Stealthy Midnight March

At 10 o’clock at night the officer of the guard spoke to the General in a whisper, and he arose with the alacrity of a youth who goes forth to engage in the sports of a holiday. The men were called at once, and in whispered orders the line of march was speedily formed. All were instructed to preserve the most profound silence from that moment until the signal should be given to open fire on the enemy, and, under the guidance of Joe Blodgett and Lieutenant Bradley, the little band filed silently down the winding trail, threading its way, now through dark groves of pine or fir; now through jungles of underbrush; now over rocky points; frequently wading the cold mountain brook, waist deep, and tramping through oozy marshes of saw-grass; speaking only in whispers; their rifles loaded, eyes peering into the starlit night, and ears strained to catch the slightest sound that might indicate the hiding-place of any lurking foe who might perchance be on an outpost to announce to his followers the approach of danger.

Five miles were thus stealthily marched without giving an alarm. Then the valley in which the troops bad been moving opened out into what is known as the Big Hole, that is, the valley of the Big Hole River. This is a beautiful prairie basin, fifteen miles wide, and sixty miles long, covered with rich bunch-grass and surrounded by high mountains. In the edge of this valley the soldiers saw the smoldering camp-fires of the enemy; heard the baying of his hungry dogs responding to the howls of prowling coyotes, and saw, by the flickering lights, the smoky lodges of the warriors. The men crept up to within a few hundred yards of the slumbering camp, when they again crossed the creek down which they had been marching, and ascended its eastern bluff. Here they encountered a large herd of ponies, some of whom neighed anxiously as the strange apparition filed past them, but luckily did not stampede.

General Gibbon suggested to Bostwick, his post guide, that he take four or five men and drive this herd back up the canon, but Bostwick replied that there was probably a strong guard over the herd who were sleeping at the moment, somewhere near by, but who would be awakened by any attempt to drive the horses; that it- would take several men to whip them, and that the fight would alarm the camp. The General was so impressed with the scout’s reasoning that he at once countermanded the discretionary order. It subsequently transpired, however, that the Indians had felt so secure for the time being that they had not a herder or a camp -guard out, and had Gibbon known this at the time he could have captured this entire herd with out firing a shot, and thus have placed his enemy in a most critical situation.

Down the side of this steep bluff, thickly overgrown with sage brush, mountain laurel, and jack pines; over rocks and through break-neck ravines and washouts, the soldiers and citizens picked their way with, all the skill and adroitness of trained hunters, until at last they reached a position overlook ing the Indian camp, and within 150 yards of the nearest teepees. The camp was pitched on the south bank of the Wisdom or Big Hole River, which is formed by the confluence here of Trail and Ruby Creeks. It was in an open meadow, in a bend of the river, and was partially surrounded by dense thickets of willows. There were eighty-nine lodges pitched in the form of a Y, with the angle up the stream, and below the camp 400 or 500 ponies grazed peacefully, tethered to stakes and willows. The Indians had evidently secured them there in order to be pre pared, ready for any emergency. The command halted here, and laid down to await the coming of daylight, but not to sleep.

It was now 2 o’clock in the morning, and the men suffered with cold, for even the summer nights are cold in these mountains, and they had neither overcoats nor blankets, having left all these with the wagons. The smoldering camp fires flickered fitfully in the pale starlight, and the smoky lodges of the savages presented a most fantastic picture, as the dying lights blazed with ever-changing weirdness upon them. Eagerly the soldiers watched the scene, and with bated breath thought of the awful tragedy that the rising sun would look upon in that now peaceful valley.

“They have no idea of our presence,” said Bostwick, the half-breed scout. ” After a while you will see some fires built up if we remain undiscovered.”

Sure enough, in the course of an hour, squaws began to come forth from their lodges and replenish their waning fires.

As these blazed up they stood about them, jabbered, turned, and warmed themselves, yawned, and then one by one returned to their skin couches and betook themselves again to sleep. And again the soldiers and their citizen allies were left to meditate, and in whispers to commune with each other.

Their thoughts and words were serious, for they well knew that where now all was peace, war in its veriest horror was soon to rage. The men doubted not that many of them would fill graves in that wild mountain valley before the morrow’ s sun should set, and that many others should suffer with grievous wounds. Yet they faltered not in their duty. On the contrary, they longed for the coming of the light that should enable them to see the redskins through the sights of their rifles, and complained only that it was too slow in coming.

Finally the night ended and the day approached from behind the eastern hills. As soon as it was light enough to see to move advantageously the little army was again astir; but its movements were yet as silent as the grave. Under whispered orders and with stealthy tread Sanno’s and Comba’s companies, deployed as skirmishers, descended the bluff into the valley, groped their way through the willow thickets, waded the icy river, the water coming nearly to their arm pits. Logan, Williams, and Rawn, with their companies, were sent to the extreme right to cross and attack the camp near Ruby Creek, while Lieutenant Bradley, with his handful of soldiers and citizen scouts, was sent down the stream with orders to cross and strike the camp lower down. As the light increased the troops were advancing cautiously, when an Indian who had crawled out of his lodge and mounted a horse, rode out of the willows directly in front of Bradley’ s men and within a few feet of them. He was en route to the pony herd on the hill-side above, and so quietly had the advance been made that even he had not heard or seen the men, and was within a few feet of them when he emerged from the thicket of willows. He and his horse were instantly shot down.

The order had been given, “When the first shot is fired charge the camp with the whole line.” And most eagerly was this order obeyed. Volleys were fired into the teepees, and with an eager yell the whole line swept wildly into the midst of the slumbering camp. The surprise was complete. The Indians rushed from their lodges panic-stricken by the suddenness and ferocity of the attack. They ran for the river banks and thickets. Squaws yelled, children screamed, dogs barked, horses neighed, snorted, and many of them broke their fetters and tied.

Even the warriors, usually so stoical, and who always like to appear incapable of fear or excitement, were, for the time being, wild and panic-stricken like the rest. Some of them fled from the tents at first without their guns and had to return later, under a galling fire, and get them. Some of those who had presence of mind enough left to seize their weapons were too badly frightened to use them at first and stampeded, like a flock of sheep, to the brush.

The soldiers, although the scene was an intensely exciting one, were cool, self-reliant, and shot to kill. Many an Indian was cut down at such short range that his flesh and clothing were burned by the powder from their rifles. Comba and Sanno first struck the camp at the apex of the V, and delivered a melting fire on the Indians as they poured from the teepees. For a few minutes no effective fire was returned, but soon the Indians recovered in a measure from their surprise and, getting into safe cover behind the river banks, and in some cases in even the very bed of the stream, opened fire on the soldiers, who were now in the open ground, with terrible effect.

The fire was especially destructive on the right or upper end of the line where the river made a short bend. As Logan, with a valor equal to that of his illustrious name sake, swept forward, he and his men found themselves directly at the backs of the Indians hidden in this bend, who now turned and cut them down with fearful rapidity. It was here that the greatest slaughter of that day took place. Logan himself fell, shot through the head, and at sight of their leader’s corpse, his men were desperate. Regardless of their own safety, they rushed to the river bank and brained the savages in hand-to-hand encounters, both whites and Indians in some cases falling dead or wounded into the stream and being swept away by its current.

In twenty minutes from the time the first shot was fired, the troops had complete pos session of the camp, and orders were given to destroy it. The torch was applied with a will, and some of the canvas lodges with the plunder in them destroyed, but the heavy dew had so dampened them that they burned slowly and the destruction was not as complete as the men wished to make it. Many of the lodges were made of skins, and these would not burn at all.

Though the Indians were driven from their camp they were not yet defeated. Joseph’s voice, and that of his lieutenants, White Bird and Looking Glass, were heard above the din of battle, rallying their warriors and cheering them on to deeds of valor.

“Why are we retreating?” shouted White Bird. ” Since the world was made, brave men have fought for their women and children. Shall we run into the mountains and let these white dogs kill our women and children before our eyes 3 It is better that we should be killed fighting. Now is our time to fight. These soldiers can not fight harder than the ones we defeated on Salmon River and White Bird Canon. Fight! Shoot them down! We can shoot as well as any of these soldiers.”

Looking Glass was at the other end of the camp. His voice was heard calling out, ” Wal-lit-ze! Tap-sis-il-pilp! Um-til-ilp-cown! This is a battle! These men are not asleep as those you murdered in Idaho. These soldiers mean battle. You tried to break my promise at Lo Lo. You wanted to fire at the fortified place. Now is the time to show your courage and fight. You can kill right and left. I would rather see you killed than the rest, for you commenced the war. It was you who murdered the settlers in Idaho. Now fight!”

Thus praised and railed at by turns, the men recovered their presence of mind and charged back into the camp. The fighting was now muzzle to breast. This deadly encounter lasted for some minutes more, when the Indians again took to the river bank and delivered their fire with great precision and deadliness on the troops in open ground.

In the hottest of the fight, Tap-sis- il-pilp was killed. Wal-lit-ze, upon being told of his companion’s death, rushed madly upon a group of soldiers and was shot dead in his tracks. Thus did two of the three murderers who were said to have brought on the war pay the penalty of their crimes with their own blood. The implied wish of their chief that they might be killed was realized.

Before these two men were killed, so says a surviving Nez Percé, an almost hand-to-hand light occurred between an officer and an Indian.

The Indian was killed. His sister saw him fall, and springing to his side, wrenched the still smoking revolver from his hand, leveled it at the officer and shot him through the Lead. The Indian who described the event did not know who the officer was, but every soldier in the Seventh Infantry knows and mourns the squaw’s victim as the gallant Captain Logan. Another Indian, named “Grizzly Bear Youth,” relates a hand-to-hand fight with a citizen volunteer in these words;

When I was following the soldiers through the brush, trying to kill as many of them as possible, a big, ugly ranchman turned around, swearing, and made for me. He was either out of cartridges or afraid to take time to load his needle gun, for he swung it over his head by the barrel and rushed at me to strike with the butt end. I did the same. We both struck at once and each received a blow on the head. The volunteer’s gun put a brand on my fore head that will be seen as long as I live. My blow on his head made him fall on his back. I jumped on him and tried to hold him down. He was a powerful man. He turned me and got on top. He got his hand on my throat and commenced choking me.

“All turned dark and I was nearly gone. Just then a warrior came up. This was Ed Owl’s son. He ran up, put his gun to the volunteer’ s side and fired. The ball passed through the man and killed him. I had my arm around the waist of the man when the shot was fired, and the ball, after going through the volunteer, broke my arm,”

Some of the Indians had, at the first alarm, mounted their horses, and rode rapidly to the hills on either side and to depressions in the open prairies of the valley. From these positions, as well as from the thickets and river banks, now came a most galling fire, which the soldiers were kept busy reply ing to. Although much of this shooting was at long range it was very deadly, and at almost every crack of their rifles a soldier, an officer, or a scout fell. General Gibbon, Lieutenant Woodruff, and both their horses were wounded by these sharpshooters.

Gibbon formed his troops in two lines back to back, and charged through the brush in opposite directions for the purpose of driving out the Indians who remained there, but they simply retreated farther into the jungle, ran by the flanks of the assaulting parties, and kept up their fire at short range. In this part of the action Lieutenant Coolidge was shot through both thighs. Lieutenant Hardin and Sergeant Rogan carried him into a sheltered spot near where the body of Captain Logan lay.

By this time Coolidge had recovered from the shock of his wound sufficiently to be able to walk, and, although weak from the loss of blood, picked up a rifle that had belonged to a fallen comrade and again took his place at the head of his company. While in this enfeebled condition he attempted to wade the river, but getting into water beyond his depth was compelled to throw away his rifle and swim. His failing strength now coni-palled him to seek shelter and lie down.

It soon became evident to General Gibbon that it would be unwise to hold his position on the river bottom, where there was no adequate cover for his men, and he reluctantly ordered them to fall back up the hill and take cover in the mouth of a gulch, since known as ” Battle Gulch.” They withdrew through the willow thickets to a position under the hill, gallantly carrying their wounded comrades with them, and then made a push for the timber. It was held by about twenty of the Indian sharpshooters, who were killed, or driven from it only at the muzzles of the soldiers’ rifles. On the approach of the troops these Indians took shelter in a shallow washout, not more than a foot deep and two or three feet wide. Some of them were behind trees which stood beside this trench.

One had a few large rocks piled about the roots of his tree, and from a loophole through these he picked off man after man, himself secure from the many shots aimed at him at short range by the soldiers. Finally, how ever, a soldier, who was an expert marksman and cool as a veteran, took a careful aim and sent a bullet into this loophole which struck the rock on one side, glanced and entered the Indian’ s eye, passing out at the back of his head a veritable carom shot. This tree was girdled with bullets, and the plucky Indian who lay behind it is said to have killed five of the soldiers before the fatal missile searched him out.

While the main body of troops were clear ing out this clump of woods, the valiant band of regulars and volunteers who had been sent down the river under Lieutenant Bradley to strike the lower end of the camp, now turned and fought their way up through it; through the willow thickets; through the sloughs and bayous; through the windings of the river; killing an Indian and losing a man at every turn, and finally joined the command in the woods.

But the gallant young leader of the band was not there. He had fallen early in the fight; in fact, the first white man killed. He was leading the left wing of the army in its assault on the camp. General Gibbon had cautioned him to exercise great care going into the brush at that point, and told him to keep under cover of the brush and river bank as much as possible, but the brave young man knew no fear and bade his men follow him. One of them called to him just as he was entering a thicket where a party of Indians were believed to be lurking, and said: “Hold on, Lieutenant; don’t go in there; it’s sure death.” But he pressed on, regard less of his own safety, and just as he reached the edge of the brush an Indian raised up within a few feet of him and fired, killing him instantly.

The Indian was immediately riddled with bullets, and then the men charged madly into and through the brush, dealing death to every Indian who came in their way, and the blood of many a redskin crimsoned the sod, whose life counted against that of this gallant young officer. Thus he, who had led the night march over the mountains; who had by day, with his comrade, crawled up, located and reconnoitered the Indian camp, and sent the news of his discovery to his chief ; who had on the following night aided that chief so signally in moving his command to the field and in planning the attack; who had gallantly led one wing of the little army in that fierce charge through the jungle and into the hostile camp, had laid down his noble life, and his comrades mourned him as a model officer, a good friend, a brave soldier.

Soon after the assault was made on the camp a squad of mounted warriors was sent to round up the large herd of horses, some 1,500 in number, on the hill-side, half a mile away, and drive them down the river, General Gibbon saw this movement and sent a small party of citizen scouts to turn the horses his way and drive the herders off. A sharp skirmish ensued between the two parties, in which several whites and Indians were wounded, but the Indians being mounted and the citizens on foot, the former succeeded in rounding up the herd and driving it down the river beyond the reach of Gibbon’s men.

During the progress of the fight among the teepees the squaws and young boys seized the weapons of slain warriors, and from their hiding places in the brush fought with the desperation of fiends. Several instances are related by survivors of the fight, in which the she devils met soldiers or scouts face to face, and thrusting their rifles almost into the faces of the white men fired point blank at them. Several of our men are known to have been killed by the squaws, and several of the latter were shot down in retaliation by the enraged soldiers or citizens.

A scout who was with Bradley states that, while they were fighting their way up through the willows, he passed three squaws who were hidden in a clump of brash. Knowing their blood-thirsty nature, and that several of his comrades had already been killed by this class of enemies, he was tempted to kill them, but as they seemed to be unarmed and made no show of resistance he spared them and passed on.

Two days later, however, while out with a burial party, he found these same three squaws all dead in their hiding-place. One of them now had a Henry rifle in her hands, and beside another lay a revolver with five empty shells in the cylinder. He thought they had recovered the weapons from slain bucks after he passed and, opening fire on some soldier or scout, had met the fate to which their con duct had justly subjected them.

All through that fierce struggle on the river bottom, officers fought shoulder to shoulder with their men; some of them with their own rifles, some with rifles recovered from killed or wounded comrades, and some with revolvers. Even General Gibbon himself who, by the way, is an expert rifle shot from his position on the bluff, devoted all his spare moments to using his hunting-rifle on the skulking redskins, and more than one of them is said to have fallen victims to his deadly aim.

Lieut. C. A. Woodruff, his adjutant, dealt shot after shot into the foe, as he rode from point to point, carrying the orders of his chief. Captains Comba, Williams, Brown ing, and Sanno, used their Springfields with telling effect and put many a bullet where it would do the most good. Lieutenant Jacobs was as swift as an eagle in search of his prey, and, with a revolver in each hand, dashed hither and thither hunting out the murderers from their hiding-places and shoot ing them down like dogs.

Lieutenants Jackson, Wright, English, Van Orsdale, Harden, and Woodbridge were all at their posts, and none of them lost an opportunity to put in a telling shot. Lieut. Francis Woodbridge was the youngest officer in the command, then a mere boy, but a few months from West Point, yet he was as cool as any of the veterans, and displayed, soldierly qualities that endeared him to everyone who participated in that day’s work.

Captain Rawn was at all times in the thickest of the fight, and was admired alike by officers and men for the alacrity with which he shared in every danger. His con duct in that fight gave the lie to the carpers who had accused him of cowardice in the affair in Lo Lo Canon. In short, every officer, every enlisted man, and every citizen volunteer, fought as though the responsibility of the battle rested solely with him, and all acquitted themselves most nobly.

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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