Who Was Nelson A. Miles?

Nelson Appleton Miles was born on August 8, 1839 in Westminster, Massachusetts, and would rise to fame as a renowned member of the United States military during the American Civil War, Native American conflicts, and the Spanish-American War. An important event during the Great Sioux War, the Battle of Wolf Mountain, was sometimes called Mile’s Battle on the Tongue River because of his strategic victory on January 8, 1877. That site in time went on to become listed as part of the National Register of Historic Places before it became a National Historic Landmark in 2008.

His military service started when Miles joined the Union Army as a volunteer on September 9, 1861. He quickly rose in the ranks, going on to become a lieutenant and lieutenant colonel before even six months had elapsed. He was also well known as a survivor of terrible injuries sustained during service after he was shot in the neck and abdomen during the chaos of battle at Chancellorsville. He went on to quickly be granted a rank of brigadier general and then major general within five years, although these promotions were due to actions in battle and therefore did not provide extra compensation.

During the Great Sioux War, Miles continued his military service and married as well. In particular, he was a part of the series of raids along the Northern Plains in response to the catastrophic U.S. defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn. One of the reasons his name became so recognized during these conflicts was his brilliant strategic use of heliographs–movable mirrors designed to send signals using reflected sunlight–along a 140 mile corridor between Fort Custer and Fort Keogh.

After the Great Sioux War ended, conflicts with Native Americans continued into the next decade. Miles was put in command of troops tracking Geronimo in 1886, replacing the famed General George Crook. He perhaps mistakenly put too much trust in his own men, replacing knowledgeable Apache scouts used by Crook with white soldiers instead. He ultimately failed to find Geronimo after a brutal 3,000 mile-long march. Instead, First Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood had the honor of negotiating the surrender of the Apache chief–or, he would have. Miles stole the honor for himself and quietly transferred Gatewood elsewhere.

Miles served up to the end of Native American conflicts, which culminated at Wounded Knee when 300 Sioux were slaughtered–women and children among them. Even though he thought that in general Native Americans should submit to the authority of the United States, he believed the survivors of Wounded Knee did indeed have a right to compensation, and urged the government to provide it after his retirement.

In 1925, he passed away after suffering a heart attack. He was 85 at the time, and in the company of his grandchildren.

The man hasn’t been forgotten with time, either. Miles City, Alabama was named after his accomplishments in life. Although we’re not entirely certain of the fact, steamship General Miles is thought to be named after him as well. There are streets, landmarks, and other places named for him. Because of his performance during the Native American conflicts, he has also been portrayed in film and cinema. Whether any of this notoriety is actually deserved, of course, is up for debate.