THESE THINGS PROBABLY CAN BE CLASSED AMONG THE NON-EFFECTIVE ACTIONS OF THE CAVALRY
Following the Nez Perce campaign, the army began to assess its performance. Generally, it had been a poor one. The cavalry in particular had been inadequate, and, in some cases, it had performed terribly. In order to reach some conclusions concerning its failure and to develop new ways of excelling in future situations, Major General McDowell ordered cavalry officers in his Division to comment on the battles in which they had participated and to elaborate on any apparent deficiencies they had noted. 
Joel Trimble was at Fort Walla Walla when he received the order. In late December of 1877, he prepared the report as requested and forwarded it to Department headquarters. It was a bombshell. It contained a number of insinuations and denunciations concerning the conduct of Captain Perry in the Nez Perce campaign and particularly in the Battle of White Bird Canyon. Trimble was apparently fighting mad. He believed that his courage had been questioned and his honor stained. The report was his chance to get even. Midway through the 34 page document, he indicated, in part, his motivation when he wrote that he had been privately assailed by Captain Perry in a communication to the Departmental Commander following the Battle of White Bird Canyon. He went on to state that he had applied for a copy of the report but had been told that none had been made. 
His first criticism of Perry, which in effect was a criticism of General Howard, was a veiled one. Trimble noted that troops had left Fort Lapwai 24 hours after the attitude of the Indians had been determined and 12 hours after the killings on the Salmon River had been reported. "I mention this not to question or criticize the wisdom of orders," he wrote, "but to show that if a sooner departure had been made, the Indians would have been encountered on the plain, instead of in the Canyon or rough country." The feeble attempt to rationalize the relevancy of the information in an uncritical context was not a successful one. He had most certainly raised a question, and it was a valid one: Why hadn't Howard acted immediately? Continuing, Trimble noted that Perry had entered the canyon without first reconnoitering it, leaving him without knowledge of the disposition of the enemy. Another telling point had been made. 
Near the end of his account, Trimble made a statement about Perry that he had been suggesting in his descriptions of a number of incidents that had occurred during the battle. Putting it precisely, he wrote: "I firmly believe that after being a few moments under fire it was his settled determination to retreat and that rapidly." Previously, Trimble had mentioned that after he had posted Sergeant McCarthy on the bluff and returned to his men, he had encountered Perry in the rear of Company H. He had quoted the officer as saying, "We had better get our men together or we . . . [will] be whipped out of this." According to Trimble, he had then asked Perry if they might not go on to the Salmon River, and, in reply, had been told that the attempt would result in their annihilation, and that they must retreat. The implication was, of course, that it had not been necessary to retreat, but, in fact, there had been an opportunity to advance. As further evidence of Perry's inclination towards haste in getting to the rear, Trimble reported that the officer had mounted behind an enlisted man, after his own horse had tired. 
Trimble concluded his criticism of Perry by recounting two incidents, both of which had occurred during the week that followed the engagement. On June 21, Perry and 35 men under his command had accompanied 25 citizen volunteers on a scouting expedition to view the battlefield and determine the whereabouts of the hostiles. Perry and his men had remained at Johnson's ranch, while the citizens completed the reconnaissance. Trimble insinuated that Perry had shown the white feather again, and he remarked that the officer's failure to order his men to go with the volunteers had caused much comment in that part of the country. Secondly, Howard had sent Perry back to Fort Lapwai on June 26 for more ammunition and supplies. Trimble considered the departure another sign of timidity and stated that Perry had voluntarily separated himself from the rest of the cavalry. In attempting to explain the charge, he inferred that Perry had arranged the duty and hinted that Howard had always been partial in matters concerning that officer. Ending the section of the report dealing with Perry, Trimble observed that, "These things probably can be classed among the non-effective actions of the Cavalry." 
General Howard must have been surprised: he had not expected these things to be included. He must also have been chagrined to find that one of the statements made by Trimble reflected upon his judgment. The delay in leaving Fort Lapwai--the way Trimble had presented it--did not add luster to his image, which had already been tarnished by his failure to corral the Nez Perce until after Nelson Miles had entered the picture and, in fact, stolen the show. Before he forwarded the report to Division headquarters, Howard asked his adjutant general, Maj. H. Clay Wood, to write a letter to the officer and request him to amplify his remarks concerning this particular point. Trimble replied on January 29. He simply went into more detail to show how and when the information had been received and to clarify his own interpretations of the intelligence. He did correct his statement concerning the length of time that had passed before the troops had departed, based on data obtained from Lieutenant Parnell and Sergeant McCarthy, both of whom kept diaries. He stated that the men had started 26 hours after the first letter from L. P. Brown and nine hours after the killings had been reported. 
After Trimble's addendum had been received, Howard sent the papers to General McDowell. The Division commander was probably more surprised than his subordinate had been. Howard had had nothing but good to say of Perry at White Bird. But Trimble was not alone in believing the officer had been derelict in his duty during the campaign. The reports written by Captain Whipple and Captain Winters contained further admonishments and opprobriums concerning Perry's conduct during the Battle of the Clearwater, and the officer had already been severely criticised for refusing to send troops to the immediate assistance of a group of volunteers during the fighting at Cottonwood on July 5.  In fact, the uproar among the settlers had been so great that Perry had demanded and received permission to air the subject at a court of inquiry. On November 30, 1877, the court had rendered a judgment in which it stated that not a word of the testimony had reflected upon the personal courage of the officer, and that he had acted wisely in view of the fact that he had been surrounded by Indians who had outnumbered his command.  But, as always in cases of that kind, the doubt of courage lingered. In any event, Trimble had a great deal to say in his report that made sense, and his charges were serious enough so that they could not be ignored.
On April 10, 1878, wheels began to turn. Lt. Col. John C. Kelton, Assistant Adjutant General of the Division of the Pacific, addressed a letter to General Howard. After noting that the reports submitted by Trimble, Whipple, and Winters had traveled far outside the bounds prescribed in the order requesting them, Kelton observed that the ability of Perry as a commanding officer had been impugned, and that General McDowell wanted an investigation conducted to determine the merit of the charges. Howard quickly forwarded the reports and correspondence to Col. Cuvier Grover, the regimental commander of the First Cavalry at Fort Walla Walla, with a note to investigate and reply. Grover, however, could not act. Perry had been granted a leave of absence following his exoneration by the court of inquiry, and, according to regulations, he had to be confronted with the charges and given a chance to reply to the allegations before other steps could be taken. 
Perry did not return to Fort Walla Walla until mid-October. After reading Trimble's report and excerpts furnished him from the accounts of Whipple and Winters, Perry began to write his own story of the campaign. His account of the Battle of White Bird Canyon was very straightforward, and, although there were a number of statements that obviously conflicted with Trimble's, Perry did not stop to comment on the differences. It was not until he reached the concluding paragraph of his report that Perry showed signs of anger and questioned the wisdom and propriety of Trimble's behavior during the retreat. Bristling a bit, Perry wrote:
9. Letter from Kelton to Howard, April 10, 1878, San Francisco, letter no. 1024; Letter from Grover to Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of the Columbia, July 13, 1878, Letters Received, DC.
To accompany his report, Perry prepared an answer to Trimble's charges. He had shown surprising reserve in his account of the battle -- considering what was at stake -- but his rebuttal was another document. In it he gave full vent to his fury. As an opener, Perry avowed: "I desire to call attention to the evident unfairness which Capt. Trimble treats every thing with which my name is connected." Then he attempted to refute the report point by point. 
Perry denied that he had assailed Trimble in a private communication to Howard and declared that the only remarks that he had ever made concerning him were oral and made only at the general's request. He stated that after he had reached Cottonwood on June 24, Howard had asked him why it was that some had believed that Trimble had been killed. Perry had replied that perhaps it was because he had not mentioned him in his early dispatches. He had not mentioned Trimble, he said, because there had been no particular reason for doing so; his service had been undistinguished. He had then related the substance of his knowledge and opinions concerning the officer and his conduct. 
Perry followed with an explanation of the reasoning behind what Trimble had alluded to as a late departure from Fort Lapwai: L. P. Brown had not been alarmed in the beginning, and the best information at hand indicated that the early killings had been committed in connection with a private quarrel. Then he turned to a discussion of the circumstances surrounding his decision to leave Grangeville and to attempt to catch the Nez Perce before they had a chance to cross the Salmon River. In his report, Trimble had given the impression that Perry had kept his own council, and the officer wanted to set the record straight. He stated that he had laid the matter before his officers and had obtained their unanimous consent before he had given the order to move out. If his decision had been the wrong one, Perry wanted the Division commander to know that he had had lots of support in reaching it. 
Perry also challenged some of Trimble's statements of fact. In his report, the officer had written that Perry had been one of the first to start up the trail to the top of the west wall. According to Trimble, Perry had taken some men to a bluff about 1000 yards in the rear, after he had stationed him on a point that commanded the approach to the trail. Trimble had claimed that after a short time he had seen Perry riding very fast up the bluff and heard him call to the men, "Now for the Canyon." It was then, Trimble had stated, that he had begun his own journey to the top. Perry, however, contended that Trimble had made another grievous error. "The 1000 yards in the rear," he wrote, "should have been front, as that was my position, only not so distant," and the calling had been to the men that were following Trimble away. 
There were two other misstatements of fact that Perry wanted to correct. Trimble had also noted that he had conversed with Perry after he had reached the top of the west wall. Perry countered that Trimble had not been close enough to understand what it was that he had been shouting, and, in fact, Trimble had told him as much after they had been reunited at Grangeville. Indeed, Perry declared Trimble had been so far in the rear at the time that Parnell had reached the summit of White Bird Hill that the lieutenant had not been able to recognize him. Perry stated that Parnell had inquired who was retreating so rapidly in the distance. Trimble had also reported that Perry had returned to Grangeville with 45 men; Perry said the number was 26. 
Generally, Perry chided Trimble for his haste in getting back to Grangeville. Trimble had remarked that Chapman had been well mounted and had been influential in leading many men to the rear. Perry noted that Trimble must also have been well mounted, because the officer had told him that he had seen Chapman change horses at Johnson's ranch, four miles from the battlefield. Perry went on to say that Trimble had not only reached the settlement before he and Parnell had arrived, but that his subordinate had been there long enough to ride to Mount Idaho and back, a round-trip distance of five miles. 
Concerning the charge that he had been determined to retreat rapidly from the outset, Perry declared that he had entered the canyon with the intention of whipping the Indians, and that it was only after his line had completely disintegrated and he had been unable to control the men, due in part to the lack of a trumpet, that he had decided to retreat. At the time some Indians were already in his rear, and he implied that the retreat was perhaps the only thing that had saved them all from being killed. He also declared that if he had not mounted behind a trooper in the retreat, he would not have been close enough to Trimble to order him to stop and to momentarily halt his ascent up the canyon wall. Concluding his rebuttal, Perry stated that the volunteers, who had performed the reconnaissance on June 21, had merely asked him to support their action, and that he had simply done what he had been requested to do. 
Lt. Col. James W. Forsyth, who acted as the regimental commander of the 1st Cavalry in the absence of Colonel Grover, received the report and the reply to charges written by Captain Perry. After reviewing them, he forwarded the documents to Major Wood with a recommendation. He believed that the only way to investigate the allegations was to take the sworn testimony of the men involved in the controversy and of other eyewitnesses. If Trimble, Whipple, and Winters were correct in their statements, then Perry should be brought to trial. If they were not, then the officers should suffer the consequences. 
A little more than a week later, Perry made it easy for his superiors. In a communication addressed to Department headquarters, Perry demanded a court of inquiry to clear his name. On November 27, General Howard obliged him and issued the order. It directed the court to convene in Portland on December 16 or as soon thereafter as possible. The purpose of the inquiry was to evaluate the statements contained in the reports and to investigate the propriety of Perry's conduct during the Nez Perce campaign. It was the duty of the court to determine the facts and give its opinion concerning them. 
The Court of Inquiry convened at 10 o'clock on the morning of December 18, 1878. Lt. Col. Alexander Chambers of the Twenty-first Infantry, Maj. David P. Hancock of the Second Infantry, and Maj. George B. Dandy of the Quartermaster Department were members of the court. Capt. Joseph S. Conrad of the Second Infantry was its recorder or chief counsel.
To begin the proceedings, the President of the Court, Colonel Chambers, read the order that authorized the inquiry. Perry had the right to challenge any member of the body, and Chambers gave him the opportunity, but the officer apparently found its composition to his liking and replied in the negative. Conrad then swore in the members of the court, and, in turn, took the oath from Chambers. To complete the formalities, Perry introduced his counsel, Maj. Lawrence S. Babbitt of the Ordnance Department. Babbitt had been with Perry at Cottonwood and had provided him with a statement to use in his defense.
Chambers and his colleagues spent the rest of the day examining the written evidence, and they extracted portions of the reports that pertained to Perry in order to append them to the proceedings. By 2:45 the work had been completed, and the court adjourned.
The following day, the recording of testimony began. The first witness was Capt. Stephen G. Whipple, who testified on the engagement at Cottonwood and on the Battle of the Clear water. He concluded his remarks on December 20. The next day, 1st Lt. Edwin H. Shelton of the 1st Cavalry continued the discussion of the Clearwater Fight, and it was not until late in the afternoon that the court turned to the Battle of White Bird Canyon and Capt. Joel Trimble took the stand.
Trimble's testimony took about two days to complete: he began on Friday afternoon and finished on Tuesday morning. First, he gave his account of the battle, beginning at the point where the command had entered White Bird Canyon. Trimble repeated the criticisms made in his written report, and the gist of it was that Perry had given the order to retreat too quickly and that he had not provided the necessary leadership that the occasion demanded. In concluding his opening statement, Trimble declared that he had not gone to Mount Idaho after he had returned to Grangeville on June 17, as Perry had stated, but that he had remained with Mr. Crooks in Grange Hall. 
The court questioned Trimble on a number of points and asked for additional information concerning others. In the course of the probing, it became apparent that Trimble had little evidence to support some of his accusations and that some of his statements of fact were based on second-hand information delivered out of context. Under oath Trimble modified and qualified many of his declarations to the point that they lost their pungency and, in some cases, their relevancy.
The court learned, for example, that Trimble had been told by a friend who had been told by another officer that Perry had criticized him in a private communication. Trimble had not bothered to get the story from its source, and he was unaware of the nature of the criticism, if there was any. When the court asked Trimble to state when it was that Perry had mounted behind an enlisted man in the retreat, he replied, "I do not know when it was; I did not see the transaction." When the court asked him if Perry had been ordered to escort the pack train back to Fort Lapwai on June 26, Trimble answered, "I do not know; I suppose he must have been ordered. I was not anywhere in the vicinity." If Perry had been ordered, the court wanted to know, would the action have reflected upon his conduct as an officer. "No, sir," Trimble replied, "I suppose that it would not, officially." When Trimble was asked to explain why it was that Perry left Fort Lapwai about 26 hours after the first letter from L. P. Brown had been received, he replied that he could not answer positively. "I believe there was some doubt in the minds of the General or Commanding Officer concerning hostilities," he said. Since Howard had been present at the time, Trimble concluded that he could not say that Perry had been responsible for the delay. 
Perry had his chance to question the witness, and he took advantage of the occasion to ask Trimble to clarify the meaning of some of his statements. Trimble had implied in his reports that there had been an opportunity to advance in the early stages of the fight, and Perry asked his antagonist to be explicit:
Although Trimble backed off on the question of the possibility of advance, he steadily maintained throughout the inquiry that it had not been necessary to retreat. In response to a question by Captain Conrad concerning the order to withdraw, Trimble declared that it had taken him by surprise, because he knew that, "you can't retreat in the presence of Indians." He also remarked that the fact that the Nez Perce had flanked them should not have disturbed Perry. Indians always did that, and he should have been prepared for it. At the time that Perry had given the order to retreat, Trimble remembered that only a few men had been lost. He did agree, however, that some of the men had panicked, and that many of them had had difficulty in managing their horses. When it came to the matter of proving that Perry had intended to retreat from the outset, Trimble had little to offer in the way of evidence. He could only say that the hesitating manner and the general appearance of the officer had told him as much. 
After Trimble's testimony, it became apparent that the only real issue that had developed was whether the retreat had been justified at the time Perry gave the order. Trimble had not been properly prepared to answer the inquiries concerning some of the other questions that had been raised, and the court did not pursue them with vigor. Perry had not pressed charges against Trimble or indicated that he should be censured for his conduct, and, therefore, the court did not spend much time in investigating his behavior. Captain Conrad did ask Trimble how it was that he had become separated from Perry during the retreat to Grangeville. Trimble answered that the separation had occurred when he had ridden to his left after he had reached the top of the west wall. He said that he had later seen Perry going off to the right. When Conrad asked him if he should not have changed his course at that point and made an attempt to join his commanding officer, Trimble replied, "Considering the condition of the command, I don't think it [would have] made any difference." The court was apparently satisfied with the answer. 
Lieutenant Parnell was the next witness, and he was followed by 1st Sgt. McCarthy of Company H, Sgt. Richard Powers of Company H, George Shearer of the volunteers, Capt. James Jackson of the 1st Cavalry, 1st Sgt. Charles Leeman of Company F, Sgt. Bartholomew Coughlin of Company F, and Major Babbitt. Captain Jackson and Major Babbitt gave testimony on the Clearwater Fight; the rest gave evidence relating to the Battle of White Bird Canyon. It required four full days to record the testimony, and they must have been distressing ones for Captain Trimble.
Sergeant McCarthy appears to have been the only witness who was sympathetic to Trimble, and who shared his conviction that Perry had lost his nerve at White Bird. In 1905, McCarthy wrote a letter to J. W. Redington in which he expressed his opinion of Perry. He mentioned that Trimble had been his friend for many years and that if he had commanded at White Bird instead of Perry, disaster would have been averted. "Perry was determined," he wrote, "to make that break and sacrifice all that were foolish enough to do their duty, self included." He declared that that cause of the defeat had been the stampede led by Perry. The officer had shown "cold feet" in the Lava beds, he continued, and he had shown a lack of courage throughout his varied career. In another letter to Redington, McCarthy simply referred to Perry as "that coward." 
However disposed McCarthy may have been to defend Trimble, he could do little to aid him. His personal knowledge of the officer's conduct had ended at the time that he had reached the rocky ledge that had commanded the ravine on the right. He did, however, get a chance to agree with Trimble that Perry could have successfully charged the Indian village. "In the first formation," he declared, "I think we could have advanced down the canyon with complete success in five minutes." But McCarthy's was the only affirmative voice. 
Parnell and Shearer supported Perry's contention that it would have been imprudent to have advanced beyond the ridge on which the line had been formed. Parnell, Shearer, Leeman, and Coughlin agreed that the departure of the volunteers had left Company F completely exposed to a devastating fire, and that its position had been an untenable one. Parnell stated that it would have been possible to have maintained the position held by Company H a bit longer, but, on the other hand, it would not have been wise to have done so. The men would have been out of ammunition in a short time, and they would have lost many horses, which would have put them in a desperate situation. 
Most of the witnesses agreed that a great number of the enlisted men had panicked. Asked if he thought the exodus could have been controlled, Parnell replied, "I did all I could and could not succeed. I don't think we could have done it." He attributed the disaster to the lack of discipline among the men. He noted that there had been a high percentage of recruits in his company and that the horses had been green and flighty. Sergeant Powers remarked that the officers had done everything in their power to rally the men. Shearer was of the same opinion and testified that he had heard Perry repeatedly threaten to shoot men who had attempted to ride past him. According to Sergeant Leeman, Perry had been active in stemming the initial retreat, and he noted that his commander had seemed perfectly calm. 
Parnell attributed much of the confusion that had existed in his own company to the fact that the men had remained mounted after the firing began. When asked who should have given the order to dismount, he replied that he supposed that Trimble should have given it; he had been in command of the company. Commenting further, Parnell declared that if he had been in charge, he would have given the order to dismount; it would have been the proper thing to do under the circumstances. If the men of Company H had dismounted, the court inquired, could not the Indians have been beaten at the first point of attack. "It is very hard to say," Parnell replied, "they were pretty tough customers as we found out afterwards." 
Shearer and Parnell also sided with Perry when it came to the matter of Trimble's position in the retreat. Shearer stated that Trimble had been about 50 or 60 yards ahead of Captain Perry in the race for the trail that led up the west wall. He had heard Perry call to Trimble to stop at the top of a hill. Trimble had replied that Chapman had said that there was a better place to defend on the summit, but Perry had repeated his order to hold the point. A short time later, according to Shearer, Trimble had moved on up the hill, and he had seen nothing more of him during the flight. In reply to a question concerning the whereabouts of Trimble during the retreat Parnell commented:
On January 30, Perry took the stand and read the reports that he had already submitted. In the case of the White Bird Fight, he omitted the concluding paragraph of his report in which he had stated that Trimble had gone to Mount Idaho and back before he and Parnell had reached Grangeville. Perry accepted Trimble's statement that he had not done so.
The cross examination was brief and to the point. Perry was given the opportunity to call Trimble to account and to recommend that his conduct be investigated, but he chose to lay the matter to rest.
On February I the court delivered its opinion and laid the written document before General Howard, who was the reviewing officer. The court stated that Perry apparently had taken every precaution that good judgment had dictated up to the time that the conflict had occurred, except that no evidence had appeared to indicate that a suitable quantity of ammunition had been provided in case of an emergency. His disposition of the troops on the battlefield had been judicious and proper, except that he had trusted citizens to protect his left, and the court noted that soon after the fight had started, the volunteers had abandoned their position, an act that had engendered a panic among nearly all of the troops. The court further stated that it believed that Perry had done all in his power to collect and organize the men for a defense. His failure had been due, in part, to the fact that the troops had lacked experience in firing mounted. Its findings regardinging the Cottonwood Fight and the Battle of the Clearwater were unqualified. Perry had done all that had been expected of him; his conduct had been prudent and proper. In referring to the charges made by Trimble, Whipple, and Winters, the court declared that it appeared that the written statements of some of the officers of the First Cavalry were colored by insinuations that were prejudicial and unwarranted by the evidence. 
Howard agreed with the findings of the court, except that he noted that it did not appear to him that Perry was answerable for the limited quantity of ammunition on hand, and that it was not clear to him that the citizens had been misplaced on his left; their subsequent conduct could not have been foreseen. The opinion of the court and Howard's comments were published on February 5 as General Order No. 1 of the Department of the Columbia. Perry had been vindicated. 
Last Updated: 09-Mar-2003