“I Took Part In The
Wounded Knee Massacre”
By Hugh McGinnis and Olive Glasgow
Editor’s Note: On March 23rd of this year, Hugh McGinnis, age 94 died. He was the last survivor of the 7th Cavalry which took part in the ghastly massacre lf Indians at Wounded Knee Creek. Before his death he gave his story of that massacre to Olive Glasgow. This is the story he told her.
The pitiful wailing cries of babies and children mixed with the dull explosions of the old fashioned Hotchkiss machine guns rent the cold air. The sickening thuds as these big lead bullets smashed into the body of a baby or a child, arms and head all flying in different directions.
The screams of mothers as machine gun bullets tore their bodies apart. The curses of the Indian warriors, fighting machine guns and cannons with old muskets, knives and tomahawks, being cut down in rows by demon-crazed white soldiers.
All this happened seventy-four years ago at Wounded Knee Creek where soldiers of the 7th cavalry massacred in cold blood Indian men, women and children. I am now ninety-four, the last surviving member of Troop K, 7th Cavalry. The seventy-four years have never completely erased the ghastly horror of that scene and I still awake at night from nightmarish dreams of that massacre. The news that I am the only surviving member of the 7th Cavalry at that massacre brings back many memories to me.
Originally whipped into shape by General George Custer, the 7th Cavalry became known as a crack troop of excellent men and mounts. So I was proud to be assigned to their ranks in November of 1890. The men were still trying to live up to the reputation garnered years before under Custer’s leadership and the rivalry between the troops resulted in well groomed animals and high morale among the soldiers. The spirited comradeship I enjoyed with those veteran campaigners is something I’ve never forgotten. So it gave me a strange hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach to learn that all those old frontier fighters have passed from the scene, and I alone was left.
I don’t believe there has ever been a period in history to equal the rapid changes and revolutionary progress that had been made during my lifetime. Recalling the past and the old army outposts takes me back to a far different world. Back to the days when horses provided the main means of transportation.
Stage coaches and covered wagons were the convenience of the day and travel through the wilderness meant jolting over deep ruts weaving through dusty plains, past bleaching buffalo bones and forlorn crosses that marked the tragedies along the pioneer trails.
Living was on a more elemental basis in those days. Hardship and suffering was an accepted part of existence. Ordinary creature comforts were considered luxuries in many cases and security was mainly a matter of dry powder and self reliance for those who ventured into strange territory. Yet, as regularly as the seasons rolled around,
From the Web Editor:
This site has been developed to honor Olive Flannery Glasgow, writer, teacher, historian and well known nature photographer of northern Wisconsin. Olive was raised in Forest County Wisconsin near Crandon. She lived with her husband, William Glasgow, at Crandon for many years. Here she raised two children, wrote several historical pieces which she had published, taught writing at a local community college, and more often found her way to the woods to photograph.
The piece was researched and written by Olive Flannery Glasgow in the earlier 1960s. Her neighbor was Hugh McGinnis, a north woodsman who worked for local lumber companies for many years. One of Hugh’s close friends in Crandon was John Smith, an elderly Native American. Twenty year old Hugh McGinnis was in the First Battalion of the Seventh cavalry at Wounded Knee, and was wounded twice. He was born April 11, 1870, died March 22, 1965 at the VA hospital, Iron Mountain, Michigan.
The following is part of the official testimony Hugh McGinnis gave into the investigation of the events. His account reads, in part,:
Soldier McGinnis: "Through the interpreter, Colonel Forsyth got down to the business at hand. But the Indians were very far from pleased when he requested them to surrender their arms. They argued that they needed their old fowling pieces to kill game in order o survive. This plea failed to move Colonel Forsyth, however, and he insisted that the Sioux go back to their tents and return with their weapons...Forsyth then detailed a number of soldiers to search the tents and confiscate the Indians arsenal. He picked five members of my troop to accompany Captain Varnum and several other chaps from troop B."
Soldier McGinnis: "The Sioux braves became agitated by the cries of their squaws, who attempted to prevent the soldiers from scattering their belongings..."
"...fantastic as it sounds, the surrounding troopers were firing wildly into this seething mass of humanity, subjecting us as well as the Indians to a deadly crossfire while the first volley from the Hotchkiss guns mowed down scores of women and children who had been watching the proceedings."
Few escaped the merciless slaughter dealt out that dreadful day by members of the Seventh cavalry. There was no discrimination of age or sex. Children as well as women with babes in their arms were brought down as far as two miles from the Wounded Knee Crossing.
There's an interesting commonality about the preceding testimony regarding what happened at Wounded Knee. The authors are all in agreement that Wounded Knee was a massacre. The other thing they have in common is that they are all white men: the two commanding generals in the field, a South Dakota governor, a United States Senator from South Dakota, the former Indian agent at Pine Ridge and two soldiers.
The article in its entirety has been reproduced from the original: Real West: True Tales of the American Frontier. A Charlton Publication, January 1966.
courageous hordes of whites formed caravans for the Westward trek, despite all the formidable hazards of the journey.
Nothing could stem the tide of civilization which swept relentlessly onward, over broken promises and treaties with the Indians, eventually destroying the entire economy of the red men.
All the elements necessary for and Indian revolt were present in 1890 but the Messiah War was actually the result of a tragic misunderstanding. And the repercussions, with the flare-up at Wounded Knee Creek, took a terrible toll in lives as that year drew to a close.
I recall pleasure in meeting Buffalo Bill Cody. A dashing, romantic figure of the times, this famous mustached scout accompanied General Nelson A. Miles when he came to question us in the hospital tents regarding the tragic engagement at Wounded Knee Creek.
But I am getting ahead of my story. I was born in Castlewallen, Ireland in 1870 and sailed to seek my fortune in the New World when I was but a stripling of seventeen. My dreams didn’t quite materialize an after holding several nondescript positions in New York and in St. Louis where my sister lived I enlisted in the service, in September of 1890 when I was 20 years old.
I spent my training period in the Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri. In those days a private’s pay was $13 a month with $4 being held for some reason I fail to recall. Our dress uniforms were something to write home about though. We sported big yellow plumes on our hats and our high collared blue uniforms were decorated with yellow braid and we made a pretty impressive show astride our mounts on the parade grounds.
This spit and polish parade bit soon drew to a close, however. I hadn’t been in service over a month before there were rumors of a Sioux uprising. Reports filtered in that the Indians were gathering in great numbers and conducting weird dances. Some said the dances were merely a manifestation of a new religious cult but since the Indians were painting themselves up and wearing strange garments many of the white settlers in Dakota became convinced the red men were about to go on the warpath.
The Sioux insisted this wasn’t the case, steadfastly claiming that the Wovka who had set himself up as the red men’s Messiah was a man of religion. Wovka reported having a vision that showed the white man vanishing from the face of the earth and under the circumstances I guess the Indians figured this was pretty good visioning for everything seemed to be going against them.
The Indian prophet promised his followers that the Lord would appear in 1890 and instructed them to dance in anticipation of their deliverance. This was how the ill-fated ghost dance religion was born.
Disconsolate over their existence on the reservation, the half starved Sioux became ardent advocates of this new cult. Sitting Bull invited Kicking Bear, who had consulted with Wovka, to visit his Grand River Camp in October and initiate his people into the rituals of the dance. As a result seven tribes totaling approximately 3,000 Indians gathered at his camp, painted their faces and donned the sacred ghost shirts to participate in the strange dances. The mass demonstrations continued for two weeks.
The Piauta prophet had stressed docility and peace until the day of their millennium arrived but certain whites feared Sitting Bull might utilize the frenzy of his people to promote a general revolt. So Sitting Bull was ordered to bring the dances to a halt. The old medicine man refused to tolerate any interference with religious practices however and the dancing continued.
The concentrations of painted dancers alarmed the settlers to such an extent that many fled to the Agency pleading for troop protection. Finally and apprehensive, inexperienced agent declared the situation out of hand and called on the War Department for help.
General Nelson A. Miles, Commander of the Military Department of the Missouri, was put in charge of the campaign to protect the settlers and prevent a serious outbreak of the Sioux. General Miles ordered battalions of troops out into the Black Hills until he had around 3,000 soldiers stationed at strategic points throughout the region.
Early in November a number of us new recruits were sent from the Jefferson Barracks to Fort Robinson and about two weeks later we moved out from that post with reinforcements to join General John R. Brooks at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. A few days after our arrival eight troops of the 7th Cavalry rode in under Col. James W. Forsyth from Fort Riley, Kansas.
I was placed in the First Battalion of the 7th Cavalry along with my buddy, Jim Christianson. We had a fine group of men in K troop and a fine officer in Capt. George Wallace who was a serious but just man. Lieut. Squire was our favorite officer, however, and a big cake his wife sent to our troop was the highlight of our Christmas celebration that bleak December.
Before our arrival at Pine Ridge, the Indian tents had stretched out for two miles around the agency, but the appearance of troops had panicked these Sioux and they fled to the Badlands, about fifty miles Northwest of the Agency. Eventually 3,000 Indians had gathered in the badlands to continue their dancing within that natural fortress.
Since Sitting Bull was considered the chief agitator of unrest it was hoped that his apprehension would solve the potential revolt. Buffalo Bill Cody, an old friend of the Chief, volunteered to try and persuade the medicine man to give himself up peaceably. General Miles consequently gave the old scout and order for the Shaman’s arrest and Cody set out, loaded down with trinkets and candy.
I never met Sitting Bull but I can clearly recall my visit with Buffalo Bill and I often wonder if all the subsequent bloodshed might have been avoided if Cody had been allowed to complete his mission. But McLaughlin, the Standing Rock Agent, as well as certain military men at the scene, didn’t favor Cody’s appointment
They preferred to handle the matter in their own way, so they plied the scout with grog in order to delay him until they could get his order recinded. Thus Cody’s hopes of reconciling the old Shaman with the inevitable necessity of compliance was nipped in the bud. And the fate of the former star of his Wild West Shows was sealed in blood.
For the official military attempt to capture Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890, resulted in a pitched battle. Uttering a shout of defiance, Sitting Bull was slain on his doorstep. And at the sound of gunfire his trained horse began to perform the old show act, convincing the superstitious Sioux that the spirit of their leader entered the animal.
Fugitives of this battle fled to Hump’s Camp on the fork of Cherry Creek and when Big Foot heard their report he and his band of 400 Sioux decided to flee enmasse to join their comrades in the badlands.
Mean while the Indians from the Rose Bud and Pine Ridge agencies had been surrounded in the Badlands by a cordon of troops and a parlay was finally arranged. Upon repeated assurances of better treatment in the future the hungry ghost dancers capitulated and on December 27th, the Sioux numbering around 3,000 were escorted back to the Pine Ridge Agency.
On this same day word was received that Big Foot’s band had eluded Colonel Sumner’s troops. So three troops, K, A, and B, were ordered out of the badlands. Under the leadership of Major S. M. Whitside, we were to bivouac that night at Wounded Knee Creek about eighteen miles from the Agency.
The mounted troopers dashed on ahead, capturing some Sioux stragglers enroute, while I and about fifteen other soldiers were detailed to march on foot and guard the supply train.
As I recall there were seven wagons in all, with four mules attached to each. But we all had to work like mules before we reached our journey’s end. Due to a thaw the hollows were spongy and the wagons kept miring down in the mud. While we pried with poles the mule skinners lashed the animals, turning the air blue with their fiery oaths.
Straining with all our might against one of the stalled wagons Murphey echoed the thought in many of our minds when he muttered, “We’d be like a bunch of sitting ducks if any Indians should come whooping over that hill.”
But despite the rough going we finally reached the welcome campfires of our comrades where got help in pitching the tents and food to fill the hollow cavities of our stomachs. Weary and footsore we were more than happy to turn into our buffalo robes.
“Keep your rifles within reach easy reach”, Captain Wallace commanded as we turned towards the tents.
“He can be mighty sure that’s one order that will be obeyed”, Murphey laughed as we walked off.
“Yeah”, Macque agreed, “I’ve become pretty attached to this mop of hair.”
Jim got right to the point. “Does make a fellow a mite uneasy to be out here in the middle of nowhere knowing there’s a spooked band of redskins here abouts.”
“Especially since its more than twice our number” Murphey added. It was enough to make any recruit apprehensive but my imagination gave way to exhaustion soon after I pulled the buffalo robe up over my ears.
In the morning, despite a snowstorm, scouts were dispatched to locate the fleeing band of Indians. The scouts returned after sighting the Sioux near Porcupine Creek about nine miles from our camp.
Major Whitside galloped off with the seasoned troopers, leaving me behind again. This time several of us had been detailed to guard the camp and the prisoners captured the previous day. We waited uneasily in camp, momentarily expecting the sound of gunfire in the distance.
“Talk about frustrating,” Macque muttered, scuffing the snow with the tip of his boot. “I’d like to be out there with them. And know what’s going on.”
“I know what you mean” Murphey exclaimed. “Suppose they’ll run into any trouble?”
“Such as ambush?” one of the other fellows piped up.
“Or another Custer massacre?” Macque interjected, pinpointing the dread in most of our minds.
We had heard much about this tragedy since joining the 7th Cavalry. For the memory of this massacre was still fresh in the memory of veterans who had previously served under the flamboyant General and they rehashed every angle of the battle at the drop of a hat. In fact it was later claimed that the urge for revenge in the hearts of these veteran troopers triggered the action at Wounded Knee Creek. I can’t go along with this theory but this is getting ahead of my story.
As it turned our Big Foot’s band, puzzled to find that their cohorts had vacated the badlands, had paused to ponder their next move and Major Whitside settled the debate for them. Although the Indians were ready to put up a fight they discovered that the troops had surrounded them behind the curtain of snow.
Escorted by our troops, the bedraggled band came straggling in through the snowstorm late that afternoon. The Sioux had several wagons and a number of shaggy ponies pulling travois followed by squalid squaws and ragged children, all suffering from hunger and cold.
They camped, as directed, on the open plain in front of a dry ravine and erected a white flag of truce between the Chief’s tent and wagon. I wandered over to the Indian campsite that evening out of curiosity and watched them wolf down the food dispensed by our cooks.
Ravaged by the elements and the hardship of their flight the Sioux were a desperate looking lot. Wet snow had smeared the paint remaining on the faces of some of the Sioux since their last ghost dance giving them a ghastly appearance. And with the flickering light of the campfire flames playing over such fierce visages one could readily credit the validity of the bloodcurdling tales of Indian depredations that were being circulated throughout the camp this night.
Word of the band’s capture had naturally been sent to the agency immediately. And since General Brooks was determined to keep the Sioux from slipping through his fingers he sent four additional troops of the 7th Cavalry under Col. James Forsyth along with a company of Indian scouts to insure the bands of detention. Their arrival swelled our ranks to 470 men.
Still I was mighty thankful I didn’t have to stand guard duty around the restless camp the blustery night. Company A under Capt. Myles Moylan drew this detail.
A coyote howled in the distance, making the hair raise on the back of my neck as Jim and I headed for the tents, followed by Macque and Murphey.
Stretched out beneath the buffalo robes, with the wind howling eerily around the tent I couldn’t help but think of Capt. Moylan. A man who had risen from the ranks, Moylan was not popular with his men, but we could be certain he would keep the sentries alert for the slightest hint of tricks or treachery on the part of the Sioux. For I had no doubt since he seriously served under Custer, that the memory of massacre of the 7th at the Little Big Horn fourteen years before kept him company throughout the interminable tension filled the night.
The hours dragged by without incident however and both camps were astir at dawn. It was a raw day with a cutting wind from the North, and a person had to keep stirring if he wanted to keep warm. Consequently I was glad to help with the morning chores. I carried water from the Creek so the cooks could make coffee while Col. Forsyth and the other officers were discussing preparations to disarm the Indians.
Since Big Foot’s band had been rounded up before and had managed to slip away from the troops, Col. Forsyth decided to take every precautionary measure possible to discourage resistance of escape. But as things turned out his strategy proved deadly as far as his own men were concerned.
Seventy-six men from A and I troops were stationed around the encampment on the foot. A company of scouts was lined up on the South bank of the ravine backed up by two companies of mounted troops, D and C. Then the camp was flanked on the East by G troop, on the West by E troop and a battery of Hotchkiss guns were mounted on a rise overlooking the camp. These deadly guns, capable of firing 2 lb. explosive shells at the rate of 50 per minute, were trained directly on the cluster of Indian tents.
Soldiers in my troop as well as those in B troop were dismounted and ordered to stand guard a short distance from Chief Big Foot’s tent where the parley was to be held.
We stood at attention shortly before 8 o’clock while the officers assembled and were joined by Father Craft and Dr. Glennan. Through an interpreter Col. Forsyth had the Indians ordered to their tents. Clutching blankets to protect themselves from the cruel wind, the braves came forward and squatted in a semi-circle on the ground facing the officers with their backs toward us.
Women and children were ordered to one side and they gathered in front of the tents to watch the spectacle. Then the ailing Chief was carried from his tent and propped up in his blankets at the foot of our flag pole.
Through the interpreters Col. Forsyth got right down to the business at hand. The Indians were far from pleased when he requested them to surrender their guns. They argued that they needed their old fowling pieces in order to hunt game to keep from starving. Their plea failed to move Col. Forsyth however and he insisted that the Sioux return to their tents and return with their weapons. After considerable debate several scowling braves departed and returned carrying two old blunder busses which they declared to be the only guns in their possession. This ruse was doomed to failure however for Forsyth then detailed a number of soldiers to search the tents and confiscate their arsenal. He picked up five members of my troop to accompany Cpt. Varnum and several chaps from B troop.
Outraged squaws resisted this procedure, and the Sioux braves became agitated by the cries of the women. Capitalizing on the tension and confusion, Yellow Bird, the medicine man began prancing up and down in front of the braves, blowing on an eagle bone whistle and chanting in the Sioux tongue. I can remember some of the soldiers laughing at his antics. We probably wouldn’t have thought it so funny if we’d known as I learned later, that he was urging the braves to fight, declaring they had nothing to fear since their sacred ghost shirts were bullet proof. Then as some of our men moved forward at Col. Forsyth’s orders to search the blanketed braves, the medicine man reached down, scooped up a hand full of dirt and flung it into the air. This was the traditional summons to battle, but what happened next is a mystery to me and I have to depend on the reports of others.
I was standing too far back to witness the incident, but several soldiers testified that when one of their number whipped back the blanket of one of the braves he exposed a cocked rifle. In the struggle for possession of the weapon the gun accidentally discharged.
It was as if someone had dropped a match into a powder keg. The whole field exploded into action. Warriors discarded blankets in a flash to reveal hidden weapons and whirled to fight. We were firing at each other at point blank range. With bloodcurdling war whoops, braves without guns rushed us in an attempt to hack their way through our ranks with knives, hatchets and warclubs. They were determined to reach their horses, and our troop taking the brunt of the attack, was simply cut to pieces.
The white hot fury of this mad melee defies my attempts at description. The air was rent with savage cries and the thunder of cannon, and the nostrils were assailed with the stench of burnt powder and blood. In our frantic struggle with the swarming Sioux, we were unaware that our position had become doubly untenable. But fantastic as it sounds, the surrounding troopers were firing into this seething mass of humanity, subjecting us as well as the Indians to a deadly crossfire.
In the midst of this whirling bedlam I had no time to check my left arm when the first bullet struck home. Then another slug tore through my thigh. A third bullet smashed the butt of my rifle and I was face to face with a raging Sioux. Using the gun as a club I warded off a murderous blow then went spinning to the ground, weak from the loss of blood spouting from my wounds. Father Craft’s face swam before my eyes as I blacked out. An Indian stabbed the priest in the back as he was bending over me administering the last rights in the din of battle.
I don’t believe I lost consciousness for more than a couple of minutes but when I came to the tide of battle was already flowing past. While some of the braves were still sharpshooting from the tents, others had managed to reach their ponies and were racing across the plains. But the bulk of the Sioux were fleeing helter-skelter for shelter in the ravine.
The first blasts of the cannons which had been trained on the teepees had mowed down women and children, and now that the Hotchkiss guns had been turned into a position to sweep the ravine the Indians were cut down in droves. Those that escaped this merciless hail of lead fled in terror over the plains with the troopers in hot pursuit.
That battlefield was a terrible thing to behold. The memory is still enough to make me shudder. I was lying in a pool of blood, surrounded by the shattered bodies of my comrades. Father Craft, stabbed through the lungs was lying nearby. Jim was in terrible shape, with a gaping wound in his chest. Murphey was dead, Macque had been shot through the heart and our Captain was crumpled on the snow near the center of the ring. The only officer killed in the foray, Captain George Wallace, had sustained four bullet wounds only to die from the skull-crushing blow of a warclub.
Lying there among the wounded and the dying I was concerned about my own chance for survival. I had lost a lot of blood. My arm throbbed with every beat of my heart and my thigh was a pulpy mess. The corpsmen moved rapidly in among us however, carrying the wounded to a nearby knoll. They laid me with my head slanted toward the bottom of the incline to keep the remaining blood near my heart.
I was surrounded by the moans of the wounded, the cries for water from soldiers suffering as I was from loss of blood. And there was the keening of grieving squaws moving among their dead while the gunfire continued in the distance.
The Doctor shook his head when he examined my thigh. “Afraid it smashed the bone,” he said, and I had ghastly visions of my leg sawed off right there on the battlefield. But with so many clamoring for medical attention they had no time for more than emergency measures. For it seemed no member of our troop had escaped that holocaust unscathed. Those who hadn’t been killed had been injured.
The Indians fared far worse that bleak day however. The Sioux Chief had been slain in his blankets at the foot of our flag pole and the bodies of his people of his people littered the plains as far as the eye could see. General Nelson A. Miles who visited the scene of carnage, following a three day blizzard, estimated that around 300 snow shrouded forms were strewn over the countryside. He also discovered to his horror that helpless children and women with babes in their arms had been chased as far as two miles from the original scene of encounter and cut down without mercy by the troopers.
The fact that some Indians were clinging to life despite wounds and exposure was astounding. Among the survivors were three babies that had been shielded from the demons until death claimed their mothers. One of the infants, that we dubbed “The Lost Waif of Wounded Knee”, miraculously survived the ordeal and was later adopted by General Colby.
Colonel Forsyth was relieved of his command for a time as a result of the battle but he was later reinstated since the responsibility for the blood bath could never be conclusively established. Among conflicting reports brought out was the belief by some that the massacre was the result of the veteran troopers desire to avenge Custer, while others felt that the conflagration was ignited by nervous recruits. Judging by the slaughter on the battlefield it was suggested that the soldiers simply went berserk. For who could explain such a merciless disregard for life?
During the investigation of the deplorable debacle General Miles and Buffalo Bill visited the wounded in the hospital tents, interrogating us at great length to get our versions of the tragic affair. I’m afraid I wasn’t much help to them.
As I see it the battle was more or less a matter of spontaneous combustion, sparked by mutual distrust.
“Did you hear a command to fire?” General Miles asked each in turn. No one had. And it wasn’t easy to explain to General Miles exactly how I felt about it at the time. But the situation was out of control the minute that accidental shot went off. It was like a condition reflex, a matter of self preservation. Just like the rest of the men in the outfit, I wanted to keep my scalp, and in the panic that followed that shot I fought instinctively till I fell.
I consider myself fortunate to have escaped this historic battle with my life and limbs. It was discovered that the bullet which ripped through my thigh missed both the main artery as well as the bone. So after a lengthy convalescence I was discharged from the service with a partial disability pension along with my memories of the blood and thunder massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.
Picture on right submitted by Olive Glasgow for the Forest Republican-Crandon [Wisconsin] April 13, 2005. P.7.