The Affair at Cottonwood

By Brig.-Gen. David Perry, United States Army (Retired)
I was returning July 4th from Fort Lapwai to General Howard’s command in charge of a pack-train loaded with ammunition. It had been expected that Captain Jackson’s troop of cavalry would reach Lapwai in time to furnish a safe escort. Fearing that the ammunition might be needed, I decided not to wait longer and pushed ahead with a small detachment. No one believed the hostiles to be within striking distance, as the last reports located them in the Salmon River Mountains. Imagine then my surprise at meeting Whipple’s command that afternoon several miles from Cottonwood deployed in two lines with his mountain guns between them.

Then it was that I learned of the appearance in that neighborhood of a large body of hostiles and the fate of Rains and detachment. It appears that Whipple’s scouts reported seeing Indians in the hills back of Cottonwood where the command lay and in the direction of Lapwai. Orders were immediately given to “saddle up.” As soon as they could get their horses, an advance-guard under Rains started off at a gallop. In their eagerness to get away they outstripped by several minutes the command, which was just in the act of mounting when firing was heard in the direction of the advance-guard. Proceeding at a gallop they reached the scene of the firing only to find that the entire detachment had been cut off.

The Indians evidently had seen them coming, or perhaps – which is more likely – had prepared for the whole command a trap which was sprung by the advance-guard and which undoubtedly prevented a greater disaster. They had so skilfully secreted a large party that Rains passed through without discovering them. He was thus caught between two lines of hostiles. He at once abandoned his horses and took position by a big boulder out in the open, but undoubtedly commanded on all sides by Indian guns where all were killed.

After meeting Whipple I assumed command by virtue of seniority and pushed on to Cottonwood, where the positions previously occupied were again taken up. It seems that Whipple knew of my coming, and thinking that the hostiles might know of my whereabouts and of the ammunition and take me in, determined to go to my relief. The hostiles were in communication with the reservation, it is believed, and it would have been an easy matter for a runner to have notified Joseph that I had left for the front, and of the size of the detachment with me, about twenty men.

The place was called Cottonwood Ranch House and Corrals, and was situated close to the open prairie on the road running from Lewiston to Mount Idaho. At this point the road extends through the foot-hills, and the ranch was admirably located for defense, being surrounded by high ground, I might say a succession of hills. I found instructions to wait here for further orders from General Howard.

All the morning of the 5th, the Indians showed themselves at different points, in fact, seemed to be all around us. About the middle of the day they made a determined attack upon our position, striking all exposed places at the same time, thereby exhibiting a much stronger force than we had supposed they possessed, estimated at not less than two hundred and fifty warriors. Our positions were so strong that they could make no impression on them, though in some instances they crawled up the hills through the grass to within fifty feet of my men before being discovered. How long the main attack lasted I am unable to recall, but desultory firing continued for some time after the principal force had withdrawn and disappeared from view.

During the afternoon and after the Indians had gone, my attention was directed to a dust on the prairie, apparently coming toward us and from the direction of Mount Idaho or Grangeville. At first we took it to be loose stock (ponies) and then mounted men, but whether whites or Indians was the question. Some said one and some another. Being mindful of the trap set for Whipple’s command, as before narrated, I was inclined to believe it a ruse on the part of the Indians to draw us out. All doubt, however, was soon dispelled as the Indians attacked the party, which proved to be a company of “home guards” from Mount Idaho.

I at once rushed my front line down the hill and sent a mounted detachment to their rescue, which drove the Indians off and brought the party in. Their casualties I do not now recall. Shortly after this the whole hostile “outfit,” families, loose stock, etc., debouched from the foot-hills some six or eight miles from my position and started across the prairie at a furious pace in the direction of the Clearwater, where General Howard afterward engaged them.

Captain Whipple estimated two hundred and fifty warriors while my command of about one hundred had a valuable train to guard, so that to pursue them was not deemed judicious. It was now apparent that their hovering around my camp and their attack was not, as some had supposed, an attempt to capture the train, but to keep us occupied while their families and stock gained the open prairie and prevent our sending out scouting parties, who, in all probability, would have discovered them.*

* Another evidence of the subtilty and strategic skill of these remarkable Indians.– C. T. B.

Modoc War,


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