The Best Indian Fighter

The United States Army developed a number of very fine officers between 1840-65.  Men who gained valuable experience in the Mexican American War and took that expertise into the American Civil War.  Many (if not most) of these men came from prominent families (as was the tradition in the nineteenth century).  But we should make this distinction: while they may not have been compassionate men, they were exceptional battlefield commanders.  They were able to make the hard decisions.  They never lost sight of their primary objective: win battles.  As but one example, much has been written about William T. Sherman —none of it very flattering because of his scorched earth policy in Georgia— but Sherman was not out to win friends or the undying devotion of the citizens of Georgia.  He was out to convince southerners that they could not win the Civil War; if they were unable to come to that conclusion by themselves, Sherman was willing to move them to a point where such a realization became self-evident.


Ranald S. Mackenzie

After the Civil War in the Southwest, another fine officer made his presence known.  His name was Ranald S. Mackenzie.  The Indians called him “Bad Hand,” owing to the fact that a war wound caused him to lose the first two fingers of his right hand.  President Grant regarded him as the most promising young officer in the U. S. Army.  Historians regard him as America’s best Indian fighter, for reasons I will explain in some detail.

Mackenzie was born in Westchester County, New York on 27 July 1840.  His parents were Commodore Alexander Mackenzie and Catherine Alexander Robinson.  He was a nephew of the diplomat John Slidell, the eldest brother of Rear Admiral Morris Robinson Slidell Mackenzie and Lieutenant Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie.  He was the grandson of John Slidell, a bank president and New York political boss.

He initially attended Williams College, but later transferred to the United States Military Academy, where he graduated at the head of his class in 1862.  Upon graduation and commission as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, Ranald joined Union forces in the Civil War.  He fought in the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg.  He also participated in the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg in 1864.  He received wounds at Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, and at the Jerusalem Plank Road (where he lost his fingers).  By June 1864, Ranald had risen from second lieutenant to brevet lieutenant colonel in the regular army[1].

In July 1864, Mackenzie was appointed to command the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery with the rank of colonel.  He was wounded again at the Battle of Opequon[2] and was subsequently appointed to command the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, VI Corps.  He received his sixth combat wound at the Battle of Cedar Creek, and upon recovery he received President Lincoln’s appointment as brigadier general of volunteers[3], effective from October 1864.  In the closing days of the war, Mackenzie commanded a US Army Corps, but as General Grant acknowledged, the fact that this young man, in only three years from his graduation from the United States Military Academy, rose through the ranks with seven brevet promotions to command an organization demanding the skill and experience of a lieutenant general, spoke well of Mackenzie.  Grant also noted, “This he did upon his own merit and without influence.”

At the end of the war, the U. S. Army went into a period of demobilization.  On 13 January 1866, President Johnson appointed Ranald Mackenzie to brevet major general, a promotion backdated to 31 March 1865, in recognition of his service during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.  Two days later, however, Mackenzie was mustered out of volunteer service.  His promotion to brevet major general was confirmed by the United States Senate on 12 March 1866.

Known as a strict disciplinarian, General Mackenzie was not popular among his men[4] —but he was respected among his peers and appreciated by his superiors in the chain of command.  After the war, Mackenzie remained in the regular army and reverted to his permanent rank of captain in the Army Corps of Engineers.  In 1867, he was appointed to command the 41st US Infantry Regiment (later redesignated 24th US Infantry), which was one of the Buffalo regiments[5].  From this assignment onward, Mackenzie would spend the balance of his career on the American frontier confronting hostile Indians.

Comancheria 001

The Comancheria, 1850-1875

From around 1861 to 1875[6], the Southwest frontier was an area of unparalleled violence and bloodshed as the Plains Indians initiated what seemed an unending series of hostile acts against frontier settlers.  Texans were outraged by the United States government’s inability or unwillingness to deal with hostile Indians —and it was the federal government that reserved unto itself the responsibility with dealing with native tribes.  From around 1865, the worst depredations in all Texas history began occurring along the Mexican border from Mescalero, Lipan, and Kickapoo Indians.

Quite frequently, these Indians were allied with Mexican communities who received and disposed of the loot stolen from the homes of murdered Texans; the Rio Grande provided sanctuary to the Indians in the same way that the Oklahoma territory provided a safe haven for Comanche-Kiowa war parties.  In the area between Eagle Pass and Laredo, Texas was being depopulated, either through the murder of white settlers, or settlers moving back east.

It was no different in Central Texas where counties that had been laid out twenty years earlier were more unsafe than they were during the administration of Mirabeau B. Lamar, the second president of Texas.  In August 1870, the Daily State Journal reported: “The counties of Llano, Mason, and Gillespie swarm with savages. The farmers are shot down in their fields, and their stock is stolen before their eyes.  Not for twenty years back have the Indians been so bold, so well-armed and as numerous as now.  At Llano, the frontier is breaking up….”

Lampasas TXIn the same month, Lampasas County reported, “… During the last moon our entire county, and as far as reports can be credited, other surrounding counties, have been infested by large bodies of hostile Indians.  The truth is, if something is not done soon for the relief of the frontier it will have to be abandoned.”

These were farming communities, far to the East behind the Army’s protective line.  Also, in August 1870, at San Saba, the Galveston Weekly Civilian reported the situation as “relatively peaceful”.  Its statement was intended as factual, not meant as sarcastic: “The Indians are no worse than usual.  Only one man killed, two children taken, and about seventy-five head of horses driven away during the past ‘light moon’ in this vicinity.”

Adding to these reports were dozens of additional accounts of unwary travelers who were killed and scalped, of farmhouses broken into during the night, of women raped and slaughtered, and of children carried away.  From a purely Texan point of view, there were also happier reports, such as the one involving a woman in Mason County who shotgunned two Indians nosing around her home in the middle of the night.

Despite all of these accounts, the Secretary of the Interior[7] took no action.  He obviously believed that reports coming in from Texas were exaggerated.  There can be no doubt that some of these accounts were embellished —such is the nature of excited men— and there is no question that the people of Texas detested the “red fiends of hell” with unbridled passion.  Among the real Texans there were two realities: first, there would be no surrender to the Indians, and second, there would be no taking of prisoners.  If there was to be any rehabilitation at all for the Plains Indians, it would have to take place in the afterlife.

Many of the women and children taken as captives by the Indians were eventually ransomed in Oklahoma.  One consistent tale conveyed by women released back into white society was that they were continually raped by their captives.  The Indians treated captured Texans as no better than prairie rats, and according to some Indian testimony they delighted in receiving fine things from the Americans for giving back what the Indians had unlawfully taken.

Such attitudes were not entirely the fault of the Indians.  Since the so-called peace process had begun, with Quakers serving at Indian agents, the Indians themselves marveled at the game of exchanging captives for valuable goods.  It was great fun —for the Indians, but seldom was there any genuine compassion for the women released back into white society —women, both old and young, who were afterward shunned by their own kind for what they were forced to endure while in Indian captivity.

The inane Indian policies of President Grant outraged Texans.  On one occasion, the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives demanded to know why Great Britain was prepared to go to war over six of its citizens being held captive, while the United States refused to raise one voice in protest over the murder of hundreds.  Well, of course, the US Congress did begin an investigation of conditions along the Mexican border in 1872, but it was never completed due to a lack of funds[8].

After 1873, Army commanders were able to act with a freer hand toward Indians based in Mexico than they could with those living in United States territories.  Colonel Ranald Mackenzie was one of those with little patience in dealing with hostile Indians.  In February 1871, after assuming command of the Fourth US Cavalry at Fort Richardson, Texas, Mackenzie confronted hostiles at Blanco Canyon and at North Fork[9].  From Fort Clark, he led a punitive expedition against Kickapoo Indians hiding in Mexico.  Mackenzie’s behavior as a field commander was entirely admirable.

Insistence from Texas Congressmen in 1873 managed to persuade the federal government to pressure Mexico into allowing the US Army to take Kickapoo Indians into custody at Santa Rosa, Mexico and remove them to the Oklahoma territory.  The measure did not make a substantial difference in the chaos that existed along the Mexico border, and claims of property losses totaling $48 million received no attention from Washington.  In the minds of Texans, the federal government was willing to accept Indian depredations if it meant avoiding an all-out Indian war; the lives of Texans weren’t worth a plug nickel.

But it was the hated bluecoats from the Civil War who did the most to relieve the suffering of Texans at the hand of hostile Indians —men like General Phil Sherman and Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, who in time became Texas heroes— fine officers who would force a solution to the Indian problem, even if the federal government preferred otherwise.

Kiowa BandIn the 1870s, Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe still prevented white encroachment in almost half the state of Texas.  Ecological conditions prevented any productive farms in West Texas.  Beyond the farm line, west of the 100th meridian for up to 150 miles, no more than one white man lived within a square mile.  Like the Wichita Indians before him, no white man dared to enter the domain of the Plains Indians.  By this time in history, all other tribes in Texas had disappeared due to a combination of Eurocentric diseases, war, and forced removal.  The few Tonkawa Indians that remained became targets of extermination by the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache.  The explanation most often given by these Indians for the extermination of the Tonkawa was that they were cannibals; the actual reason was more likely due to the fact that the Tonkawa had befriended Texans.

West of the 100th meridian, a line of cavalry forts delineated the frontier territory: Fort Richardson, Fort Griffin, Fort Concho, Fort McKavett, and Fort Clark.  West of the forts was a vast plains and plateaus with only a handful of Stone Age savages who roamed Texas at will.  These handful of savages, however, were enough to keep the white man out of the Comancheria.

For the Indians, Texas was the last stand in the struggle for North America.  There were eleven Plains tribes that ranged from the Rio Grande to Canada.  They had remained the strongest because of their warrior spirit and their contempt for lesser Indians and white farmers.  Neither Comanche nor Kiowa ever allowed white men to live among them.  White women and children were a different matter.  The Plains Indians had no intention of “going quietly into that good night.”

To destroy the Plains Indian, it was necessary for Anglo society to pull out all stops.  The white man needed superior weapons, and he developed them.  He needed a sophisticated strategy, so he formulated several.  It was necessary to destroy the Indian habitat, and their primary food source: the American Bison.  By 1870, hunting Buffalo for their hides had become widespread.  Not only were the buffalo robe coats popular in the East, so too were leather products from those hides.

Fort Worth, Texas evolved into a flourishing trading post on the edge of the “final” frontier, a place from which buffalo hunters spread out into the plains.  The hunters were a rough breed, dirty, smelly, violent men who worked in groups of a dozen or so.  They congregated near the cavalry forts, especially at Fort Griffin, where they awaited the annual migrations of the bison onto the southern range.  The hunters arrived with their sturdy wagons, tons of ammunition, and .52 caliber Sharps rifles, model 1852.  In time, the hunters turned the area just outside Fort Griffin into a hellhole where dance hall girls, prostitutes, gunmen, and professional gamblers came to prey on the men who preyed on the American bison.  They called this area “the Flat.”  Whenever we think of the “lawless west,” Fort Griffin comes to mind since there was no civil law and the Army had no interest in what social residue did to one another.

American BisonIn 1870, American Bison numbered in the millions.  An efficient hunter could kill between 25-40 head per day.  For a team of twelve men, not all of whom were shooters, they might take down as many as 160 bison in a single day.  In 1870, there were around 2,000 buffalo hunters operating on the plains.  Once the kills were made, the hunters moved on and behind them came the hide wagons and the lowly skinners.  The carcasses were left to rot, and it was possible to view miles of rotting bodies with swarms of circling vultures in the air.  The buffalo were being exterminated; everyone knew it, and in the long and short of it, the entire operation was quite sophisticated.  There was money to be made.  Indians would be starved into submission.  It was a win-win situation.  Once the Plains Indian was on the reservation —on the government’s dole, the US government could control him.

One may recall that the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1867 promised the Indians that there would be no bison hunting south of the Arkansas River. This would have preserved to the Indians the richest land in all North America, ranging from the Cimarron in Oklahoma to the Texas Panhandle.  Unhappily, there were two factors that made such promises absurd.  First, the federal government had no authority to order the citizens of Texas off legally recognized Texas soil.  Second, the US Army changed its mind about some of those protective provisions.

General Phil Sheridan

Major General Phil Sheridan USA

General Phil Sheridan, commanding the Military Department of the Southwest, and General William T. Sherman, commanding the Army of Missouri both agreed that there could be no solution to the Indian problem so long as the Plains tribes could support themselves outside of the reservations.  Sheridan referred to this as the “vexed Indian question,” which would be satisfactorily resolved, over time, through the work of buffalo hunters.  Sheridan and Sherman were both combat-tested commanders; they knew how to win wars.  Buffalo hunters were merely a weapon that was useful to their purpose.

Of course, there were few things more dangerous than entering the Comanche-Kiowa range, but buffalo hunters were as tough as they were greedy —not to mention heavily armed.  Normally, the hunters entered the southern plains in winter when climate and the shortage of grass kept the Indians in their lodges.  It was only when the Comanche and Kiowa became panicked by the widespread skeletal remains of bison, and realized that their game was disappearing, that they reacted so strongly against the Buffalo Hunters.  By then, it was too late.

The United States Cavalry was sent to the west to protect frontier settlers, restrictions imposed upon them by Grant’s peace and reservation policies, the Army wasn’t doing any such thing.   And, no matter what army officers may have thought of the peace and reservation policies, in the beginning, they turned against them almost to the man.  Army posts were situated within the ring of death.  Soldiers were frequently detailed to bury the remains of massacred settlers.  The Army paid ransoms for demented captives.  Time after time, cavalry squadrons pursued Indian marauders to the Oklahoma line, the point at which Grant’s Indian policy demanded that they turn back.  Soldiers began to vilify the Indians almost as much as the Texans did.

Nor did the Indians make any secret about their comings and goings, or for what purposes.  On 24 January 1871, a Kiowa war party murdered Britt Johnson and three Negro partners near Salt Creek[10]. Soldiers from Fort Richardson buried the Johnson party and pursued the Indians, only to be driven back with one trooper wounded.  Another man was tortured and killed on Salt Creek in mid-April.  A few days later, fourteen people were slain on the western edge of Young County.  The citizens of Jackboro were in near panic with fear, and beside themselves with rage.

In May 1871, Kiowa braves under Satanta, Big Tree, and Satank left the reservation to fight Tonkawa’s, who were known to be camping near Fort Griffin.  On 18th May, the Kiowa came across a large wagon train on Salt Creek, between Fort Griffin and Jackboro, on the edge of Young County, Texas.  They attacked the train, killed the wagon master and five teamsters.  The sixth man was taken alive.  The Kiowa chained him to a wagon tongue and roasted him to death.  Five freighters escaped; one of these was a man called Brazeal who although seriously wounded, dragged himself to Jackboro and raised the alarm.  These incidents were typical of Indian raids in West Texas in the early 1870s.

It also just happened that on the day of this particular massacre, General William T. Sherman and Major General Randolph Marcy (US Army Inspector General) were in San Antonio.  Both of these officers had remained skeptical about the credibility of Texas war party stories.  Sherman and Marcy rode forward to investigate for themselves.  All along the frontier, General Sherman left the impression that he thought the Indians were hardly so bad as they were being painted.  Sherman was at Fort Richardson when Thomas Brazeal was carried in from Jackboro for medical treatment and General Sherman questioned him about what had happened.

Upon hearing the man’s account, General Sherman was “shocked,” and ordered Colonel Ranald Mackenzie to take to the field with four companies from the 4th US Cavalry[11].  Mackenzie’s orders were to investigate and pursue the hostiles, and to meet with Sherman weeks later at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  As Mackenzie led his troops out of Fort Richardson, Sherman was still not convinced that the Indian problem was as bad as reports; General Marcy was unable to persuade him otherwise.  But the evidence discovered by Mackenzie was overwhelming.  He reported the horribly mutilated bodies of teamsters and what remained of Sam Elliott, who was found hung upside down over a burnt-out fire pit, his tongue cut out, and his body looking like pork belly.

At Fort Sill, Army investigators interrogated the Kiowa braves and presented them with the evidence collected.  The Kiowa admitted their depredations and even boasted about them.  The boastfulness of the Indians changed Sherman’s mind and disturbed him greatly.  Hereafter, the Army would make use of a different tactic when confronting hostile Indians.

Colonel Mackenzie, along with several other well-known army officers, participated in a series of confrontations that became known as the Red River War.  It was more on the order of a campaign instigated by the Army in 1874 to displace the Plains Indians and force them onto reservations in the Indian (Oklahoma) territory.  The campaign, lasting only a few months, had several army columns crisscrossing the Texas panhandle to locate, harass, and capture highly mobile Indian bands.

The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon was part of the Red River campaign.  Late in the summer of 1874, Quahada Comanche, Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa warriors led by Lone Wolf left their assigned reservations and sought refuge in Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle.  At this location, the Indians stockpiled their food and supplies for the winter.  Colonel Mackenzie and his 4th US Cavalry departed Fort Clark on 15 August traveling to Fort Concho, arriving there on 21 August.  Two days later, they were at the mouth of Blanco Canyon with eight companies of cavalry and four infantry companies from the 10th and 11th Infantry regiments.  Mackenzie’s orders indicated that he was at liberty to pursue the Indians wherever they may go —even onto the reservation agencies.

In early September, Black Seminole Scouts moving in advance of the 4th Cavalry were ambushed by Comanche near the Staked Plains but escaped with their lives.  The scouts relayed the Comanche’s position and put Colonel Mackenzie on the alert.

Colonel Mackenzie formed three columns, one led by Mackenzie, one by Lieutenant Colonel George P. Buell, and one under Lieutenant Colonel John W. Davidson.  Mackenzie led his troops northward along the edge of the Staked Plains; Buell moved to contact up the Red River, and the third column advanced from Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  By 25 September, Indians began to gather around Mackenzie and attacked him through the night of 26-27 September near Tule and Boehm’s canyons.  In this engagement, fifteen warriors were killed, including the Kiowa chief Woman’s Heart.

Early on the morning of 28 September, two of Mackenzie’s Tonkawa scouts found a fresh trail, prompting Mackenzie to resume his march.  At dawn, Mackenzie was in a position to observe the Indian lodges.  Mackenzie ordered his cavalry to dismount and with his chief scout in the lead, ordered them to “start a fight” with the Indians.  One group of troops were ordered to drive off the Indian ponies, numbering around 1,600 head.  A footpath led the troopers down into the canyon over a zig-zag path.

Colonel Mackenzie first attacked Lone Wolf’s Kiowa camp and routed it.  The Indian’s reacted to Mackenzie’s assault as he thought they would: the warriors screened their escaping women and children, and then followed them to safety.  Mackenzie did not follow them but instead destroyed all their lodges, all their food, and such other equipment as found in the camp —which in this case included a large cache of rifles.  Mackenzie ordered the ponies moved out of the canyon and held under guard.  By 29 September, Mackenzie and his men were back in camp in Tule Canyon.

Now the Indians were on foot in the Great Plains.  They had a few, but not many ponies, no food, and no shelter.  Mackenzie ordered the 1,600 captured ponies destroyed.  A Plains Indian without a horse was a defeated Indian.  These Kiowa were not only defeated, but they also faced winter without the supplies necessary to sustain them.  Many of these Indians began the long trek back to Fort Sill and the reservations.  While confrontation with the Kiowa continued into 1875, Palo Duro Canyon marked one of the final engagements of the Red River campaign and the Texas-Indian Wars.  In 1876, Colonel Mackenzie defeated the Cheyenne in the Dull Knife Fight, and this led to the end of the Black Hills War.

In 1881, Mackenzie assumed command of the Military District of New Mexico and in the following year was advanced to brigadier general.  A year later, he assumed command of the Department of Texas.

At this time, with more than twenty years of active military service, Mackenzie was thinking about life after military retirement.  He purchased a ranch in Texas and was engaged to marry.  Earlier, however, Mackenzie was injured at Fort Sill, Oklahoma when he fell from a wagon and injured his head.  At the time, it was thought that Ranald suffered a mild concussion, but over time, he began to demonstrate signs of mental instability.  Today we might regard this as traumatic brain injury (TBI), but in his day, the diagnosis was “general paresis of the insane.”  General Mackenzie was medically retired from the Army in March 1884.  He passed away at his sister’s home in New Brighton, Staten Island, New York on 19 January 1889.  He was laid to rest at the West Point National Cemetery.


  1. Pierce, M. D. The Most Promising Young Officer: A Life of Ranald Slidell Mackenzie.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.
  2. Fehrenbach, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.
  3. Robinson, C. M.
  4. Carter, R. G. On the Border with Mackenzie.  Washington: Enyon Printing, 1935.
  5. Bourke, J. G. Mackenzie’s Last Fight with the Cheyenne’s.  New York: Arno Press, Inc., 1890.


[1] Brevet promotions were temporary advancements in recognition of distinguished service under fire.

[2] Near Winchester, Virginia.

[3] The US Army has employed numerous schemes to temporarily advance officers of exceptional quality during times of war.  Mackenzie’s promotion to brigadier general of volunteers was one such scheme.  His permanent rank in the regular army was captain; a commission within the volunteer’s framework assured the War Department that it had the battlefield commanders it needed to prosecute the war but would not at the same time exceed the army’s congressionally mandated force structure.

[4] American soldiers during this time were ill-disciplined, surly, often rowdy.  They required a consistently strong hand and a general who would back up his officers and NCOs.  Mackenzie was such a man.

[5] These were regiments mostly composed of Negro soldiers, commanded by white officers and senior NCOs.  The term “Buffalo Soldier” is how these black soldiers were referred to by native Americans, owing to the fact of their curly, kinky hair, the origin of which, according to the Commanding Officer of the 10thCavalry, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, were the Comanche Indians during his campaign in 1871.  Buffalo soldiers were assigned to the 9th Cavalry, 10th Cavalry, 24th Infantry, and 25th Infantry regiments.

[6] The last major engagements with the Plains Indians took place in 1875, but there were additional conflicts with Indians through 1924.  These included confrontations at Leech Lake, Minnesota in October 1898 in the Battle of Sugar Point, the Four Corners Fight in 1907, the Crazy Snake Rebellion in 1909 in Oklahoma, the Chaco Canyon uprising in 1911 in New Mexico, the Washoe County Massacre in January 1911 (involving the murder of four ranchers by Indians), the Bluff War in Utah between March 1914 and March 1915, the Battle of Bear Valley in Santa Cruz County, Arizona in January 1918, and the Posey War in March 1923 in Utah targeting Mormon settlers.  The so-called Apache Wars ended in 1924.

[7] See also: Ulysses S. Grant and the Quaker Peace Policy

[8] There was never a lack of funds; only a lack of priority in allocating them.

[9] Mackenzie received his seventh combat wound from an arrow, which was lodged in his leg.

[10] See also: The Elm Creek Raid.

[11] Before 1880, US cavalry regiments were divided into companies.  After the Army’s reorganization, company-sized cavalry units were called squadrons.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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3 Responses to The Best Indian Fighter

  1. Andy says:

    Enjoyed every word of this up to the last paragraph. It was a tragic end to an otherwise exemplary career.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Sioux — Part IV | Old West Tales

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