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Nez Perce Summer, 1877







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Looking Glass's Camp and Cottonwood


Kamiah, Weippe, and Fort Fizzle

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The National Park

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Appendix A

Appendix B


Nez Perce Summer, 1877
Chapter 6: Bitterroot and the Big Hole
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Chapter 6:
Bitterroot and the Big Hole (continued)

An experienced and resourceful soldier and author, John Gibbon had logged many years on the frontier. Graduating from West Point in 1847, he served against the Seminole Indians in Florida before becoming an instructor of artillery tactics at the Military Academy (Gibbon authored The Artillerist's Manual, published in 1863). He was successively a brigade (the famous "Iron Brigade"), division, and corps commander during the Civil War, leading troops at South Mountain, Antietam, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg, and he received wounds at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. By 1864, Gibbon was a major general of volunteers. In the postwar reorganization of the army, he was appointed colonel of the Thirty-sixth Infantry. In 1869 he took command of the Seventh Infantry, and he played an important role in the Sioux Campaign of 1876 preceding and following the Little Bighorn battle. His position as commander of the District of Western Montana insured Gibbon's prominent involvement in army efforts to thwart the Nez Perces' movement into Montana. [35]

At 1:00 p.m. on August 4, Gibbon's command, augmented by the addition of Rawn's two companies as well as Company G, which had arrived from Fort Ellis on July 29, started rolling down the Bitterroot Valley in wagons accompanied by a large number of supply wagons and pack animals. His small army consisted of Companies A, D, F, G, I, and K, Seventh Infantry, totaling 15 officers and 146 men (including 8 men of the Second Cavalry), besides a twelve-pounder mountain howitzer. Eight hours later they pulled up at Stevensville, camping south of town on the east side of the river where Gibbon learned of the "pitiful spectacle" of the townspeople's bartering with the Nez Perces. Next day, amid news that as many as 150 citizens were en route from Bannack City to head off the tribesmen, the troops pressed on, picking up 34 volunteers from the Bitterroot Valley despite some argument in the civilian ranks over the propriety of their pursuit of professed peaceful Indians. On the sixth, they encountered the ransacked Lockwood house, then advanced twenty-four miles on the trail, ascending the rugged divide separating them from Ross's Hole to a point short of the summit, where they camped. Gibbon noticed that the Nez Perces, to lighten their load, did not drag their lodgepoles with them on the trail but cut temporary poles for use at each campsite. More important, the trail passed the start of the route to Idaho through Nez Perce Pass, signifying that the people had not intended to return immediately to the Salmon River country. [36] In the afternoon the troops ascended out of the bottom, climbing "a long steep incline" before bivouacking without water. On August 7, joined by two additional officers of the Seventh Infantry, they moved up and forward thirteen miles to reach the foot of the Continental Divide. [37] Gibbon reported: "We had up to this time been passing regularly the Indian camping-grounds, which showed that they were moving at the rate of about twelve or fourteen miles a day, so that if we could continue to double this distance the question of overtaking the enemy was simply one of time." [38] He estimated the fighting strength of the Nez Perces at 250 warriors.

At the suggestion of First Lieutenant James H. Bradley, Gibbon dispatched him and First Lieutenant Joshua W. Jacobs with about 60 mounted soldiers and volunteers to make a night march, catch the Nez Perces before dawn, and stampede their horse herd, thus immobilizing the village while Gibbon and the remaining troops pressed ahead. Starting at 5:00 a.m. on the eighth, Gibbon's force labored greatly in surmounting the divide, being compelled to remove much fallen timber in its path and to double-up the horse teams before wagons could proceed. [39] It took six hours to cover the two miles leading to the summit, before lumbering at a somewhat faster pace for twenty miles into the Big Hole Basin. But a courier from Bradley informed Gibbon that the distance to the village had been underestimated, and that Bradley had not been in position before daybreak to launch his attack. Bradley's command was in hiding awaiting Gibbon. Afraid that the tribesmen would discover Bradley's men, the colonel drove the command ahead. But "as our impatience to get forward increased," he later recorded, "the difficulties of the route seemed to redouble. Again and again we recrossed the creek into the 'glades' on each side, struggling through thick timber and in places swampy flats, in which our wagon-wheels sunk to the hub." [40] Finally, Gibbon left his wagons and 20 men as guards to follow and pushed on with the howitzer, reaching Bradley near sunset and still about five miles from the Nez Perce camp. That evening after the train caught up, the troops downed a meal of hardtack and water and rested. "The genial campfire, stimulating coffee and soothing pipe were forbidden," remembered Gibbon's adjutant, Second Lieutenant Charles A. Woodruff. [41] At 11:00 p.m., the fighting command of 17 officers, 132 men, and 34 scouts and volunteers moved out on foot. In preparation for battle, each soldier carried ninety rounds of ammunition. On Gibbon's order, the mountain howitzer would proceed at dawn, accompanied by a pack mule bearing two boxes (two thousand rounds) of ammunition. All animals, save those of Gibbon, his adjutant, Lieutenant Jacobs, and a guide, were corralled near Placer Creek with a guard detail. The soldiers left their greatcoats and canteens behind. [42]

Gibbon gave the lead to Lieutenant Bradley's command and the thirty-four citizen volunteers under Captain John B. Catlin, all now dismounted and their horses left behind. In 1877, thirty-three-year-old James H. Bradley was considered one of the frontier army's rising stars. The Ohio-born soldier served as an enlisted man with state troops during the Civil War. He was commissioned in 1866 and joined the Seventh Infantry in 1871. An officer of literary talent, his prose and poetry frequently graced the pages of the territorial newspapers. An able historian and masterly chronicler, Bradley had researched treatises on the fur trade in the Northwest, and his riveting account of his discovery of the dead on Custer's battlefield of the preceding year, when he was Gibbon's chief of scouts, constituted a significant record of historical merit (and is recognized as such today). As recently as March, Bradley had through public notices solicited subscriptions for his upcoming book about the Sioux campaign of 1876. [43]

The dispositions made, the advance got underway in single file. Astonished at the Nez Perces' apparent failure to have any scouts or picket guards in the vicinity of their camp, Gibbon feared the possibility that he, and not they, would be surprised. Whispered orders passed among the officers and men. The night was clear and starry as the troops passed along through alternating pine woods and marshlands for three miles. "We tripped over fallen timber, and now and then crossed streams and marshy places where we sunk over shoetops in mud," remembered Gibbon. [44] Occasionally, parts of the column got lost, requiring the balance to wait for them to catch up. Presently, the country leveled into a broad basin. Hugging the foothills overlooking the confluence of Trail and Ruby creeks, the soldiers bore left paralleling the North Fork of the Big Hole, or Wisdom, River and soon came within view of the glow of fires in the distant village and heard dogs baying. After passing around a point of timber extending into the valley, they came upon a herd grazing on the hillside above and across the river from the camp. "As we silently advanced they commenced neighing," wrote Gibbon, "but fortunately did not become alarmed, and by the time we had passed through the herd the outline of the tepees could be made out in the bottom below." [45]

At that point, Gibbon ordered a halt, and the command laid down and quietly anticipated daylight amid "the barking dogs, crying babies, and other noises of the camp." [46] It was 2:00 a.m., and still, but "of the quiet that precedes a tornado," remembered Corporal Loynes. Realizing the importance of capturing the herd behind him, Gibbon nonetheless demurred, fearing he might wake its guards. The soldiers took position along the hillside, below and somewhat north of the grazing animals and perhaps thirty yards above the heavy willow thickets fringing its base and adjoining a deep and thicketed slough, which itself adjoined the river. The stream ran approximately twenty feet across and contained numerous bottom undulations so that both it and the slough were anywhere from knee- to armpit-level deep. About four hundred feet east of the command and across the river lay the village of eighty-nine lodges, arranged in a northeast-to-southwest alignment"a straggling open V," said Gibbon—with the main concentration of tipis adjoining a westward-extending bend of the stream. The camp occupied an open meadow directly opposite from where the troops waited. Farther east, the ground rolled away into an ascending benchland that typified the basin topography. [47]

sketch of the Battle of Big Hole
"Big Hole Battle—Gibbons [sic]—Aug. 9"
Inset drawing in Fletcher, "Department of Columbia Map"

At about 4:00 a.m.—just before dawn—Gibbon ordered the advance. Captains James M. J. Sanno and Richard Comba, their men arranged as skirmishers, moved forward opposite the village, while on the extreme left Bradley's soldiers with Catlin's volunteers started off with Captains Rawn and Constant Williams remaining behind in support. One company under Captain William Logan stood somewhat to the right on the hillside, in reserve. "All pushed forward in perfect silence," wrote Gibbon, "while now scarcely a sound issued from the camp." [48] Then the advance quickened, the men of Bradley and Sanno forging through the underbrush into the muddy slough. Comba's men simultaneously moved across a boggy loop in the meandering stream and approached the willows along the west bank across from the camp. "We had orders to fire low into the tepees," remembered seventeen-year-old civilian participant Horace B. Mulkey, whose father's ranch stood only four miles away. [49] Then, abruptly, a gun shot shattered the calm on the left, quickly succeeded by others. A single tribesman, Hahtalekin, out tending his horses drew the first fire and fell dead. At this, Comba's company drew up short of the river and began leveling volleys into the tipis. Then they waded the stream and charged the village. Sanno's company likewise raced toward the lodges. On the right, Logan brought his Company A in on the run, as did Bradley on the left with his command of assorted infantrymen, volunteers, and dismounted cavalry, and instantly the entire line erupted in gunfire directed at the skin-covered tipis. Corporal Loynes, moving in support with Rawn's Company I, recollected the attack:

We had previously received orders to give three volleys through the camp, and then charge, . . . and as we gave three volleys into the camp, we rushed to the water's edge, every one seeming to want to get to the opposite side first. So into the water we leaped, not knowing its depth in the dim light of the moon, through it and into the camp of the Indians we followed with a yell that would do credit to the Indians themselves. [50]

By now, the men under Comba and Sanno had waded the stream, mounted the bank, and struck the village at the north edge of the principal concentration while still shooting into the lodges, now rapidly disgorging their occupants as frightened, half-clad Nez Perce families ran for cover in the morning twilight. "Fortunately for us," recalled Woodruff, "[they were] a little dazed and nervous from the shock of surprise." [51]

Men, white and red, women and boys, all take part in the fight, which is actually hand to hand, a regular melee, rifles and revolvers in full play, men are powder burned, so close are they to death dealing guns, the dingy lodges are lighted up by the constant discharge, the ground is covered with the dead and dying, the morning air laden with smoke and riven by cheers, savage yells, shrieks, curses, groans. [52]

map of Battle of Big Hole

Bradley's charge collapsed, the lieutenant killed instantly while leading his men through the thickets, and his men gradually moved up the stream to merge with Sanno's soldiers, so that the extreme northern end of the village was not enveloped by the command. [53] "The fighting at the stream was desperate," reported a participant, "and dead bodies of Indians and whites fell and floated down together." [54] Many of the people took cover in the brush lining the stream; others hid behind the bank of the sharp bend fronting the village and opened a rigorous discharge against the soldiers of Sanno's and Bradley's units as they completed their crossing and mounted the open ground. While many of the villagers fled east and south to escape the onslaught, Logan's soldiers coursed through the stream and turned and leveled their weapons against the people hiding behind the river bank. "Here the greatest slaughter took place," reported Gibbon. Here, too, the gray-haired Logan, with twenty-seven years service in the army and who but recently had lost a daughter and grandchild, died in the rush, a bullet in his head as he admonished his men against shooting noncombatants. [55] Lieutenant (Adjutant) Woodruff recounted that "[Private Philo O.] Hurlburt of K killed the Indian that shot Bradley. Jacobs killed three, [Lieutenants Edward E.] Hardin & [Frederick M. H.] Kendrick one each. I didn't get a chance to kill any of them." [56] Lieutenant Jacobs, armed with two revolvers, reportedly "fought like a lion."

Meanwhile, Captain Sanno was nearly shot by one of his own men, the bullet just grazing his head. In the charge on the village, the soldiers met Nez Perce boys who tried to protect the families by wielding knives against the troops. Sanno used the butt of his rifle to knock the youths out of the way. In similar fashion, Private Charles Alberts of Company A fought his way out of a tipi filled with women and boys who came at him with knives and hatchets. One soldier, apparently stunned by a spent ball, awoke to find a Nez Perce woman dragging him into a lodge, whereupon "he kicked her from him, secured a rifle, and dispatched her." [57] To expose those hiding in the lodges, the soldiers tore at the covers. Others used lariats to pull them over while their comrades waited to shoot at the occupants. A sergeant remembered seeing a dead woman, her eyes staring vacantly while a living infant lay astride her, painfully flailing its gun-shattered arm. The same man described people jumping into the stream beneath robes or blankets and trying to get away. "As soon as we discovered this trick we only had to notice where the blanket or buffalo hide was slightly raised, and a bullet at that spot would be sufficient for the body to float down the stream." [58] When Gibbon crossed the stream at the upper end of the camp from his position on the hillside, he encountered three women, one with a baby, hidden behind bushes in the water. "As I passed along one of them made me a salutation with her hand, as if to claim my protection. I tried to explain to her that she was safe, and beckoned her to come out, but none of them moved." [59] Twenty minutes after the initial attack, the soldiers held the village and began to destroy it.

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