March 14, 2019
By Danielle Hollembaek
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Too often history demands answers. We want to hear the narrative of good fighting against evil, and we want clear conclusions of what happened. Stories like that make for easier summaries, but often at the expense of a rich and complex tapestry of history. Case in point: General James William Forsyth. If one were to Google his name, the results immediately describe him as the disgraced commander at the Wounded Knee Massacre in December of 1890. However, prior to this seemingly avoidable tragedy, Forsyth was likely to have been historically considered as one of the United States’ finest military men. History is right to remember such heinous events as the Massacre at Wounded Knee, but such historic analysis would be incomplete without also recalling Forsyth’s four decades of exemplary military service for our country. As with many figures in history, one discovers that “good” and “bad” are not always as clear as one would hope.
Forsyth was born in Maumee, Ohio on August 26, 1834 to a family with its roots in military service. His ancestor, William Forsyth of Blackwater, was a famed Irish soldier who served during the Siege of Quebec during the Revolutionary War and, in turn, received a good portion of land for his heroism in battle.
Following in the steps of his ancestors, Forsyth pushed himself to become the best military man he could be. He attended West Point Military Academy from 1851 to 1856 and upon graduation was appointed 2nd Lieutenant of the 9th U.S. Infantry. He made his way to the Washington Territory and began serving under George Edward Pickett. General Pickett would be best known for his failed attack on General George Meade’s army during the Battle of Gettysburg – forever remembered as “Pickett’s Charge.”
In Forsyth’s time with the 9th infantry, he went on several tours of the Washington Territory. His first encounter was with British naval forces. Due to a land dispute over who occupied San Juan Island, Forsyth showed his courage in two separate battles for the Island. In the end, the United State took the territory and Forsyth’s valor was noticed by his commanding officers. He was promoted to second lieutenant and was appointed acting commander when Picket was away on assignments.
Forsyth’s positive attitude and dedication lead to his promotion in March of 1861 to 1st lieutenant. With the new title, he was sent to serve New York as the Captain of the 18th Infantry. He arrived to his post in October with the looming challenge of the Civil War already in his hands. Throughout the entire war, Forsyth was moved from post to post, mainly on important staff assignments. He was acting commander on several occasions and was brevetted through the ranks, eventually becoming a Volunteer Infantry Brigadier. For a brief time, he took charge of the brigades of famed generals when needed, such as Don Carlos Buell and future president James A. Garfield. He did many staff assignments for Major General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac. His most defining position during the war was as chief of staff for Major General Philip Sheridan. His professional and personal friendship with General Sheridan was a key element to his military career success. Forsyth served on Sheridan’s staff along other Union Calvary luminaries such as George Custer, Wesley Merritt and Thomas Devin (all three had been cavalry commanders at Gettysburg).
General Forsyth was at many crucial battles of the Civil War including the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Overland Campaign, the Appomattox campaign, and the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of the Civil War, serving as aide-de-camp to General Joseph Mansfield. He is even said to have been at the Appomattox court house when Robert E. Lee signed the surrender of the Confederacy. Through his odd job assignments and continuous transfers, General Forsyth made a name for himself during the Civil War, and numerous connections with all the right people.
For his service, General Forsyth was given an engraved and eloquently designed Tiffany & Co. sword. The date on the sword reads October 16, 1867. It is said to be presented by S. Dexter Bradford. Bradford is noted as a “sincere friend” of Forsyth according to the sword’s engraving, but unfortunately, there is little trace of him in history. All that is known is that he came from a wealthy family and at some point befriended General Forsyth.
After the Civil War, Forsyth was given his own brigade, the 10th Calvary which was made up of all African-American soldiers. The men of the 9th and 10th were the original “Buffalo Soldiers,” though the term would eventually come to mean all of the exclusively African-American regiments that fought in the Indian Wars. While men like Custer refused to lead African-American regiments, Forsyth is known to have been a strong proponent for them. Today, thanks to songs and films, the buffalo soldiers have become immortalized for their strength and bravery despite extreme racial prejudices against them.
Forsyth spent a short time with the 10th and left in 1867 to do numerous assignments with General Sheridan while he was working for the Department of the Gulf and Missouri. With General Sheridan’s Missouri command in 1869, he expansively toured Europe during the Franco-Prussian War as an observer. When they returned in late 1870s, the American Indian War was in its midst.
During the 1870s and 1880s. Forsyth became an inspector of Indian agencies. He was assigned to travel around from military post to military post and monitor the relations of the agencies and their tribes. He did this job until 1886 when he decided to take a short break from service.
Forsyth took a two month leave before returning and on July 11, 1886, when he was promoted to Colonel of the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Meade, South Dakota. The 7th Calvary was Custer’s old command before Little Big Horn in 1876, making it was a prestigious position to hold. His force marched to Fort Riley, Kansas on September of 1887 for their new post. While in Kansas, General Forsyth used his years of knowledge to design a system of light artillery and cavalry instructions for the School of Application for Infantry and Cavalry. Forsyth was well on his way to being remembered as a distinguished military leader and honorable general, until the December of 1890.
On December 15, U.S. Indian Agent James McLaughlin convinced the government that the Lakota were a threat, and he ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull. He resisted arrest and several of his tribe struggled with the officers present. Soon a gun fight broke out, and in the end Sitting Bull had been fatally shot in the ribs and head. The melee that ensued led to the death of eight policemen and seven Lakota, and raised tensions in the critical weeks to come.
After the death of Sitting Bull, his remaining followers fled to a nearby reservation. The tribe that inhabited the land south of the Cheyenne River, the Miniconjou Sioux, was led by Chief Big Foot. The fleeing Lakota needed help, so the chief decided to take in the 38 starving, weakened, and cold travelers. The reservation authorities viewed this move as a “threat” and Colonel E.V. Sumner of the 8th Calvary arrested the chief. Since Big Foot was not doing anything illegal, they could not justify a punishment. All the troops could do is tell the Native Americans to come with them. 300 or so Native Americans followed the troops up river until they approached the spot of their original village. The tribe knew that the 7th Calvary was the same regiment that was all but destroyed at Little Bighorn and they feared the soldiers sought revenge. As they grew more and more anxious, Chief Big Foot directed his followers to escape to the Pine Ridge Reservation in the Badlands. They fled, but the United States troops followed.
On December 29, 1890, the Wounded Knee Massacre began under the command of General Forsyth. That day, Forsyth and his men were to disarm members of the tribe, due to their performing of the “threatening” Ghost Dance – a dance intended to make the white man leave and to restore the native populations as they once were. There are numerous accounts that try to depict how the massacre began. Some accounts of the story say the soldiers had been drinking the night before and were still intoxicated, others say the troops were seeking revenge for Little Bighorn, and there are even accounts that say the dust thrown during the Ghost Dance was mistaken for a fired gun from a distance. However, most sources cite a single deaf Lakota named Black Coyote who did not understand the order to disarm, and in a brief scuffle his rifle discharged. Troops began firing at Native Americans, who began to re-arm themselves from the previously surrendered weapons and fire back. However, it is believed that the four Hotchkiss guns that were surrounding the encampment dealt the most damage to both friend and foe.
Numerous Native American men, women, and children lost their lives. Accounts of the tragedy report numbers somewhere between 150 to 300 Native American deaths in total. The actual death count is no longer verifiable. 29 American troops died with 39 reported as wounded. While Wounded Knee was initially celebrated as the brave men of the U.S. military stifling another dangerous Indian uprising, as more details emerged it would become a tragedy that defined General Forsyth’s military career. Although he was in the armed forces for thirty years prior to this heartbreaking event, history will always remember him as the commander at the brutal Wounded Knee Massacre.
The day after the attack, General Forsyth engaged in further conflict with the Sioux tribe at Drexel Mission which lead to more deaths and caused a full investigation of the all events. Initially relieved of his command, General Forsyth and his remaining soldiers were ruled innocent of wrong doing and some soldiers received Medals of Honor for their actions. Forsyth was relocated to California in 1894 and was given the title of Brigadier General and commander of forces for the state. He was promoted to Major General three years later, and retired shortly after to his hometown in Ohio. He passed away on October 24, 1906.
As time went on, people were not as keen to take the side of the 7th Cavalry and came to see the outright overreaction and heinous actions that really took place. After many years of debate, in 2003, the medals were revoked and the Pine Ridge Reservation was claimed as hallowed ground for South Dakota’s Native American tribes by the United States government. What really happened to cause the massacre at Wounded Knee is a gray area of history. Some accounts pin Forsyth as a lackadaisical commander that did not have a tight rein on his troops, so the troops did as they pleased. There were many different powerful men in charge giving commands and who gave what orders is not completely clear. The investigation and deliberation process after the tragedy frequently brings up too many conflicting stories and recollections for history to draw a clear conclusion.
In our upcoming May Premier Auction, the sword that belonged to General Forsyth serves as a reminder of his strategic and tactical prowess during the Civil War. The Tiffany & Co. sword is one of only two of its kind and can be found in the book “Steel Canvas” by R.L. Wilson. It is the straight blade pattern from the Tiffany & Co. catalog, which is significantly rarer than their curved blades. From the vine-like ribbons and branches that spread across the blade to the rarely seen gold and silver scabbard, this is a work of art. The blade wonderfully intermixes the etched vines and stunning gilt backdrop alongside the warrior helmets and knives. Every detailed depiction this sword is incredible.
The magnificently sculpted eagle crossguard is a fine show of patriotism and is accompanied by an etched Union soldier on one side of the blade. The eagle is perched atop a shield frequently seen in other patriotic motifs. Another detailed shield comprises the tip of the scabbard. The sword’s cast silver grip is protected by two silver double chains and bears several classical figures. The scabbard is of particular interest to the historian for its inscribed dedication to General Forsyth surrounded by beautiful gilt oak leaves, which traditionally represent strength and longevity.
The sword represents a man who could be well known in history today, yet an unexpected twist of fate tarnished his legacy forever. Whether he is considered a disgraced general, a poor commander, or even a villain is up to you to decide. As for this sword itself, it represents the better side of James W. Forsyth and his historic importance to America.
A photo of the “Famous battery “E” of the 1st Artillery, which bears the shocking original caption.
“These brave men and the Hotchkiss gun that
Big Foot’s Indians thought were toys,
Together with the fighting 7th what’s
Left of Gen. Custer’s boys,
Sent 200 Indians to that
Heaven which the ghost dancer enjoys.
This checked the Indian noise
And Gen. Miles with staff
Returned to Illinois.”
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