The 7th Cavalry had been ordered by the commander of the Department of the Platte, General John Brooke, to disarm Big Foot’s band before marching them to Nebraska. Having escorted them to the camp-site the evening before, and setting patrols around the two (military and Lakota) camps, both sides regarded the Lakota as virtual prisoners. Forsyth chose not to try to disarm their prisoners that evening. The following morning, the Lakota were summoned to a meeting in their own camp, issued army hardtack for rations, and informed that they must hand over all firearms.
Beginning before dawn Forsythe had placed the companies of his regiment in a 3/4 horseshoe around the encampment. It was merely at this point, while the men were consolidated near Big Foot’s tent, that soldiers were sent into the camp where they tried to disarm the Lakota. Because so few working weapons were uncovered, fears of hidden weapons persisted. Not satisfied with the weapons willingly stacked by the Lakota, the soldiers started to search the tents, and removed anything that could be used as a weapon. Seized material ranged from firearms to extra tent stakes and hatchets for cutting firewood.
Next, the soldiers started to search the warriors themselves. As the efforts to locate weapons continued, the Lakota turned out to be more irritated and unruly, and according to US Army accounts, were agitated by a Minniconjou shaman, Yellow Bird. The last warrior the soldiers tried to disarm was Black Coyote. One account stated that Black Coyote refused to surrender his weapon unless paid for it first, having bought it himself. Despite, the seizure was unsuccessful and a weapon discharged. At least one officer present drew his sidearm and instantly called for the troops to start firing.
Fearing an attack, other soldiers on the rise started firing the Hotchkiss guns into the camp. Chaos ensued, as soldiers trying to disarm Lakota warriors were caught in the crossfire, and warriors ran to re-arm themselves from the stacked weapons. An intense five-minute firefight ensued in which the Lakota warriors broke throughout the cavalry line and opened a route of escape for the non-combatants. According to Liggett, Lorie, when the shooting stopped, nearly 150 Lakota had been killed, along with 25 U. S. cavalry troopers. Big Foot was among the dead.
Modern conjecture asserts that many, if not most of the cavalry were killed by friendly fire, but no actual effort was made at the time to determine whether this was the case and this does a grave disservice to the accuracy of the Lakota warriors, nor were the Lakota dead surveyed to determine whether cavalry, artillery, or Lakota cross-fire were the cause. The wounded soldiers and Lakota were placed in wagons and taken to Pine Ridge. Forensic science of the day would not have been adequate in many cases in any event. Around 50 Lakota arrived at Pine Ridge, but were kept outside in the cold until quarters were found.
Around 150 Lakota remained unaccounted for. Most sources believe that these fled the troops, and an unknown number subsequently died of wounds and exposure. Aftermath The military hired civilians to bury the dead Lakota after an intervening snowstorm had abated. Arriving at the battleground, the burial party found the deceased frozen in contorted positions by the freezing weather. They were gathered up and placed in a common grave. 146 dead Lakota were found on the field: 84 men and boys, 44 women, and 18 children. 7 wounded Lakota died in the Pine Ridge hospital of wounds received at Wounded Knee Creek.
Colonel Forsyth was immediately denounced by General Nelson Miles and relieved of command. An exhaustive Army Court of Inquiry convened by Miles criticized Forsyth for his tactical dispositions, but otherwise exonerated him of responsibility. The court of Inquiry, however, while it did include several cases of personal testimony pointing towards misconduct, was itself flawed. It was not conducted as a formal court-martial, and without the legal boundaries of that format, several of the witnesses obviously minimized their comments and statements to protect themselves or peers.
Ultimately the Secretary of War concurred and reinstated Forsyth to command of the 7th. Testimony before the court indicated that for the most part troopers attempted to avoid non-combatant casualties. Nevertheless Miles ignored the results of the Court of Inquiry and continued to criticize Forsyth, whom he believed had deliberately disobeyed orders. The concept of Wounded Knee as a deliberate massacre rather than a tragedy caused by poor decisions stems from Miles.