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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published October 15 2011

Eriksmoen: Godfrey condemned for Wounded Knee Massacre

Custer and Reno were not the only two officers involved in the Battle of the Little Big Horn who later would be criticized for their judgment or leadership ability. During the battle, Lt. Godfrey was one of the few officers to maintain his cool and show sound judgment. However, he was later severely lambasted because of his soldiers’ actions at the Wounded Knee Massacre.

In 1876, Godfrey was assigned to Fort Yates and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action against Chief Joseph at Bear Paw Mountain. He participated in the Spanish-American War and retired from the Army as a brigadier general in 1907 after 40-plus years of service.

Edward Settle Godfrey was born Oct. 9, 1843, in Kalida, Ohio, to Dr. Charles and Jane (Braucher/

Broucher) Godfrey. His father, who was a physician in this western Ohio community, saw to it that Edward received the finest education. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Edward enlisted as a private with the 21st Ohio Infantry. His father tried to dissuade him and only consented when Edward promised to “return to school at the conclusion of his three months enlistment.” In 1863, he received an appointment to the military academy at West Point and graduated in 1867 “as president of his class.”

Godfrey was commissioned as second lieutenant and assigned to Company G of the 7th Cavalry, commanded by George Custer. In July 1867, he was sent to Fort Harker in Kansas and promoted to first lieutenant in February 1968. During the summer of 1868, Indian war parties attacked white settlements in western Kansas, southeast Colorado, and northwest Texas.

When it was learned that some of the warriors planned to come to Chief Black Kettle’s Cheyenne village along the Washita River in western Oklahoma for provisions, Gen. Sheridan ordered Custer to lead his 7th Cavalry against them. On Nov. 26, Custer’s men attacked, and he later reported to Sheridan that he was victorious, killing 103 warriors.

Godfrey told a reporter that Custer asked for an estimate of the number killed from each officer. There was a lot of double-counting, and when the official report came out, the number of slain warriors was fewer than 20.

The next several years, Godfrey spent much of his time with the Department of the South. In 1873, he was sent on scouting expeditions in the Yellowstone area and the next year went with Custer to “secure the sacred Black Hills for an influx of miners and settlers.” In April 1876, Godfrey received orders to report his company (Company K) to Fort Abraham Lincoln where Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry was organizing an expedition in pursuit of hostile Indians in Montana Territory.

On June 25, Custer saw that his soldiers had been observed by the Indians. He divided his command, sending Maj. Marcus Reno as commander of three companies to cross the river and attack the southern end of the Indian camp. Custer sent Capt. Frederick Benteen with three companies to flank the camp, and Company K, led by Godfrey, was assigned to Benteen’s command. Both Reno and Benteen met fierce resistance.

As the number of Indians increased, soldiers were forced to dismount and look for defensive positions. Godfrey arrived at a hilltop position overlooking the combat situation. He threw out a ragged skirmish line on the open prairie “and did his best to hold back the pursuing Indians” while buying the pursued soldiers precious time to entrench. Godfrey was ordered to pull back, but he disobeyed the order and kept up a steady fire. “By his initiative in that critical situation, he was credited with having saved the lives of many soldiers.”

When Godfrey returned to Fort Abraham Lincoln after the Little Big Horn defeat, he was assigned to Fort Yates and promoted to captain in December.

In the West, Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce Indians, defied government orders by refusing to relocate on the Idaho Reservation. Col. Nelson Miles led the 7th Cavalry in a battle against Chief Joseph in north-central Montana. The Battle of Bears Paw Mountain took place on Sept. 30, 1877, and Godfrey, commander of Company D, was severely wounded. In 1894, Godfrey was awarded the Medal of Honor for “most distinguished gallantry” during this decisive battle against Chief Joseph.

From 1879 to 1883, Godfrey served as instructor of cavalry tactics at West Point. He originated the Cossack and Rough Riding maneuvers and helped devise drill regulations for the infantry, artillery, and cavalry.

On Dec. 28, 1890, a detachment of the 7th Cavalry intercepted a band of Lakota Indians and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The rest of the 7th arrived later that day, including Godfrey, commander of company D, and with four revolving machine guns, surrounded the encampment.

During the next morning, troops entered the camp to disarm the Indians. A shot rang out from inside the camp and the 7th opened fire from all sides, killing many of the Indians, including women and children, and some soldiers. When the shooting was over, between 150 and 300 Lakota were dead, as well as 25 soldiers

Godfrey later wrote, “I know the men did not aim deliberately and they were greatly excited. ... They fired rapidly, but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors squaws, children, ponies, and dogs.”

The conduct of the 7th Cavalry, including Godfrey’s men, came under condemnation.

Taking a break from military activity, Godfrey wrote the article “Custer’s Last Battle,” published in Century Magazine in January 1892. By many, it was “considered the most authoritative account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.”

In December 1896, Godfrey was promoted to major and spent time in Arizona and New Mexico territories “during the twilight of the Indian Wars.”

When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, Godfrey was shipped to Cuba, promoted to lieutenant colonel and in June 1901 was sent to the Philippines to help put down the guerrilla insurrection.

In 1902, Godfrey was stationed at Fort Walla Walla, Wash., with the 9th Cavalry and, in 1904, was placed in charge of the cavalry school at Fort Riley, Kan. In January 1907, he was nominated for brigadier general. This promotion was delayed by President Theodore Roosevelt because he considered Godfrey “personally responsible for the death of women and children at Wounded Knee.”

In October, his promotion was confirmed, and he retired from the Army. At the time of Godfrey’s death on April 1, 1932, The New York Times wrote that Godfrey was “the oldest graduate of the Military Academy and the only surviving officer of the Little Big Horn campaign.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.