Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Researching the Dead at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery

References to Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery appear in my links below because my students used to research some of the dead buried there. The assignment required that the students determine what significance the date of death might have had by providing evidence and making inferences. Students who were thwarted in their research had the option of showing the steps they took to research the person.

When I first created the writing assignment, I was discovering as much about Kansas history as my students. One of my students that first semester chose to research the Kidder Massacre and wanted to know more about the soldiers and Indian guide who are buried together at Fort Leavenworth (their bodies having been buried originally at Fort Wallace until the fort closed down. The majority of the military dead at Fort Wallace were disinterred and transported to Fort Leavenworth for burial). At the time, I wasn’t much help and suggested that she try contacting a state historian. I’m not supposed to have all of the answers.

After a year or so, once I completed the reading myself, I began placing books on reserve at the college library and suggested that the students choose specific people, such as Frederick Wyllyams or Lieutenant Grattan, instead of trying to choose someone at random during our field trip to the cemetery. Some of the students listened to me. I ended up discontinuing the assignment, after four years, however, because the students found the research daunting and preferred to use dubious Internet sites instead of what I had made available. The students didn’t share my enthusiasm for specific events in Kansas history and didn’t want to know more about the region where they live or how the conflict between the indigenous people and the military reflects the American attitude of ethnocentrism, entitlement, and racism.


Barnitz, Albert and Jennie. Life in Custer’s Cavalry: Diaries and Letters of Albert and Jennie Barnitz, 1867-1868. Ed. Robert M. Utley. Lincoln: Bison-UP of Nebraska, 1977.

Offers a first person account of the attack on Fort Wallace in 1867, including Frederick Wyllyams’ death. Also mentions the death of Charles Clark, Nathan Trail, and James Douglass.

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. New York: Perennial-Harper, 1984.

Provides information about Custer’s life before the Little Big Horn, including the death of Frederick Wyllyams and Charles Johnson, and the discovery of the Kidder Massacre. Also provides background information regarding the scalping of troopers and the desertion rate.

Hughes, J. Patrick. Fort Leavenworth: Gateway to the West. Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 2000.

Offers a few pages of information about the numbers of 7th Cavalry troopers deserting and Custer’s court-martial.

Johnson, Randy and Nancy Allan. A Dispatch to Custer: The Tragedy of Lieutenant Kidder. Missoula, MT:
Mountain P, 1999.

Offers a more thorough analysis of the Kidder Massacre.

Monnett, John H. The Battle of Beecher Island and the Indian War of 1867-1869. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 1992.

Provides a scholarly account of Beecher Island and examines the incident from both perspectives, that is, Euro-Americans and Native Americans.

Monnett, John H. Massacre at Cheyenne Hole: Lieutenant Austin Henely and the Sappa Creek Controversy. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 1999.

Provides a scholarly account of the Sappa Creek massacre; describes the changing perception of that massacre by examining it from the perspective of the participants, later historians, and current historians.

Oliva, Leo E. Fort Wallace: Sentinel on the Smoky Hill Trail. Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1998.

Provides information about Frederick Wyllyams, Beecher Island, the Kidder Massacre, and Sappa Creek . Describes the death of Theodore Papier and Robert Theims in 1875.

Utley, Robert M. and Wilcomb E. Washburn. Indian Wars. New York: Mariner-Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Provides information about Lt. Grattan’s death and Beecher Island.

Sample Discussion Topic:

Consider how you think of those soldiers who died as a result of this country’s pursuit of Manifest Destiny. Many 19th century politicians and members of the military thought it was inevitable that this country would expand across the continent to the Pacific and often thought it was this country’s destiny to extend democracy to those capable of self-government, while recognizing that the Native Americans impeded progress and were not capable of self-government because of their inferior status.

Some scholars see the conflict between Native Americans and Euro-Americans as hunters and gatherers confronting industrialism. To lessen the threat of Native American culture and to eliminate its impediment to progress, for example, President Van Buren continued President Jackson’s desire to resettle the southern tribes in what become known as Indian Territory. Even though the Supreme Court sided with the Indians and ruled that resettlement was unjust, President Van Buren continued in his resettlement of the southern tribes, their forced march, beginning in 1838, becoming known as the Trail of Tears. Similarly, following the Civil War, when the country was pursuing westward expansion, members of the military recognized that annihilating the buffalo on which the Plains Indians subsisted would weaken their resistance and would result in their willing removal to reservations.

Despite numerous treaties, such as the one at Medicine Lodge in 1867, which ensured that hunters would remain off of Indian lands, each treaty was broken when it become advantageous to do so. Any Indian attempt to resist the loss of their way of life was met with greater and greater force, including outright massacres at places like Sand Creek, Washita, and Sappa Creek.

Consider, then, whether it is possible to call those soldiers who died while engaged in the Indian Wars as heroes or as victims of this country’s imperialism and ethnocentrism. Frederick Wyllyams, for example, was killed outside of Fort Wallace while engaged in a conflict with the Cheyenne. Is he a hero or victim? Charles Johnson was one of the enlisted men who accompanied Custer in his 1867 summer campaign against the Plains Indians in Kansas and Nebraska. Custer, at that time, never encountered any of the Indians. The conditions on the trail eventually led to many of the enlisted men deserting. When Charles Johnson deserted, Custer wanted to make an example of him to eliminate future desertions. One of the officers was sent in pursuit of Johnson and shot him twice, once through the temple, and Johnson continued to remain alive. He was brought back to the troop and rode in a wagon during the remaining three days of his life as Custer made his way to the vicinity of Fort Wallace. Custer prevented Johnson from receiving medical attention for the first twelve hours. Eventually Custer was court-martialed and sentenced to a year’s dismissal from duty (his sentence was reduced when he was needed to help lead the massacre against the Cheyenne at Washita). Is it possible to see Charles Johnson as a hero or a victim?