The Disaster to Thomas’ Command

I have always considered the disaster to Major Thomas’ command as one of the saddest in our military history. It was a small affair, but so senseless and unnecessary, and such a waste of a good life.

About a week or ten days after the last fighting in the lava-beds, which resulted in the expulsion of the Modocs and their retreat to a point near what was known as the Land Butte and Black Ledge, Major Mason’s command, consisting in part of the troop with which I was serving, was in bivouac in “Jack’s Stronghold.” About eleven o’clock in the morning, as nearly as I can remember, my attention was attracted to men looking in a southerly direction, or toward the butte, soon to be made historic. I ran over to where Major Mason was standing, field-glass in hand, and asked him what was the excitement. He replied that he understood that General Gillem had sent out a party of about sixty under command of Major Thomas to ascertain if howitzers could be placed on the butte for the purpose of shelling Jack’s camp located near by. I asked Mason if he thought General Gillem had believed that Thomas could reach the butte without a fight, and if he dreamed that he would be able, with a handful of inexperienced men, to make successful work against a party which had kept our whole command busy. The Major shook his head and replied, “Too bad.”

Puffs of smoke from guns indicated that a fight was on. About two in the afternoon a signal message from Gillem’s camp, or headquarters of the expedition, conveyed the information that disaster had befallen Thomas and ordered out a relief party. At the same time a party was also ordered out from Gillem’s camp. The several detachments joined en route and proceeded as fast as possible through the lava-bed, until it was thought we were in the vicinity of the place where Thomas was last seen. All firing had ceased several hours before. We found nothing and, darkness coming on, we went into camp, first piling rocks about the position we selected for defense from a night attack, and prepared to wait until dawn, when we could see to resume our search. It would have been suicidal to have gone blundering aimlessly through the lava-beds at night and our fate would have been worse than that of Thomas. Strong guards were posted and the rest of us tried to get some rest for the work of the next day.

Between eleven o’clock and midnight eight men, six of whom were wounded, stumbled into our line, bringing the appalling information that Thomas and nearly all of his officers were dead, and the enlisted men of his cominand nearly all dead or so badly wounded that they were helpless. The men said that they could guide us to the party. The troops were at once called to arms. The wounded men were directed the nearest way back to Mason’s command, and with the two unhurt men from Thomas’ command we moved forward.

About an hour before daylight the guides were obliged to admit that they were lost and they could not tell where to look for Thomas. Again we halted and began the work of throwing up rock breastworks against a possible attack. While this work was in progress the gray of the morning appeared, and I thought I would look around in front of our lines and see if I could find anything indicating that the troops we were looking for had been there before us. A similar idea seemed to have occurred to Sergeant Boyle of the command. As we were cautiously moving forward over the broken ground, the natural tendency caused us to approach each other, so that at the same time we came upon the most heartbreaking sight it has been my fate to behold.

The terrein was of irregular lava-rock ridges between which the decomposed rock had formed fertile soil, overgrown by very large sage-brush. In the bottom of one of these little depressions under the sage-brush, some little distance from our second halting-place, were Major Thomas, dead, Lieutenant Howe, dead, Lieutenant Harris, mortally wounded, and Acting-Assistant Surgeon Semig dangerously wounded, together with a number of enlisted men, all dead or wounded.

The fearful ordeal through which these poor fellows had passed – shot down in the morning, lying all day without food, water, attention, or protection from the cold, with the horrible fear of impending death at the hands of the Indians – had so thoroughly imbued them with the one idea, that while they heard us within a hundred yards of them, piling rocks and talking, they had no thought but that we were Indians preparing for their slaughter as soon as light should enable them to pick off their victims. Their relief when the survivors recognized us can scarcely be imagined.

I sent Boyle back to the command which was at once brought to the front, and the work of succor and search was begun. The Modocs were in plain sight while we were thus engaged; but made no demonstration, probably thinking that Mason’s entire command was there.

The search for the survivors continued all day. Lieutenant Wright (Colonel Tom) was discovered with a few of his men some distance to the left of Thomas. All were dead. Cranston could not be found at first. His body, with the bodies of half a dozen enlisted men, was found some time after to the left and front.

This useless sacrifice was one of the most sickening errors of the whole Modoc fracas. General Gillem has been justly blamed for sending an inexperienced man in command of such an expedition. The experience of the past few weeks should have indicated to him that it was not proper to send any small party anywhere in the lava-beds. It is true that Thomas, a distinguished veteran of the war, had never seen any Indian service and lacked that kind of experience, but experience in hell, even with the fire out, was rare. Nobody on earth had ever had any such experience previous to our first attack with the Indians in the stronghold.

It was afterward learned that Thomas had found no signs of Indians up to the time of the attack, and was resting his command and taking luncheon when he was surprised by a withering fire coming from the rocks in almost every direction. He attempted to make disposition of his force, but, seeing his party rapidly falling and that there was no hope of escape, coolly remarked that he supposed that where they were was as good a place to die in as any other, and so fought out the losing battle to the end. He died, as did many other brave fellows, sacrificed to the blunders of Odeneal and others. A lovelier character or a braver heart probably never graced the army of the United States than Major Evan Thomas, Fourth Artillery, twice brevetted for gallantry, -at Gettysburg and, I think, at Fredericksburg.

The sight of dead men was not new to me. In my service during the Civil War I had seen them by the acre, “but the sight of the poor fellows lying under the sagebrush dead or dying and known to have been uselessly slaughtered was simply revolting.

In the midst of all the horrors, I recall something awfully ludicrous. As I discovered that Semig was living I exclaimed:

“Hello, Doctor, how are you?”

“Oh,” he replied, “I am all right, Captain, but I am so d -d dirty.”

I asked him if he was hard hit. He replied that he guessed that he was. With one hand, not disabled, he pointed to his shoulder and exclaimed:

“My shoulder here is busted and my heel down there is all split to hell.”

I opened his shirt, and seeing the track of the bullet across his chest, I told him that he was as good as three quarters of a man at least, that his shoulder was not dangerous, though serious, and that with the loss of a few inches of his leg, he would be able to go on all right. He looked up with a half credulous grin and said:

“Boutelle, do you think I’m a d -d fool? I’m a doctor.”

I was right. He lived for years, having had that heel amputated.

All that day we were engaged in our search and making preparations for going out as soon as darkness would conceal our movements. Meanwhile, signal communications had been established with Gillem’s headquarters, and Assistant-Surgeon McEldery, with a dressing-case and such articles of comfort as he could carry upon his splendid shoulders, had made his way out and was administering to the wounded, upon whom, knowing that they were comparatively safe, the dreadful reaction had set in. Added to the horrors of the day was an absence of water. There was none nearer than Tule Lake, except a spring supposed to be in the possession of the Indians. The pleadings of some suffering from peritonitis, the result of intestinal wounds, were dreadful and continuous. When it ceased we knew what had occurred. They were dead.

As soon as it was dark the command was put in motion for a return to Gillem’s camp about four or five miles distant – mark the distance! I was placed in charge of the stretchers to carry the wounded. I had three reliefs, one to carry on the stretcher, one to carry the guns of those bearing the wounded, and one resting. I hardly know how to describe what followed. The command was a good one, as good as any in existence, well-officered, ready to fight and fight well, but what they had seen and endured was too much for human endurance. Added to the horrors of the situation, a bitter storm of sleet and rain came down in torrents, freezing; as it fell. In a short time an overcoat would stand alone.

You write me that you purpose writing history. The history of this night’s work would not be complete without an account of the entire demoralization of good men. The night was as black as a wolf’s mouth. Very little of the time could you see your hand before your face. As soon as darkness fell most of the enlisted men of the command were in a state of complete demoralization. My stretcher party, knowing that they could not be detected, joined the mob working its weary way toward a beacon kept burning for our guidance on a bluff near Gillem’s camp, with the one idea of getting back! Officers stormed, commanded and pleaded. Do not understand that there was any insubordination, for there was not. As a stretcher party became exhausted, anybody – nobody knew whom, for no one could see – was seized and placed on the handles. I firmly believe that a few shots from the Indians would have caused the entire abandonment of the wounded in a wild race to camp.

After several hours of this kind I concluded that my muscle was worth more than my authority and I dropped beside the moving mass. As I caught the outlines of faces against an occasional glimpse of light in the sky, I called aside three men of my troop. When I had my third man, I said to them:

“You see the utter demoralization here! I want you to stay with me and we four will carry off one wounded man.”

This they cheerfully did, and we happened to get hold of the stretcher bearing Lieutenant Harris of the Fourth Artillery, whom we carried the remainder of the night and until we reached Gillem’s camp, about an hour after sunrise. We were from about seven o’clock in the evening until half-past six in the morning making four or five miles!

Such looking faces as the dawn revealed are seldom seen. Eyes seemed to have receded a half inch and around all were dark circles. Several times I heard one man say to another:

“I wonder if I look as you do!”

As you need embellishment for your book perhaps a relief from the gruesome tale will be in order.

During the War of the Rebellion a young Irishman by the name of Geoghegan enlisted in the army and soon won his way to a commission and was assigned to a sword with the Tenth Infantry, in which Lieutenant Harris was at that time serving. The two soon became friends. Geoghegan’s heart was light, strong and good. His habits were convivial and he in time found that he had become addicted to too great use of whisky. Rather than bring disgrace upon himself or the army, he resigned. Hearing of the Modoc outbreak he enlisted under the name of Sutherland and was assigned to the troop with which I was serving. He was one of the men selected to assist in carrying on a stretcher and in so doing helped carry off Harris, his old-time and dearest friend, who died without knowing whose tender hand had been so careful to keep him tucked up on his shoulders. Years after, when Sutherland (Geoghegan) had been discharged, and had reestablished himself as one of the first citizens of the State of Washington, a member of the Legislature, Receiver of the Land Office, and so on, he told me that part of the story which I had not known.

Before blaming the men for the demoralization described, one should consider that the command rested in Jack’s Stronghold, which afforded no comfortable resting-place, the night before the movement. All the night following it was searching for the Thomas party, all the next day engaged in collecting the dead and wounded and caring for the latter, and that night carrying off the wounded in one of the worst storms I have ever seen. The nervous strain was too great for ordinary endurance.

It is often remarked that army and navy officers frequently appear much older than they are. The unthinking and the ignorant sometimes charge it to idle or dissolute habits. They are probably much like other men in their habits, but the others seldom have such experiences.

It may be thought that such accounts of demoralization as I have given you might well be omitted. I do not think so. Under too trying circumstances the best of men may fail, and it may help a little in their chagrin that others have done the same, and that it was not cowardice or a lack of enduring nerve.



The foregoing you will have to edit. 1 You have facts for a good chapter. I have just read what I have written, and told my wife what I had been doing and that I did not like my work. She suggested that she would read it to me and perhaps it would sound better. I told her I could not stand it, but would send it to you.

I inclose a rough outline of the scene of the Thomas massacre. It is probably quite a good bit out on directions. The meanderings of the lake shore are not attempted.

If anybody again writes me if I know anything of our Indian campaigns, I’ll tell them I don’t. I have never written for publication and am too old to learn.

By Major BoutelleCitations:

  1. I would not think of altering the Major’s graphic and thrilling description. No Imagination could better describe that ghastly midnight retreat in the bitter storm with the helpless wounded. No wonder the old soldier looks old after such an experience as this and the others set forth in this volume.[]



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