Miles, Nelson Appleton (1839–1925)

By: Robert H. Steinbach

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 1995

Updated: April 8, 2020

Nelson Appleton (Bear Coat) Miles, United States Army general, was born on August 8, 1839, near Westminster, Massachusetts, to Daniel and Mary (Curtis) Miles, the youngest child in a Baptist family. He was educated in Westminster through grammar school and attended John R. Galt's academy there. In 1856 he left home to work as a clerk in a Boston crockery store. Anticipating the Civil War, he informally studied military strategy and tactics. At the beginning of the war he was commissioned first lieutenant of the Twenty-second Massachusetts Volunteers and shortly thereafter became aide-de-camp to Gen. Oliver Otis Howard. Thus began a meteoric rise in rank to major general of volunteers in 1865. Miles participated in nearly every major conflict fought by the Army of the Potomac except Gettysburg, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Appomattox. He was wounded four times, brevetted three, and received a Medal of Honor for gallantry at Chancellorsville, where he was severely wounded. In 1865–66 he commanded Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he was Jefferson Davis's jailer. By October 1866 he was commissioned colonel in the regular army and assigned as an administrator in the Freedmen's Bureau in Raleigh, North Carolina. On June 30, 1868, Miles married Mary Hoyt Sherman, niece of both Senator John Sherman and Gen. William T. Sherman. Nelson and Mary had two children.

In March 1869 Miles became colonel of the Fifth Infantry. He began his frontier experience at Fort Hays, Kansas, and moved on to Fort Harker and Fort Leavenworth. In 1874 he was ordered to lead an expedition against the Indians of the Texas Panhandle. With one battalion and four companies of the Fifth Infantry, two battalions of the Sixth Cavalry, a detachment of artillery, and a company of Delaware Indians, he marched into Camp Supply in Indian territory, where he set up operations for his Panhandle campaign. During the 1874–75 Red River War, Miles led a column against the Indians of the Southern Plains. At Palo Duro Canyon on August 30, 1874, his forces successfully fought off 600 Cheyenne warriors. Miles also sent a detachment of cavalry to the aid of Lyman's wagontrain. The delay in supplies, however, caused him to miss the battle of Palo Duro Canyon on September 28, 1874. One of the detachments under Miles's command, led by Lt. Frank (F. L. D.) Baldwin, fought the battle of McClellan Creek, where they freed two orphaned girls from a group of Cheyenne Indians. Miles wrote about his Indian campaigns in his book Personal Recollections and Observations, published in 1896. In 1876, after George A. Custer's disastrous loss at the Little Big Horn, Miles went to Montana to fight the Sioux. His troops fought the Hunkpapas in battles between Cedar and Bad Route creeks on October 21, 1876, and near the headwaters of the Red Water River on December 18. He defeated Crazy Horse and his followers at the Wolf Mountains on January 8, 1877, and the Minneconjous near Rosebud Creek on May 7. In October 1877 Miles subdued Chief Joseph's Nez Percé Indians at the battle of the Bear Paw Mountains. In 1880 Miles was promoted to brigadier general. In 1886 he was summoned to command the Department of Arizona, and, on September 4, he accepted the surrender of Geronimo and his band at Skeleton Canyon. In 1889, after briefly serving as the commander of the Division of the Pacific, he was promoted to major general and assigned to command the Division of the Missouri, headquartered in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. From this post, he supervised the troops involved in the Wounded Knee calamity (1890) and the Chicago Pullman Strike (1894). In September 1895 the president appointed Miles to the position of general in chief of the army, the highest rank in the service. Under Miles the army fought in the Spanish-American War in 1898 (Miles himself conducted the campaign to take Puerto Rico), the Philippine Insurrection, and the Boxer Rebellion. At the turn of the century Miles prominently represented the anti-imperialist wing of the Republican party. After having been promoted to lieutenant general in 1900, Miles retired in 1903. He died of heart failure on May 15, 1925, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

M. L. Crimmins, "Gen. Nelson A. Miles in Texas," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 23 (1947). Virginia W. Johnson, The Unregimental General: A Biography of Nelson A. Miles (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962). William H. Leckie, The Military Conquest of the Southern Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963). Nelson A. Miles, Serving the Republic: Memoirs of the Civil and Military Life of Nelson A. Miles (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1911). Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis (3 vols., New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955–64). Joe F. Taylor, comp., "The Indian Campaign on the Staked Plains, 1874–1875," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 34 (1961), 35 (1962). Robert Wooster, Nelson A. Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993).

Time Periods:

  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert H. Steinbach, “Miles, Nelson Appleton,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed November 28, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1995
April 8, 2020