Nelson A. Miles

Nelson A. Miles

Nelson A. Miles
Birth name Nelson Appleton Miles
Born (1839-08-08)August 8, 1839
Westminster, Massachusetts
Died May 15, 1925(1925-05-15) (aged 85)
Washington, D.C.
Place of burial Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1861–1903
Rank Lieutenant General
Commands held 61st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Military Division of the Missouri
Commanding General of the United States Army
Battles/wars American Civil War
Indian Wars
Spanish–American War
Awards Medal of Honor
Other work Military Governor of Puerto Rico

Nelson Appleton Miles (August 8, 1839 – May 15, 1925) was a United States soldier who served in the American Civil War, Indian Wars, and the Spanish–American War.

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.

Civil War

Miles was working as a crockery store clerk in Boston when the Civil War began. He entered the Union Army on September 9, 1861, as a volunteer and fought in many crucial battles.

Miles during Civil War

He became a Lieutenant in the 22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was commissioned 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, and the Appomattox Campaign. Wounded four times in battle (he was shot in the neck and abdomen at Chancellorsville), on March 2, 1867 he 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 Spotsylvania Court House. He received the Medal of Honor (on July 23, 1892) for 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 Major General of volunteers at age 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

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

In July 1866, Miles was appointed a colonel in the Regular Army. In March 1869 he became commander of the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment. 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).[2]

Miles played a leading role in nearly all of the U.S. Army's campaigns against the American Indian tribes of the Great Plains. 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 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 Montana and intercepted the Nez Percé band led by Chief Joseph. For the rest of Miles' career, he 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.[3][4] The heliographs were supplied by Brig. Gen. Albert J. Myer of the Signal Corps.[5]

In December 1880, he 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 in the Department of Arizona. Crook had relied heavily on Apache scouts in his efforts to capture the Chiricahua leader. 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 in 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 in 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.[5] The special signals unit was under the command of Captain W. A. Glassford.[5] 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. That same year, the last major resistance of the Sioux on the Lakota reservations, known as the Ghost Dance, brought Miles back into the field. His efforts to subdue the Sioux led to Sitting Bull's death and the massacre of about 300 Sioux. This included women and children at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. Miles was not directly involved at Wounded Knee and was critical of the commanding officer. Just two days after the event, Miles wrote to his wife, describing Wounded Knee as "The most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children".[6] 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

In his capacity of commander of the Department of the East from 1894 to 1895, Miles commanded the troops mobilized to put down the Pullman strike riots. 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 personally led the invasion of Puerto Rico, 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 head 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 the 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.

Cartoon by Bob Satterfield about Miles' retirement in August 1903.

To show that he was still physically able to command, on July 14, 1903 - a month away from his 64th birthday - General Miles rode the 90 miles from Fort Sill to Fort Reno, Oklahoma, in 8 hour's 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.[7]

Called a "brave peacock" by President Theodore Roosevelt, 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 presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention, he received a handful of votes.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the 77-year-old general offered to serve, but President Wilson turned him down.

Miles died in 1925 at the age of 85 from a heart attack while attending a circus in Washington, D.C., with his grandchildren. He was one of the last surviving of those who served as a general officer on either side during the Civil War[8] 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

Medal of Honor citation

Rank and Organization:

Colonel, 60th 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.[9]


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.


Miles City, Montana is named in his honor.[10] A steamship, the General Miles, was likely named for him. Nelson M. Holderman, himself a Medal of Honor recipient, was also named after Miles.

His legacy as an Indian fighter has seen him portrayed by Kevin Tighe in the film Geronimo: An American Legend and by Shaun Johnston in the film adaptation of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Miles Street and the Miles Neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona are named in his honor.

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.

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.

Dates of rank

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


See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nelson A. Miles.
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Nelson A. Miles


  1. Eicher, p. 389.
  2. Wooster, Robert (1996). Nelson A. Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 50–51.
  3. "Signal Service Station on Mount Hood". Daily Alta California. September 20, 1884. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
  4. Reade, Lt. Philip (January 1880). "About Heliographs". The United Service. 2: 91–108. Retrieved June 21, 2011.
  5. 1 2 3 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
  6. DeMontravel, Peter R. (1998). A Hero to His Fighting Men. Kent State University Press. p. 206.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. "MILES, NELSON A., Civil War Medal of Honor recipient". American Civil War website. November 8, 2007. Retrieved November 8, 2007.
  10. Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 208.
  11. Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1789-1903. Francis B. Heitman. Vol. 1. pp. 708-709.


Further reading

Military offices
Preceded by
John M. Schofield
Commanding General of the United States Army
Succeeded by
None (Office abolished)
Samuel B.M. Young
(Chief of Staff of the United States Army)
Preceded by
Military Governor of Puerto Rico
Succeeded by
John Ruller Brooke
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