Retreat of the Indians under Cover of Night

The Indians claimed after their final surrender that they would have held Gibbon’s command in the timber longer than they did, and would have killed many more, if not all of them, had they not learned that Howard was at hand with reinforcements. They admit that they were warned of impending danger in some form in due time to have avoided a meeting with Gibbon, but did not heed it. They tell us that on the evening before the arrival of Gibbon’s troops at the Indian camp, a “medicine man ” had cautioned the chiefs that death was on their trail.

“What are we doing here he asked. ” While I slept, my medicine told me to move on ; that death was approaching us. Chiefs, I only tell you this for the good of our people. If you take my advice you can avoid death, and that advice is to speed through this country. If we do not there will be tears in our eyes.”

But the chiefs heeded not his warning. They held a feast and a war-dance that night, and then lay down to sleep, feeling as safe as they ever did on their own reservation.

They claim to have received news of Howard’s coming in this way :

When the troops retired to the mouth of the gulch on the morning of the 9th, the warriors were examining the dead. Among them they found a white man, a citizen, who was breathing ; his eyes were closed and he pretended to be dead, but they saw that he was not though he was severely wounded. They took hold of him and raised him up. Finding that his upossoming” would not work, he sprang to his feet. Looking Glass was at hand and ordered the Indians not to kill him, reminding them that he was a citizen and that they might obtain valuable information from him. They then questioned him closely concerning the white soldiers. He told them that Howard would be there in a few hours, and that volunteers were coming from Virginia City to head the Indians off. While he was talking with them, a squaw who had lost her brother and some of her children in the fight, came up and slapped him in the face. He gave her a vigorous kick in return, and one of the warriors, enraged at this, killed him. The Indians having thus learned that reinforcements were close at hand, ordered the squaws to move camp, and the warriors remained to continue the fight, but in such light trim that they could retreat rapidly whenever it should become necessary.

The departure of the squaws had been so hurried by flying bullets that they left large quantities of buffalo robes, a considerable quantity of dried meat and other plunder on the field. They took all the pack-animals with them, however, so that the bucks were unable to take the property with them when they left, and it subsequently fell into the hands of the white men. One citizen volunteer gathered up thirty-two buffalo robes, which he subsequently took to Helena and sold at good prices as relics of the battle. Several of them were badly stained with blood, but this, of course, enhanced, rather than lessened, their value in the eyes of the class of buyers he sought.

Captain Comba was sent out on the morning of the 11th with a party of men to bury the dead soldiers and citizens, all of whom were found, recognized, and decently interred. Rude head boards, obtained by breaking up cracker boxes, were placed at the heads of the graves, on which were written, or carved, the name, company, and regiment of the soldier, or the name and residence of the citizen, whose grave each marked.

At 10 o’clock that morning General Howard arrived with his escort, and on the morn ing of the 12th, his medical officers reached the field and gave to the suffering wounded the first professional care they had had, for owing to the rapid movements of Gibbon’ s command, the surgeon who had been ordered to join it, failed to reach it. On the 13th, General Gibbon assigned to duty with General Howard to aid in the pursuit of the Perees, Captain Browning and Lieutenants Wright and VanOrsdale with fifty men, all of whom volunteered for the service. Gibbon then left the battle-field with the wounded and the remainder of his command for Deer Lodge, where he arrived three days later. He was met en route by a number of wagons, ambulances, and nurses, sent out by the people of that town, and on arrival there, the wounded were carefully cared for, the command dispersed, and each company returned to its station.

Thus the Battle of the Big Hole had been fought and won and had passed into history. Thus more than a score of lives had been laid down and many men sorely wounded some of them maimed for life in another effort to teach hostile Indians the necessity of obedience to the mandates of their White Father.

Thus another page had been added to the glorious record of gallant deeds done; of bloody fights waged by our soldiers in wrest ing from the grasp of lawless savages the great and glorious West, and making it a land where industrious white men and their families might live in peace and safety. And every man, woman, and child who lives and prospers in that great West to-day owes the privilege of so doing to the brave men who for a quarter of a century have camped, tramped, and fought over the broad domain where now all is peace. The Battle of the Big Hole, although fought with but a handful of men, was one of the most brilliant, heroic, and desperate pieces of work known in the annals of Indian war fare.

It was a glorious achievement, a victory dearly bought but gallantly won, and the grand old Seventh Infantry has no brighter page in its history than that earned by this day’s work.

Gibbon’s name will for ages to come be a terror to belligerent redskins, and Indian mothers will use that name to reduce to obedience their refractory offspring, long after he who rendered it illustrious shall have passed away.


The fact has been repeatedly stated, as showing the highly civilized condition of the Nez Percé, that they did not scalp or other wise mutilate the bodies of the soldiers who fell within their lines. It is true they did not while the fight was in progress, probably owing to the good influence exerted over the warriors by Chief Joseph, who is, in reality, an Indian of remarkably high moral principles; but Lieutenant VanOrsdale writes, under date of January 4, 1889:

“About six weeks after the fight, I returned to the battle-ground to rebury our dead, many of them having been dug up by Indians, bears, and wolves; and, to destroy one more fiction which has obtained credence, to the effect that these Indians did not scalp their victims, I must state that both Captain Logan and Lieutenant Bradley, as well as several private soldiers, had been dug up and scalped, presumably by those Indians who had been left behind to care for the wounded hidden in the hills near there.”

In his official report of the fight, General Gibbon says: “I desire to speak in the most commendatory terms of the conduct of both officers and men (with the exception of the two cowards who deserted the howitzer). With the exception of Captain Logan and Lieutenant Bradley, both of whom were killed very early in the action, every officer came under my personal observation at one time or another during the fight, and where all were so active, zealous, and courageous, not only in themselves fighting and in cheering on the men, but in prompt obedience to every order, I find it out of the question to make any discrimination, and will simply mention the names of those who were present in the battle.

They were:
Capts. C. C. Rawn
Richard Comba
Geo. L. Browning
J. M. J. Sanno
Constant Williams (wounded twice)
William Logan (killed)
First Lieutenants C. A. Coolidge (wounded three times)
James H. Bradley (killed)
J. W. Jacobs, regimental quartermaster
Allan H. Jackson
Geo. H. Wright
William H. English (mortally wounded, and since dead)
Second Lieutenants C. A. Woodruff, acting adjutant (wounded three times)
J. T. Van Orsdale
E. E. Harden and
Francis Woodbridge

General Terry, speaking of this light in his official report, says:

I think that no one can read this report from Colonel Gibbon without feelings of great admiration for him, for his officers, for his men, and for the citizen volunteers who fought with them; but with the admiration which their gallantry, resolution, and devotion excites, other feelings will mingle. There can be no doubt that had the troops under Colonel Gibbon’s command numbered 300 men instead of 142, the Nez Percé war would have ended then and there. Had the Seventh Infantry been maintained at even the minimum strength of an efficient regiment, the six companies engaged would have been sufficient to accomplish the complete overthrow of the enemy. It is painful to contemplate the famous Seventh Infantry, a regiment whose history is interwoven with that of the country from the battle of New Orleans to the present hour, so attenuated that with more than half of its companies present it could take into action but 142 men. And it is equally painful to behold its colonel, recently a major-general and a distinguished corps commander, reduced to the necessity of fighting, rifle in hand, as a private soldier, and compelled by a sense of duty to lead a mere squad of men as a forlorn-hope against a savage enemy from whom defeat would have been destruction.”General Sheridan has this to say of it: “During the month of June the Nez Percé Indians made an outbreak in the Department of the Columbia, and when followed by United States troops, hastily collected by Gen. O. O. Howard, commanding the department, were driven eastward, and, about the middle of June, entered Montana Territory via the Lo Lo trail, committing some depredations by the way. Col. John Gibbon, commanding the district of Montana, at once took the field at the head of 148 men and thirty-four citizens, who joined as volunteers, and on the 11th of August attacked them near Big Hole Pass, Montana, and, after one of the most desperate engagements on record, in which both sides lost heavily, he succeeded in driving them from the field.”When it is borne in mind that the Indians outnumbered the troops and citizens who attacked them more than two to one, and were equally as well armed and equipped, the good conduct of Colonel Gibbon and his men will be appreciated.”

And General Sherman comments officially on the fight in these words:

“There was but a single regiment of infantry (Seventh) in all Montana, Col. John Gibbon commanding, distributed to five posts, four on the eastern border and one on the western, with two small companies, A and G, commanded by Captain Rawn, who were employed in building the new post at Missoula. It is near this place that the Lo Lo trail debouches into the Bitter Root Valley, the western settlement of Montana. Joseph had many personal acquaintances among the settlers, some of which are civilized Flatheads, and he managed with Indian cunning to cause information to go ahead that he was bound for the buffalo country; that if permitted to go on unmolested he would do no damage; that he had no quarrel with the people of Montana, only with General Howard, etc,”Colonel Gibbon was then at Fort Shaw, but by the 27th of July he had drawn to him what few men could be spared from Benton and Baker, marched rapidly 150 miles to Missoula, then taking every man that could be spared from there, he started in pursuit with fifteen officers and 146 men (afterward increased by thirty-four citizens).He overtook the enemy on a branch of Big Hole, or Wisdom River, surprised them at daybreak of August 9, and for a time had the Indians at his mercy; but their numbers so far exceeded his own that he, in turn, was compelled to seek cover in a point of timber, where he fought on the defensive till the Indians withdrew at 11 p. m. of the 10th.”Colonel Gibbon reports his loss at two officers, six citizens, and twenty -one enlisted men killed; five officers, four citizens, and thirty-one men wounded; and on the part of the enemy, eighty -three were buried on the field, ‘ and six dead were afterward found in a ravine at some distance away.’ It is otherwise known that the Indians sustained a very heavy and nearly fatal loss in wounded in this fight, and could Colonel Gibbon have had another hundred men the Nez Percé war would have ended right there.”

Some newspaper scribblers have accused General Gibbon of rashness in attacking the Nez Percé when he knew that their force outnumbered his own so largely. He has been censured for sacrificing the lives of a large number of men in an action where lie could not reasonably hope for success. But so far as known, no army officer, no military scholar, in short, no one competent to judge of the merits of the case, has ever criticized his conduct adversely.

An old maxim, loved and quoted by all Indian fighters is, that the time to fight Indians is when they are found. In Indian campaigning, a stern chase is usually not only a long, but a severe and tedious one, and the case in point is no exception to the rule, save in that General Gibbon overtook the Indians much sooner than a retreating band is usually overtaken. Yet he had made a hard march. He had been ordered to intercept and strike the renegades. In obedience to this order, he had marched his command more than 250 miles, and now that he had overtaken the fugitives, must he go into camp, fortify himself, and calmly wait for reinforcements, or for the Indians to attack him? Had he done so, the Indians would of course have retreated so soon as they found that he had arrived in their neighborhood. What would have been thought of such a course by his superiors? What would have been thought of it by these same pretentious newspaper critics? They would doubtless have raised the cry of cowardice as promptly as they raised that of rashness. General Gibbon is not one of the kind of soldiers who stops to count hostile Indians under such circumstances as these. He fights them at sight, just as any other brave commander does, and takes the chances. His brilliant record in the civil war, as well as on the frontier, has long since convinced his superiors that he was made of this sort of material, and this is why he had so often been entrusted with commands in which he was required to exercise just this kind of generalship. While he is a cautious commander, within due and reasonable bounds, he is brave as a lion, and knows no such thing as disobedience of orders. He felt himself and his little army equal to a contest with the band of hostiles in his front, and the result proved that he was correct in his estimate.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press replied to an editorial which appeared in the New York Herald, soon after the fight, and written by one of these carpers, in these cogent terms:

“Both in its conception and execution, the plan of campaign followed by General Gibbon was a master-piece of Indian fighting. Nothing can be further from the brilliant folly of Ouster’s dash than Gibbon’s march and attack. It was wisely planned, and boldly carried out. The necessities of an Indian war are simple. They are to move swiftly, strike suddenly and hard, and to fight warily, but perseveringly and vigorously. All these things Gibbon did. He made a forced march, and completely surprised the enemy at the end of it. He fought the savages after their own fashion, retiring to cover after the first onset, and fighting singly, rifle in hand, officers and men alike, from the commander down, becoming sharpshooters for the time, and picking off the Indians like born frontiersmen. And the battle was a victory, a brilliant success, in that it inflicted a terrible punishment on the Nez Percé, strewed the valley with dead Indians, and sent the crippled remnant of the band fleeing to the mountains. General Gibbon is a shrewd and bold Indian lighter and the Herald writer is an ass.”

General Gibbon took into the action, six companies of infantry. Had these companies been maintained on a war- footing of 100 men each, as all companies and regiments should be, his force would have been 600 men, instead of less than 200. With such a force, he could easily have surrounded the Indians while they slept and have killed them all; but a pettifogging Congress had cut down the strength of the army to such an extent that the companies numbered less than twenty-five men each, and with this force Gibbon was unable to deal with the Indians as he could have done with a proper force. The fight was prolonged, and the loss of life was much heavier than it would have been with a suitable force of soldiers on the field, so that the Forty-third Congress, which first reduced the army to its present beggarly proportions, is morally responsible for many, if not all, of the lives lost and wounds received by the brave men who participated in that affair.

Although, owing to this insufficient force of men, the fight was not a complete victory for our troops, it was nevertheless a most stinging blow to the Nez Percé. They had never before engaged in a war with our soldiers, but Indian tradition and Indian gossip had told them that the pale-faced soldiers were slow riders, slow walkers, and poor fighters ; that one Indian could whip five soldiers any day. But this fight proved to them the falsity of these stories. It taught them that even “walking soldiers” were swift pursuers, good hunters, and deadly assailants when led by a brave chief. It taught them that the white man could move by night; that while the Indian slept, the soldier crept; that his tread was so stealthy that even the lightest sleeper, the most watchful warrior, could not hear his approach, and that it was not safe for the red man to close his eyes while the white soldier was on his trail. It taught them that the foot soldiers were marksmen ; that their bullets could search out the hiding-place of the wiliest Indian in the mountains; that in the face of the deadliest fire the Indians could pour forth, they, the soldiers, could come into his camp, shoot him down, and burn his lodges. It taught him that one white soldier could whip two Indians; that the Indian’s ability to skulk and hide were no match for the white man’s courage. In short, it taught him that the Indian’s only safety, when overtaken by soldiers, was in surrender or in flight, in reaching a hiding-place beyond the White Father’s domain, and that the flight thither, in order to be successful, must be the most rapid that horses could make. It taught the Nez Percé a lesson they will never forget, and undoubtedly rendered their final capture a much easier and less costly affair than it otherwise would have been, if indeed it could else have been accomplished at all.

And the Nez Percé accepted the lesson so taught. So soon as their village was well out of the way of Gibbon’s rifles, they for the British Possessions, and though closely pursued by troops all the way, who thrice overtook and attacked them en route, they made no other stand until General Miles headed them off near Bear Paw Mountain in Northern Montana, and captured nearly all their horses. Then they were compelled to light or surrender. They made a four days’ fight, but it was a spirit less one, and finally succumbed to the inevitable, and laid down their arms.

It has for years been claimed, and repeatedly shown, that one white man was equal to three or four Indians in a fight, position and other things being equal, and rarely has any band of Indians been encountered who would willingly stand their ground and fight white men, either soldiers or citizens, unless certain that they outnumbered the whites to some such extent. But here was a body of Nez Percé who stood bravely up against a force of nearly half their own numbers; who fought so desperately and so gallantly that the troops who assaulted them and at first put them to flight, were afterward compelled to fall back and take cover; who followed these troops; hemmed them in; advanced on them; harassed them with a deadly fire for twenty hours; only withdrawing when they had reason to believe that reinforcements for the troops were at hand.

Yet General Gibbon and his Spartan band of veterans attacked this superior force, charged into its midst, drove it from its camp in confusion, fought it hand-to-hand in the brush, and inflicted on it such a punishment as probably no command of equal numbers has ever before inflicted on Indians under similar conditions and in so short a time. Several of the veterans who were in this action, and who had fought Sioux Indians repeatedly, said afterward that they would rather fight five Sioux than one Nez Percé. ‘ It is, therefore, the highest possible tribute to Gibbon and his men, to record the fact that they were able to hold their ground for a day against such a force as this, and to kill and wound so many of them.

Eighty-nine dead Indians were found and buried on the field, nearly three times the number of men lost by General Gibbon, and it is known that a large number of mortally wounded warriors were carried away and hidden during the day and night that the soldiers never found. Ranchmen residing near the battle-field tell us that they find skeletons in the neighboring forests every summer; some of them two or three miles away from the battle-ground ; some of them hidden in gulches and among rocks and logs, which they suppose to be those of Indians killed in this fight, and who were doubtless carried away and concealed by their friends, or who, finding themselves mortally wounded, crawled hither and hid themselves to die in seclusion rather than have their bodies fall into the hands of the white men.

Besides, it is said that Joseph carried away with him a number who were so seriously wounded that they died on the trail. He is said to have admitted, after his final capture, that 208 of his people were killed in the Big Hole fight. If this be true, then there were a larger number of Indians killed than of white men engaged. It is a well-known fact, that only about one hundred warriors finally surrendered to General Miles, and that only about one hundred escaped to the British Possessions at the time of the surrender. Hence the conclusion seems just, that 200 or more must have been lost in the fight with Gibbon.

How skillfully General Gibbon planned his attack on the Nez Percé; how quietly and stealthily he moved his little army down Trail Creek and up along the side of the bluff ; how carefully he formed it in line of battle within a stone’ s-throw of the hostile camp without alarming it, and all in the dead of night; how gallantly his men charged through the jungle, waded the river, swept through the camp dealing death to its fleeing occupants; how the men subsequently took and held their position in the mouth of Battle Gulch under the galling fire of these trained warriors, are facts which no one can properly realize and appreciate save those who were there.

But the battle-field tells its own mute story even now. As I walked over it and saw the hundreds of bullet marks on trees, rocks, and logs, and thought of the thousands of other missiles that entered the earth and left no abiding marks, I was impressed with the remarkable accuracy of the shooting done by the Indians. Nearly every tree and every object in the valley and in the mouth of Battle Gulch capable of bearing a bullet mark is cut and scarred in a frightful manner, and some of the trees are literally girdled. Many of the teepee poles that still lie scattered over the river bottom have bullet holes through them, and thousands of empty cartridge-shells still lie scattered over the field, though it is said that thousands more have been carried away by relic hunters or trampled into the earth.

No true American can read the record of this light without feeling proud that he is an American; that he is a brother to the brave men who stood so nobly together under such an ordeal an ordeal, in short, that will stand in history on a parallel with the charge of Balaklava or the battle of Bunker’ s Hill.

As an evidence of the severity of this fight and of the courage displayed by the officers, attention is called to the fact that of the seventeen engaged, seven of them were hit fourteen times, as follows:

General Gibbon, thigh , 1
Captain Williams, head and body 2
Captain Logan, head (killed) 1
Lieutenant Bradley, head (killed) 1
Lieutenant Coolidge, both hands and legs 3
Lieutenant English, head, wrist, and back (died of wounds) 3
Lieutenant Woodruff, both thighs and heel 3
Total 14

Shields, G. O. "Coquina" The Battle of the Big Hole. A History of General Gibbon's Engagement with Nez Perce Indians in the Big Hole Valley, Montana, August 1877. Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Company, Publishers, 1889.

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