Indian winter – the Down man in the Battle of Wounded Knee

An Irishman's Diary: Hugh McGinnis was the last surviving soldier from the massacre in 1890

Hugh McGinnis:   even at 94, he was at a loss to explain the savagery he saw

Hugh McGinnis: even at 94, he was at a loss to explain the savagery he saw

 

Born in Castlewellan, Co Down, in 1870, Hugh McGinnis emigrated to the US as a teenager, joined the army there, and didn’t die until the 1960s when he was 94.  

But his life was probably defined by an event that happened early in his exile, 125 years ago this month. As a result, towards the end of his days, he was known as the last surviving soldier from the Battle (or massacre) of Wounded Knee.

Settlers

In the sorry history of relations between European settlers and the natives of North America, December 1890 is often seen as the closing chapter. It was literally so in Dee Brown’s elegiac history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), which told the story from the Indians’ perspective and sold millions.

Brown gave the last word to Black Elk, a medicine man who escaped the battle and lived until 1950, by which time he had belatedly realised its full significance: “When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children […] as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried there. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream [… Now] the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

But McGinnis too recalled the massacre in his old age and, if his language was less poetic, he was no less sympathetic to the defeated. In his 90s, he told the story to a Wisconsin neighbour, a teacher and historian named Olive Flannery Glasgow.  

And although her editorialisations tend to cloud what’s supposed to be a first-hand account, it’s clear he had never completely erased the horror of events from three-quarters of a century earlier.

Broken treaties

The background to the tragedy, from the Indians’ viewpoint, was decades of broken treaties, the relentless spread of settlers, the near-extinction of the buffalo, and the destruction of the natives’ economy which, by 1890, left many on the edge of starvation.

This had all contributed to the rise of a messianic cult, inspired by a Paiute religious leader, who foresaw the imminent resurrection of the Indian dead and the simultaneous disappearance of the white man and his works. It would happen without violence, the prophet believed. Followers only had to live good lives and perform a ritual known as “the ghost dance”.

Inevitably, younger braves had more militant ideas about how the white man would disappear. But in any case, the spectacle of large crowds of Indians gathering to perform the ghost dance from 1889 onwards alarmed already fearful settlers, who saw it as the prelude to an uprising.  

It was in this atmosphere that McGinnis and a nervous 7th Cavalry were dispatched to the Black Hills of Dakota in November 1890. Their particular focus was the regiment’s old foe, Sitting Bull, who was hosting a gathering of seven tribes, totalling 3,000.

Hardliners

Moderates in the army leadership hoped to defuse the apparent threat by talking.  But hardliners wanted the chief arrested. And when they tried, on December 15th, it led to a shoot-out in which he and more than a dozen others (half of them policemen) died.

That was the prelude to Wounded Knee where, two weeks later, the army caught up with another chief, Spotted Elk (aka Big Foot), who was leading his followers to the safety of Red Cloud’s reservation. When his men were ordered to surrender weapons, a stand-off resulted. There was a scuffle and a shot was fired.  And then, as McGinnis remembered, “it was as if someone had dropped a match into a powder keg”.

In the subsequent mayhem, he was shot twice, and was receiving the Last Rites from a “Father Craft” when he saw the latter stabbed in the back.  After that, McGinnis passed out, and by the time he came around again – only minutes later, he thought – the battle was already waning.

But the final death toll was put at 153 Indians and 25 soldiers (some killed by friendly fire).

And when an appalled general toured the snow-covered battlefield three days later, he noted that Indian women and children had been pursued for two miles before being killed.

Even at 94, McGinnis was at a loss to explain such savagery. But he agreed that what had happened was a massacre. And he could only conclude, as others had, that some of his comrades had gone “berserk”.