Wounded Knee Massacre

Incredibly, more Congressional Medals of Honor were given for the Battle of Wounded Knee (also called the Wounded Knee Massacre) than for the Battle of the Bulge

Dolph L. Hatfield, Ph.D.


Shamefully, twenty-one Congressional Medals of Honor were given to U.S. troops for “heroism” in the Wounded Knee Massacre for the wholesale slaughter of several hundred Lakota American Indians. These medals must be rescinded.


Two battles in American history that occurred more than a half century apart had major consequences on the future of this country. One lasted about an hour and ended the American Indian wars. It was known as the Battle of Wounded Knee, or more appropriately, the Wounded Knee Massacre. The other, known as the Battle of the Bulge, lasted about five weeks and represented the last major offensive of the German Army in World War II (WWII). There were sixty-four United States (U.S.) casualties in the Wounded Knee Massacre and more than 75,000 in the Battle of the Bulge. Twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to the troops that fought in the Battle of the Bulge, while a thorough search of the literature suggests that twenty-one were given to the soldiers who participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Three members of Congress, Representatives Denny Heck, Debra Haaland and Paul Cook, introduced a bill in Congress on June 25, 2019 to rescind the medals given to the soldiers who participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre. This bill, named the “Remove the Stain Act” (H. R. 3467), must be passed and signed into law. And here’s why:


Wounded Knee Massacre

Historical accounts of the Wounded Knee Massacre vary considerably in terms of the number of Lakota Indians (also known as the Teton Sioux Indians) involved and the number of Indian men (both elderly and warriors), women and children killed, wounded and/or left to freeze in that bitterly cold winter of 1890. However, the Lakota, numbering in the hundreds and led by Chief Spotted Elk, were camped near the Wounded Knee River in South Dakota on the morning of December 29, 1890. They had been surrounded by the United States (U.S.) 7th Cavalry which had set up four rapid-fire Hotchkiss-designed M1875 mountain guns in anticipation of disarming the Lakota.

Early on the morning of the 29th, the Lakota were ordered by the Army to give up their weapons. No one is sure what happened next, but that order initiated the massacre. A likely possibility is that Black Coyote, who was deaf and did not speak English, misunderstood the order to surrender his rifle and refused to do so. In a struggle with soldiers to give up his rifle, the gun went off that caused the soldiers to start shooting. Many of the soldiers shot indiscriminately, both with their rifles and the Hotchkiss-designed, rapid-fire M1875 guns, killing women, children, and elderly men as well as the warriors.

Women and children, who had scattered when the fighting started, were pursed for miles and murdered. Young boys were told to come out from their hiding places with a promise of not being hurt and were then shot. All in all, the massacre lasted little more than an hour. Hundreds of Indian men, including Chief Spotted Elk, women, and children were killed, wounded and/or left to freeze. The total number of Indians who were killed or ultimately died has often been reported to be 300.

The casualties of the U.S. forces were 25 men killed and 39 wounded, six of whom later died. The majority of the U.S. causalities were, most certainly, the result of friendly fire. The number of Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to the troops who participated in this massacre is given as 20, but as noted below, the correct number is more likely 21.


Eyewitness and Subsequent Accounts of the Wounded Knee Massacre

American Horse, a Lakota chief, said, “……The women as they were fleeing with their babies were killed together, shot right through…and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys… came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there.”

Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man, said, “…I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch….”

Edward S. Godfrey, the captain who commanded Company D of the 7th Cavalry said “…….. 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….”

Hugh McGinnis, First Battalion, Company K, 7th Cavalry, said “(Major) General Nelson A. Miles who visited the scene of carnage following a three-day blizzard, estimated that around 300 snow shrouded forms were strewn over the countryside. He also discovered to his horror that helpless children and women with babies in their arms had been chased as far as two miles from the original scene of encounter and cut down without mercy by the troopers…”

Major General Nelson A. Miles wrote to his wife after witnessing the carnage “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children”, and on January 1, 1891, he telegraphed Major General John M. Schofield, Commander-in-Chief of the Army “It is stated that the disposition of four hundred soldiers and four pieces of artillery was fatally defective and large number of soldiers were killed and wounded by the fire from their own ranks and a very large number of women and children were killed in addition to the Indian men”.

Frank Baum, who later penned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on January 3, 1891: “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.”


Why did the 7th Calvary execute such a horrible act?

Following the first shot at Wounded Knee, the troops of the 7th Calvary reacted in an insane manner and started firing their rifles and rapid-fire guns aimlessly and frantically at Lakota Indians. They did not take into account that many of their targets were elderly men, women and children and that their fellow servicemen were also in the line of fire. This raises a question as to why soldiers, who must have been trained to fight during battle, would have “lost it” and began killing anyone in front of them. Although there is absolutely no excuse for murdering so many innocent people, revenge, hatred and fear all likely played roles.

The 7th Calvary at Wounded Knee was the same Calvary that had fought at the Little Big Horn 14 years earlier. This battle was also known as Custer’s last stand where he and more than 250 of the soldiers under his command were killed and the 7th Calvary sorely defeated. At least one lieutenant was known to have fought in both conflicts, and numerous soldiers, most certainly, had to have been involved.

Furthermore, Congress was very receptive to awarding Medals of Honor to those who participated in the Indian Wars as there were more than 425 medals allocated for these engagements. 3,524 Medals of Honor have been awarded to 3,505 individuals since the decoration’s creation in 1861. Thus, about 12% of the total Medals of Honor that have been given were awarded to troops who fought in the Indian Wars.


Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle the United States forces fought in during WWII. More than 600,000 American soldiers were involved and more than 75,000 U.S. were killed, wounded or captured, or are missing. Many WWII war experts maintain that had the Germans been successful in splitting the allied forces, which was their intention, it would have delayed the end of the war and likely resulted in the Germans and allied forces coming to an agreement to settle the war. This battle turned the tide of WWII in Europe and subsequently brought victory to the allied forces. There were 20 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to troops who fought in this major battle.


Medals of Honor awarded at Wounded Knee and why they must be rescinded

The likelihood that there were 21 instead of 20 Congressional Medal of Honors awarded the soldiers involved in the Wounded Knee Massacre was initially published in 1997 (Hatfield, Dolph L. “Wounded Knee Massacre Must Never Be Forgotten”. Indian Country Today 16: [Issue 5] 5 June 16-23, 1997). This account can be found at www.dolph-hatfield.com/ under the Tab designated Published. The soldier not listed among the 20 soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor was Adam Neder (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Neder), bringing the number of medals given to 21. What made this atrocious, horrendous and shameful battle even more barbaric, despicable, and heinous is that the United States awarded these men its highest military honor for nothing short of indiscriminate butchery.

Comparing the number of Congressional Medals of Honor given to troops for their participation in the Wounded Knee Massacre to those given to troops who fought in the Battle of the Bulge further illustrates how utterly senseless it was to give Medals of Honor to Wounded Knee participants and how it tarnishes the highest, most prestigious honor given by the military to service members who distinguished themselves by valor during combat.

To rectify this unconscionable injustice, the Congressional Medals of Honor given for the wholesale carnage of 300 Lakota Indians must be rescinded by passing and signing into law the “Remove the Stain Act” H. R. 3467 bill which is before the House of Representatives.