Indian Wars: Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles

Nelson A Miles, US Army general, at his headquarters, 1898.
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Nelson Appleton Miles was born August 8, 1839, at Westminster, MA. Raised on his family's farm, he was educated locally and later obtained employment at a crockery store in Boston. Interested in military matters, Miles read widely on the subject and attended night school to increase his knowledge. In the period before the Civil War, he worked with a retired French officer who taught him drill and other military principles. Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, Mile quickly moved to join the Union Army.

Climbing the Ranks

On September 9, 1861, Miles was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Serving on the staff of Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard, Miles first saw combat at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. In the course of the fighting, both men were wounded with Howard losing an arm. Recovering, Miles was promoted to lieutenant colonel for his bravery and assigned to the 61st New York. That September, the regiment's commander, Colonel Francis Barlow, was wounded during the Battle of Antietam and Miles led the unit through the rest of the day's fighting.

For his performance, Miles was promoted to colonel and assumed permanent command of the regiment. In this role he led it during the Union defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in December 1862 and May 1863. In the latter engagement, Miles was badly wounded and later received the Medal of Honor for his actions (awarded 1892). Due to his injuries, Miles missed the Battle of Gettysburg in early July. Recovering from his wounds, Miles returned to the Army of the Potomac and was given command of a brigade in Major General Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps.

Becoming a General

Leading his men during the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, Miles continued to perform well and was promoted to brigadier general on May 12, 1864. Retaining his brigade, Miles took part in the remaining engagements of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign including Cold Harbor and Petersburg. Following the Confederate collapse in April 1865, Miles took part in the final campaign which concluded with the Surrender at Appomattox. With the end of the war, Miles was promoted to major general in October (at age 26) and given command of II Corps.


Overseeing Fortress Monroe, Miles was tasked with the imprisonment of President Jefferson Davis. Chastised for keeping the Confederate leader in chains, he had to defend himself from accusations that he was mistreating Davis. With the reduction of the US Army after the war, Miles was ensured of receiving a regular commission due to his sterling combat record. Already known as vain and ambitious, Miles sought to bring high-level influence to bear with the hope of retaining his general's stars. Though a skilled influence peddler, he failed in his goal and instead was offered a colonel's commission in July 1866.

Indian Wars

Grudgingly accepting, this commission represented a higher rank than many of contemporaries with West Point connections and similar combat records received. Seeking to enhance his network, Miles married Mary Hoyt Sherman, niece of Major General William T. Sherman, in 1868. Taking command of the 37th Infantry Regiment, he saw duty on the frontier. In 1869, he received command of the 5th Infantry Regiment when the 37th and 5th were consolidated. Operating on the Southern Plains, Miles took part in several campaigns against the Native Americans in the region.

In 1874-1875, he aided in directing US forces to victory in the Red River War with the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. In October 1876, Miles was ordered north to oversee US Army operations against the Lakota Sioux following Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn. Operating from Fort Keogh, Miles relentlessly campaigned through the winter forcing many of the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne to surrender or flee to Canada. In late 1877, his men forced the surrender of Chief Joseph's band of Nez Perce.

In 1880, Miles was promoted to brigadier general and given command of the Department of the Columbia. Remaining in this position for five years, he briefly led the Department of the Missouri until being directed to take over the hunt for Geronimo in 1886. Abandoning the use of Apache scouts, Miles' command tracked Geronimo through the Sierra Madre Mountains and ultimately marched over 3,000 miles before Lieutenant Charles Gatewood negotiated his surrender. Eager to claim credit, Miles failed to mention Gatewood's efforts and transferred him to the Dakota Territory.

During his campaigns against the Native Americans, Miles pioneered the use of the heliograph for signaling troops and constructed heliograph lines over 100 miles long. Promoted to major general in April 1890, he was compelled to put down the Ghost Dance movement which had led to increased resistance among the Lakota. In the course of the campaign, Sitting Bull was killed and US troops killed and wounded around 200 Lakota, including women and children, at Wounded Knee. Learning of the action, Miles later criticized Colonel James W. Forsyth's decisions at Wounded Knee.

Spanish-American War

In 1894, while commanding the Department of the Missouri, Miles oversaw the US troops that aided in putting down the Pullman Strike riots. Late that year, he was ordered to take command of the Department of the East with headquarters in New York City. His tenure proved brief as he became the Commanding General of the US Army the following year following the retirement of Lieutenant General John Schofield. Miles remained in this position during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

With the outbreak of hostilities, Miles began advocating for an attack on Puerto Rico prior to an invasion of Cuba. He also argued that any offensive should wait until the US Army was properly equipped and be timed to avoid the worst of yellow fever season in the Caribbean. Hampered by his reputation for being difficult and clashing with President William McKinley, who sought quick results, Miles was rapidly sidelined and prevented from playing an active role in the campaign in Cuba. Instead, he observed US troops in Cuba before being permitted to conduct a campaign in Puerto Rico in July-August 1898. Establishing a foothold on the island, his troops were advancing when the war ended. For his efforts, he was promoted to lieutenant general in 1901.

Later Life

Later that year, he earned the ire of President Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to the vain general as a "brave peacock," for taking sides in an argument between Admiral George Dewey and Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley as well as criticizing American policy regarding the Philippines. He also worked to block reform of the War Department which would have seen the position of Commanding General transformed into a Chief of Staff. Reaching the mandatory retirement age of 64 in 1903, Miles left the US Army. As Miles had alienated his superiors, Roosevelt did not send the customary congratulatory message and the Secretary of War did not attend his retirement ceremony.

Retiring to Washington, DC, Miles repeatedly offered his services during World War I but was politely declined by President Woodrow Wilson. One of the most famous soldiers of his day, Miles died May 15, 1925, while taking his grandchildren to the circus. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with President Calvin Coolidge in attendance.

Selected Sources

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Indian Wars: Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). Indian Wars: Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Indian Wars: Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).