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Nelson Miles

Born: August 8, 1839, Massachusetts
Died: May 25, 1925

General Nelson MilesNelson Appleton Miles was born near Westminster, Massachusetts on August 8, 1839.  He entered the Civil War as a lieutenant of volunteers, without having attended West Point. His bravery and command of his troops won him many accolades and allowed his rapid advancement through the ranks.  He was involved in almost every major battle of the Civil War, was wounded several times, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  During the Indian Wars he commanded the Fifth U.S. Infantry regiment and took part in nearly all the major campaigns the army waged against the Plains Indians.  He defeated the Kiowa, Comanche, and Southern Cheyenne in the Red River War (1874-1875), intercepted Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé (1877), and captured Geronimo (1886).  In the 1890s he put down the Pullman Strikes and served in Cuba and Puerto Rico during the Spanish American War.  He reached the rank of lieutenant general in 1900 becoming the last commanding general in the U.S. Army, the position being changed to the army chief of staff upon his retirement in 1903.

Although he was an accomplished and very able soldier, his primary concern throughout his career was his own advancement.  He married Mary Hoyt Sherman in 1868, niece of William Tecumseh Sherman, hoping that it would gain him some advantage over other officers (General Sherman despised nepotism so his plan backfired).  He commanded the troops that pursued Geronimo but the Indian leader actually surrendered to Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, for whom Miles never gave the deserved credit.  His criticism of his fellow officers led to problems throughout his career.  Miles was critical of his fellow officers who had graduated from West Point, saying it gave them an unfair advantage in promotions.  He argued with General Oliver Otis Howard over who actually accepted Chief Joseph’s surrender and deserved credit.  Miles and General George Crook had a long feud over the confinement of the Apaches in Florida.  His dispute with Secretary of War Russell Alger in the 1890s resulted in his being denied a significant command of troops during the Spanish American War (his service in Cuba and Puerto Rico went essentially unnoticed).  Due to a conflict with the navy he earned an official censure by President Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to Miles as a “brave peacock.” 

Nelson Miles died of a heart attack on May 25, 1925.  His death could not have come in a more patriotic way.  He had taken his grandchildren to a circus and was standing at attention, rendering a salute to the flag, when he died.

Entry: Miles, Nelson

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 2011

Date Modified: December 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.