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Civil War soldier Nelson Miles didn’t care for Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, at 9:07 p.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

Nelson Miles didn’t like Kansas.

He found it boring.

He wanted more and the Kansas prairie wasn’t promising the action he longed for and most assuredly believed he deserved.

Simply put, the Civil War soldier’s hands were wrapped in bureaucratic red tape.

Originally from Massachusetts, Miles entered the war as a volunteer and quickly rose up the ranks to major general. He fought in nearly every major battle of the war, was wounded four times and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Following the war, Miles was briefly the commander of Fort Monroe, Va., noted for its famed prisoner, Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Miles drew criticism from the nation’s media for keeping Davis in shackles.

When the war ended, Miles was determined to be a career officer, despite the fact he didn’t have a West Point background. His only military training was at night school before the war.

In the late 1860s, Miles was reassigned to Kansas as a colonel and was directed to lead the Fifth U.S. Infantry regiments in campaigns against the Plains Indians.

In 1868, he married Mary Hoyt Sherman, niece of William Tecumseh Sherman, which some fellow officers of the day saw as a ploy by Miles to gain favoritism and possibly higher military rankings.

While stationed at Fort Hays, the Mileses would become friends with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Libby. They would occasionally go buffalo hunting together.

But Miles found Fort Hays too primitive and, instead, moved his headquarters to Fort Harker in Kanopolis, which, he wrote, he found closer “to the confines of civilization.”

In 1870, Miles would write Gen. Phil Sherman begging to be moved elsewhere: “My ambition is not extravagant, but simply for a command in accordance with my rank.”

Sherman replied in effect saying Miles was needed exactly where he was. Indian troubles, Sherman would write, “always break out where we least expect it.”

All told, Miles would spend about five years in Kansas before moving on.

He would lead the winter campaign following Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn in 1876. He would take credit for capturing the Nez Perce band led by Chief Joseph and would try to take credit, in 1886, for capturing Geronimo in Arizona. Geronimo surrendered instead to Lt. Charles Gatewood so Miles couldn’t claim credit. And, Chief Joseph surrendered to Gen. Otis Howard.

Miles tried to direct troops against the 1890 Ghost Dance uprising on the Lakota reservations, which resulted in the deaths of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The nation’s media turned against him … again.

“The peculiar policy of the government in employing so weak and vacillating a person as General Miles to look after the uneasy Indians, has resulted in a terrible loss of blood to our soldiers, and a battle which, at its best, is a disgrace to the war department,” L. Frank Baum would write for The Saturday Pioneer in Aberdeen, S.D. 10 years before he would write “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

President Theodore Roosevelt would refer to Miles as a “brave peacock.”

Miles died on May 25, 1925, from a heart attack while attending a circus with his grandchildren.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com

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