The Battle of Powder River occurred March 17, 1876, in the Montana Territory between the United States Army and a force of Cheyenne Native Americans during Crook's Big Horn Expedition in the Black Hills War.
Maj. Gen. George Crook, commander of the Department of the Platte, had been ordered to locate the camps of several bands of Sioux and Cheyenne that had left their reservations and appeared to be preparing to go on the warpath. The camps of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were thought to be located in the region of the headwaters of the Powder, Tongue, and Rosebud rivers. Crook was concerned that as spring progressed and the weather improved, hundreds more Indians might leave the reservations to join the war bands, and he wanted to locate and destroy the camps and villages as soon as possible.
Accompanied by a handful of newspaper reporters, Crook left Fort Fetterman on March 1 with 883 men from a variety of cavalry regiments, along with civilian and friendly Indian scouts and a herd of 45 beef cattle. A blizzard on March 5 deposited over a foot of snow and significantly delayed Crook's progress. Temperatures fell so low that the thermometers of the day could not record the cold. The soldiers had to heat their forks in the coals of their fires to prevent the tines from freezing to their tongues. Crook's column slowly followed old Bozeman Trail to the head of Otter Creek, where on March 16, Crook divided his command. At 5 p.m., in freezing weather, he sent Col. 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 300 men with rations for one day, following the trail of two Indians southeast toward the Powder River.
Shortly before dawn on March 17, scouts located a large Indian village on the west bank of Powder River. The camp was 600 to 1,000 feet below the soldiers, who were on a high plateau. It proved to be a Cheyenne village of 105 lodges, containing about 600 Northern Cheynne, with perhaps 225 warriors and an immense pony herd (estimated at 800 to 1,500 in number). However, gaining access to the hostile village proved problematic, as the ground was snow covered and icy, and broken up by numerous steep ravines and coulees. With great difficulty, Reynolds led his men and horses down the bluffs. He ordered Company K to make a pistol charge through the village. However, he failed to support this attack with the rest of his command, and the warriors quickly escaped. The Cheyenne, including Wooden Leg, led them from the danger and occupied the bluffs to the north, where his warriors retaliated with a galling fire. From positions on ledges and behind rocks, the Indians held the soldiers at bay until all the women and children escaped across the river, and Cheyenne withdrew to the relative safety of Sitting Bull's and Crazy Horse's villages further up the Powder River where they were given shelter, food, and clothing.
By 9:00 a.m., Reynolds had full possession of the abandoned village, which proved to be full of guns, ammunition, war supplies, and vast stores of food, confirming military fears that Crazy Horse planned to go on the warpath. The colonel gave orders for his men to destroy it and then withdraw twenty miles southward to the mouth of Lodge Pole Creek, where he was to rejoin General Crook. The village and supplies proved difficult to burn, and the resulting exploding ammunition was hazardous to the troopers. By 2:30 p.m., Reynolds had finally accomplished that task and his men withdrew to Lodge Pole Creek, arriving at 9:00 p.m., in a greatly exhausted condition. However, Crook was not there, as he had camped ten miles to the northeast and had failed to inform Reynolds of his new location. In Reynolds's premature haste to withdraw, he left behind three dead soldiers, as well as a badly wounded private who was subsequently "cut limb to limb" by vengeful Indians. For listing of dead cavalrymen see
Reynolds had captured a large portion of Cheyenne ponies. However, Indians soon recaptured them during another snowstorm early on the morning of March 18, as the exhausted guards were negligent and sleepy. It was not until noon that day that Reynolds finally rendezvoused with General Crook. The reunited column finally arrived back at Fort Fetterman on March 26.
Colonel Reynolds was accused of dereliction of duty for failing to properly support the first charge with his whole 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 the 800 captured ponies. In January 1877, he was court-martialled at Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, and found guilty. He was sentenced to suspension from rank and command for one year for his conduct. His friend, President Grant, remitted the sentence, but Reynolds never served again. He was retired on disability leave on June 25, 1877, exactly one year after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Crook's and Reynolds's failed Big Horn Expedition and their inability to destroy Crazy Horse's fighting ability at Powder River had contributed to that embarrassing defeat.
The Powder River battle site is near present-day Broadus, Montana.
In 1951, Hollywood produced a fictional movie loosely based upon the historical battle, starring Van Heflin, Yvonne De Carlo, Jack Oakie, and Rock Hudson. The movie was released in the United States under the name Tomahawk, and entitled Battle of Powder River in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
U.S. Army (Col J. J. Reynolds, 3rd U.S. Cav., in command)
Sioux and Cheyenne (Crazy Horse and Little Wolf in command)