noche Triste

Yes, Cortez and his Conquistadors took down the Aztec Empire, with a total death toll in the hundreds of thousands, but they did have one really bad night on their road to conquest. La Noche Triste, in English: The Night of Sorrows, saw at least twice the number of Westerners killed than at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

When Cortez and his men entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, a beautiful island city connected to the mainland through several long causeways, they had a tense but peaceful stay. Realizing the horrors of sacrifice as well as the potential for more gold than they could imagine, the men took the Aztec Tlatoani (King) Montezuma hostage within the city. Eventually, the king was killed in a sort of riot and the Spaniards had to get out of the city before the ravenous population (250,000 people) overwhelmed them.

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
Tenochtitlan was truly one of the greatest cities in the entire world. Cortez and his men were continually awestruck by the unique urban center. Wikipedia

Deciding on a night retreat the Spaniards even planned ahead and built a portable bridge for the damaged sections of the causeway, but Cortez mad an error of allowing any man to keep and carry whatever treasures they could hold.

The men were soon spotted and a fierce battle ensued. Warriors in canoes rowed up on either side of the causeway and warriors hopped in front to block the path. Many of the Aztec elite Eagle Warriors took part in the attack. Cortez led a vanguard of cavalry, but the force also struggled to bring their artillery and treasures as well.

Spanish armor held well, but men were still tackled and dragged back to the city. They were taken to the tops of the temples and sacrificed in full view of the fleeing Spaniards. Others fell into the lake and drowned, laden with armor and treasure. The Aztec warriors were ferocious in their assaults and continued the length of the long causeway.

Numbers are difficult, but about half or more of the 1,000 Spanish were killed and nearly all the survivors, including Cortez, were wounded. Thousands of the Spanish native allies (the Tlaxcallans) were also killed. Though it can be called a victory by some, as Cortez and many of his men did indeed escape, it wasn’t called “the night of sorrows” for no reason. Cortez viewed it as a terrible tragedy.

Cortez followed up this defeat with a resounding victory against the pursuing Aztec army, using a series of cavalry charges to break the massive Aztec army that was too intimidated and confused by the concept of cavalry. Cortez needed a year and a massive smallpox outbreak in the city before he was able to return and conquer it.

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
Nez Perce warriors. Wikipedia

Flight of the Nez Perce

Though ultimately a tragic ending, the story of the flight of the Nez Perce, otherwise known as the Nez Perce War, was reported to the citizen of the United States as it happened and did a great deal to bring the plight of the natives into the spotlight. It prompted sympathetic media coverage such as this from the New York Times of that year: “On our part, the war was in its origin and motive nothing short of a gigantic blunder and a crime”

The war and flight began shortly after the government decided to shrink the Nez Perce reservation in central Idaho to about a tenth of its former size. The resulting tension between Natives and Americans led to fighting and soon a U.S. cavalry regiment of over a hundred men and several volunteers set out to attack about seventy Nez Perce in White Bird Canyon.

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
The shrinking of the Nez Perce reservation. many of the Nez Perce grudgingly accepted this, but several hundred, under Chief Joseph, resisted. Wikipedia

Outnumbered, and fighting uphill, the Nez Perce displayed excellent marksmanship and tactics as they employed covering fire and flanking tactics to move up the hill and force a retreat. Thirty-four U.S. soldiers were killed and only three Nez Perce warriors were wounded. The Nez Perce also collected dozens of new weapons from the slain and retreating soldiers.

As the Nez Perce fled East towards Yellowstone they fought rearguard actions against pursuing U.S. armies. On one occasion the U.S. set up cannons overlooking a temporary Nez Perce camp and fired and attacked, but still, the Nez Perce retreated, leaving forty-three U.S. casualties to only ten Nez Pearce killed or wounded.

By this time, the reputation of the Nez Perce had grown. They were respected as warriors but also began to gain sympathy as they headed over a Rocky Mountain pass into Montana. A fort was constructed to block the exit out of the pass but the defending Montanans were unwilling to meet the Nez Perce in battle.

As the Nez Perce crossed into Montana the volunteers disbanded and the soldiers did not want to provoke a fight. From then on, the fort would be known as Fort Fizzle. This would be the end of the victories for the Nez Perce. Though they did lose pursuing armies winding through Yellowstone, they were eventually caught in battle about forty miles from Canada and safety.

Chief Joseph and Chief White Bird were finally forced to surrender after the battle of Bear Paw. Chief Joseph said in his message of surrender “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” Despite the loss of the war, the Nez Perce impressed on the battlefield and in the compassion as they released prisoners and traded peacefully with Montana ranchers. General Sherman was most impressed by their tactics saying that they “fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications.”

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
Custer’s Last Stand. Wikipedia

The Little Bighorn: Custer’s Last Stand

Ah, the quintessential Native American victory, Custer’s Last Stand. Occurring just a year prior to the flight of the Nez Perce, the Great Sioux War of 1876 was largely fought over greed. Eastern Montana and the Dakota’s are hopelessly flat, except for the Black Hills region that was loaded with gold and happened to belong to the natives.

When negotiations to buy the land failed, the U.S. went to war with several tribes, including the Lakota, Cheyanne, and Dakota. General Custer was on campaign with twelve companies of troops and guided by Indian scouts when they spotted a massive Indian camp in the distance.

The Camp was a Lakota camp run by Sitting Bull but was bolstered in number by other tribes joining in religious festivals and preparing for the coming war. Some say Custer’s scouts urged him to attack, other say Custer wanted glory and chose to attack even after his scouts urged him not to. Custer probably had confidence in his men and a desire to pin the Indians down into one area to win one large battle before the tribes scattered away.

Custer split his army into two wide flanking columns of three companies and a central attack column of five companies under Custer’s personal command. Again with such a studied and infamous encounter we have conflicting views such as if Sitting Bull and the camp knew that Custer was coming and planned the decisive counter, but more than likely it was a well-handled surprise.

The central column under Major Reno was quickly checked and the attack stalled. Reno was known to be an alcoholic and may have also been rattled when his personal scout was shot in the head right in front of him, and the combination of the two led to a disastrous retreat and last stand on a hill.

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
Reno’s failed attack kept Benteen from marching to Custer’s aid and was the beginning of the end for Custer’s group. Wikipedia

The southern column under Major Benteen was forced to march north to reinforce Reno’s survivors, leaving Custer to fend for himself. Custer was commanding the wide flanking column to the north that was supposed to be the crushing blow to the village while Reno’s attack kept the Native warriors busy.

Without Reno and Benteen’s support, the remaining warriors in the camp were able to send Custer’s force back towards the ridges they had attacked from. Meanwhile, the famous Crazy Horse planned on giving Custer a taste of his own medicine by riding on a wide flanking attack. By the time Custer’s men reset their positions on the ridge they were hit hard by Crazy Horse and surrounded. They died to the last man, each soldier desperately trying to build their own fortresses out of dead horses and loose rock.

The battle is a great example of overconfidence but also a show of Native American tactics. One key aspect of the battle was that the natives had recently purchased hundreds of brand new repeating rifles. Custer’s army mainly had older breech-loading weapons, meaning that U.S. troops were actually fighting at a technological disadvantage, a rare occurrence in the Indian wars. The repulsion of Reno’s first attack as well as the defense of the village in the face of Custer’s surprise attack and Crazy Horse’s attack were all great examples of battlefield tactics.

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
St Clair’s defeat. Wikipedia

St. Claire’s Defeat

So, we covered the classic Battle of the Little Bighorn which was one of the last Indian wars, but a forgotten massacre during the first decade of American independence is next on the list. It was every bit as profound as Custer’s Last Stand, but not nearly as famous despite launching the first Congressional Special Committee investigation into the whole debacle.

The war began as part of the peace after the Revolutionary war. The Native Americans largely sided with the British and were considered a defeated party during the peace talks. Land that was south of the Great Lakes and East of the Mississippi was considered U.S. territory but the Miami, Chippewa, Shawnee, Illini, and other tribes didn’t take the hint and a war of removal began after thousands of American settlers were killed.

The newly independent, but deeply in debt U.S. sent a small force under Colonel Hardin. Hardin’s 400 men didn’t get reinforcements as they engaged the much larger enemy force and were forced to retreat with a 50% casualty rate. Seeking to avoid another humiliation, President Washington sent General St. Clair with 2,000 men. This being about all the army could afford with terrible wages, desertion took its toll and St. Clair found himself camped in enemy territory with about 1,000 men.

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
Little Turtle of the Miami. Wikipedia

The Indians had formed a Western Confederacy of multiple tribes led by Little Turtle of the Miami and Blue Jacket of the Shawnee and surrounded the American camp, hiding in the dense woods. Just as the Americans put away their weapons to get breakfast the tribes attacked.

Many of the U.S. soldiers ran immediately and without their weapons. The more experienced troops formed battle lines and repulsed some Indian charges. The American artillery began to set up, but they were specifically targeted by Native sharpshooters and soon were forced to retreat.

As the battle lines stabilized, Little Turtle prodded the American firing lines until bayonet charges were ordered. The Natives feigned retreat before surrounding and isolating the attackers. This tactic worked to perfection multiple times as separate groups of Americans charged on their own. St. Clair accepted a defeated and met with his captains to organize a final mass charge to escape the encirclement.

Leaving behind all their supplies and wounded, the survivors burst through the lines but were harassed endlessly by the natives who knew this land so well. A trail of bodies was left in the survivors’ wake and as they looked back they could see smoke rising as the natives burned the camp along with the wounded.

The Americans had 70% (633) of their men killed and 27% of the survivors were wounded. Practically all the 200 or so camp followers: women, children, and craftsmen were killed as well. The Western Confederation had about 60 casualties. over 100 survivors were sent to the unprepared Fort Jefferson where they were forced to survive on horsemeat and almost no medical supplies.

St. Clair was forced to resign and Congress and others launched investigations into how such a defeat and retreat could have happened. This was the greatest victory in Native American history in terms of numbers and casualties on both sides. The fight for Ohio and the Great Lakes region became an “actual war” according to the furious President Washington and the way the U.S. army was recruited and paid changed drastically as a result of the horrific defeat.

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
Recovering the dead and wounded during the Modoc War. Wikipedia

Battle for Captain Jack’s Stronghold

No, we’re not talking about pirates of the Caribbean now, we’re talking about the battle against the Modoc tribe in Northern California. The defense of the Modoc stronghold was led by Kintpuash, known to the Americans as Captain Jack.

The conflict started when American forces were sent to round up a stray band of Modoc people and bring them back to their new reservation. Captain Jack abhorred the living conditions on the reservation and during the meet up with American forces, a skirmish broke out and about 160 Modoc men, women, and children fled to the Lava beds, now a national landmark in California.

Though they only had about 50 warriors, the Modoc picked a perfect natural stronghold. The lava beds were filled with caves, cliffs, and natural firing positions all around. They did face a much larger American force of 300 infantry, 100 cavalry, and 2 howitzers.

The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories
Captian Jack’s own cave within the stronghold. Wikipedia

Thick fog on the day of battle caused the howitzers to only fire a few poorly aimed shots before the army attacked. The U.S. forces took several approaches into the stronghold. As they got deeper into the rocks they became isolated targets for the fortified Modoc warriors. Warriors popped out of caves and fired from unassailable cliffs as the U.S. struggled to communicate through the fog.

After a day of achieving nothing, the U.S. retreated, leaving their dead among the rocks. 42 U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded and there were no reported Modoc casualties. Scalping likely occurred and the thrill of victory gave the Modoc’s plenty of confidence. The U.S. actually agreed to peace talks, bringing in Major General Edward Canby.

Captain Jack assumed that killing an American war leader would simply stop the other Americans from attacking, so he assassinated General Canby during the peace talks just outside of the stronghold. This prompted an even larger American attack on the lava beds. This second assault forced the Modoc to flee the stronghold, but they kept up the fight.

An American patrol would later be ambushed by the Modoc leader Scarface Charlie, leaving almost half of the 67-man patrol dead. Eventually, the U.S. had a victory at the Battle of Dry Lake and the defeat fractured the leadership of the Modoc. Other leaders would eventually surrender and help the U.S. track down Captain Jack. Captain Jack eventually surrendered and was tried and hung for war crimes.