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Photo of Nelson Appleton MilesNelson Appleton Miles

(1839-1925)

Called a "brave peacock" by President Theodore Roosevelt toward the end of his service, General Nelson A. Miles no doubt felt he had cause to be proud of his accomplishments in a career that had lifted a volunteer infantryman to the office of commander of the army.

Born on his family's Massachusetts farm, Miles was a clerk in a crockery store when the Civil War broke out. He joined the army as a volunteer and fought for the Union in some of the war's most crucial battles, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and the Appomatox campaign. Wounded four times, he rose in rank to become a major general of volunteers and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his personal bravery at Chancellorsville.

After the Civil War, Miles played a leading role in nearly every phase of the army's campaign against the tribes of the Great Plains. In 1874-1875, he was a field commander in the force that defeated the Kiowa, Comanche and Southern Cheyenne along the Red River. In 1876-1877, he led the winter campaign that scoured the northern Plains after Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn, forcing the Lakota and their allies onto reservations. Then, in the winter of 1877, he drove his troops on a forced march across Montana to intercept the Nez PercÚ band led by Chief Joseph that had eluded or defeated every unit sent against it over the course of a 1,500 mile retreat from Oregon to the Canadian border. Throughout the rest of his career Miles would quarrel with General Oliver O. Howard, whose troops had doggedly pursued the Nez PercÚ over those 1,500 miles, as to who rightly deserved the credit for Joseph's capture.

Miles earned the scorn of another fellow officer in 1886, when he replaced General George Crook as commander of the campaign against Geronimo in Arizona. Crook had relied heavily on Apache scouts in his efforts to capture the Chiricahua leader, but Miles replaced them with white troops who eventually traveled over three thousand miles trailing Geronimo and his band through the torturous Sierra Madre Mountains. Finally, Miles sent Apache scouts to help negotiate a surrender, under the terms of which Geronimo and his followers were exiled to confinement on a Florida reservation. Miles exiled his Apache scouts to Florida as well, although they were officially enlisted members of the army, and it was for this betrayal of troops who had served them both loyally that Crook never forgave him.

The 1890 Ghost Dance "uprising" on the Lakota reservations brought Miles back into the field once again. In an effort to restore peace throughout the area, Miles directed troop movements that inadvertently panicked many Lakota bands into leaving their reservations and led both to Sitting Bull's death and to the massacre of Big Foot's band at Wounded Knee. Miles reacted to these developments by working aggressively to implement his longstanding belief that the Lakota should be forcibly disarmed and placed under military control.

In his later years, Miles commanded the troops that put down the Pullman strike riots in 1894, and was commander of the army during the Spanish-American War. He retired from service in 1903, confirmed in his belief that graduates of West Point had an unfair advantage in promotion and were on the whole less capable of command than those who rose through the ranks as he had.


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