Travel the Historic Trail Along U.S. Highway 212 from Belle Fourche, SD to Crow Agency, MT

Battle of Powder River / Reynold’s Battle

In 1874 George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry from Ft. Lincoln near Bismarck, N.D. over to the Little Missouri River and down to the Black Hills where they discovered gold. They crossed what would be Highway 212 just east of Colony, Wyoming as they traveled near current Aladdin, Wyoming. There are still wagon tracks just west of Aladdin marked with a historical marker.

Reynold’s Battlefield Monument is located about 28 miles southwest of Broadus on the Powder River down County Road 391 towards Moorhead Road. The battle on March 17, 1876 was a forerunner to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The original purpose of the expedition was to force the Sioux Indians to return to the reservation.

On March 16, scout Frank Grouard saw two Indian warriors observing the soldiers. He identified them as Oglala Lakota and believed that the camp of Crazy Horse might be nearby. This was reported to General George Crook, and 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 383 men, with rations for one day, following the trail of the two Oglalas southeast toward Powder River. Crook kept with him about 300 men. That night Frank Grouard and the other scouts followed the two Oglala Sioux’s trail in the snow. It 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.

In frigid weather, Reynolds’ plan was for one battalion to descend the steep hills south of where the second field hospital would be established to the valley floor. One company was to attack the southern end of the village. The other company was to capture the Indian pony herd estimated at 1,000 animals, grazing and spread out through the valley on both sides of the river. A second battalion, under the command of Captain Anson Mills, was to attack the village simultaneously from the west, and the remaining Cavalry battalion, under the command of Captain Alexander Moore, was to occupy the ridges north and west of the village, to prevent the Indians from escaping in that direction.

The village, however, was further north than anticipated, with the result that only Captain James Egan’s men, accompanied by Second Lieutenant John G. Bourke and newspaper reporter Robert Edmund Strahorn, charged into the village from the south, while the other companies were delayed by the distance and rough terrain.

According to Captain Egan’s watch, the battle began at 9:05 a.m. on the morning of Friday, March 17, 1874. The Indians, now identified as Northern Cheyenne and a few Oglala Sioux, were surprised. The Cheyennes hurried their women and children to shelter while retreating northward out of the village, then took positions on the bluffs overlooking the village. They then directed fire toward the soldiers now in the village. Several cavalrymen were wounded early in the battle and a number of the company’s horses were killed or wounded. Captain Egan was reinforced in the village by several more companies. When Colonel Reynolds arrived, the soldiers were still under fire. He ordered everything in the village destroyed, including dried buffalo meat. During this time, two Privates were killed. 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, General Crook’s aide-de-camp, commented on the richness of the goods in the village: “bales of fur, buffalo robes, and hides decorated with porcupine quills”. Some soldiers went against orders and took buffalo robes from the village, as they were freezing. Bourke later estimated that 66 men suffered from frostbite, including himself.

Throughout the day, soldiers gathered in over 700 Indian ponies. The battle had lasted five hours when, at approximately 2:00 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. A Private was killed around this time. During the retreat, a Private was seriously wounded in his right arm and leg, and was left behind in the Indian village. Although soldiers attempted to rescue the injured Private, he was subsequently “cut limb to limb” by vengeful Indians. By the end of the battle, four soldiers had been killed and six wounded.

The last action of the battle took place about 1 mile (1.6 km) south of Hospital bluff, when First Lieutenant William C. Rawolle, commanding the rear guard, dismounted eight 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’ premature haste to withdraw, he left behind the bodies of three dead soldiers, with one in the village, and two at the second field Hospital as well as the badly wounded Private. The soldiers withdrew approximately 21 miles (34 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 after 9:00 p.m. in an exhausted condition. However, General Crook with the other four companies and the pack train was not there, as he had camped ten miles to the northeast and had failed to inform Colonel Reynolds of his location.

The Cheyenne recaptured over 500 of their horses the next morning, March 18, as no guards for them had been posted. It was not until approximately 1:30 p.m. that day that Reynolds finally rendezvoused with General Crook. The reunited column returned to Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory, arriving on March 26, 1876. Although the Cheyenne and Lakota only suffered several warriors killed, and two to three wounded during the battle, they lost most of their property. The women and children walked several days to reach the Oglala Sioux village of Crazy Horse farther north near the Little Powder River, where they were given shelter and food. On the way, several Cheyennes froze to death.

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 and leave behind soldiers. 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. 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 culminating battle of the Great Sioux War at the Little Bighorn. Crook’s and Reynolds’ 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.