From their positions atop the hills, Crazy Horse’s warriors opened fire on the troops. Crook immediately had his men form a defensive line around the horses and mules, while other soldiers went ahead and set the Indian village ablaze. The general then ordered some of his troops into skirmish lines to advance toward the warriors. Four companies of infantry led the way, with dismounted troopers from three cavalry regiments following. As the troops came within range, the Indians rained gunfire down on them, but the troops answered with a furious volume of fire and kept on coming. After 45 minutes of steady fighting, the troops drove most of the warriors from their positions on the hills. But some of the Lakotas held their ground, and at one point they charged Lt. Col. William Royall’s 3rd Cavalry, on the perimeter of Crook’s line. It took a well-aimed fusillade to drive them away.
The battle cost the lives of two cavalrymen and one of Crook’s scouts, Charles ‘Buffalo Chips’ White, but the outnumbered Indians, who had an estimated 10 killed, could not defeat the soldiers. That night, Crook’s men ate well while camping near the smoldering ruin that had once been American Horse’s village. When the bluecoats pulled out on September 10 and headed toward the Black Hills, Crazy Horse had his warriors keep up a running fight. On September 15, Crook finally reached a supply column in the Black Hills and was no doubt glad to have Crazy Horse out of his hair.
The September 9 Battle of Slim Buttes (fought near present-day Reva, S.D.) marked the first time since the late June fight at the Little Bighorn that Crazy Horse had fought soldiers in large numbers. During those couple of months in between, avoiding a fight with the bluecoats had not been difficult. After learning of Lt. Col. George Custer’s shocking defeat, Generals Crook and Alfred Terry had been unwilling to take on the Lakotas until reinforcements had arrived. Meanwhile, the Lakotas had kept on the move, traveling mostly east and burning the grass behind them to deny forage to the horses of any soldiers who might follow.
After the Battle of Slim Buttes, Crazy Horse and his people went west to the Tongue River. They settled in for the winter near Hanging Woman Creek. ‘It snowed much; game was hard to find, and it was a hungry time for us,’ recalled Oglala holy man Black Elk, who was Crazy Horse’s cousin through marriage and just a teenager in 1876. ‘Ponies died, and we ate them. They died because the snow froze hard and they could not find enough grass that was left in the valleys and there was not enough cottonwood to feed them all. There had been thousands of us together that summer, but there were not two thousand now.’
Crazy Horse knew not only of Crook but also of Colonel Nelson A. Miles, who had established a cantonment at the mouth of the Tongue River (and would soon build Fort Keogh nearby). Miles, a veteran of the Red River War in Texas, had effectively campaigned against Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa Lakotas in October and November. By mid-December, Crazy Horse had come to agree with those Lakota leaders who said it was in their best interests to talk peace with Miles. A delegation of 25 Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes made the trip. As they drew close to Cantonment Tongue River, five of them went ahead, carrying two white flags of truce. To reach Miles’ headquarters, the peacemakers had to pass through a camp of Crow scouts. The Crows greeted the Lakotas, shaking their hands, but then, without warning, one of the Crows pulled a pistol and shot the Minneconjou Gets Fat With Beef. The Crows surrounded the others and killed them too.
The murders did not sit well with Miles, who ordered the remaining Crows disarmed and their horses seized. He sent the Lakotas the guns and the horses and a letter of apology, assuring them that the white men had nothing to do with the killings. Crazy Horse did not buy it. Clearly, the whites still could not be trusted, and he wanted revenge. Most of the other Indian leaders agreed with him. They held a council and decided to send a decoy party to draw the soldiers away from the post and into an ambush by the main body of warriors. A similar Lakota tactic at Fort Phil Kearney in 1866 had enabled Crazy Horse and friends to annihilate Captain William Fetterman’s force in the Fetterman Fight (also known as the Fetterman Massacre).