Nelson Miles, one of the most successful but controversial officers in the Plains Indian Wars, is born on a farm in Massachusetts.
Unlike many of his future colleagues in the army officer corps, Miles was not born into a life of privilege. As a teen, Miles worked as a clerk, spending his few moments of leisure pursuing a disciplined program of self-improvement through lectures, night school, and reading. When a war between the states seemed imminent in 1860, he concentrated his efforts on studying military tactics. He joined the Union Army as soon as the conflict erupted, and his gift for making effective tactical use of terrain won him rapid advances in rank.
In 1869, Miles assumed command of the 5th Infantry at Fort Hays, Kansas, and began his career as an Indian fighter. Miles was a courageous and bold officer, with an outstanding ability to organize and supply a large army. He was also arrogant and pompous, and he shamelessly maneuvered to advance his own career at the expense of his fellow officers. He considered many of his colleagues incompetent fools—especially those who had graduated from West Point-and was equally disliked in return.
Following the disastrous defeat of Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn in late June 1876, Miles was given the task of running down the offending Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. Miles proved a highly effective opponent, craftily mixing threats of force with offers of good treatment if the hostile Indians agreed to surrender. Eventually, Miles succeeded in winning the surrender of thousands of Plains Indians.
Miles most celebrated victory came in 1886, when he secured the peaceful surrender of Geronimo and a small band of renegade Apache warriors. Although many other officers had played a role in encouraging Geronimo’s surrender, Miles characteristically accepted full credit for winning the surrender of the last hostile Indian in the U.S. He was less eager to accept blame for the massacre of at least 200 Indians at Wounded Knee four years later. Although Miles was not at Wounded Knee and regarded the massacre as an unforgivable blunder, the soldiers who participated had been under his command.
After 1895, Miles left the West and was appointed to a variety of prestigious posts in Washington, D.C. He eventually achieved the rank of lieutenant general before retiring. When the United States entered World War I, he volunteered to resume active duty. The war department tactfully declined to give the 77-year-old retired warrior a position. He died on May 15, 1925, at the age of 85 and was buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery.