A Trim Reckoning

Watching the PBS presentation of “The Hollow Crown” a few weeks ago, I was reminded that Sir John Falstaff was not the man you assigned the job of giving the big, pre-battle, gung-ho speech to the troops.  In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, just prior to the Battle of Shrewsbury the fat knight gives his thoughts on honor.  "What is that honor?  Air.  A trim reckoning.  Who hath it?  He that died o' Wednesday."  In conclusion Falstaff declares that “Honor is a mere scutcheon."  In other words it's a medal, an engraving on a tombstone, cold comfort for the honored dead.

During the Plains Indian Wars, the Medal of Honor was an escutcheon that seems to have been handed out rather freely.  One recipient, a corporal named John Kile, was later discovered to have been a serial-deserter from the U.S. Army, a man who used aliases to collect multiple enlistment bonuses.  Kile deserves to be remembered for scoring a sort of frontier trifecta: deserting from Custer's 7th Cavalry, winning the Medal of Honor after re-enlisting with the 5th Cavalry, and having his career cut short by being shot dead on the streets of Hays in 1870 by "Wild Bill" Hickok.  Kile had placed the muzzle of his own revolver to Hickok's ear and pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired.  Hickok's did not.

Another soldier received the honor for a fight which Thomas Lovewell narrowly missed seeing, one that provides a vivid time-stamp, highlighting Lovewell's return from California along the Platte River Road in May of 1865.  Thomas Lovewell’s son Stephen called what happened that day near present-day Gothenburg, Nebraska, a massacre.  While the incident hardly reached that level of bloodshed, it was nonetheless a very dangerous skirmish that claimed the lives of one soldier and three or four Indians, and left several men wounded.

The fight began when a wagon carrying men and supplies from Gilman's Ranch to Dan Smith's Station was attacked by thirty Indians.  Two of the attackers were killed, three men with the wagon were shot, and one of them, Commissary Sergeant Hiram Creighton, would die that evening.  Veering off toward the Smith Ranch, the Indians ran into another party of soldiers from Gilman's, and fighting resumed.  Private Francis Lohnes with a third group of soldiers, men from Midway Station on a wood-gathering expedition, ran to their assistance.  Lohnes was wounded twice, and had the stock of his Enfield rifle split by an arrow.  At one point he was surrounded by ten braves, but managed to keep them at bay until help arrived.  The attack lasted all morning, until the last of the small military detachments fought their way to the safety of the soldiers' quarters near the stagecoach station, and the Indians had to be content with running off twenty head of Smith's stock.

A doctor from Fort Cottonwood arrived in the afternoon to patch up the wounded, and Sgt. Creighton was buried on the grounds at Dan Smith's Station.  In August, the newly-promoted Corporal Lohnes was presented with the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at Fort Kearny "for gallantry in defending Government property against Indians."  It was the first such award bestowed during the Plains War.  Lohnes had enlisted in the Army more than four years earlier, signing up to fight slave-owning Rebels before being sent to Nebraska at the outset of Indian violence in August of 1864.  He may have read over the inscription that accompanied his medal many times, asking himself if "defending Government property" was worth the risk he was running.  He deserted a few weeks following the award ceremony, after receiving word that he was being reassigned to Fort Sedgwick at Julesburg.  Instead of going to Julesburg, he headed back to his Nebraska farm.

In 1889, Francis Lohnes was scalded to death by steam pouring out of a wrecked threshing machine.  He was buried in Maple Grover Cemetery near his home in Richardson County.  The charge of desertion was removed from his record, enabling his widow to survive on a small pension for the next thirty-five years.  Hiram Creighton's final resting place is unknown.  His bones were probably unearthed from what was dimly remembered as "Fort Gothenburg" and reinterred at Fort McPherson National Cemetery, though evidently in an unmarked grave.  Medal winner John Kile's body was removed from a plot at Hays and reburied at Fort Leavenworth, but under the name "John Kyle."  After historian and author Jeffrey Broome intervened, the spelling of Kile’s name was changed, but not a number of other mistakes etched on his marker.  In the Army’s defense, his service record had been complicated.  

Like Lohnes and Creighton, John Kile also has a connection with Thomas Lovewell's story.  Kile's Medal of Honor was earned while serving with Brevet-Major Eugene Carr's 5th Cavalry in his campaign on the Republican River in 1869.  Kile was involved in the running battle that stampeded Tall Bull's Cheyenne Dog Soldiers toward a rendezvous at White Rock Creek, where they would run amok during a week-long series of massacres and standoffs in Jewell and Republic counties, after Carr headed for Fort McPherson to renew his supply train and give his troops and horses a chance to rest.

Thomas Lovewell would rescue three Swedish farmers from being ambushed by those same Dog Soldiers in May of 1869.  While his act may have been deserving of a medal, he was a civilian at the time, and civilians worthy of the nation’s highest honor were seldom recognized.  As a contract laborer for the military, William F. Cody would be awarded a Medal of Honor a few years afterward, but, like many conferred so liberally in the Plains War, his would be revoked, not to be reinstated until more than seventy years after his death.

We talk a good line when it comes to honoring our heroes, but, considering the medals withdrawn, bravery overlooked, names misspelled, and bones misplaced, it can be difficult to argue with Sir John Falstaff’s assessment:  “What is honor?  A word.” 

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com