Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary

Dee Brown

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary

In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, historian Dee Brown uses the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek as a backdrop for his examination of race relations between whites and Native Americans. He details many of the atrocities the Native Americans suffered during the genocide against them and points out the relatively few moments when whites attempted to live peacefully with them.

  • Brown opens by relating the different attitudes toward Native Americans held by various European groups. Though there were some attempts to live in peace, for the most part the white settlers decided to exterminate the Native Americans.

  • Brown spends much of the book recounting the battles and massacres that resulted in the deaths of many important Native American leaders, including Black Hawk, Little Crow, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull.

  • The book ends with a recount of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which was sparked by a misunderstanding involving a deaf Sioux warrior and violent, ignorant American soldiers.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The title of this book, a poetic line from Stephen Vincent Benét’s “American Names,” introduces Dee Brown’s history of the Indians in the American West. Brown presents a factual as well as an emotional account of the relationship among the Indians, the American settlers, and the U.S. government. The massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, provides the backdrop for the narrative. In his introduction, Brown states the reason for his work. Thousands of accounts about life in the American West of the late nineteenth century were written. Stories are told of the traders, ranchers, wagon trains, gunfighters, and gold-seekers. Rarely is the voice of the Indian heard. The pre-European occupant of the land was classified only as a hindrance to the spreading of American civilization to the West Coast. In this book, Brown seeks to remedy the historical injustice done to the Native American. The author declares that the reader will not finish the book with a cheerful spirit but will come away with a better understanding of what the American Indian is and was. Punctuating the book throughout are photographs of and quotations from those whose story is being told.

The opening chapter of Brown’s chronological account begins with the attitudes of different groups of Europeans toward the natives they encountered in America. Although Christopher Columbus expressed admiration for the natives of the West Indies, the Spanish were often brutal. The English, capable of brutality when the occasion called for it, usually tried subtler methods. Included in this chapter are the initial relationships between the Indians and the government of the United States. Brown relates early indignities against Indian leaders, including that of the skeleton of Black Hawk, a Sauk and Fox chief who resisted American expansion, being on display in the office of the governor of the Iowa Territory. Black Hawk was the grandfather of Jim Thorpe, an Olympic gold medal athlete in 1912.

The remaining chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are a survey of the Western Indians, tribe by tribe, event by event, and leader by leader. The story begins with the Navajo of the Southwest, led by Manuelito. Like many later Indian leaders, Manuelito at first tried to be realistic and to accept the presence of Americans in their territory on reasonable terms. When those terms were violated by the Americans, the Navajo retaliated. The result was war that involved atrocities on both sides. Brown supports his narrative by direct quotes from participants in the conflict, such as a white soldier’s account of a massacre of Navajos at Fort Wingate in New Mexico in September, 1861.

Brown next turns to Little Crow, a chief of the Santee Sioux in Minnesota. After many years of trying to adopt the white man’s lifestyle and dress, even visiting President James Buchanan in Washington, Little Crow became disillusioned and angry during the summer of 1862. The result of that anger was Little Crow’s War. The war ended with the Santee Sioux moving west to the Great Plains and with Little Crow’s scalp and skull being put on display in St. Paul.

Chapter 4 begins with a meeting at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1851. Leaders of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Crow, and several smaller tribes met with United States government representatives. The agreements made there permitted the building of roads and military posts in Indian territory, but no land was surrendered by the Indians. The Pikes Peak gold rush in 1858 resulted in the arrival of thousands of white prospectors, ranchers, and farmers to the lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. In spite of the loss of much land, the Indians remained peaceful until 1864. Black Kettle, the Cheyenne chief, heard about the experiences of the Navajo and the Sioux; he hoped to spare his people that suffering. War did break out in the spring of 1864, when soldiers attacked some Cheyenne on the South Platte River. The fighting ended in November with the well-planned Sand Creek Massacre of Black Kettle’s Cheyenne by a United States Army force under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington.

In the next two chapters, Brown’s account returns to the Sioux, centering on Red Cloud, chief of the Oglala Sioux. It describes the Powder River Invasion of the northern Great Plains by white gold-seekers, traders, and United States Army regiments in 1865. Red Cloud was trying to keep the area between the Black Hills of South Dakota and Big Horn Mountain in Montana as the domain of the Indians, including bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho as well as the Sioux. In 1866, the United States government began preparation for a road through the Powder River country into Montana. The result was Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868), beginning with the Fetterman Massacre of a contingent of soldiers in an ambush in December, 1866. After two years of conflict, Red Cloud triumphantly signed a treaty at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, that closed the Powder River road. The exact terms of the treaty after ratification by the United States Senate were disputed, but it did result in several years of peace.

Chapter 7 continues in the recounting of the struggle of Black Kettle of the Cheyenne and other Indians of the central Great Plains against white occupation of their lands. This includes the great council at Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas in October, 1867. Although Black Kettle could only bring a few Cheyenne, more than four thousand Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho were present to negotiate an honorable peace with the United States government. At this meeting, Ten Bears of the Comanche gave an eloquent appeal on behalf of the Indians. Brown later includes a quote from that speech. The saddest incident in this chapter is the death of Black Kettle, who survived the Sand Creek Massacre, in another massacre led by George Custer in November, 1868. This chapter also includes the infamous words of General Phil Sheridan: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” which over time became “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

After discussing the visit to Washington by Red Cloud and other Sioux chiefs, and attempts to clarify terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, Brown moves to the Southwest and Cochise with the Apache warriors. The story, now becoming all too familiar, begins with Cochise welcoming white soldiers to his territory, even allowing a mail route and a stage station to be established. False accusations by an army officer and attempted arrest in 1861 convinced Cochise that all whites had to be driven from Apache territory. After his father-in-law, Mangas Colorado, was murdered by soldiers while a prisoner, open war broke out. The Camp Grant Massacre of unarmed Apaches in 1871 revealed the futility of Cochise’s efforts. Although other Apache chiefs remained on the warpath, Cochise made peace in 1872.

In Chapter 10, the scene moves to the West Coast and the Modoc leader, Captain Jack. The account begins with attempts at cooperation and ends with Captain Jack’s being hanged in 1873. The next chapter, “The War to Save the Buffalo,” is an excellent account of the last major effort by the Indians of the Great Plains to preserve their traditional life. Brown includes part of the emotional speech given at the Council of Medicine Lodge Creek in 1867 by Ten Bears, who best tells his own story: “I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls.” This chapter includes more accounts of abuse by Custer. The story of Quanah Parker, the Comanche war chief whose mother was captured as a small child and raised as a Comanche, is another highlight of the chapter.

Chapter 12 of Brown’s chronology returns the reader to the Sioux in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Red Cloud is joined in this narrative by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other Sioux leaders. In 1874, after the discovery of gold, the Black Hills were invaded by white miners. The miners were followed by soldiers under Custer. The war that followed ended in July, 1876, with the death of Custer and his men in the Battle of the Little Bighorn River in Montana.

The next four chapters record the flight of Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce from their home in the Northwest, the final Cheyenne subordination, the troubles of the Poncas and Standing Bear, and the removal of the Utes from their Rocky Mountain homes to undesirable land in Utah. Chapter 17 is a good account of the last Apache resistance, first by Victorio, then by Geronimo. After years of violent rebellion, Victorio was killed by Mexican soldiers in 1880. Geronimo then led the opposition until his surrender in 1886, after which the once-fierce Apache were in subjection to the United States.

The last two chapters are a fitting conclusion to a fascinating and disturbing story. Brown describes the Ghost Dance, a ritual attributed to Wovoka, a Paiute from Nevada. The dance was supposed to bring back dead Indians and the buffalo and eliminate whites from Indian lands. Sitting Bull of the Sioux, after years of Canadian exile, imprisonment in the United States, and appearances as a feature in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, became an advocate of the Ghost Dance. Growing despair among the Sioux intensified interest in the dance and led to Sitting Bull’s death on December 15, 1890.

In the confusion that followed Sitting Bull’s death, one group of his followers joined Big Foot, also a Ghost Dance advocate. On December 28, Big Foot’s group was taken into custody by the U.S. Army and forced to camp along Wounded Knee Creek in southwestern South Dakota. The next day, as the Sioux were being disarmed, a minor incident involving one deaf warrior led to the massacre of the Sioux by the soldiers. Of about 350 people in the group, 51 wounded were left to be taken to the Pine Ridge Sioux Agency.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a factual account that needs no artificial elaboration. The pages of history are opened to many examples of the United States’ inhumanity. The wounded from Wounded Knee were taken to the Episcopal Mission at Pine Ridge. Above the pulpit, four days after Christmas, a sign declared, “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary

Chapter 1: ‘‘Their Manners are Decorous and Praiseworthy’’
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee begins with an...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 1: “Their Manners are Decorous and Praiseworthy”

New Characters
Andrew Jackson: General of the United States Army who battled Indian tribes of the South in early 1800s and who later enacted a policy of relocating eastern Indian tribes west of the Mississippi River.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, written by historian Dee Brown opens by telling how Christopher Columbus called the Native Americans “Indios.” He proceeds to outline the history of European and American discovery and settlement of North America from 1492 to 1860, and its effect on the Indians. In his outline, Brown describes the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts and how, even though the Indians helped them...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 2: The Long Walk of the Navahos

New Characters
Manuelito: Navaho chief, led attacks against the Army and resisted being sent to Bosque Redondo reservation before finally surrendering.

Colonel Edward Richard Sprigg Canby: Army colonel at Fort Fauntleroy who is later killed by Captain Jack.

General James Carleton: Ruthless Army general, commanded New Mexico Army in campaigns against Navahos.

Kit Carson: Former trader, negotiated with Navahos before successfully campaigning against them.

In 1860, Manuelito and his fellow Navahos are in conflict with both the American soldiers, who stole his livestock and burned his hogans, the log structures in which the Navahos...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 3: Little Crow's War

New Characters
Little Crow: Chief of Mdewkanton Santee Sioux who led the struggle against the Army.

Colonel Henry H. Sibley: Army colonel, leader of Sixth Minnesota Regiment in battles against Santee Sioux, who oversaw the conviction and hanging of 38 Santee Sioux.

In the summer of 1862, the Santee Sioux are suffering from a year of poor crops and little game to hunt, and are seeing more and more of their lands occupied by white settlers. The tribe has become angry at the U.S. government’s failure to distribute annuities to them and the fact that they have no control over the credit system the government has imposed as a way to procure food supplies....

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 4: War Comes to the Cheyennes

New Characters
Roman Nose: Southern Cheyenne warrior, leader of Dog Soldiers who is later killed in a battle against Forsythe’s Scouts.

George and William Bent: Brothers who are the sons of a Cheyenne woman and white man. They help the Cheyennes negotiate and communicate with the Army.

Black Kettle: Southern Cheyenne chief who sought peace with the Army.

Major Edward W. Wynkoop: Army major on friendly terms with the Indians. He is relieved of post as commander at Fort Lyon.

Colonel John M. Chivington: Commanded Colorado Volunteers and sought to bring Indians under military authority.

In 1858, the Pikes Peak gold rush...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 5: Powder River Invasion

New Characters
Red Cloud: Oglala Sioux chief who fought and won a war against the Army.

General Patrick E. Connor: Army general and the leader of the Army’s campaign in Powder River country.

In late summer 1865, after the Army had decided to hunt down the Indians north of the Platte River like wolves, soldiers move into the Powder River country to invade that land. After learning that a privately organized column is moving into the country to pass through to the Montana gold fields, the Sioux and Cheyennes briefly harass the wagon train before letting it pass, but a nearby Arapaho camp, taken off guard by the Army’s presence, is annihilated by its...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 6: Red Cloud's War

New Characters
Colonel Henry Maynadier: Army colonel, engaged in treaty negotiations with Red Cloud.

Colonel Henry B. Carrington: Head of 18th Infantry Regiment, led Battle of the Hundred Slain/Fetterman Massacre, and was dismissed after losing the battle.

General William T. Sherman: Negotiator at the peace council to end Red Cloud’s war and later helped direct anti-Indian campaigns.

In the winter of 1866, the Army, intent on pacifying the Indians and winning the right to build trails and railroads through Indian territory, sends five Sioux into the Powder River country to convince Indian chiefs to sign treaties at Fort Laramie. The chiefs...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 7: “The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian”

New Characters
General Winfield Scott Hancock: Army general who ordered destruction of Indian camps.

Tall Bull: Southern Cheyenne chief and leader of the Dog Soldiers who was killed in battle with Army soldiers.

General Philip Sheridan: Army general with command of Kansas forts who ordered Custer to destroy hostile Indian tribes.

General George Custer: An Army general who fought many campaigns against Plains Indians before dying at Battle of Little Bighorn.

In the fall of 1866, the Southern Cheyenne Dog Soldiers go to Kansas to hunt buffalo. These soldiers had previously fought with Red Cloud against the Army, and they are joined...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 8: The Rise and Fall of Donehogawa

New Characters
Donehogawa/Ely Samuel Parker: An Iroquois who adopted the name Ely Samuel Parker and served as Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Jacob Cox: As Secretary of the Interior, he assured the Sioux that they could live outside their reservation and trade and receive goods.

Donehogawa, an Iroquois who was installed as the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1869, learns of the January 23, 1870, massacre of Piegan Blackfeet three months after it happened. He orders an investigation into the massacre, which had angered many Plains Indians. He also asks Red Cloud to come to Washington, D.C., for talks. Red Cloud and his group of 15...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 9: Cochise and the Apache Guerrillas

New Characters
Cochise: Apache chief and leader of tribes’ fierce resistance against the Army.

Mangas Colorado: Apache war chief imprisoned and killed by soldiers.

Eskiminzin: Chief of Aravaipa Apaches who is sent to Camp Grant reservation and imprisoned by the Army.

Chief Cochise and his Chiricahua Apaches had allowed Americans to pass through his territory as they traveled to California. They had also helped build a mail stage station in Apache Pass. However, the previously good relations between Apaches and whites are damaged when the Chiricahuas are accused of stealing cattle and a half-breed boy from a white settler’s ranch in...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 10: The Ordeal of Captain Jack

New Characters
Captain Jack/Kintpuash: Modoc chief who sought to keep his tribe in California Lava Beds and was betrayed by Hooker Jim and hanged by the Army.

Hooker Jim: Modoc chief who disagreed with Captain Jack’s strategy and later betrayed Captain Jack to the Army.

The Modocs, a tribe living in Northern California near Tule Lake, are led by Captain Jack. After signing a treaty during the Civil War that situated them on the Klamath reservation in Oregon, conflicts with the Klamaths, who felt the Modocs were intruders on their land, prompted the Modocs to go back south. The Army and the Modocs skirmish in late November 1872, and in the aftermath of...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 11: The War to Save the Buffalo

New Characters
Satanta/White Bear: Kiowa chief who led struggle against the Army and was repeatedly jailed. He killed himself in Texas.

Kicking Bird: Kiowa chief who led expedition against the Army.

Lone Wolf: Kiowa chief who led delegation to Washington, D.C., and won release of Satanta and Big Tree.

In December 1868, after the Battle of Washita in which Black Kettle’s village was destroyed by Custer’s troops, General Sheridan orders the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, and Comanches to surrender at Fort Cobb. The Kiowas do not surrender, and Custer arrests the Kiowa chiefs, violating a truce in order to do so. Two thousand Kiowas and 2500...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 12: The War for the Black Hills

New Characters
Sitting Bull: Sioux chief and leader of the Hunkpapas who led Indians to victory at Little Bighorn.

Crazy Horse: Oglala chief and an advocate of defending the Black Hills who helped win battles at Rosebud and Little Bighorn.

General George Crook: An Army general who defeated the Apaches and led Army soldiers in battle at Rosebud and campaigns against Plains Indians. He later resigned his post under pressure.

In the early 1870s, rumors of gold in the Black Hills spread through white settlements on the Plains, and miners begin to converge on the area. After Custer and his Seventh Cavalry go to the Hills in 1874 and come back with...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 13: The Flight of the Nez Percés

New Characters
Chief Joseph: Chief of the Nez-Percé tribe who gave a famous speech upon surrendering to Colonel Miles.

Colonel Nelson Miles: Nicknamed Bear Coat by the Indians, he led the Army’s campaign to defeat and capture the Nez Percés.

For 70 years, from their first encounter with the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 until the 1870s, the Nez Percés had enjoyed relatively good relations with whites. In 1863, they sign a treaty sending the tribe to a small reservation in Idaho. Old Joseph, a chief who was deeply angered by the treaty, dies in 1871 and is replaced by his son, Chief Joseph, as tribal chief. Cattlemen and gold seekers move into...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 14: Cheyenne Exodus

New Characters
Dull Knife: Northern Cheyenne chief who argued that the tribe should settle down and go to Red Cloud’s agency.

Little Wolf: Northern Cheyenne chief who led a band of Cheyennes north to the Tongue River valley.

As Crazy Horse is surrendering his Oglalas at Fort Robinson in 1877, about 1000 Northern Cheyennes, including chiefs Little Wolf, Dull Knife, and Standing Elk, are also surrendering at the fort. Of those Cheyennes, 937 journey from Fort Robinson to Fort Reno on the Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation. They are displeased by the land at Fort Reno, and so in the fall of 1877, they decide to go north to hunt buffalo and thereby improve...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 15: Standing Bear Becomes a Person

New Characters
Standing Bear: Ponca chief who successfully argued that he was a “person” and a U.S. citizen.

Carl Schurz: Secretary of the Interior, nicknamed Big Eyes by Indians, who returned the Poncas to their reservation.

The Poncas, who resided near the mouth of the Niobrara River, were a prosperous agrarian tribe enjoying good relations with whites ever since they had encountered Lewis and Clark in 1804. However, they are removed to the Indian Territory in early 1877 by order of Congress, which had decided to send many northern tribes to the territory in reaction to Custer’s recent defeat. Ponca chief Standing Bear together with other chiefs...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 16: “The Utes Must Go!”

New Characters
Ouray the Arrow: Chief of the Utes who attempted to placate the U.S. but was forced onto a reservation in Utah.

Nathan C. Meeker: Indian agent who tried to convert Utes to an agrarian lifestyle. His policies set the stage for the conflict between the Utes and the Army.

William B. Vickers: Issued propaganda against Utes and authored the article that inspired “The Utes Must Go!” slogan.

The Utes, a tribe in Colorado, saw their land steadily invaded by miners during the 1840s and 1850s. They signed a treaty in 1863 relinquishing mineral rights throughout their territory and promising to let U.S. citizens mine in their...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 17: The Last of the Apache Chiefs

New Characters
Geronimo: Apache chief who was made notorious through rumors of his atrocities and was forced onto a reservation in 1894.

Victorio: Apache chief, leader of Warm Spring band, who was killed in 1880 after making raids in Mexico and the U.S..

Cochise’s death in 1874 leads to divisions within the Apache tribe, and the Apaches, split into factions, take to raiding white settlements. The government then receives “reports of trouble on the Chiricahua reservation.” The Chiricahua Apaches resist ensuing government efforts to remove them from their White Mountain reservation to the San Carlos agency. They flee to Mexico and take to raiding the...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 18: Dance of the Ghosts

New Characters
Kicking Bear: A Minneconjou who had a vision of Christ in Nevada and began the Ghost Dance religion.

Buffalo Bill Cody: The stager of Wild West Show in which Sitting Bull performed.

After the Sioux are forced off their Black Hills and Powder River country territories in 1876 and 1877, they are put on the Great Sioux Reservation between the 103rd meridian and the Missouri River, in Dakota Territory. Sitting Bull, in exile in Canada with 3000 Sioux, meets with Army General Terry in October 1877, but nothing results from the talks. On July 19, 1881, Sitting Bull and 186 of the Sioux still with him ride into Fort Buford on the...

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary and Analysis Chapter 19: Wounded Knee

New Characters
Big Foot: Leader of band of Minneconjous who was killed at his camp at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Black Coyote: The Minneconjou whose dispute with Army soldiers sparked battle at Wounded Knee.

After Sitting Bull’s death and the fight following his death, roughly 100 Hunkpapas flee the Standing Rock agency and meet up with Big Foot’s Minneconjous near Cherry Creek. The Minneconjous and Hunkpapas, choosing not to resist the Army due to their belief in the Ghost Dance prophecy, flee toward Pine Ridge, thinking that Red Cloud might give them protection from the Army soldiers. However, they encounter Major Whitside’s troops on December 28,...

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