General Nelson Miles won lots of medals and not many friends

Time Before Now, August, 1839Martin van Buren, the nation’s third shortest  president called “the Little Magician,” couldn’t conjure up a second term.  The scooner, “La Amisted” captained by a crew of mutineed slaves was headed up  the Atlantic Coast toward Boston.  And 26-year-old William Otis, cousin of the elevator guy, Elisha Otis, received a patent for his steam shovel in 1836.  But fire destroyed the engineering specification and his patent wasn’t validated until February, 1839.  He didn’t live to enjoy the profits.  The 26-year-old engineer died of typhoid fever just eight months later.   

August 8, 1839

On this day General Nelson A. Miles, nemesis of three notable Native Americans, hundreds of striking railroad workers and one president, was born in Westminster, Massachusetts.  He wasn’t terribly fond of West Point graduates, either.

A veteran of both the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, Miles distinguished himself in a number of important battles and was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery at Chancellorville.  During his post-bellum career, he was known not so much for valor but for his vindictive, “scorched earth” policies against the Kiowa, Comanche and Southern Cheyenne.

Instrumental in the capture of the iconic Chief Joseph, (left) in 1877, he pursued the Walawa band of the Nez Percé for 1,700 miles as they attempted to escape into Canada.  After a five-day battle in freezing weather, Chief Joseph surrendered and spent the remainder of his life on a reservation.

In 1886, after Miles replaced General George Crook in Arizona, he logged another 3,000 miles through the rugged Sierra Madre Mountains in pursuit of Apache chief, Geronimo.  A young First Lieutenant, Charles Gatewood, (right) was actually responsible for negotiating the famed Apache’s surrender, after promising he’d spend just two two years on a Florida reservation.  Miles, however, not unexpectedly took the credit for Geranimo’s capture.  Dubbed the “proud Peacock” by Teddy Rososevelt, it may have been Gatewood’s good fortune that absolved him of double dealing.   The government had no intention of allowing the Chircahuas to return to Arizona, he discovered.

Historic photograph of Geronimo’s surrender

Miles went on to win the undying enmity of General Crook when he exiled Crook’s faithful Apache scouts to Florida along with Geronimo, even though they were listed as members of the U.S. military.  Likewise, he fueded with General Oliver O. Howard, over taking credit for the capture of the ill-fated Chief Joseph.

His callous policies on the frontier may have been informed by his marriage to Mary Hoyt Sherman, (right) the niece of General William Tecumseh Sherman of the burning of Atlanta fame.   The pompous general, born on his family’s farm, was selling crockery in Boston when the Civil War began.  An avid reader of military history and a student of battle drills, he entered the Union Army in September of 1861.  As a result of being a self-taught soldier, he resented officers from West Point, believing they were unfairly advantaged for promotions. 

While Miles was not directly involved in Sitting Bull’s death in 1890, the general’s aggressive attempts to subdue the Lakota in the Ghost Dance movement, had persuaded many of them to leave the reservation.  Fearing Sitting Bull (right) might flee, as well, officials at North Dakota’s Standing Rock Agency ordered him arrested.  Sitting Bull was killed, officers Red Tomahawk and Bullhead named as having fired the fatal shots. 

After achieving infamy among Native Americans, Miles went on to lead federal troops that put down the 1894 Pullman Strike in Chicago.  Thirty strikers were killed in the malee and 52 injured, earning him the lasting hatred of the  more than 250,000 members of the American Railroad Union. 

The Native American leaders Miles so relentlessly pursued all achieved a measure of fame. Chief Joseph met two presidents while pleading that his people be allowed to return to the Walawa Valley.  He died in Seattle in 1903 from what those close to him termed, a broken heart.   

Sitting Bull became an international celebrity during his brief tenure with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Exposition and Geronimo was imortalized in an iconic Edward Curtis photograph, (right) part of the 1,500 images in the Smithsonian Institution’s “North American Indian.”  He died at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1909 at the age of 79

 Miles was the last to hold the title of Commander of the Army during the Spanish American War. He retired in 1903 at the mandatory retirement age of  64 and the position was retired with him.  He died suddenly of a heart attack 20 years later while at a the circus in Washington D.C. with his grandchildren.

His son, Major General Sherman Miles however, served in the U.S. Army for more than four decades.  He was a 1905 graduate of West Point. 

The Geronimo Springs Museum, 211 Main Street, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico features an extensive exhibit on apache history and Geranimo and a sculpture by his great grand-son, Harlyn Geronimo.  The museum is a center for local history, that of Sierra County and the American Southwest and receives an average of 1,000 visits each month. Most recent information lists admission as $6 for adults, $3 for children and kids under 6, free when with an adult.

Open 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 Sunday.  Closed  New Year’s Day, Easter, July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  For more information go to, e-mail info@geronimosprings, call 575-894-6600 or write Geronimo Springs Museum, 211 Main Street, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 87901.

The town was orginally named Hot Springs but was renamed when Ralph Edwards, host of the NBC radio show, “Truth or Consequences,” promised to broadcast from the first town that changed its name.  He kept his word, visiting the first weekend in May for the next 50 years. 

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.