For faster navigation, this Iframe is preloading the Wikiwand page for Nelson A. Miles.

Nelson A. Miles

Nelson A. Miles
Miles as Commanding General, 1898
1st Military Governor of Puerto Rico
In office
July 25, 1898 – October 18, 1898
PresidentWilliam McKinley
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byJohn R. Brooke
Commanding General of the U.S. Army
In office
October 5, 1895 – August 8, 1903
PresidentGrover Cleveland
William McKinley
Theodore Roosevelt
Preceded byJohn Schofield
Succeeded byPosition abolished
(Samuel B. M. Young as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army)
Personal details
Born(1839-08-08)August 8, 1839
Westminster, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedMay 15, 1925(1925-05-15) (aged 85)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery
Political partyRepublican
Alma materTaylor University
AwardsMedal of Honor
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Army
Years of service1861–1903
Rank Lieutenant General
Unit22nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment
61st New York Infantry Regiment
Commands61st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Military Division of the Missouri
Commanding General of the United States Army

Nelson Appleton Miles (August 8, 1839 – May 15, 1925) was a United States Army officer who served in the American Civil War, the American Indian Wars and the Spanish–American War. From 1895 to 1903, Miles served as the last Commanding General of the United States Army, before the office was transformed into the Chief of Staff of the Army.

Early life

Miles was born in Westminster, Massachusetts, on his family's farm. He worked in Boston, read military history, and mastered military principles and techniques, including battle drills. He attended Fort Wayne College.

Civil War

Miles during the Civil War

Miles was working as a crockery store clerk in Boston when the American Civil War began. He joined the Union Army as a volunteer on September 9, 1861, and fought in many crucial battles. He became a lieutenant in the 22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment on May 31, 1862. He was promoted to colonel after the Battle of Antietam.

Other battles he participated in include Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville (during which he was shot in the neck and abdomen), and the Appomattox Campaign. Wounded four times in battle, on March 2, 1867, Miles was brevetted a brigadier general in the regular army in recognition of his actions at Chancellorsville. He was again brevetted, this time to the rank of major general, for his actions at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. He received the Medal of Honor on July 23, 1892, for his gallantry at Chancellorsville. He was appointed brigadier-general of volunteers as of May 12, 1864, for the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. On October 21, 1865, he was appointed a major general of volunteers at the age of 26.[1] After the war, he was commandant of Fort Monroe, Virginia, where former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner. During his tenure at Fort Monroe, Miles was forced to defend himself against charges that Davis was being mistreated.

Indian Wars

Mary Hoyt Sherman

In July 1866, Miles was appointed a colonel in the Regular Army.[2] In April 1867 he was appointed assistant commissioner of the North Carolina Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, serving under bureau commissioner Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard.[3] On June 30, 1868, he married Mary Hoyt Sherman (daughter of Charles Taylor Sherman, niece of William T. Sherman and John Sherman, and granddaughter of Charles R. Sherman).[4] In March 1869, he became commander of the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment, a position he held until 1880.[5]

Miles played a leading role in nearly all of the U.S. Army's campaigns against the American Indian tribes of the Great Plains, among whom he was known as "Bearcoat" (for his characteristic bearskin coat). In 1874–1875, he was a field commander in the force that defeated the Kiowa, Comanche, and the Southern Cheyenne along the Red River. Between 1876 and 1877, he participated in the campaign that scoured the Northern Plains after Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and forced the Lakota and their allies onto reservations. In the winter of 1877, he drove his troops on a forced march across eastern Montana to intercept the Nez Perce band led by Chief Joseph after the Nez Perce War. For the rest of his career, Miles would quarrel with General Oliver O. Howard over credit for Joseph's capture. While on the Yellowstone, he developed expertise with the heliograph for sending communications signals, establishing a 140-mile-long (230 km) line of heliographs connecting Fort Keogh and Fort Custer, Montana, in 1878.[6][7] The heliographs were supplied by Brig. Gen. Albert J. Myer of the Signal Corps.[8]

General Miles in the field.

In December 1880, Miles was promoted to brigadier general in the Regular Army. He was then assigned to command the Department of the Columbia (1881–85) and the Department of Missouri (1885–86). In 1886, Miles replaced General George Crook as commander of forces fighting against Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache leader, in the Department of Arizona. Crook had relied heavily on Apache scouts in his efforts to capture Geronimo. Instead, Miles relied on white troops, who eventually traveled 3,000 miles (4,800 km) without success as they tracked Geronimo through the tortuous Sierra Madre Mountains. Finally, First Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood, who had studied Apache ways, succeeded in negotiating a surrender, under the terms of which Geronimo and his followers agreed to spend two years on a Florida reservation. Geronimo agreed on these terms, being unaware of the real plot behind the negotiations (that there was no intent to let them go back to their native lands). The exile included even the Chiricahuas who had worked for the army, in violation of Miles' agreement with them. Miles denied Gatewood any credit for the negotiations and had him transferred to the Dakota Territory. During this campaign, Miles's special signals unit used the heliograph extensively, proving its worth in the field.[8] The special signals unit was under the command of Captain W.A. Glassford.[8] In 1888, Miles became the commander of the Military Division of the Pacific and the Department of California.

In April 1890, Miles was promoted to major-general in the Regular Army and became the commander of the Military Division of the Missouri. The Ghost Dance movement of the Lakota people, which started in 1889, led to the Pine Ridge Campaign and Miles being brought back into the field. During the campaign, he commanded U.S. Army troops stationed near Indian reservations in South Dakota and hoped that Lakota chief Sitting Bull could be peacefully removed from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. However, on December 15, Bull was killed by Indian agency police attempting to arrest him, and 14 days later American troops massacred hundreds of Lakota at Wounded Knee. Miles was not directly involved in the massacre, and was critical of the commanding officer in the field, James W. Forsyth. Just two days after the massacre, Miles wrote to his wife, describing it as "the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children".[9] After his retirement from the army, he fought for compensation payments to the survivors of the massacre. Overall, he believed that the United States should have authority over the Indians, with the Lakota under military control.

Spanish–American War and later life

General Nelson Miles and other soldiers on horseback in Puerto Rico in 1898

In his capacity as commander of the Department of the East from 1894 to 1895, Miles commanded the troops mobilized to put down the Pullman strike riots.[10] He was named Commanding General of the United States Army in 1895, a post he held during the Spanish–American War. Miles commanded forces at Cuban sites such as Siboney.

After the surrender of Santiago de Cuba by the Spanish, he led the invasion of Puerto Rico,[11] landing in Guánica in what is known as the Puerto Rican Campaign. He served as the first head of the military government established on the island, acting as both heads of the army of occupation and administrator of civil affairs. Upon returning to the United States, Miles was a vocal critic of the Army's quartermaster general, Brigadier General Charles P. Eagan, for providing rancid canned meat to troops in the field during what was known as the Army beef scandal. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general in 1900 based on his performance in the war. Miles was an opponent of the Philippine–American War and supported, as well as the brutality of American troops in the Philippines. In response, President Roosevelt called Miles a hypocrite and reminded him of his complicity in the Wounded Knee massacre. Miles would released his own report on U.S. atrocities in the Philippines to the public. He condemned the use of concentration camps and said that the use of torture was widespread and was undertaken with the knowledge of some senior officers.[12]

Cartoon by Bob Satterfield about Miles' retirement in August 1903

To show that he was still physically able to command, on July 14, 1903, less than a month before his 64th birthday, General Miles rode the 90 miles from Fort Sill to Fort Reno, Oklahoma, in eight hours' riding time (10 hrs 20 mins total), in temperatures between 90 and 100 °F (32 and 38 °C). The distance was covered on a relay of horses stationed at 10-mile intervals; the first 30 miles were covered in 2 hours, 25 minutes. This was the longest horseback ride ever made by a commanding general of the army.[13]

Called a "brave peacock" by President Theodore Roosevelt,[citation needed] Miles nevertheless retired from the army in 1903 upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 64. Upon his retirement, the office of Commanding General of the United States Army was abolished by an Act of Congress and the Army Chief of Staff system was introduced. A year later, standing as a presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention, he received a handful of votes.[citation needed] The Prohibition Party was going to give him their nomination, but an hour before balloting he sent a telegram to the convention stating that he did not want the nomination which went to Silas C. Swallow instead.[14] When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the 77-year-old general offered to serve, but President Woodrow Wilson turned him down.[citation needed]

Miles died in 1925 at the age of 85 from a heart attack while attending the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Washington, D.C., with his grandchildren. First Lady Grace Coolidge was also in attendance at the circus that day, and upon arriving at the showgrounds the general told circus owner John Ringling that he never missed a circus.[15] Nelson was one of the last surviving general officers who served during the Civil War on either side.[16] He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in the Miles Mausoleum. It is one of only two mausoleums within the confines of the cemetery. George Burroughs Torrey painted his portrait.

Military awards

General Miles in 1903.

Medal of Honor citation

Rank and Organization:

Colonel, 61st New York Infantry. Place and date: At Chancellorsville, Va., May 3, 1863. Entered service at: Roxbury, Mass. Birth: Westminster, Mass. Date of issue: July 23, 1892.


Distinguished gallantry while holding with his command an advanced position against repeated assaults by a strong force of the enemy; was severely wounded.[17]


General Miles was a member of several hereditary and military societies, including the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), serving as Commander-in-Chief from 1919 to 1925, the Grand Army of the Republic, Sons of the American Revolution and the Military Order of Foreign Wars. He was also an honorary member of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. He was also a member of the Union League Club of New York, where his portrait hung in the main bar area for many years.


Gen. Miles' funeral

Miles City, Montana is named in his honor,[18] as is Miles Street and the Miles Neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona. Miles Canyon on the Yukon River near Whitehorse, Yukon, was named after him in 1883 by Lt. Frederick Schwatka during his exploration of the river system. A steamship, General Miles, was likely named for him. Nelson M. Holderman, himself a Medal of Honor recipient, was also named after Miles. Fort Miles at Cape Henlopen near Lewes, Delaware, was named for Miles 3 June, 1941. See Wikipedia article on Fort Miles.

Miles' legacy as an Indian fighter has seen him portrayed by Kevin Tighe in the film Geronimo: An American Legend, by Hugh O'Brian in the film Gunsmoke: The Last Apache, and by Shaun Johnston in the film adaptation of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. There is a bust of General Miles in the Massachusetts State Capitol in Boston. General Miles' son, Sherman Miles, was a career Army officer who graduated from West Point in 1905 and rose to the rank of major general during World War II. His daughter Cecelia was the wife of Colonel Samuel Reber II, and the mother of Miles and Samuel Reber III.

Dates of rank

Insignia Rank Component Date
First Lieutenant 22nd Massachusetts Infantry 9 September 1861
Lieutenant Colonel 61st New York Infantry 31 May 1862
Colonel 61st New York Infantry 30 September 1862
Brigadier General Volunteers 12 May 1864
Brevet Major General Volunteers 25 August 1864
Major General Volunteers 21 October 1865
Colonel 40th Infantry, Regular Army 28 July 1866
Brevet Major General Regular Army 2 March 1867
Colonel 5th Infantry, Regular Army 15 March 1869
Brigadier General Regular Army 15 December 1880
Major General Regular Army 5 April 1890
Lieutenant General Regular Army 6 June 1900
Lieutenant General Retired List 8 August 1903


See also


  1. ^ Eicher, p. 389.
  2. ^ U.S. Senate (1887). Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States. Vol. XV, Part I. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 42 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives. "Historical Note: The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands". Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of North Carolina Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1870. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved July 27, 2022.
  4. ^ Wooster, Robert (1996). Nelson A. Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 50–51. ISBN 0803297750.
  5. ^ "Gen. Miles and the Signal Service". Fitchburg Sentinel. Fitchburg, MA. November 19, 1880. p. 2 – via
  6. ^ "Signal Service Station on Mount Hood". Daily Alta California. September 20, 1884. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
  7. ^ Reade, Lt. Philip (January 1880). "About Heliographs". The United Service. 2: 91–108. Retrieved June 21, 2011.
  8. ^ a b c Coe, Lewis (1993) The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and its Predecessors in the United States McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., p. 10, ISBN 0-89950-736-0
  9. ^ DeMontravel, Peter R. (1998). A Hero to His Fighting Men. Kent State University Press. p. 206. ISBN 9780873385947.
  10. ^ The Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars: A Political, Social, and Military History, Volume 1, p. 400
  11. ^ "Invasion of Puerto Rico". The Goldfields Morning Chronicle (Coolgardie, WA : 1896 - 1898). July 19, 1898. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  12. ^ Ranson, Edward (1965). "Nelson A. Miles as Commanding General, 1895-1903". Military Affairs. 29 (4): 179–200. doi:10.2307/1984406. ISSN 0026-3931. JSTOR 1984406.
  13. ^ See newspaper reports from Washington, D.C. (Showing off his Stamina. General Miles making 90-mile horseback ride) and Kansas City, MO (General Miles made it in Triumph), July 14, 1903. Hot off the Press Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation. Retrieved October 11, 2015.
  14. ^ "Dr. Swallow Nominated". The Lancaster Examiner. July 2, 1904. p. 1. Archived from the original on December 18, 2019 – via
  15. ^ "Gen. Nelson A. Miles Diesat Circus; Indian Fighter, 85, Falls Lifeless While Viewing Pageant, with Mrs. Coolidge Near by. Civil War "Boy General" Won Congressional Medal – Fought Also in Spanish-American War – of Family of Soldiers". The New York Times.
  16. ^ Warner, pp. 323-24, states that Miles was the "last survivor of the full rank major generals of Civil War vintage" and of all general officers, was outlasted only by John R. Brooke (died 1926) and Adelbert Ames (died 1933).
  17. ^ "MILES, NELSON A., Civil War Medal of Honor recipient". American Civil War website. November 8, 2007. Retrieved November 8, 2007.
  18. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 208.
  19. ^ Heitman, Francis B. (1903). Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1789-1903, Vol. 1. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. pp. 708–709.


Further reading

  • Freidel, Frank. The Splendid Little War. Short Hills, NJ: Burford Books, 1958. ISBN 0-7394-2342-8.
  • Greene, Jerome A. Yellowstone Command: Colonel Nelson A. Miles and the Great Sioux War, 1876–1877. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, 1991. ISBN 080613755X
Military offices Preceded byJohn M. Schofield Commanding General of the United States Army 1895–1903 Succeeded byNone (Office abolished)Samuel B.M. Young(Chief of Staff of the United States Army) Preceded byOffice created Military Governor of Puerto Rico 1898(Commandant) Succeeded byJohn Ruller Brooke
{{bottomLinkPreText}} {{bottomLinkText}}
Nelson A. Miles
Listen to this article

This browser is not supported by Wikiwand :(
Wikiwand requires a browser with modern capabilities in order to provide you with the best reading experience.
Please download and use one of the following browsers:

This article was just edited, click to reload
This article has been deleted on Wikipedia (Why?)

Back to homepage

Please click Add in the dialog above
Please click Allow in the top-left corner,
then click Install Now in the dialog
Please click Open in the download dialog,
then click Install
Please click the "Downloads" icon in the Safari toolbar, open the first download in the list,
then click Install

Install Wikiwand

Install on Chrome Install on Firefox
Don't forget to rate us

Tell your friends about Wikiwand!

Gmail Facebook Twitter Link

Enjoying Wikiwand?

Tell your friends and spread the love:
Share on Gmail Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Buffer

Our magic isn't perfect

You can help our automatic cover photo selection by reporting an unsuitable photo.

This photo is visually disturbing This photo is not a good choice

Thank you for helping!

Your input will affect cover photo selection, along with input from other users.


Get ready for Wikiwand 2.0 🎉! the new version arrives on September 1st! Don't want to wait?