Burlingame soldiers, Kansas 11th Cavalry face warriors at Platte Bridge Station

The site of Platte Bridge Station, watercolor by Jesse J. Playford.

By Steven C. Haack

As spring approached in 1865, the men of the Kansas 11th Cavalry looked forward to returning home. Most of them had enlisted in the summer of 1862 and had seen hard action in Arkansas and Missouri. They had served countless hours in border patrol and fought hard in the Battle of Westport. The Civil War was still raging in the east, but hostilities had abated in their region and it was time to go home and put in the spring crops. It was not to be.

As the Civil War was winding down, the situation to the west was heating up. Relations with the Native American population had been deteriorating throughout the early 1860s. The war of ever escalating raids and retaliations finally came to a head at the end of November 1864, at the Sand Creek Massacre. Several Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe, mostly women, children and the elderly, had been slaughtered by Colorado troops under Col. John Chivington. The resulting uprising led to the destruction of ranches and stations throughout the area. By early February 1865, the number of white emigrants and settlers killed in retaliation was about equal to the casualties at Sand Creek. The Overland Trail was essentially closed to all traffic except that under heavy escort.

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Military stations on the Platte River. The Native Americans congregated in the area between the Powder River and the Tongue River some 150 miles north of Platte Bridge station.

Thus it was that the Kansas 11th was ordered to report to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to be put to work maintaining the telegraph line and guarding the string of stations along the North Platte River. Leaving Fort Riley on February 20, they commenced upon a miserable journey through terrible weather. A third of them had no horses, many lacked adequate clothing, and provisions of all kinds were in short supply.

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The road between Platte Bridge and Sweetwater.

On March 5, from a camp on an island in the Platte River, Henry Dutton wrote home to Burlingame, Kansas, of a cold march of 12 days, “The day we left Riley we marched in a cold rain all day and since that it has either snowed or blowed nearly every day.”

However, “Our boys are all pretty well, with the exception of bad colds and several of them froze their feet.”

Arriving at Fort Laramie on April 9, half the companies were sent down to Fort Halleck to work the Overland Trail and the rest were distributed among the stations to the west of Laramie. The weather began to improve but they were still hampered by scarce provisions and undependable supply lines. A constant source of aggravation was the condition of their horses. It was not uncommon to set out in pursuit of raiding Indians only to have half the mounts breakdown, their riders leading them back on foot. This was in stark contrast to the hearty, agile Indian ponies. The Indians would ride these ponies bareback at a full gallop with both hands free for the bow and arrow. Many a soldier would readily declare their enemy to be among the finest horsemen in the world.

The best the soldiers would do was to attempt to repair the telegraph line as fast as the raiding Indians tore it down. The Indians would generally rip out a few hundred yards of line as they passed by, sometimes they would break the line in a place where an ambush could be readily be executed and lie in wait. The soldiers soon learned that it was best to travel in groups of around 20.

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Soldier Jesse Playford was from Burlingame. According to the author, he and his brother ran a drug store in Burlingame after the war. Both are buried in the cemetery there.

Of particular strategic importance was the bridge at Platte Bridge Station, where Caspar, Wyoming, now stands. It was here that the Oregon Trail split, taking some emigrant trains into contested territory. The bridge itself was quite a sturdy affair. Over 1,000 feet long, it was constructed out of three-inch-thick planks spanning across 28 log cribs. Accommodations for about a hundred men, along with a blacksmith shop, telegraph house and a small stockade for the horses stood at the southern end of the bridge.

Through May and June, the raiders kept the soldiers busy. A few of the skirmishes were serious. On June 2, while on patrol near Red Buttes, some 8 miles west of the bridge, 20 members of Company I came upon about 100 Indians. In the ensuing melee, Jesse Playford took an arrow in the neck. Henry Lord extracted it and slid it into a loaf of bread in his haversack to keep as a souvenir. Both these boys were from Burlingame as was their leader, Lieutenant William Drew.

However, the big showdown was not to occur until late July. Thousands of the Indians, who fled north after the Sand Creek Massacre, had joined the tribes in winter encampments along the Powder River in northern Wyoming. Throughout the spring they roamed the region following bison herds. Groups of warriors would split off and head south to raid along the North Platte, returning with horses, mules and guns. In the meantime, the chiefs were in council deciding the time and location of their boldest thrust. It would be the bridge, the place where whites persisted in their territorial intrusion. The operation they were planning would be, indeed, the largest such initiative of the Indian Wars. In excess of 2,000 warriors would travel over three days time to attack a specific military objective.

On July 22, the Indians started out from their camp on Crazy Woman Creek, about 100 miles north of the bridge. The line of warriors stretched out for two miles with one warrior society, the Fooling Dogs, policing the line, urging stragglers forward and keeping groups from running out ahead of the main body. It took them three days to reach the hills north of the bridge where they went into camp, undetected by the soldiers at the bridge.

On the same day the Indians started their journey, a detachment of soldiers had left Platte Bridge station for the Sweetwater station, some 50 miles to the west. Forty members of the Ohio 11th Cavalry were to be stationed at Sweetwater and 25 members of the Kansas 11th went along as escort for three wagon loads of supplies. They reached Sweetwater on the 24th and the Kansas men began their return trip on the 25th. The escort was composed of men from Companies D and H and was led by Sgt. Amos Custard, of Big Springs, Kansas. The trip was a two day affair and they camped that night at Willow Springs which lay halfway between Sweetwater and Platte Bridge.

That evening, a number of Ohio men came through on horseback from the Sweetwater Station. They suggested that Custard and his men decamp and join them for added security. Custard said the mules needed rest and he would commence his journey in the morning as planned. The Ohio men continued on and rumbled over the bridge at two in the morning. Their leader immediately awakened the commander, Major Martin Anderson, and urged that a detail be sent out to locate the wagon train and escort it in. Anderson told him it could wait until morning. This was despite indications to the contrary. On the morning of the 25th, a party of Indians had appeared across the bridge. A party of soldiers saddled up and went in pursuit, but it became clear by the way the Indians would fade back and stop, they were attempting to lead the soldiers into an ambush. The soldiers returned safely across the bridge.

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William Drew was from Burlingame and later wrote a valuable history of the battle at Platte Bridge Station.

Late in the afternoon, a mail ambulance came in from Ft. Laramie under escort. They told the soldiers that Indians were attempting to take their beef herd a mile to the east of the bridge. This time, a larger force went in pursuit, among them Henry Lord and his pal James Porter, a native of Lyon County. Here they engaged the enemy in a skirmish. When a Cheyenne chief, High Back Wolf, took a bullet in the back and fell off his horse, Lord and Porter were in pursuit. In early June, a comrade of theirs had been killed by raiders. The post-mortem mutilation performed on his body enraged the soldiers and they swore they would do the same to any Indian they caught. Lord and Porter dispatched High Back Wolf with a bullet to the head and took his scalp as well as a jacket from which hung the locks of some thirty of his victims.

It was not clear that there was inordinate enemy activity in the area. Major Anderson took an inventory of the ammunition and found that they were down to about 20 rounds per weapon. There were about 80 able-bodied men at the station and the telegraph line was now down in both directions. While Anderson knew there was trouble afoot, he didn’t know its extent.

The next morning, a detail of two dozen men was ordered to saddle up. They were led by Caspar Collins of the Ohio 11th, but most of the men were from Company I of the Kansas 11th. The Indians watched from behind the hills to the north as the detail crossed the bridge and headed west. Another two dozen soldiers crossed on foot to hold the bridgehead in case the detail was attacked. Warriors had also concealed themselves in ravines between the road and the river and still others were in the creek bed to the east of the bridge. A few Indians showed themselves to the north of the road and Collins took the bait. He ordered his men to pursue them and, as they reached a point about a mile from the bridge, the trap was sprung. Every witness to the attack expresses astonishment at the sheer magnitude of the force which sprung up from every ravine and from behind every hillock. So great was the horde surrounding the soldiers, they could not use their weapons to advantage. Every shot that missed a soldier would strike an ally on the other side. The detail reeled around and headed back toward the bridge.

At this moment, several hundred warriors rose from the creek bed to the east and attempted to take the bridge. The men at the bridgehead fell into a skirmish line and poured fire in the direction of the approaching mass, turned them back. Holding the bridge allowed 20 of Collins’ men to make it back to safety, though most of them were injured. Five others, including Caspar Collins, didn’t make it. Among them were Sebastian Nehring from Alma and George McDonald from Burlingame.

The soldiers now understood the size of the force with which they were confronted. Most estimated from two to three thousand. The men set to work digging rifle pits and securing the perimeter of the station. Across the river, some of the Indians set about mutilating the dead soldiers. One approached the body of a soldier and raised his tomahawk. At this point, Henry Lord said “I believe I will try a whack at him.” Raising the sight of his rifle to 1,000 yards he took aim and shot. The Indian dropped his weapon and staggered to his horse. As he retired from the field, he began to fall and two warriors rode up to help him along. Then someone shouted “Here comes the train!” Through a saddle gap about four miles to the west the covered wagons were coming down the trail.

The Indians saw the train at the same time and made a headlong rush in its direction. The soldiers fired the Howitzer in attempt to warn off the train. As the men came over the saddle gap, they saw the landscape before them teeming with warriors. They decided that, being unable to outrun the enemy, they should try to get down to the river. If they could get into a defensive position with their backs to the river, they could possibly hold out until help came from the fort. They were not aware, of course, of the battle that had just ended. Major Anderson would not be sending relief. Any group of soldiers large enough to confront the enemy would leave the stockade with too few men to hold it.

Continued in part 2 here.

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Watercolor by Jesse J. Playford depicts the site of Platte Bridge Station.

Author Steven C. Haack, a member of Osage County Historical Society, has researched the Kansas 11th Cavalry for some time and has published several articles. Anyone who may have family information about 11th Kansas Cavalry members is asked to contact Haack at [email protected].

Maps originally appeared in “The Fate of Amos J. Custard and the Men of the 11th Kansas Cavalry” written by Steven C. Haack. Watercolor by Jesse J. Playford was published in “Kansas History A Journal of the Central Plains”; Vol. 38, No 1, Spring 2015.

Published with permission of author. Originally published in Volume 41, Number 4, The Hedge Post, newsletter of the Osage County Historical Society Inc., November 2015. For more information about the Osage County Historical Society, see www.osagechs.org.

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