Dead of the Battlefield

We are now only about ten miles from Colonel Steptoe’s battle ground, and this morning a small force was dispatched to the place to try and recover the remains of the gallant men who were killed in that action, that with proper ceremonies their comrades may commit them to earth, paying to them the last honors which a soldier can have. They are also to search for the two howitzers which were cached in the neighborhood.

The party will be gone about two days, and consists of three companies of dragoons, Major Grier’s, Lieutenants Gregg’s and Pender’s, together with Lieutenant White, with the howitzer mules, to bring in the guns. Dr. Randolph, who (as well as Lieutenant Gregg) was in the battle, accompanied the command. Lieutenant Howard was also with them, together with Lieutenant Mullan and his party. The latter, as Topographical Engineer, was sent to determine the position of the battle ground, while his assistants will make a map and sketches of the place. Some Spokans and Coeur d’Alenes went as guides.

Today the Colonel had brought before him the Pelouze chief and ten warriors, who came into the camp on the 21st, representing themselves to be Nez Percé, They are such a worthless set, that there is no idea of treating them with the consideration shown to the other Indian tribes. The Colonel, therefore, told them, “they had no business to fight against the soldiers, and he was going to punish them.” He then put the chief and two others in irons, and told the rest to go and bring in their people, and if they did not deliver themselves up before he crossed Snake River, he would hang these three.

The rest of the Indians, who had been in camp to attend the council, took their leave today and departed for their homes.

In the afternoon an express arrived from Lieutenant Mullan at Steptoe’s battle ground, to inform Colonel Wright that they had been entirely successful in the object of their expedition.

September 26th. This morning six or seven Walla Walla Indians came into camp. They said they had come from the camp of Kamiaken and Tilkohitz, that they had a letter from the priest, but it had been lost, and one of their number had gone back to look for it. They acknowledged having been in the recent fight against us. Being unarmed, the Colonel asked them where were their arms. They said they had left them at home. He then ordered two of their number to be put in irons, and dismissed the rest, telling them if they did not bring in their arms before night he would hang these two. One of them claimed to be related to Tilkohitz by marriage.

The miners from Colville left today. Their object in coming was to ask the Colonel to send troops up to their “diggings.” But as they acknowledged the Indians would not fight, and were merely the thieving vagabonds of the different tribes, the soldiers could affect nothing. The miners must rely for their protection upon their own rifles and vigilance.

In the middle of the day, two Pelouze Indians came in bringing a letter from the priest. They were followed shortly after by seven or eight more. The whole party were at once taken to the guard-house and ironed. At evening they were brought up for examination, and being convicted of having been engaged in various atrocities, six of them were at once hung. One of them was proved to be the Indian who killed Sergeant Williams at Snake river, when, after being wounded in Colonel Steptoe’s affair, he was trying to make his way back to Walla Walla.

At noon the dragoons returned from their expedition to the battle field. They reached there at twelve o’clock the day before, and found the hills which on that sad day were swarming with their excited foes, now as silent and deserted as a city of the dead. The whole battle field presented a scene of desolation. In the heat of battle but few of the bodies of the fallen could be recovered, and in the night, before their retreat, these were the only ones which could receive a hasty burial. The rest had to be left on the field where they met their fate. The wolves and the birds of prey had held their festival, and for nearly six months the sun and rain had bleached the whitened bones which were scattered around.

As Lieutenant Gregg and Dr. Randolph rode over the field, they could point out to the other officers the scene of each event in that day’s hard fight, where the battle began, where charge after charge was made to drive back the foes who so far outnumbered them, where Taylor and Gaston fell in the desperate attack at the head of their men, and where they were gathered in the night for the brief consultation, worn out with the contest, yet seventy-five miles of country to be passed over before they could place the river between them and their exulting enemies.

The remains of the two officers were found, and the scattered bones of the men gathered up, to be brought back. The two howitzers were found, also, where they had been buried. The Indians had not disturbed them, but contented themselves with carrying off the gun carriages, which they afterwards burned.

One thing more remained to be done. Among the articles left on the ground was a pair of shafts belonging to one of the guns. These were taken and fashioned into a rude cross, which was set up in the midst of the battle field, to remind all future travellers of the sad event of which this had been the scene. “And then, after depositing around it all that could be gathered up from the relics scattered over the hill-sides and wherever the fight was waged, they left the field in solemn silence.

Poor Gaston! my parting with him was at West Point, when full of life and spirits and bright anticipation of his future career. My last recollection of him, is in his grey Cadet uniform. I never saw him after, until I thus stood by his remains today. He was every inch a soldier; and when, during the last year, ill health weighed him down, and he feared the approach of that feebleness which would withdraw him from his duties, his military spirit seemed to be the strongest impulse he felt. He often expressed the hope that he might die in battle, and thus it was that his wish was gratified. He had a soldier’s death, and will have a soldier’s burial and grave,

“The fresh turf, and not the feverish bed.”

Kip, Lawrence. Army Life on the Pacific: A Journal of the Tribes of the Coeur d'Alenes, Spokans, and Pelouzes, in the Summer of 1858. Redfield, 1859.

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