Judging history, soldiers and a battle nearly 150 years is an impossible task

Congress cannot stand in judgment of soldiers more than a century ago

August 3, 2022 4:20 am

Wounded Knee mass grave (Photo by Ed Saunders).

Battlefield valor cannot be judged as good or bad. Individual valor is not a reprehensible stain, but a condition of the human experience when facing extreme danger.

The Remove the Stain Act, reintroduced in Congress in 2021 (HR 2226/S1073) by  Rep. Kai Kahele, D-Hawai’i, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, denigrates the valor of the American soldier and wrongfully judges them. Remove the Stain Act seeks to revoke the Medals of Honor awarded to American soldiers who fought at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Dec. 29, 1890, during the Plains Indian War. 

The American West of the 1800s saw decades of fierce fighting between American Indians and westward moving America. No quarter given and none asked for on either side. Greg Michno writes in his book Encyclopedia of Indian Wars that between 1850 and 1890 soldiers and American Indians fought 675 reported battles with almost 22,000 casualties among soldiers, civilians and American Indians. 

Year 1890 largely ended the 80-year Plains Indian War between the government  and American Indians. In the late 1800s the government began forcing American Indians onto reservations. In December 1890 the elderly Sioux chief, Sitanka, also called Spotted Elk or Big Foot, was leading his followers to the Pine Ridge reservation in southwest South Dakota. Big Foot was a peace advocate, but the Seventh Cavalry Regiment was ordered to find and contain him.  

Tensions across the plains had escalated over the many weeks prior to Wounded Knee. Fear and uncertainty created an alarming chain of events. December  29, 1890, was a frigid day on Pine Ridge reservation near Wounded Knee Creek when soldiers surrounded Big Foot and his people. Soldiers tried confiscating their rifles. But something went terribly wrong. 

What happened next at Wounded Knee is debated. A rifle shot cracked. Soldiers and armed Sioux warriors began firing on each other. Sources vary, but on that day between 150 to 400 Sioux men, women, and children were killed; including Big Foot.  Thirty soldiers died at Wounded Knee; 36 soldiers were wounded. 

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society reports 17 soldiers received the Medal of Honor exclusively for gallantry-in-action at Wounded Knee. At that time the  Medal of Honor was the sole American military medal awarded for battlefield heroism. In  1916 the Army thoroughly reviewed all existing Medals of Honor, many previously  awarded liberally, and upheld the medals awarded for Wounded Knee. On October 25,  1990, almost a century later, Congress officially apologized for Wounded Knee. Looking at history through the lens of its day challenges us, if it can even be done. Today more than 130 years after Wounded Knee, societal elements in America, whether its Sioux or their sympathizers, want Congress to revoke the Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers for valor at Wounded Knee. The very name of the proposed legislation, Remove the Stain Act, judges the valor of individual soldiers at Wounded Knee as reprehensible and deems their valor a stain. 

Sadly, this politically motivated effort fails to separate the valor of the individual soldier from the larger context of government policy over the western plains in the 1800s. The two cannot be judged as one. This is the first time in history that America has allowed and upheld the recommendation of a battlefield enemy to adversely critique the conduct and valor of U.S. soldiers. The Medal of Honor is awarded in the name of Congress. Remove the Stain Act enjoins Congress to side with the adversary and not the American soldier. 

Combat soldiers have a strange sense of bestowing honor to their battlefield  adversary, even those they defeated. Combat soldiers, including Plains Indian warriors, recognize and honor valor within their ranks or the ranks of their adversary. The Cheyenne warrior, Brave Wolf, said of the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big  Horn, “I have been in many hard fights, but I never saw such brave men [U.S. soldiers].” 

The preeminent historian of the American West, the late Robert Utley, in his 1963 book, The Last of the Sioux Nation, wrote: 

“… contemporary evidence can be extracted from the vast body of original sources to  support almost any interpretation one wishes to place on Wounded Knee… Sound history, however, is careful synthesis of all the evidence…and the credible carefully weighed. Assuredly (Wounded Knee) was a terrible, lamentable tragedy. But…we should be a mature enough people to view it not in terms of the easy, conventional stereotypes of good guys and bad guys but in terms, rather, of decent, ordinary people caught up in the passions and insanities of an armed conflict that none of them intended or anticipated.” 

Battlefield valor stands alone. It cannot and must not be placed in a political context. The valor of soldiers and warriors in history cannot be erased in modern times by conveniently pushing the delete button on history’s keyboard. Valor cannot be judged over a century later. Remove the Stain Act wrongfully seeks to do that. This cannot  stand. The Act itself, ironically, stains.

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Ed Saunders
Ed Saunders

Ed E. Saunders is a retired colonel in the United States Army, serving in the military for more than 20 years. He is also an accomplished writer, historian and photographer. He has written books on the unknown stories of women in World War I and the creation of the Yellowstone National Cemetery.