The massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on Dec. 29, 1890 left most of the frightened and destitute band of 350 Lakota Sioux dead or wounded, including women and nursing babies, children and the elderly. Some were shot in the back as they tried to flee. A number of soldiers were killed by friendly fire.
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Appalled by the carnage, including the loss of 25 of his own men, General Nelson Miles investigated, zeroing in on the bungling of the Seventh Cavalry’s Col. James Forsyth. Soldiers came to his defense, saying that they couldn’t tell the men from the women since all were wearing blankets, and that, in any case, “A Sioux squaw is as bad an enemy as a man.”
When the report was sent to Secretary of War Redfield Proctor, General John Schofield, the Commander of the Army, attached a note saying the troops had clearly bent over backwards to avoid killing women and children, while also denying that any troops had died in friendly fire.
The final report exonerated U.S. soldiers and blamed the massacre on the Sioux themselves, with many of the dead women and children supposedly killed by other Indians.
For conspicuous bravery, 20 soldiers present at the massacre were awarded the Medal of Honor.
I spoke with Heather Cox Richardson, author of “Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre,” on the following topics:
1. Destitute Refugee Band
2. Corrupt Election
3. Ghost Dance
4. Death of Sitting Bull
5. Spinning the Massacre
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)