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An Officer's tent somewhere in the plainsAlfred Howe Terry

(1827-1890)

As military commander of the Dakota Territory from 1866 to 1869 and again from 1872 to 1886, General Alfred Howe Terry played an important role in the army's long, often ruthless campaign to gain control of the northern plains.

Terry was born in 1827 into a prosperous Hartford, Connecticut, family that soon moved to New Haven, where Terry grew up. He became a lawyer and was appointed clerk of the Superior Court of New Haven County in the 1850s.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Terry raised a regiment of Connecticut volunteers and led them into battle at First Bull Run and various other engagements in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. His long-standing interest in military history and tactics, together with his success on the battlefield, earned him promotion to brigadier general during the war, and he was one of a very few volunteer officers to attain this rank and remain in the army after the war's end.

In 1866, Terry became military commander of the Department of Dakota, and the next year served as a member of the peace commission that finally ended Red Cloud's campaign against American troops in the region by negotiating the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Terry's legal training and judicial experience would lead to his selection for many similar commissions throughout his career.

The next year, Terry left the Dakotas for a post in Georgia, where he was a reconstruction commander and a vigorous opponent of the emerging Ku Klux Klan and other paramilitary white supremacist organizations. By 1872, however, he was back in command of United States forces in Dakota Territory, providing military protection for the Hayden survey of the Yellowstone region and a survey of the Canadian border.

Terry became George Armstrong Custer's commanding officer in 1873, when the Seventh Cavalry was posted to the Dakotas, and the following year he found himself caught up in controversy when Custer's well-publicized expedition into the Black Hills triggered a gold rush onto land that had been set aside for the Lakota under the Fort Laramie Treaty Terry himself had helped negotiate. Terry now became a member of the Allison Committee, which attempted to purchase the Black Hills from the Lakota in 1875, and following the committee's failure, he directed the 1876 campaign to force the Lakota and their allies onto reservations.

Despite his unhappiness over Custer's adventure in the Black Hills, Terry interceded on Custer's behalf when his complaints about Indian Bureau activities in the Dakotas provoked a political controversy that nearly cost him the command of the Seventh Cavalry. In retrospect, Terry may have regretted this magnanimous gesture, for it was Custer's failure to obey Terry's orders that caused the 1876 campaign to end in disaster.

Terry had devised a "hammer-and-anvil" strategy that would crush the renegade Lakota gathered around Sitting Bull between the fast-moving Seventh Cavalry and an infantry force commanded by Colonel John Gibbon. Custer, however, disregarded Terry's instructions to delay his advance until Gibbon's troops were in position and instead hurried to engage the enemy, launching a surprise attack that ended in his annihilation. As commanding officer, Terry, of course, received sharp criticism for this catastrophe, yet he remained as magnanimous toward Custer's memory as he had been toward the man himself, never seeking to deflect criticism from himself in any way that would tarnish Custer's reputation.

Terry was, however, less generous toward Major Marcus A. Reno, commander of the only Seventh Cavalry unit to survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Terry oversaw the court of inquiry that eventually cleared Reno of the charge of cowardice, and ordered two subsequent courts-martial of the major, the second of which dishonorably discharged him from the army. Together these investigations raised many unanswered questions about what actually happened during the battle and stirred suspicions that Reno was being singled-out as the scapegoat for a military fiasco. Whether this was indeed General Terry's motive for persisting in the investigation of Reno, or whether he considered it his duty to see that the affair received a full judicial review, remains unclear.

General Terry was still in command of the Dakota Territory during the so-called Nez PercÚ War of 1877, when he dispatched troops under General John Gibbon and Colonel Nelson A. Miles to intercept Chief Joseph and his fugitive band as they made their way toward the Canadian border. Also in that year, Terry himself travelled into Canada as part of a commission that attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate a truce with Sitting Bull, who had fled there following the Custer fight. Four years later, in 1881, Terry would be the general to whom Sitting Bull finally surrendered.

In 1886, Terry was promoted to major general and appointed commander of the Army's Great Plains forces. Disability, brought on by a serious illness, finally forced him to retire from the army in 1888, and he died two years later.


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