By CSM Sam Yudin, CA ARNG, JewishMilitary.com
Sigmund Schlesinger was born in Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1848. When he was 17, he traveled alone to America, disembarking in Philadelphia. Although Schlesinger quickly found work, the conclusion of the Civil War meant that returning veterans quickly replaced the new immigrants. In his search to support himself, Schlesinger headed West, where he got a job working on the railroad. But soon, with the Sioux Indians stirring up trouble in an effort to stop the railroad construction, he was terminated once again. Out of desperation, Schlesinger then volunteered as a frontier scout in the US Army. He had never ridden a horse or shot a gun before, but he learned quickly. His training would prepare him for the most ferocious battle against the Indians in frontier history, at the Battle of Beecher’s Island in Colorado, against Cheyenne Chief Henry Roman Nose.
General Phillip Sheridan ordered his aide, then-Major George A. Forsyth, to assemble a company of 50 first-class frontiersmen, “to be used as scouts against the hostile Indians.” The company would not employ standard Army tactics, but instead, planned to use the Indian’s tactics against them. Sigmund Schlesinger was one of the 48 scouts Forsyth hand-selected between the men at Fort Harker and Fort Hays.
On September 10, 1868, Major Forsyth learned that a force of 25 Indians had attacked a freighter train east of Fort Wallace. Forsyth and his scouts followed the Indians’ path into Colorado. They camped on the south bank of the “Dry Fork of the Republican River” — now known as the Arikaree River. A battle then ensued, which raged from 17 to 19 September 1868. At 19, Schlesinger had been “the youngest of the famed scouts pinned down on a sandbar in the Arickaree fork.”
The battle is recorded in Schlesinger’s journal as follows (sic):
“Thursday 17 About 12 Indians carched on us stampeedet 7 Horses 10 minuts after about 600 Indians attacktet us Killt Beecher Culver & Wilson. Woundet 19 man & Killt all the Horses. We was without Grubb & Water all Day dug Holes in the sand whith our Hands. “Friday, September 18, 1868, in the night I dug my hole deeper cut of meat of the Horses & hung it up on Bushes, Indians made a charge on us at Day brake, but retreatet Kept Shooting nearly all day they Put up a White Flag, left us at 9 o clock in the evning Raind all night.
“Saturday 19 the Indians came back again Kept sharp shooting all day 2 Boys startet for Fort Wallace Raind all night.
“Sunday 20 Dr. Moore died last night Raining part of the Day snow about 1 inches thick Indians Kept sharp shooting.
“Monday, September 21, 1868. scalpt 3 Indians which were found about 15 Feet from my hole consealt in Grass.
“Tuesday 22 Killt a Coyote & eat him all up.”
In the August 26, 1893 edition of Army and Navy Magazine, an article appeared describing the Battle of Beecher’s Island. The article, written by General James B. Fry and titled “The Island of Death,” includes the following poem:
When the foe charged on the breastworks,
With the madness of despair,
And the bravest souls were tested,
The little Jew was there.
When the weary dozed on duty,
Or the wounded needed care,
When another shot was called for,
The little Jew was there.
With the festering dead around them,
Shedding poison in the air,
When the crippled chieftain ordered,
The little Jew was there.
The poem, “Commending the Bravery and Fearlessness of Young Schlesinger”, appears to have been written by General Forsyth himself. General Forsyth had highly commended Schlesinger for “his unusual bravery and military skill” and “remarkable power of endurance, dominated by a noble spirit of bravery, and a keen knowledge of military tactics.”
Years later, Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, Texas wrote to General Forsyth, inquiring about Schlesinger’s role at the Battle of Beecher’s Island. The General wrote back:
My dear Rabbi Cohen:
In answer to your inquiry of December, regarding Mr. Sigmund Schlesinger, who served in my command on the Western frontier in 1867-1868, and who was with me in my fight with the Sioux Indians in the Arickareee Fork, I have a high admiration of the courage and splendid pluck and endurance of young Schlesinger on the occasion mentioned… He had never been in action prior to our fight with the Indians and throughout the whole engagement which was one of the hardest, if not the very hardest, ever fought on the Western plains, he behaved with great courage, cool persistence and a dogged determination that won my unstinted admiration as well as that of his comrades, many of whom had seen service throughout the War of Rebellion on one side or the other. I can accord him no higher praise than that he was the equal of many in courage, steady and persistent devotion to duty, and unswerving and tenacious pluck of any man in my command.
It is a real pleasure to state this fact. I especially mention the pluck and endurance of this young man of Israel and speak of him as a worthy descendant of King David.
I am, sir, with sincere respect,
Very truly yours,
George A. Forsyth
General, U.S. Army
Originally published in the Purim 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.