Red River Scrapbook: The fight at Buffalo Wallow
By Edward Southerland
Aug 30, 2016
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The Fight at Buffalo Wallow
by Edward Southerland

When Captain Lyman and the supply train did not return to the camp on McClellan Creek as expected, Colonel Miles sent out a six-man patrol to look for them. Sergeant Z.T. Woodall led the group, with Privates Peter Rath, John Harrington, and George W. Smith. Two scouts, Amos Chapman and Billy Dixon, who had been one of the defenders at the Battle of Adobe Walls in June, joined them.

They did not find Lyman; instead, on the morning of September 12, between Gageby Creek and the Washita, they bumped into 125 Comanche and Kiowa warriors who had just left the Lyman siege. Caught on the open plain, with no place to take shelter, the men dismounted and prepared to defend themselves as best they could. Almost at once, Private Smith, who was holding the horses, was shot through the lungs, and the mounts ran free, taking with them the men’s canteens, coats and other equipment. 

The Indians seemed to view the situation as a chance for sport, and instead of riding down the party, they toyed with them, dashing in a full speed on their ponies and then pulling back. Harrington and Woodhall were shot, and when a bullet smashed Chapman’s left knee, he went down. 

A Kiowa painting that probably depicts the fight at buffalo wallow.

While the warriors were taking a short respite from their game, Dixon noticed a slight depression in the prairie a few yards away made a dash for it. It was a buffalo wallow about ten feet in diameter. The others save for Smith and Chapman, joined him, and by noon, they were busily digging at the ground with their knives and mounding the dirt up around the hole as a breastwork. 

Several times Dixon tried to get to Chapman to bring him into the wallow, but each time a fusillade of fire drove him away. The soldiers gave as good as they got, and their fire kept the warriors away from the two men still on the prairie. 

The Indians recognized Chapman, who had lived with them for a while, and shouted “Amos, Amos, we got you now, Amos!” But the did not have him after all, and early in the afternoon, Dixon got to the scout, and pulled him into the little fort with the others.

All afternoon the fight continued. The men in the wallow were desperate with thirst until a thunderstorm broke over the plains and brought some relief. At one point, running low on shells, Private Rath ran out to retrieve Smith’s weapons and ammunition belt and found the soldier, thought killed in the first volley, was still alive. Rath and Dixon brought Smith back to the wallow along with his equipment, but the trooper would not survive the night.

To the north, the sky had grown dark and blue, and the cold rain and the rising norther seemed to sap what little interest the Indians had left in the men in the hole. As night came on the warriors slipped away. Private Rath went out into night to seek help, but was unable to find the wagon road in the dark and came back after a couple of hours. The next morning was clear, and there were no Indians to be seen anywhere.

Billy Dixon at the time of the Red River War.
This time it was Dixon’s turn. He found both the trail and far away on the horizon, a line of soldiers in blue. It was four companies of the 8th Cavalry from Fort Union under the command of Major William Price. Dixon fired his rifle to attract attention, and the column turned his way.

The approach of Price’s soldiers had been the reason the Indians broke off the engagements at the wagon train and at the wallow, but while the column had men, it was running low on supplies and had no ambulance. When one of the men in the wallow mistook the riders for Indians and shot a horse from under one of the surgeon’s assistants, things got testy. Price refused to help the party and galloped off promising to send help. That act would effectively end his army career when Colonel Miles recommended a severe censure of him and took over command of the Fort Union soldiers.

Help arrived for the party around midnight, bringing food and medical attention. Chapman lost his leg below the knee, and gained, along with all the others in the fight, a Medal of Honor, as the Fight at Buffalo Wallow entered the legend and lore of the West.