The Battle of Wolf Mountain was fought with perhaps equal numbers on both sides, but the U.S. army is considered the victor in their engagement with the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne Native American warriors they faced on January 8, 1877, when the facts are presented by most historians. There were few casualties on either side, but after the battle ended the Native Americans who remained would have had little hope of evading capture or death during the winter. They surrendered instead.
Had the campaign against the Native Americans been fought according to traditional standards of war from the century past (according to Albany historians), the engagement may have been avoided altogether. Historically, winter was a time to dig in and resupply. This usually helped reduce the number of dead due to disease, hypothermia or malnourishment in the harsh conditions. General Nelson A. Miles would not apply these same rules of war in his hunting of the Native American forces that remained and so the Great Sioux War finally ended as a result.
After Miles had defeated the forces of Sitting Bull and Ranald S. Mackenzie had won the Dull Knife Fight, the Sioux and Cheyenne were all but routed. At this point it was relatively impossible for the tribes to regroup or reunite in enough force to launch an effective counter-offensive. After these conflicts were lost by the Native Americans, it was simply a mopping up effort on the part of the U.S. army until the inevitable surrender was obtained.
The Battle of Wolf Mountain was an attempt to track down Sioux Chief Crazy Horse and around 500 Native Americans he led. With 436 men under his command, Miles marched along the Tongue River valley until he managed came upon the Native American forces. A series of attacks were launched every other day, starting on January 1, 1877 and continuing through January 7. On that night, a massive snowstorm pounded the area. On January 8, Miles launched a five-hour battle that would end the conflict once and for all, using the snow to his advantage.
The Native Americans were tactically outmatched during the battle. There was three feet of snow on the ground, and two pieces of heavy artillery pounded them from a ridgeline above the field of battle. Their horses were starving and unable to carry the warriors into battle, forcing them to march on foot. Unsurprisingly, their attempts to outmaneuver and outflank the U.S. soldiers proved completely unsuccessful.
For all purposes, though, the U.S. side wasn’t in a position to overwhelm the Native Americans either, and so they didn’t. Eventually, the Native Americans agreed to terms of surrender after being promised they would be treated fairly upon return to Fort Robinson. Crazy Horse led them there in the coming days.
Those that went there were not treated well, in reality, and another massacre would soon play out not far from Fort Robinson after some Native Americans who had gone there managed to escape.
The Battle of Wolf Mountain may not have led to significant loss of life for either side of the military engagement, but it was a strategic loss for the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne who were already devastated by the Great Sioux War, and an obvious precursor to their surrender at Camp Robinson in May. The historical significance of the conflict hasn’t been forgotten over time, and the site of the battle was part of the National Register of Historic Places for a long time before the Wolf Mountains Battlefield was elevated to a National Historic Landmark in 2008.