Remembering Warbonnet Creek

As I write this in the summer of 2020, the United States is having a conversation about our statues and monuments. Instead of piling on to the debate over statues for slaveholders, I’d like to tell you of an obscure pair of monuments in a remote corner of Nebraska. I accidentally spent some time with them in the spring of 2012, and they have an unusual story behind them.

The Site of Cody's Scalp

I spent much of spring break in 2012 helping scout a stretch of the Great Plains Trail. The trail stretches from Guadalupe Peak in Texas all the way to the Canadian border. It goes through the ultimate flyover country – if you need to fly between two points in flyover country, you fly over our trail. We never saw another soul when hiking on trails. When we had to walk on the ranch roads instead, we saw maybe one truck a day.

Major Junction Ahead!

I was driving the main shuttle car. We’d drop my car somewhere, drive back to our starting point in a second car, and then hike back to my car. Ken and Steve would keep going for a while, then I’d go pick them up, and we’d set up another shuttle. That left me with some time alone each day, and on this particular day I got to spend some time in Montrose, Nebraska.

Technically speaking, I got to spend some time where Montrose used to be. Wikipedia calls it a “former village.” There’s a junction with a whole lot of mailboxes for the local ranches. On a small rise next to the mailboxes stands Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. It’s a beautiful little church, well cared for, and clearly still in use. There is no sign of any former houses, much less a village.

Montrose Church

Montrose is a long way from Henderson, the county seat of Sioux County. The county is larger than Rhode Island, but it has only 1300 people – half of whom live more or less in and around Henderson. The town has a bar that serves food, and a gas station with a convenience store.

Opposite the Montrose church stands an impressive hill – well, impressive for Nebraska – across a small creek. There’s a grand monument atop the hill, so of course I visit it while Ken and Steve go on their way. To get there, I have to jump across Warbonnet Creek, near another monument behind a small fence.

Warbonnet Hill

The monuments go together. They tell the story of the Battle of Warbonnet Creek on July 17, 1876. This was the first engagement between the US Cavalry and the Indians after the Battle of Little Bighorn. The troopers were itching for revenge, as you might imagine.

Also itching for action was one William F. Cody, the famous “Buffalo Bill.” Buffalo Bill was a marketing genius who not only made himself into a legend but also helped build the myth of the Wild West. His Wild West Show had been a sensation since 1872, selling both self-made legends and live action with stagecoach ambushes, battles, and marksmanship. After George Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, Buffalo Bill understood immediately that he needed to be part of the action to help him develop his myth. Cody tagged along with the Fifth Cavalry as a scout.

Buffalo Bill as scout

Colonel Wesley Merritt, in command of the Fifth, was trying to keep the supply lines to Fort Laramie open along the Cheyenne & Black Hills Stage Road. He also wanted to keep the now-dispersed Indians from coming together into a large force again. If he could defeat them in battle, all the better.

Montrose lies at the junction of the Black Hills Road and the Powder River Trail, so it’s not surprising that the two forces might find each other in the neighborhood. Merritt faced Morning Star (Dull Knife), leading a band of about 800 Cheyenne from the Red Cloud Agency. They Cheyenne had left the agency and were moving to join other camps to the north. The two sides had roughly equal numbers of soldiers in the neighborhood on the day of their encounter.

Cheyenne scouts spotted a wagon trail on the road, and saw two couriers riding ahead to tell their commander it was on the way. The Cheyenne vanguard then prepared to ambush the wagon train.

View from Warbonnet Hill

The scouts did not see the Fifth Cavalry, but Buffalo Bill, in command of Merritt’s scouts, saw them. After telling Merritt of the Cheyenne presence, Cody received permission to lead a small group of his friends to try to ambush the Cheyenne vanguard.

At some point after that, Buffalo Bill changed out of his campaign dress. To prepare for battle, he put on a brightly-colored, ornamented stage costume with a shirt of red silk and trousers of black velvet. His double-wide brown leather belt featured a large silver-washed buckle and he wore a large, floppy-brimmed, brushed beaver-felt hat. His friend, First Lieutenant Charles King, called it “a Mexican vaquero costume.”

Though he is normally subdued about such things, historian Paul Hedren calls the costume “outlandish in the extreme.”

The Cheyenne were dressed for battle in the traditional way, though they doubtless also looked spectacular in their war paint and other accouterments. Yellow Hair rode in front, wearing a feathered bonnet, tin bracelets, a charm, a beaded belt with a scalp tucked in it, and a breechcloth made of a cotton American flag.

Yellow Hair and Buffalo Bill were in the lead of their respective groups. Each took a rifle shot at the other. While Yellow Hair’s missed, Buffalo Bill shot through one of Yellow Hair’s legs and killed his horse. Before his opponent could get off the ground, Cody shot and killed him. Buffalo Bill rode over and scalped his defeated opponent. He then raised Yellow Hair’s scalp and feather bonnet and shouted, “The first scalp for Custer!”

Buffalo Bill's Publicity Stunt

That symbolic revenge proved to be the only result of the battle. The Cheyenne disengaged and the US Cavalry held the field, making this skirmish an American victory. Holding the field meant that Merritt succeeded in keeping the Cheyenne from joining forces with the northern camps.

Buffalo Bill saved Yellow Hair’s scalp and then shipped it back East. He worked up the story of his encounter for the Wild West Show as a small drama, The Red Right Hand; or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer. He performed it for the first time in October.

The scalp appeared again as a prop, or as a historical artifact, in Cody’s 1914 movie, “The Indian Wars.” In the critical scene, Buffalo Bill stands over his foe, warbonnet and scalp in one hand, outreached knife in the other, partially silhouetted against the landscape in a dramatic pose for the cameras. No other cavalrymen, and no other Cheyenne, appear in this climactic moment in which he claims the “first scalp for Custer.”

Whatever military importance the minor skirmish may have had, Warbonnet Creek looms large in myth. Buffalo Bill thoroughly blended theater and reality, wearing a theatrical costume into battle and dramatizing an actual killing for the theater. He eventually brought an authentic scalp to the motion picture screen as part of dramatized history in which he removed all the other participants from the scene.

The small monument along Warbonnet Creek dates to the 1930s. It celebrates the legendary duel – “On this spot W.F. Cody Buffalo Bill Killed Yellow Hair (or Hand), the Cheyenne leader who, with a party of warriors, dashed down this ravine to waylay two soldier couriers coming from the west.” It’s near the creek, probably close to where the event would have occurred.

The Friends of the Warbonnet Battlefield rebuilt the monument on the hill in 1997. They do not give a date for the original, but the stones and construction method resemble the monument down the hill. It’s far more subdued than Cody would have written, saying that Merritt intercepted 800 Cheyennes here and drove them back to the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Agencies.

Friends of Warbonnet

In short, we have memorialized a single battle death with two stone monuments here, an impressive ratio of markers to casualties. The monuments were raised more than fifty years after the event, remembering a skirmish of little intrinsic significance but great legendary meaning. More than sixty years later, a local group reconstructed the battle marker.

They seem to have left alone the monument to the fatal publicity stunt.

Warbonnet Monument

Most of my details of the battle come from:
Hedren, Paul L. 2005. “The Contradictory Legacies of Buffalo Bill Cody’s First Scalp for Custer.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 55(1): 16-35 (Spring).

You can find directions to Warbonnet and related sites here:
Hedren, Paul L. 1996. Traveler’s Guide to the Great Sioux War. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press.

Other details come from bits of the large literature on the Wild West Show and Buffalo Bill.

You can learn more about the Great Plains Trail here.

This story has some connections to my book manuscript, “Telling America’s Stories.” Stay tuned for more!

Arkansas Post in the Civil War

Painting in the visitor center.

Arkansas Post in the Civil War

Even if you know a fair amount about the Civil War, you may not have heard of the Battle of Arkansas Post. It doesn’t make the indices of the one-volume histories on my shelf. Though a significant action in the Vicksburg Campaign, it was not part of Grant’s widely-studied maneuvers that led to Vicksburg’s fall.

The great egrets seem to like having the battlefield underwater.

The military historians don’t have much of a story to tell at Arkansas Post National Memorial, the site of a brief siege in 1863. First of all, most of the relevant battlefield is underwater, either washed away by the changing channels of the Arkansas River or flooded behind a dam project managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Only some rifle trenches from 1863 remain to interpret.

Second, military historians like to focus on battlefield tactics and, to a lesser extent, the operational decisions generals make at the campaign level. Those are not very interesting here since the story consists of overwhelming land forces accepting Fort Hindman’s surrender after Union naval guns pound the fort into submission. A park brochure (McCutchen 2003) tells that story, along with three signs along the park’s entrance road, near the rifle pits.

Lots of politics! The six flags of Arkansas Post’s history.

By seeing it in military terms, the park narrative misjudges events at Arkansas Post. The Civil War Battle of Arkansas Post (Fort Hindman) was a political victory by a political general, Major General John McClernand. As it turns out, the most interesting—and most important—aspect of the battle concerns McClernand and army politics.

McClernand was an ally of Stephen Douglas, presidential candidate of the Illinois Democratic Party, and a member of the national House of Representatives from Illinois from 1843 to 1851. He also filled a vacancy in the House briefly in 1860. Though he supported Douglas for president in 1860, McClernand was also a friend of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Appointing him as a brigadier general helped President Lincoln maintain relationships with the Democratic Party at home, at a time when many in southern Illinois had Confederate sympathies.

Though vainglorious and self-serving to an extent that annoyed his military colleagues, McClernand proved to be a more reasonable soldier than many other political generals. His success at Arkansas Post was balanced by weaknesses in performance at Fort Donelson and Champion Hill, though a tenacity on defense at Shiloh balanced his slow movements on the advance. Capturing Fort Hindman was not without military advantages, but interpretation exaggerates them. Remarkably, McClernand’s success at Arkansas Post led to his removal.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter brought some city-class gunboats.

As commander of the Army of Tennessee, Major General Ulysses S. Grant thought his subordinate’s operation a “wild-goose chase” that diverted a large force of soldiers, transports, and gunboats away from the planned assault on Vicksburg. Historian Brian McCutchen (2003: 2; see also Coleman 1987/2009: 116) provides a more sober summary that, “Although Union losses were high and the victory did not contribute to the capture of Vicksburg, it did eliminate one more impediment to Union shipping on the Mississippi.” That said, McClernand undertook the operation without telling his commander until it was already underway.

Commanding, Grant did not think that prize worth the effort. As he saw it, McClernand diverted forces away from Vicksburg and from Grant’s plans to link up with General Nathaniel Banks as the Army of the Gulf moved upriver from New Orleans. As a general principle, Grant believed it unwise to divide his forces to achieve any goal other than the main objective, and that goal was Vicksburg. This guided his reply to McClernand when he learned what was afoot:

“I do not approve of your move on the Post of Arkansas while the other [Vicksburg] is in abeyance. It will lead to the loss of men without a result . . . . It might answer for some of the purposes you suggest, but certainly not as a military movement looking to the accomplishment of the one great result, the capture of Vicksburg. Unless you are acting under authority not derived from me, keep your command where it can soonest be assembled for the renewal of the attack on Vicksburg.” (quoted in Foote 1963: 137)

Replica of a gun from the period of Spanish Louisiana. But you get the idea.

Grant also informed the General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck, of the action against Arkansas Post. Halleck backed him up, authorizing Grant to relieve General McClernand from command of the Vicksburg campaign, “giving it to the next in rank or taking it yourself” (quoted in Foote 1963: 137). Since McClernand was friends with Lincoln, Halleck presumably cleared this action with the president. Because McClernand enjoyed public acclaim after his success at Arkansas Post, Grant held back from dismissing him immediately “until the time was right to pounce” (Foote 1963: 138).

These internal Army maneuvers were clearly important for the war, but only in hindsight. With McClernand out of the way, Grant could begin planning the campaign against Vicksburg. After some false starts, he ended up producing a model campaign, swinging south and then east of the objective, ignoring his lines of supply and communication to points east of Vicksburg. From there he moved first to take the capital of Jackson before turning west to besiege and then conquer Vicksburg.

That campaign is a classic of American military history, and is rightly featured in interpretation at Vicksburg National Battlefield Park. It would not have happened if McClernand had remained in command of the Vicksburg operations.

None of this appears at Arkansas Post, however. Interpretation does not seem to mention that Grant had McClernand relieved for his actions at Arkansas Post. Instead, the park explains the battle in traditional military terms. A panel in the Visitor Center (“January 1863”) describes the Union attack as a “response to Confederate raids on shipping on the Mississippi.” However, any threat to Union shipping from Confederate gunboats was minor; Fort Hindman could be bypassed at this point in the war. Still, the fort had had some value earlier in the war, which is why Confederate engineers chose to build a fort here, to protect trade along the Arkansas River (Visitor Center, Panel, “Defending the Delta”).

The Daughters of the American Revolution helped pay for this replica Spanish cannon. They are stakeholders here too.

Interpretation reflects the bureaucratic interests of the National Park Service as well as the biases of military historians. As is true at most historic sites, the NPS has a stake in making the events here seem important—whether they are or not. The park’s resource study (Coleman 1987/2009) and administrative history (Carrera 1975/1987) emphasize the military events on site and what little physical evidence remains of them. Though the resource studies mention the political context briefly, park interpretation does not.

Of course, all authors bring their own biases to any narrative. Like most biographers, Ron Chernow (2017: 241) sees the story from Grant’s perspective, emphasizing his successes in internal Army politics while downplaying McClernand’s military successes. Shelby Foote (1963: 133-136) balances the political and the military, as does Robert Huffstot (1969). Both are more attuned to the political context of any war, and my perspective is closer to theirs than to other texts I’ve consulted.

Gunboats are not the only thing with armor at Arkansas Post today.

In fairness, the capture of Arkansas Post did have some military advantages that Grant may not have anticipated. First, the battle strengthened Union morale after the defeat at Chickasaw Bayou (December 26–29, 1862). Indeed, finding a reasonably-sized military success had been a goal of generals McClernand and Sherman when they met with Rear Admiral David Porter to decide their next moves (Huffstot 1969: 4-5).

A second important outcome of the battle was the Union capture of almost five thousand rebels, a considerable share of all Confederate forces in Arkansas. With the Union’s successful repulse of a Confederate advance at the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862, Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes’s Trans-Mississippi Department would remain on the defensive (Huffstot 1969).

The park’s focus on battlefield events in 1863 overlooks those military consequences, whether on the Army’s morale, national public opinion, or the weakening of the Confederate position in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi theater. The effect on Army politics, by allowing Grant to take over command of the Vicksburg campaign from McClernand, was even more important, paving the way for Lincoln to “put that key in his pocket.”

The NPS marks the town site by paving the historic streets, showing the layout.


Carrera, Gregorio S.A. 1975/1987. Arkansas Post National Memorial Administrative History. US Department of Interior: National Park Service.

Chernow, Ron. 2017. Grant. New York: Penguin.

Coleman, Roger E. 1987/2009. The Arkansas Post Story: Arkansas Post National Memorial. US Department of the Interior: National Park Service, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, Professional Papers No. 12. Eastern National.

Foote, Shelby. 1963. The Civil War: A Narrative. Volume II: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Random House.

Huffstot, Robert S. 1969. “The Battle of Arkansas Post.” Historical Times, Inc.: Civil War Times Illustrated.

McCutchen, Brian K. 2003. “The Battle of Arkansas Post ~ January 9-11, 1863: Overview and troop positions.” US Department of Interior: National Park Service, Arkansas Post National Memorial.

A House Divided at Ulysses S. Grant NHS

24-pound howitzers at Grant

The Civil War battlefields in the National Park System have long emphasized battlefield tactics and heroism. They are decorated with stately cannon, and it’s hard to imagine the blood and noise of the battlefield. Until recently, most of them have also skirted around the big issue: why were these men fighting in the first place?


The answer, briefly put, is slavery. Southerners have resisted that conclusion, and Civil War buffs in the South have fought NPS staff at those sites that have taken the issue on. Interpretation is changing – for example, Chickamauga has a good exhibit on how slavery caused the war, though it’s shoehorned into a hallway. Among the battlefields I’ve visited in recent years, Pea Ridge and Murfreesboro address slavery, while Wilson’s Creek and Glorieta Pass (Pecos) do not.

Visitor Center

One of the best interpretations of slavery in the Civil War appears not at a battlefield, but at Ulysses S. Grant NHS in a suburb of St. Louis. Slavery plays a major role in interpretation throughout the site. The brochure calls White Haven as “A Microcosm of National Issues” because it divided Grant from his in-laws, who owned the White Haven farm here.

Family Photos

His father-in-law, “Colonel” Dent was a slaveholder who favored secession. Grant’s father, Jesse Grant, was a strong opponent of slavery who refused to visit his son at White Haven. Julia’s brother Fred, a long-time friend of Ulysses, fought with the Union. However, John Dent, Fred and Julia’s brother, fought for the Confederacy.

Enslaved people work the farm

The website gives a page to slavery, discussing the economics and demographics of the institution in Missouri. Visitors to the farm will find the same information throughout the house and grounds. Aside from the plantations of the “Little Dixie” region along the Missouri River and the “Bootheel” region in the southeast, most of Missouri did not have many slaves. White Haven’s ten slaves made it unusual in the St. Louis region, whose enslaved population was in steady decline. This reflected a change in farm economy, as farming switched from large-scale plantations using slaves to grow cash crops to small-scale truck farms growing fresh produce for the urban market.

The NPS has given the enslaved people of White Haven an opportunity to tell their stories, notably the cook Mary Robinson. Her later recollections enrich interpretation throughout the site, including details of the kitchen work. Visitors will learn that some of the enslaved staff here could read and write, though both pursuits were illegal under Missouri law. Slate pencils found in the winter kitchen provide evidence of literacy.

The house at White Haven

Julia’s puzzlement at one slave’s “carelessness” also provides a window into how the enslaved workers evaded her oversight. “Old Bob” was responsible for keeping the fires going in the seven fireplaces of White Haven. When the embers died out, he had to walk a mile to the neighbors “and bring home a brand of fire from their backlog.” Obviously, this gave him some free time away from the Dents, and an opportunity to socialize at a neighboring farm. The enslaved staff also used to bring Julia special gifts so that she would intercede with her parents to allow them to travel to visit their wives on nearby farms.

Grant and Dent argue slavery before Mary Robinson. (This exhibit has since been changed.)

The NPS points out that Julia Dent seemed oblivious to other realities, thinking that the “house kept itself” and that the family “produced” the crops on the farm. She later wrote that she believed they were happy, at least before “the Rebellion.”

Ulysses had a better sense of the material conditions of slavery. Presumably this understanding played some role when he remodeled the kitchen after the war, providing modern appliances and inside passageways from the kitchen.

Reality struck home when the Union gained control of neutral Missouri early in the Civil War. Colonel Dent avoided St. Louis, now dominated by Unionists, and became estranged from many of his neighbors. His slaves saw opportunity and began to run away, demonstrating by their actions just what they thought of their master and his home.

Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site does a good job interpreting the realities of slavery in this part of Missouri, and shows how other the Civil War battlefields might take a more realistic look at what the Civil War was really about.

Grant’s barn, now museum

This is part of my book manuscript, Telling America’s Stories: How the National Parks Tell the Stories of Westward Expansion, in progress.

More photos in my Flickr album.

Official NPS site

The Civil War in New Mexico

Colorado Volunteers

On Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifices of individual soldiers. It’s worth remembering that the battles they fought were not the only factor in victory or defeat. Civilian morale plays a key role in many wars, as does munition manufacture or international trade.

But today I want to think about the importance of logistics. We tend to overlook logistics by focusing on battlefield heroism. Sometimes the battlefield gets the story wrong.


Windmill Hill


The Battle of Glorieta Pass was the decisive engagement in the trans-Pecos theater of the Civil War. The idea of the New Mexico campaign is pretty simple. Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley and his Texan volunteers would drive up the Rio Grande to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. From there, they planned to cross the mountains at Glorieta Pass, moving eastward along the Santa Fe Trail (roughly modern I-25).  The rebels would resupply by seizing the major supply base at Fort Union and then move on to take the rich mines of Colorado. The campaign would also disrupt Union communications with California, Nevada, and Oregon.

The key to the campaign was logistics. The Confederates would have a long supply train stretching back to El Paso, and they needed to seize Fort Union to make the plan work. The Union commander, Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, understood the situation well. Though he “lost” every battle, he won the campaign. The Confederates lost their supply train, forcing them to retreat back down the Rio Grande. After taking a desperate escape route through the mountains, less than half of the Texans found their way home to Fort Bliss.

Kozlowski’s Ranch

The decisive moment came over three days at Glorieta Pass, March 26-28, 1862. On the third day, Canby split his forces in the face of the enemy. Almost half of his troops marched over Glorieta Mesa to the Confederate rear, where they destroyed the rebel supply train. The other half of the Union forces fought a delaying action. They gradually gave ground to Sibley’s Texans while remaining in good order and holding a position across the Santa Fe Trail.

The National Park Service notes that both sides suffered high losses (about 15% killed, wounded and captured). It also claims the battle was a tactical Confederate victory because the rebels held the ground at the end of the day – though Colorado volunteers did “save the Union” here.

Civil war artifacts

Those claims miss the point: the ground of Glorieta Pass didn’t matter. The supply train did. Destroying the Confederates’ supplies while keeping the rebels away from Fort Union made this a decisive Union victory.

Don’t believe me? Look up pages 293-305 in Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the war. He’s sympathetic to the Confederates and their strategic vision, and he always has an eye for Southern valor. Even so, Foote rightly sees logistics as key here. The fact that Canby sent almost half his men after the wagon train makes his own priorities clear.

Rabbitbush on the Civil War trail

Why does the NPS get the story wrong? First, we must remember the professional mindset of military historians – they like battles. Understandably, the NPS hires military historians to develop the interpretation of military sites. That perspective leads to a view that “the Battle of Glorieta Pass represented the high water mark for a bold Confederate offensive into Union Territory on the western frontier. Here volunteers from Colorado clashed with tough Texans intent on conquering New Mexico.” Battlefield heroism rules.

Plaza of the Governors

Second, the NPS inherited a particular landscape of memorialization here. The Texas Division of The United Daughters of the Confederacy got to the site first.  They erected a monument on the battlefield in 1939, in belated recognition of the Texan centennial. It took Colorado more than fifty years to follow suit, with a State Historical Society monument erected in 1993. New Mexico recognizes its soldiers on an obelisk in downtown Santa Fe, honoring “the heros of the Federal Army who fell at the battles of Cañon del Apache and Pigeon’s Rancho (La Glorieta), fought with the Rebels March 28, 1862.” All three monuments celebrate the battlefield heroism.

Park advocates share an interest in battlefield bravery. The site had remained in private hands until the Glorieta Battlefield Unit of Pecos National Historic Park was established in 1990. The Glorieta Battlefield Preservation Society, a group of regional Civil War reenactors, worked to preserve the site. The Council of America’s Military Past, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and other military heritage groups worked with them.

Hispanos at Glorieta Pass

When the NPS took over in 1990, that heroism lay across the landscape in roadside signs and memorials. Park advocates provided funding for the interpretive trail and most of the signs the visitor sees.  Signs funded by Texan and Confederate groups highlight the bravery of Sibley’s troops. Signs placed by the State of New Mexico highlight the role of Hispanos, New Mexican Volunteers, and U.S. Regulars.

Texas Mounted Volunteers

The UDC provided some of the text on its signs, and local history enthusiasts provided text on some New Mexico signs.  The UDC even thanks itself on one NPS-branded sign:

The Texas Monument honors the Texans who fought here and praise is due the Texas Division, UDC members for their perseverance and determination to dedicate this monument and establish the first park to preserve the memory of the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

Bravery, heroism, perseverance, and determination are all fine military qualities – – but don’t forget to burn the wagon train.

Kozlowski’s Ranch served as field hospital

This post draws on material from my book manuscript, Telling America’s Stories: How the National Parks Interpret Westward Expansion.

For another piece on how the NPS interprets the Civil War, see
“How the Cherokee Fought the Civil War,” Indian Country Today, 28 March 2012.