Nelson Miles

Nelson Miles

Nelson Appleton Miles was born in Massachusetts on 8th August, 1839. He joined the army and in September, 1861, was commissioned as a first lieutenant of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. During the American Civil War Miles fought as a member of the Union Army. He took part in all the major campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. Miles was wounded four times and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

After the war Miles became colonel of the 40th Infantry. For the next 15 years he took part in the Indian Wars on the Plains and the Far West. In July 1874 Miles was appointed field commander in the Red River War against the Comanches, Kiowas and Cheyennes. By June 1875 his soldiers had established peace on the South Plains.

In 1876 Miles was transferred to the North Plains where he fought against the Sioux. He pursued Sitting Bull and his warriors to the Canadian border. The following year he led the 5th Infantry against the Nez Percé in the Bear Paw Mountains and eventually forced Chief Joseph and his warriors to surrender.

In December, 1880, Miles was appointed Brigadier General and was given command of the Department of the Platte. He replaced Major General George Crook as commander of the Department of Arizona in 1886. He now had the task of dealing with Geronimo and the Apaches. Crook had tried to persuade the Apache leader to take part in peace negotiations. Miles attempted to defeat Geronimo by military means. This strategy was also unsuccessful and eventually he resorting to Crook's strategy of offering a negotiated deal. In September 1886 Geronimo signed a peace treaty with Miles and the last of the Indian Wars was over.

In 1888 Miles took command of the Division of the Pacific and two years later returned to direct military operations on the Northern Plains. Based in Chicago Miles was now commander of the Division of Missouri. In April 1890 he was promoted to the rank of Major General and was commander of field operations during the massacre of Sioux at Wounded Knee. He was appalled by what had happened and described it as a "unjustifiable massacre" and instigated a court of inquiry into the affair. Miles relieved James W. Forsyth of his command. The Secretary of War disagreed with this decision and exonerated Forsyth and restored him to his command.

Miles became commander in chief of the army in 1890 and during the Spanish American War led the troops in Puerto Rico. He retired from the army in August, 1903. Miles published two books about his military career, Personal Recollections and Observations (1896) and Serving the Republic (1911).

Nelson Appleton Miles died in Washington on 25th May, 1925.

Primary Sources

(1) Nelson A. Miles, Personal Recollections and Observations (1896)

The downfall of the Confederacy left more than three million black people free under the Proclamation of the President,

but without ground enough to stand upon. They were congregated in large camps or remained in little slave-huts under the shadow of their former masters' mansions, and continued to toil, in most cases with the promise of some compensation. No one could tell what their status would be in the future. The black population of the country had furnished nearly two hundred thousand men who served in the Union army and navy, and who performed their duty with fidelity and fortitude. Their dead and wounded fell on many hard-fought fields, notwithstanding the threat of the enemy, of no quarter for the officers and slavery for the men in case of capture. Although at the close of the war many believed that free labor would be a failure in the South, yet it has proved a success. It has furnished the principal labor element in those States for the development of the great resources of that part of our country. No one can tell what is to be the future of a race that has nearly trebled its numbers in the last four decades, and in point of education, general intelligence, and acquired property, has vastly exceeded its increase in numbers. The great problem is yet to be solved, but its solution will be best accomplished if absolute even-handed justice prevails. The race is not responsible for its being here, nor for its present condition. Its future will depend largely upon its own people.

(2) Nelson A. Miles, Report on the condition of black people in North Carolina (9th October, 1867)

The great foundation of all prosperity and perpetuity of our institutions and country is education. From it, as a standpoint, arises everything that is great and noble in us. The importance of the educational and moral improvement of a race heretofore entirely debarred of its benefits was early considered. The colored people are alive to their deficiencies, and with an energy and enthusiasm unbounded have seconded the efforts made, and are rapidly disenthralling themselves from the chains of ignorance. The gain during the year was 101 schools, 145 teachers, and 8,527 pupils. Much depends upon the influence and guidance given to the colored people in their new condition of life. If they are left to fall into habits of idleness and prodigality, are wronged and oppressed, their condition will become deplorable and they will be a curse to themselves and the community. On the contrary, if they are treated with justice and humanity, proper example and the advantages of education given them, the coming years will be as bright and prosperous to the unfortunate race as the past has been dark and painful.

Twenty-five thousand are reported in the schools of North Carolina. If not these, their children, under the influence of increased facilities, will become so far enlightened as to be enabled to grasp the great object of progressive Christianity and become the elevators and civilizers of Africa, and accomplish what generations have failed to achieve, sending back to the land of their forefathers from whence they were stolen, "the Word of Life," thus making the "wrath of man to praise Him." Strange indeed that events and influences so antagonistic to every principle of justice and humanity should be made the engine of power in frustrating the designs of the despoiler and in effecting the final good of the victims of the slave-ship. The problem that has so long baffled the Christian world is about to be solved in making her sons the means of her civilization and salvation.

A Christian people who have for two hundred years kept a race in bondage, deprived of the advantages of civilization and religion, owe them a debt of gratitude which it would seem ungenerous to withhold. The colored people have contributed so much to the wealth and prosperity of this country and furnished so many soldiers for its defense in its hour of danger, that the least we can do is to afford them every advantage for enlightenment and improvement here in. the land in which we have placed them, and in the future, should their attention be turned to their native country, extend to them every encouragement and support which an independent and powerful nation can afford.

(3) Nelson A. Miles, Personal Recollections and Observations (1896)

The troops were occasionally occupied in pursuing scattered bands going north or south, and on three occasions the large camp of Sitting Bull ventured south of the Canadian border, and important expeditions were sent against them. The troops made several captures of Indians, and by kind and just treatment succeeded in gaining their goodwill. Some of these Indians were sent back to the hostile camps with a demand for their surrender. In small and large bodies they came in and surrendered, until our camp numbered over two thousand, including many of the most noted warriors - Rain-in-the-Face, Spotted Eagle, Broad Trail, Kicking Bear, and others. Finally Sitting Bull, Gall, and the remnant of the hostile camp surrendered at Forts Peck and Buford.

These wild Indians took the greatest interest in watching the industry, customs, and mode of life of the white race; seeing the soldiers at long-range rifle practice, watching them construct roads and telegraph lines, build bridges and buildings. The telegraph and telephone astonished them more than anything else.

To illustrate to the Indians the advantages the white race had in the telephone I divided a body of warriors from Sitting Bull's camp into two parties and had them talk to each other over the telephone line. When they recognized the voices of their comrades a long distance away, speaking the Dakota language, they were overwhelmed with awe and astonishment. Notwithstanding the fact that an Indian scorns to show any emotion, huge drops of perspiration coursed down their bronze faces and with trembling hands they laid the instrument down and asked to go away from what they evidently regarded as an unknown power. They gave it an appropriate name when they called it "the whispering spirit."

(4) Nelson A. Miles, The Indian Problem, North American Review (March, 1879)

Strange as it may appear, it is nevertheless a fact that after nearly four hundred years of conflict between the European and American races for supremacy on this continent, a conflict in which war and peace have alternated almost as frequently as the seasons, we still have presented the question, "What shall be done with the Indian?" Wise men differ in opinion, journalists speculate, divines preach, and statesmen pronounce it still a vexed question.

If the graves of the thousands of victims who have fallen in the terrible wars of the two races had been placed in line the philanthropist might travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Lakes to the Gulf, and be constantly in sight of green mounds. And yet we marvel at the problem as if some new question of politics or morals had been presented. The most amusing part of the quandary, however, is that it should be regarded as something new and original. After every generation had, in its time, contended on deadly fields with the hope of settling the question, after the home governments had enacted laws, and the colonies had framed rules, every succeeding administration of our government has been forced to meet the difficulty, every Congress has discussed the "Indian Question," and we are still face to face with the perplexing problem. The real issue in the question which is now before the American people is whether we shall ever begin again the vacillating and expensive policy that has marred our fair name as a nation and a Christian people, or devise some way of still improving the practical and judicious system by which we can govern a quarter of a million of our population, secure and maintain their loyalty, raise them from the darkness of barbarism to the light of civilization, and put an end forever to these interminable and expensive Indian wars.

In considering the subject it might be well to first examine the causes which governed so long the condition of affairs, and if in doing so the writer shall allude to some of the sins of his own race it will be only in order that an unbiased judgment may be formed on both sides of the question.

It will be remembered that one class or race is without representation and has not the advantages of the press or telegraph to bring it into communication with the intelligence of the world, and that it has seldom been heard except in the cry of alarm and conflict along the Western frontier. If we dismiss from our minds the prejudice we may have against the Indians we shall be able to more clearly understand the impulses that govern both races. Sitting Bull, the war chief of the Dakota Nation, uttered one truth when he said that "there was not one white man who loved an Indian and not an Indian but who hated a white man."

Could we but perceive the true character of the Indians, and learn what their dispositions are when not covered by the cloak of necessity, policy, and interest, we should find that they have always regarded us as a body of false and cruel invaders of their country, while we in turn are too apt to consider them as a treacherous and bloodthirsty race, who should be destroyed by any and all means. If we now fairly consider the cause of this feeling we may more readily understand its results.

The more we study the Indian's character the more we appreciate the marked distinction between the civilized being and the real savage. Yet we shall find that the latter is, after all, governed by the impulses and motives that govern all other men. The want of confidence and the bitter hatred existing between the two races have been engendered by the warfare that has lasted for centuries, and by the stories of bad faith, cruelty, and wrong handed down by tradition from father to son until they have become second nature in both. It is unfair to suppose that one party has invariably acted rightly, and that the other is responsible for every wrong that has been committed. We might recount the treachery of the red man, the atrocities of his crimes, the cruelties of his tortures, and the hideousness of many of his savage customs. We might undertake to estimate the number of his victims, and to picture the numberless valleys which he has illumined by the burning homes of hardy frontiersmen, yet at the same time the other side of the picture might appear equally black with injustice.

One hundred years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the Spanish government issued a decree authorizing the enslavement of the American Indian as in accord with the law of God and man. Later they were transported to France, to San Domingo, and other Spanish colonies, were sold into slavery in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Louisiana, and were hunted with dogs in Connecticut and Florida. Practically disfranchised by our original Constitution, and deprived either by war or treaty of nearly every tract of land which to them was desirable and to the white man valuable, they were the prey to the grasping avarice of both Jew and Gentile. Step by step a powerful and enterprising race has driven them back from the Atlantic to the West until at last there is scarcely a spot of ground upon which the Indians have any certainty of maintaining a permanent abode.

It may be well in this connection to remember the fact that in the main the Europeans were kindly treated by the natives when the former first landed on American shores, and when they came to make a permanent settlement were supplied with food, particularly the Plymouth and Portsmouth colonists, which enabled them to endure the severity of the long and cheerless winters. For a time during the early settlement of this country peace and goodwill prevailed, only to be followed later by violent and relentless warfare.

Our relations with the Indians have been governed chiefly by treaties and trade, or war and subjugation. By the first we have invariably overreached the Indians, and we find the record of broken promises all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, while many of the fortunes of New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco can be traced directly to Indian tradership. By war the natives have been steadily driven toward the setting sun - a subjugated, a doomed race. In council the race has produced men of character and intellect, and orators and diplomats of decided ability, while in war they have displayed courage and sagacity of a high order. Education, science, and the resources of the world have enabled us to overcome the savages, and they are now at the mercy of their conquerors. In our treaty relations most extravagant and yet sacred promises have been given by the highest authorities, and these have been frequently disregarded. The intrusions of the white race and the non- compliance with treaty obligations have been followed by atrocities that could alone satisfy a savage and revengeful spirit. Facts that have been already referred to make it almost impossible for the two conflicting elements to harmonize. No administration could stop the tidal wave of immigration that swept over the land; no political party could restrain or control the enterprise of our people, and no reasonable man could desire to check the march of civilization.

Our progress knew no bounds. The thirst for gold and the restless desire to push beyond the western horizon have carried our people over every obstacle. We have reclaimed the wilderness and made the barren desert glisten with golden harvest; settlements now cover the hunting-ground of the savages; their country has been cut and divided in every conceivable form by the railroads and telegraph lines and routes of communication and commerce, and the Indians, standing in the pathway of progress and the development of the wonderful resources of this country, have become the common enemy and have been driven to the remote places of our territory.

During the time that this wonderful change was being wrought it may be asked if the Indians as a body have made any progress toward civilization, and in the light of past history we would be prompted to reply, " Why should they have abandoned the modes of life which nature had given them to adopt the customs of their enemies?"

In seeking the evidences of enlightenment the results are not satisfactory. It is presumed that there is not a race of wild men on the face of the globe which worships the Great Spirit more in accordance with that religion taught in the days of the patriarchs than the natives of this country, and yet after many years of contact with the civilized people the footprints of evil were as plentiful and as common as the evidences of Christianity. Again, in early days the Indians were, to a considerable extent, tillers of the soil, but by constant warfare, in which their fields were devastated and their crops destroyed, they have become a mere remnant of their former strength, or were pushed out on the vast plains of the West, where they subsisted upon wild fruits and the flesh of animals. Could we obtain accurate statistics we would undoubtedly find that there were more acres of ground cultivated by the Indians one hundred years ago than at the present time. The white race had finally obtained such complete control of every quarter of the country, and the means of communication with every section became so ample, that the problem resolved itself into one or the other of two modes of solution - viz., to entirely destroy the race by banishment and extermination, or to adopt some humane and practicable method of improving the condition of the Indians, and in the end make them part and parcel of our great population. The first proposition, though it was found to have thousands of advocates in different sections of the country, was and is too abhorrent to every sense of humanity to be considered. The other method was regarded as practicable, but its adoption was considered doubtful.

Looking at the purpose of our government toward the Indians, we find that after subjugating them it has been our policy to collect the different tribes on reservations and support them at the expense of our people. The Indians have, in the main, abandoned the hope of driving back the invaders of their territory, yet there are still some who cherish the thought, and, strange as it may seem, it is a fact that the most noted leader among the Indians advanced such a proposition to the writer within the last few years. They had long stood, and mostly still stand, in the position of unruly children to indulgent parents for whom they have little respect, at times wrongly indulged and again unmercifully punished.

Coming down to our direct or immediate relations with them, we find that our policy has been to make them wards of the nation, to be held under close military surveillance, or else to make them pensioners under no other restraint than the influence of one or two individuals. Living under the government, yet without any legitimate government, without any law and without any physical power to control them, what better subjects or more propitious fields could be found for vice and crime?

We have committed our Indian matters to the custody of an Indian bureau which for many years was a part of the military establishment of the government; but for political reasons and to promote party interests, this bureau was transferred to the Department of the Interior. Whether or not our system of Indian management has been a success during the past ten, fifty, or hundred years is almost answered in the asking. The Indians, the frontiersmen, the army stationed in the West, and the readers of the daily news in all parts of our country can answer that question. There is another question that is frequently asked: Why has our management of Indian affairs been less successful than that of our neighbors across the northern boundary? - and it can be answered in a few words. Their system is permanent, decided, and just. The tide of immigration in Canada has not been as great as along our frontier. They have been able to allow the Indians to live as Indians, which we have not, and do not attempt to force upon them the customs which are distasteful to them.

(5) Nelson A. Miles, speech, Leavenworth, Kansas (4th July, 1876)

These are hallowed moments, when every American has reason to express his gratitude to Almighty God that it has been our good fortune to witness the light of this auspicious morn. That we are permitted to register the close of one century of our national existence and to welcome the coming century which we trust will excel the old in its record of human achievements and enlightenment.

This is indeed an occasion in which the heart of every American can feel a conscious pride in our father's valor and political wisdom. One hundred years ago today a few brave and noble men delivered to the world their belief in the practicability of self-government and enunciated principles that have given to the people of this country greater blessings and the world more beneficent influences than the action of any political body since the world began. The condition of this nation and people today is the fruit of their patriotic work; the wonderful progress and unprecedented happiness of the past century are but the result of their purity of thought, simplicity of life, and devotion to the welfare of their fellowmen. With this centennial, time sets its enduring seal upon the purity and perpetuity of our form of government. The world has never witnessed a more magnificent, instructive, and glorious scene than the one being enacted on this continent this very day and hour. Could we but see our countrymen, far up in the pine forests of the North, or the rice and cotton fields of the South, on these rich prairies and lofty mountains of the great West, we would behold them celebrating one of the most important events in the history of the human family. In the dense metropolis or the humblest cot in the land, from the hearts and lips of forty millions of America's free men there ascends to Heaven one grand anthem of thanksgiving. Shouts of victory over prejudice, past animosities, and internal discords swell the gale, while the breezes are laden with the songs of gratitude for one hundred years of freedom, happiness, and prosperity. Fortunately, the people who accomplished this mighty work were not of one country, race, or religion; hence we can extend our influence and sympathy to all races and nationalities - to the people of all countries, who are struggling for freedom and enlightenment; and more especially do we extend our sympathy and congratulations to that grand and courteous nation whose people, one hundred years ago, gave us material encouragement and support; neither do we cherish any feelings of animosity, but rather those of friendship and reverence for the people of that mighty empire that has done so much to extend the light of civilization throughout the world.

(6) Nelson A. Miles, report published as commander of the Department of Columbia (1885)

That Congress should authorize the President to appoint a commission of three experienced, competent men, empowered to treat with the different tribes; to consider all legal or just claims to titles; to grant to the Indian occupants of the Territory such tracts of land in severalty as might be required for their support, but not transferable for twenty years; that their title to the remainder be so far extinguished as that it might be held in trust or sold by the government, and that a sufficient amount of the proceeds should be granted them to indemnify them for any interest they might possess in the lands; that enough of said proceeds be provided to enable the Indians in the Territory to become self-sustaining; the land not required for Indian occupation to be thrown open for settlement under the same laws and rules as had been applied to the public domain.

(7) Nelson A. Miles, letter to the Secretary of State for War (1890)

The causes that led to the serious disturbance of the peace in the northwest last autumn and winter were so remarkable that an explanation of them is necessary in order to comprehend the seriousness of the situation. The Indians assuming the most threatening attitude of hostility were the Cheyennes and Sioux. Their condition my be stated as follows: For several years following their subjugation in 1877, 1878, and 1879 the most dangerous element of the Cheyennes and the Sioux were under military control. Many of them were disarmed and dismounted; their war ponies were sold and the proceeds returned to them in domestic stock, farming utensils, wagons, etc. Many of the Cheyennes, under the charge of military officers, were located on land in accordance with the laws of Congress, but after they were turned over to civil agents and the vase herds of buffalo and large game had been destroyed their supplies were insufficient, and they were forced to kill cattle belonging to white people to sustain life.

The fact that they had not received sufficient food is admitted by the agents and the officers of the government who have had opportunities of knowing. The majority of the Sioux were under the charge of civil agents, frequently changed and often inexperienced. Many of the tribes became rearmed and remounted. They claimed that the government had not fulfilled its treaties and had failed to make large enough appropriations for their support; that they had suffered for want of food, and the evidence of this is beyond question and sufficient to satisfy any unprejudiced intelligent mind. The statements of officers, inspectors, both of the military and the Interior departments, of agents, of missionaries, ad civilians familiar with their condition, leave no room for reasonable doubt that this was one of the principal causes. While statements may be made as to the amount of money that has been expended by the government to feed the different tribes, the manner of distributing those appropriations will furnish one reason for the deficit.

The unfortunate failure of the crops in the plains country during the years of 1889 and 1890 added to the distress and suffering of the Indians, and it was possible for them to raise but very little from the ground for self-support; in fact, white settlers have been most unfortunate, and their losses have been serious and universal throughout a large section of that country. They have struggled on from year to year; occasionally they would raise good crops, which they were compelled to sell at low prices, while in the season of drought their labor was almost entirely lost. So serious have been their misfortunes that thousands have left that country within the last few years, passing over the mountains to the Pacific slope or returning to the east of the Missouri or the Mississippi.

The Indians, however, could not migrate from one part of the United States to another; neither could they obtain employment as readily as white people, either upon or beyond the Indian reservations. They must remain in comparative idleness and accept the results of the drought-an insufficient supply of food. This created a feeling of discontent even among the loyal and well disposed and added to the feeling of hostility of the element opposed to every process of civilization.

(8) Nelson A. Miles, telegram to Senator Henry Dawes (19th December, 1890)

You may be assured of the following facts that can not be gainsaid:

First. The forcing process of attempting to make large bodies of Indians self-sustaining when the government was cutting down their rations and their crops almost a failure, is one cause of the difficulty.

Second. While the Indians were urged and almost forced to sign a treaty presented to them by the commission authorized by Congress, in which they gave up a valuable portion of their reservation which is now occupied by white people, the government has failed to fulfill its part of the compact, and instead of an increase or even a reasonable supply for their support, they have been compelled to live on half and two-thirds rations, and received nothing for the surrender of their lands, neither has the government given any positive assurance that they intend to do any differently with them in the future.

Congress has been in session several weeks and could, if it were disposed, in a few hours confirm the treaties that its commissioners have made with these Indians and appropriate the necessary funds for its fulfillment, and thereby give an earnest of their good faith or intention to fulfill their part of the compact. Such action, in my judgment, is essential to restore confidence with the Indians and give peace and protection to the settlements. If this be done, and the President authorized to place the turbulent and dangerous tribes of Indians under the control of the military, Congress need not enter into details, but can safely trust the military authorities to subjugate and govern, and in the near future make self-sustaining, any or all of the Indian tribes of this country.

(9) Nelson A. Miles, telegram to General John Schofield (19th December, 1890)

Replying to your long telegram, one point is of vital importance-the difficult Indian problem can not be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment by Congress of the treaty obligations which the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing. They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost a total failure. The disaffection is widespread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses. Serious difficulty has been gathering for years. Congress has been in session several weeks and could in a single hour confirm the treaties and appropriate the necessary funds for their fulfillment, which their commissioners and the highest officials of the government have guaranteed to these people, and unless the officers of the army can give some positive assurance that the government intends to act in good faith with these people, the loyal element will be diminished and the hostile element increased. If the government will give some positive assurance that it will fulfill its part of the understanding with these 20,000 Sioux Indians, they can safely trust the military authorities to subjugate, control, and govern these turbulent people, and I hope that you will ask the Secretary of War and the Chief Executive to bring this matter directly to the attention of Congress.