Nez Perce
Forlorn Hope: The Battle of White Bird Canyon
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Chapter XII:


They are poor Cavalrymen and d--d bad Infantry. Their horses won't stand fire, and the men are poor shots.


The present force of our regular army is entirely inadequate to the frontier duty it may at any time be called upon to perform.


The result of the different encounters of this band with troops are forcible illustration of the entire revolution in Indian warfare occasioned by their acquiring not only arms of precision, but skill in using them.


I could be fighting Day After Tomorrow [General Howard] yet, but I couldn't lick the whole country.


The toll of human life--wantonly taken--will never justify the purpose of that memorable outbreak.


The Battle of White Bird Canyon was one of the worst defeats suffered by the United States Army during the period 1865 to 1890. Perhaps only the Fetterman Disaster in Wyoming in 1866 and the Custer Disaster in Montana ten years later rival it in ignominy and, in both cases, the Indians outnumbered the military units in great proportion. The reasons for the defeat are many. Where men are involved there are always variables, such as courage and fear, knowledge and ignorance, resolution and uncertainty, that are often difficult to document and more difficult to measure. Yet they play a part in every confrontation, and they played a part in the Battle of White Bird Canyon. Chance also seems to have had its day. The loss of all the trumpets in the command could hardly have been anticipated. Certainly there were errors in judgment.

One can debate whether that if General Howard had sent forces to Mount Idaho at the first sign of restlessness, it would have made much difference, because the killings on the Salmon River and on Camas Prairie had already taken place, except for the murder of Charles Horton, at the time that the first letter from L. P. Brown reached Fort Lapwai. At least Perry might have had the opportunity to engage the Nez Perce on the prairie rather than in the canyon. Perry committed a major error when he did not reconnoiter the enemy and trusted to Chapman for his information. He blundered again by trusting the volunteers to cover his left. In view of the fact that he knew absolutely nothing about them, he was remiss in placing them in a critical position. He erred a third time by not providing cover for his rear, once he had decided not to advance to the Indian camp. From that moment he fought defensively, and he should have prepared for it. It is evident that Perry exercised little control over Chapman and the volunteers at any time. Shearer and his men acted independently of the rest of the force in the beginning when they rushed to the river bottom, and Chapman apparently was influential in leading men to the rear, and, generally, in confusing and confounding any attempt to halt the runaway by continually suggesting better places to defend. It is also evident that the volunteers turned tail, the cavalrymen panicked, Theller lost control of himself momentarily, and Trimble simply gave up after the retreat had begun.

Basic to the failure was the military system itself. A good cavalryman had to be skilled in horsemanship and marksmanship, and many of the men who rode into White Bird Canyon on the morning of June 17 did not have a proficiency in either of them. Their ineptitude can be traced to background and training.

In his report of the Nez Perce campaign, Captain Trimble wrote that, in his opinion, it took from 15 to 20 years to make a truly fine horse-soldier. He observed that the men furnished the cavalry were generally green, and that they had grown to manhood in an environment that was radically different from the one that they were destined to know. Guns and horses were foreign to most of them, and it took years of training to familiarize them with the tools of their trade. Many of those who testified at the Court of Inquiry mentioned that a large portion of the men in both companies had been relatively new to the service. Only a handful had fought Indians before. Some of them had been fresh from the recruiting depots; they had not had the chance to become adept in the necessary skills. But, on the other hand, the performance had been generally poor, and the problem obviously extended to men who theoretically had had the time to improve. [1]

Although Sergeant McCarthy noted that most of the men in Company H could ride a horse bareback and lead another at a gallop, Captain Trimble referred to them as poor riders, and Lieutenant Parnell remembered that many of them had had trouble in managing their horses under fire. Both officers considered them deficient in drill. The truth of the matter was that a frontier cavalryman did not have much time to spend on such things. The United States Army had a vast country to police, and it had only a few men to do it with. [2] Speaking generally of the problem in 1878, Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan commented:

No other nation in the world would have attempted reduction of these wild tribes and occupation of their country with less than 60,000 or 70,000 men, while the whole force employed and scattered over this enormous region . . . never numbered more than 14,000, and nearly one-third of this force has been confined to the line of the Rio Grande to protect the Mexican frontier. The consequence was that every engagement was a forlorn hope, and was attended with a loss of life unparalleled in warfare. [3]

The size of the Army's responsibility and the paucity of its manpower dictated its approach to the problem. Its answer was the one and two company military post scattered thither and yon.

The amount of routine work that had to be done at these tiny garrisons varied little with the size of its complement. For example, every military post had to be watched, and this meant incessant guard duty, and whether there were six companies or one on the grounds, the number of men that were necessary to secure it remained approximately the same. Sergeant McCarthy noted the Company F had been stationed at Fort Lapwai for some time, and, as was the case in those days, about half of the enlisted men had been employed on daily duty almost continually. They had functioned as clerks, carpenters blacksmiths, and officer's servants, and performed many other duties that had nothing to do with soldiering in the professional sense. Few of the men had been able to attend drill, and target practice had not been encouraged. [4]

Company H had fared somewhat better. It had traveled from Fort Walla Walla in early May, and it had not been officially stationed at the post but attached to it. The march and the five or six weeks of field service had given the men a chance to become acquainted with their professional duties. There had been some time for mounted drill, and, during the first week in June, the men had been able to practice every morning. Chief White Bird, whom McCarthy described as "a grand looking Indian," had watched the performances and must have found them of interest, because the sergeant noted that the old warrior had been very punctual in his attendance. On June 11, apparently both companies had maneuvered on the parade ground at Fort Lapwai before an audience composed mostly of laundresses. In his diary, McCarthy recorded that they had charged the hospital as a finale, "penetrating even to the backyard and with the loss of only one trooper." [5]

The few hours of training, however, were hardly compensation for the days spent in erecting and maintaining buildings, building bridges and roads, tending gardens, cutting hay, gathering wood, drawing water, keeping books, and the like. At the time that Company H left Fort Lapwai, McCarthy still considered it "in a measure raw," and it is evident that the men had not had the opportunity to accustom their horses to the sound of rifle fire. Trimble wrote in his report that horses had to be drilled continually for some years to make them thoroughly manageable in combat, and Parnell had described the mounts as green and flighty. General Howard personally believed that the disaster had been due in large part to the unsteadiness of the horses under fire. But perhaps the most important fact of all was that Company H had not had target practice since the preceding winter. Not only were the horses unaccustomed to the sound of rifle fire, but, apparently, so were many of the men. [6]

In 1877 a cavalryman who was more than a mediocre shot at any range was a rarity in the United States Army. The experience of Company H was not a unique one; it was the norm: training in the use and maintenance of weapons was universally neglected. Impecunity was part of the reason. For example, in 1874 the army could issue only 120 cartridges to each man for target practice, because of the lack of funds. Target practice--when the men had it--was conducted in a haphazard fashion, and its value was minimal. It was not until after the Nez Perce War that enlisted men received any instruction whatsoever in the theory of marksmanship. In 1893 Capt. James Parker of the Fourth Cavalry observed that the lack of success of his branch of the service in the Indian wars had often been rationalized on the grounds that the enemy had possessed superior weapons. The truth was that the Model 1873 Springfield was the best military rifle in the world. The Indian was simply a better shot. When he fired his weapon, he fired it to kill. Ammunition was scarce, and each cartridge represented a life. Trimble's assessment of the Springfield was the same. In his report, he wrote that it was as good a weapon as the cavalry had ever been issued, and only a few of them malfunctioned in rapid firing. But the rumor was that many of the weapons had become disabled during the Battle of White Bird Canyon. Years later Sergeant McCarthy supplied the answer. Many of the guns had been rusty and foul; the men had not cared for them properly. It was human ignorance and negligence that had caused them to jam. [7]

The fact that there were, at the most, only three warriors wounded from rifle fire in the Battle of White Bird Canyon is the best evidence to support the contention of poor marksmanship. The piles of cartridge cases found near some of the bodies did not show--as some have claimed--that the men sold their lives dearly. It showed that they did not possess skill in using a carbine. Because the men were poor shots and because the horses were untrained, the decision to leave the men of Company H mounted and to permit them to fire from horseback was indeed a blunder. Parnell knew it; Trimble should have. It rendered an ineffective force almost useless. Accuracy on horseback is difficult to achieve, and it is certainly not the province of the novice. Ammunition had been limited in supply: Company H had carried 60 rounds per man, and Company F had 40. McCarthy stated that green men had fired recklessly, and many had lost the ammunition carried in their saddle bags when their horses broke away from them or from the horseholders. [8]

In contrast to the white soldier, the Indian was a marvel. That he excelled in horsemanship there was no doubt. Practically every cavalry officer who commented on the subject sang his praises. His horse was well-trained and obeyed his master almost without fail. Trimble noted that an Indian pony would stand and eat grass while his owner fought. A cavalry mount had to be held or it would soon depart, and the normal procedure was to detail every fourth man to hold his horse and the horses of three others. In order to compensate for the lack of training, a company of cavalry that wanted to fight on foot had to reduce its fighting power by one-quarter. [9]

Knowing that it was very difficult to fire from horseback with accuracy, the Nez Perce rarely attempted to do so. Trimble stated that, contrary to popular belief, the Indian always dismounted to fire, unless his purpose was to stampede stock. Sergeant McCarthy described one technique that the Nez Perce employed in a reminiscence. "When a warrior wanted to fire," he explained, "he rolled off the pony to the ground, took deliberate aim, and crawled on again--the pony remaining quiet and patient during the firing, lying by the roadside." Man and beast were compatible and together they made a splendid fighting unit. [10]

To be able to cope with such a skillful enemy, the men of Companies F and H had to be at their best. They were not. Years later McCarthy wrote:

We were in no condition to go to White Bird on the night of the 16th. We had been in the saddle for nearly 24 hours, and the men and horses were tired and in bad shape for a fight. [11]

He was right. Perry had underestimated the stamina of his men and horses, and, what is more important, he had underestimated the ability of his adversary. The settlers had told him that the Nez Perce were cowardly scoundrels, and he had apparently believed them. It did not take him long to change his mind, however. In a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Forsyth, Perry wrote that the Nez Perce were "the best mounted and hardest fighting . . . Indians on the continent." [12] Perhaps he overstated the case, but the fact was that they were opponents worthy of the highest respect.

The Battle of White Bird Canyon had several results. It undoubtedly made those who won it more bold and those who lost it more cautious. It gave the victors a forlorn hope, as it turned out, and it continued a struggle for freedom that, however noble, brought suffering and death to those who participated in it. Like almost all disasters, the Battle of White Bird Canyon was not completely disastrous. The United States Army gained knowledge from it, and the reforms that were to come in later years were, in a measure, due to it. But it was a tough way to learn.

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Last Updated: 09-Mar-2003