The First US Army Medics – Treating the Wounded at Wounded Knee

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Frederick Remington's depiction of the opening volleys at the Battle of Wounded Knee. (Source: Wiki Commons)

A single gunshot set off the Battle of Wounded Knee with tragic results, especially for the Sioux. This depiction of the opening volleys is by Frederick Remington.

It started with a single gunshot. Next, the air was raked with rifle and cannon fire, leaving the field strewn with wounded and dead. Army medics raced out under fire, rescuing comrade and enemy alike, patching their wounds, and moving them to field hospitals for further treatment.

A battle action in Iraq or Afghanistan? No, this was the Battle of Wounded Knee in December 1890, the last and, perhaps, most tragic battle of the Indian Wars. Lesser known, however, is that Wounded Knee was also the first major combat experienced by U.S. Army medics. Formed only three years before, the Army Hospital Corps provided the Army with its first enlisted personnel trained in casualty care.

The American Civil War saw great improvement in casualty care. At first, there was little organized care for the wounded. Lightly wounded soldiers had to walk miles to the nearest hospital; the more seriously injured had to be carried by their comrades. The first front line dressing stations appeared during the Battle of Fort Donelson in 1862; a few months later the first true field hospital, using tents as operating rooms and patient wards, was introduced at the Battle of Shiloh.

Union Major Jonathan Letterman, Army of the Potomac medical director, took the lessons learned at Shiloh and Fort Donelson and developed the first integrated battlefield medical evacuation system. Along with forward dressing stations and field hospitals, Letterman instituted the practice of triage, or prioritizing the care of patients based on their injuries. He also established the Army Ambulance Corps, with wagons specially designed to transport the wounded.

Battlefield First Aid – The Missing Link

Missing, however, were soldiers trained to give life-saving first aid to wounded soldiers at the point of injury. During the Civil War and afterward, some soldiers assisted regimental surgeons on an ad hoc basis. But there was no permanent corps of medically-trained soldiers.

In 1883, Army Surgeon General Robert Murray lobbied the War Department for a permanent corps of enlisted men who “shall be thoroughly instructed and trained in all the details of hospital service . . . thus preparing the Department for any emergency of peace, war, or epidemic.” Three years later, Congress approved formation of a permanent Army Hospital Corps to perform all “hospital services in garrison and in the field,” serving as ward masters, nurses, cooks, and orderlies to surgeons during battle.

The new Hospital Corps was initially met with skepticism. The average U.S. enlisted man of the 1880s was not well educated, and there was doubt qualified men could be found to staff the new corps. Indeed, by 1888 less than 20 percent of the 739 hospital corps billets could be filled. There was no standardized training. By 1889, however, formal training camps were established to instruct large numbers of hospital corpsmen in the operation of dressing stations and field hospitals, litter-bearing, splinting fractures, and controlling bleeding with tourniquets and bandages.

In 1890, the first test of the Hospital Corps medics would come at a place in South Dakota called Wounded Knee.

Map of Wounded Knee battlefield scene by James W. Forsyth

A map of the Wounded Knee area shows bodies of water, rivers and roads, and the location of the battle. Commander of the 7th Cavalry James W. Forsyth drew this map.

The Ghost Dance

By that year, the once proud Sioux nation had been reduced to living on reservations and depending on often corrupt Indian agents for their existence. Desperate to return to their old ways, many Sioux sought salvation in a new mysticism called the Ghost Dance.

Ghost Dancers believed the white man would be wiped from the land, the buffalo would return in great numbers, and they would be able to live in their traditional manner. To bring this about, the dancers wore brightly colored “ghost shirts” they believed would protect them from white man bullets, and danced the Ghost Dance. As the Ghost Dance spread through the Sioux reservations in South Dakota, white settlers grew fearful and demanded protection from the Army.

In response, the Army stationed more than 1,300 soldiers at the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation, along with a 60-bed field hospital with two surgeons and 12 hospital corpsmen. Each battalion of cavalry had at least one surgeon and four or five corpsmen. A shortage of trained corpsmen forced the Army to hire civilians to drive ambulance wagons.

On December 28, four troops of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Major Samuel M. Whitside intercepted a band of Sioux led by Chief Big Foot as they made their way toward Pine Ridge. Big Foot was not a Ghost Dance adherent – though some of his people were – and he agreed to let the Whitside’s troops escort them to the reservation. That night the Indians and the cavalry camped in the valley of Wounded Knee Creek.

The Battle at Wounded Knee

The next morning, the Sioux awoke to find themselves surrounded by 500 soldiers and a battery of Hotchkiss guns, or small-caliber mountain cannon. What happened next isn’t clear.

Wounded_Knee_wounded artillery

The Battle of Wounded Knee was the first action for U.S. Army enlisted medics. This picture by Frederick Remington illustrates a wounded artillery officer being cared for during the battle.

Big Foot insisted his people were not armed, and submitted them to personal searches. A shot was fired; who fired it and whether it was on purpose or an accident has never been determined. Within seconds the Sioux camp erupted in gunfire, the soldiers firing single-shot Springfield Trapdoor carbines, the Indians firing Winchester repeating rifles. The Hotchkiss guns overlooking the valley opened fire on men, women, and children fleeing the encampment.

The hospital corpsmen proved their worth their first time under fire. While the civilian ambulance drivers deserted, the corpsmen rushed into the maelstrom of gunfire to retrieve the wounded. One corpsman was killed. Col. James W. Forsyth, commander of the 7th Cavalry, noted in his battle report that the corpsmen rescued “not only our own wounded men but wounded Indians [who] were, with great promptness and dispatch, removed and cared for in the field hospitals which were extemporized for their benefit.”

The butcher’s bill for Wounded Knee was horrific. The Sioux suffered 115 killed and 34 wounded. Among the dead were Big Foot and dozens of women and children. Many more Sioux died of their wounds after refusing treatment by Army surgeons. The Army lost 30 men with another 30 wounded, many hit by their own gunfire.

Wounded Knee is called the last battle of the Indian Wars. Many call it a massacre. Whatever it was, it proved the value of well-trained enlisted medical soldiers willing to risk their lives to save wounded comrades and enemy alike. The actions of the Army hospital corpsmen at Wounded Knee set the standard for future Army medics who would serve courageously through two world wars, and continue to do so on today’s battlefields.


Cozzens, P. Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars, 1865-1890. (2003). Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Gillet, M. C. History of the Army Medical Department 1865-1917. (1995). Washington, DC: Center of Military History, U.S. Army.

Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army. (1891). Washington, DC: U.S. Army.

The Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion. (n.d.). Retrieved from U. S. Army Office of Medical History, March 16, 2013,

The Wounded of the Wounded Knee Battlefield. (1892). Transactions of the Second Annual Meeting of the Association of Military Surgeons of the National Guard of the United States. (pp. 36-56). St. Louis, MO: Becktold & Co.


© Copyright 2013 Martin Hill, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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