Nez Perce
Forlorn Hope: The Battle of White Bird Canyon
NPS Logo

Chapter VIII:


Thinking of it afterwards I thought he was surprised at meeting them there.


I did attempt to take it, but when I called my men up on the hill they would not come. They ran.


My order had been misunderstood and the men evidently understood it an order to retreat. They were getting on their horses and everybody in a perfect panic, with no trumpet and only my voice.


I did all I could, and the other non-commissioned officers, but it seemed impossible to get them to stand.


He came up to where I was when they changed their positions. He was dismounted and seemed somewhat confused and excited.


There was a wounded man came out with myself and party. He was given a horse and overcoat put on the horse for him to ride on by one of the men of the company. That was the only man that I saw that could be lifted.


The Sergt. rejoined his party and continued the defense of that flank until the whole command was a mile away and in full rout.


Captain Trimble subsequently told me that he heard my call and saw me motion but did not comprehend what was wanted.


As dawn broke about 4 o'clock on Sunday morning, June 17, Captain Perry gave the order to mount. Tired legs lifted heavy bodies into the saddle, and the column surged forward, a trickle of blue moving through the mist that rose from rain soaked ground. A broad horse trail plunged down a narrow gorge that eventually sliced into the canyon proper. [1] Now and then the column crossed a dry creek bed that meandered from one side of the ravine to the other. Clumps of willows and heavy underbrush advanced and retreated and riders pressed by. The rugged terrain and clusters of dense foliage made Perry apprehensive; it was a good place for an ambush. Ad Chapman tried to allay the officer's fears by promising an end to the narrows in another mile or two. He declared that the canyon soon opened into a comparatively smooth valley, a place where cavalry could fight to advantage. Besides the Nez Perce were probably already making preparations to flee across the Salmon River. Their tasks would keep them preoccupied while troops moved into position. [2]

About a mile from the summit, a woman suddenly appeared on the trail. She held a small child in her arms, and another stood by her side. The wayfarers were Isabella Benedict and her daughters who had been eluding the hostiles by keeping to the brush and camping without fires. They had eaten little or nothing since Thursday, and they were obviously suffering from exposure. Isabella thanked God for her deliverance and told the story of her escape. Requesting a safeguard, she begged Perry to give up the chase and return to Mount Idaho. She ended her appeal with a prophecy of death and declared that a massacre waited for the command on the valley floor, but Perry was firm in his determination to push ahead. He offered to send the woman and her children to Mount Idaho by one of the friendly Nez Perce, but Isabella chose to remain where she was. Someone might pick her up on the return trip--if there was one. Not having a man to spare, Perry assented to her wish. He ordered one of the men to give her a blanket, and Trumpeter Jones made a gift of his lunch. [3] The pitiful condition of Mrs. Benedict and her girls did much to strengthen the resolve of the men. Thinking back to the episode many years later, Lieutenant Parnell wrote: "It was a terrible illustration of Indian deviltry and Indian warfare." Suffering of this kind, he continued, called for "sympathy, compassion, and action." [4]

Perry decided that the time had come to take special precautions. He detailed Lieutenant Theller and eight men of Company F to serve as an advance guard. Among them was Trumpeter Jones. He also sent Chapman and several of the Indians with the detachment to serve as scouts. When he sighted the enemy, Theller had instructions to halt his command, deploy his men, and notify Perry immediately. The detail moved 100 yards ahead of the column, and the march continued. Perry assumed his position of leadership at the head of the main force. Behind him rode the volunteers, then Company F and Company H at 40 yard intervals. A few minutes later, Perry gave the order to load carbines and remove overcoats. [5]

About two miles from the summit, Perry and his men emerged from the ravine. Below them was the canyon proper, and the place where danger lay. The trail to the bottom was steep and looped down the west side of White Bird Hill to reach the valley floor. The view was breathtaking. The west wall of the canyon was almost perpendicular in places and rose to great heights. It would be difficult to ascend in case of an emergency. At present White Bird Hill was the barrier on the left, but it had already started to slope downward, and in a few miles it would disappear completely. Actually the hill stood between the east and west walls of the canyon and gave it a Y-shaped appearance. The east wall was many miles distant and would not be a factor. On the valley floor a ridge was discernible. It lifted gracefully upward and seemed to divide the west branch of the canyon into halves. It ran from north to south, and from high up on the hillside it looked like a giant wave about to crest and smash against the west wall. It appeared to fade out to the left after several miles, and beyond it rose another ridge. It cut across the route of advance, and a deep ravine separated it in the middle. South of the second ridge Perry could see the tree-lined banks of White Bird Creek and follow the green line through a cleft in the west wall that permitted the stream to continue its southwesterly course and join the Salmon River. [6] Unknown to Perry the Indian camp lay behind the second ridge on the river bottom. Joseph, Frog, Two Moons, Yellow Wolf, and a host of others watched from concealed positions as the column began the descent to the canyon floor. [7]

The Indians had reached the camp-site on White Bird Creek late on Saturday afternoon. Shadows deepened in the canyon as Nez Perce women lifted lodge poles into place and tightened tepee covers around them. Sentinels prepared for an all-night vigil as the last rays of sunlight fled from the valley and darkness descended. The camp held about 30 lodges. Perhaps there were as many as 135 fighting men in the village. Many of the warriors, however, were in poor condition to do battle before the night ended. Barrels of whiskey seized on Camas Prairie and at Benedict's store soon opened and emptied, and more than one fighting man drank himself into a stupor. [8]

Not long after the camp quieted in slumber, one of the Nez Perce watchguards, an amputee called No Feet, galloped into the tepee circle with the dreaded news. [9] The soldiers were coming. Joseph, Frog, White Bird, and Sound held a hurried conference. All of them still wished to avoid war, but the possibility of doing so appeared remote. At least one chief supported a withdrawal across the Salmon River to the mountains. The Nez Perce would be difficult to find in the jagged maze rising in the west. In the early hours of the morning, the chiefs reached a decision: the Nez Perce would stand their ground. They would send a small party forward to make peace overtures when the soldiers appeared. In the meantime they would prepare to defend themselves in case the emissaries failed in their mission. [10]

Dark shapes moved in the Indian village. The chiefs directed the young men to bring in the horses. Warriors tethered their best mounts close by and herded the rest together to facilitate a quick departure if necessary. As dawn approached the able-bodied stripped for battle. Some of the finest warriors lay helplessly drunk, oblivious to the sting of the quirt, applied by their tribesmen in an effort to revive them. [11] Perhaps not more than 70 men answered the call of the chiefs. [12] Some of them carried only bows and arrows. Others had firearms of all kinds--pistols, trade muskets, shotguns, and modern rifles. [13]

When other sentinels reported that the troops were moving down the canyon, the warriors mounted and rode from the camp in small parties. Eventually nearly 50 of them, including Frog, gathered behind a loaf-shaped butte on the west side of the canyon. Between the river bank and the ridge that hid the camp from view, there were two small knolls, which had served as burial places for the Nez Perce in years past. Two Moons and 15 others took a position behind the west knoll and hid their horses behind the east one. [14] By placing themselves between the line of march and their village, the warriors protected it from a cavalry charge. By concentrating forces on either side of the trail leading down to White Bird Creek, the Nez Perce were in a position to flank the column to the right or the left if the soldiers repulsed the peace party. To believe, however, that the Indians had a precise battle plan, is to ignore one of the basic precepts of aboriginal warfare. Weyehwahtsistkan, known to the whites as John Miles, put it succinctly when he said: "Unlike the trained white soldier, who is guided by the bugle call, the Indian goes into battle on his mind's own guidance." [15]

On the canyon floor, things looked somewhat differently to Perry. The trail led over rolling country, up and down grass-covered knolls, always descending. The column kept to the left of the ridge as it moved down the canyon. Soon the troops reached the place where the wave-like barrier began to dip and angle to the left. Suddenly another ridge came into view. Like the one beyond it, which had been seen from above, it ran diagonally from west to east and cut across the direction of advance. It had not been discernible near Poe Saddle, because its southern slope was a gradual one, and the lip of the parallel ridge--at a point where it curved to the east--lifted high enough to hide its steep northern face from view. By the time that Perry reached the first diagonal ridge, the advance guard was already on its way toward the second. [16]

Abraham Brooks and Frank Husush, two of the Nez Perce scouts, rode ahead of the detachment. Signs told them that they were nearing the Indian camp, and they reported their discovery to Theller. Ad Chapman immediately spurred his horse forward to see for himself. Reaching the place where the ground sloped downward before rising to form the crest of the ridge, he looked to his right and saw the peace party coming toward him. Apparently the Indians had ridden around the west end of the ridge and were angling east in order to intercept the soldiers before they rode over the divide. Without a moment's hesitation, Chapman opened fire. [17]

The truce team, consisting of Vicious Weasel and five others, had strict orders not to fire unless fired upon. Chapman shot twice before the Nez Perce sought cover and returned the way that they had come. Continuing due south, the volunteer commander moved up the ridge to get a view of the river bottom. Theller and the detachment followed. Topping the rise they could see the Nez Perce moving along the river bank in small groups in order to occupy positions directly in front of them. Theller immediately began to deploy his men as skirmishers, and Trumpeter Jones began to blow the call to battle, which would bring the main force forward, but before he had time to finish it, a bullet jarred him from the saddle. Fire Body, an elderly Nez Perce located behind the cemetery knoll with Two Moons, was the one who made the lucky shot. [18] Several hundred yards to the rear, Perry saw his advance guard rein to a halt and observed Theller dismounting the detachment. Quickly the senior officer returned to his men. He formed Company F left front into line and then gave the order to drop carbines and draw pistols, intending to charge the enemy. [19] While Perry was busy with his company, George Shearer led the volunteers forward. Moving around the east end of the ridge, he galloped toward White Bird Creek. Several warriors emerged from the thicket bordering the stream, and the volunteers opened fire. Seeking cover the Nez Perce retaliated with effective swiftness. Shearer ordered his men to dismount, but only a few obeyed the command; some of the rest turned tail and fled. With a handful of men, the ex-Confederate officer knew that he could not advance. In the background he could hear the report of rifles, and he realized that Theller was under attack. Gathering the remainder of his command, Shearer made a dash for the ridge to rejoin the regulars. [20]

While the volunteers exchanged shots with the Nez Perce on the river bottom, Perry advanced toward the ridge at a trot. Turning to Trumpeter Daly to give the order to charge, the officer received some disheartening news. The man no longer possessed his trumpet; he had lost it somewhere along the way. By this time Company F had reached the crest of the ridge occupied by Theller, and Perry could see the Nez Perce advancing below him. Sizing up the situation, he saw that if he charged, he would only succeed in driving the warriors back into the underbrush on the river bank, where they would be under cover and his command exposed to fire. He also perceived that the ridge he held was the most defensible position in the vicinity. Perry came to a quick decision: he would make his stand on the ridge. [21]

Inclining slightly to the left, Perry gave the order to dismount and fight on foot. The distance between skirmishers was about three yards, varying somewhat with the terrain. A few rocks and boulders scattered here and there afforded some protection, and the waist-high grass hid most of a man's body. Perry sent the horses to the rear by number fours to a sheltered position in a swale behind the ridge and ordered Daly to ride quickly to Trimble with instructions to look out for his right. [22] At this point in the battle, Company F held a position about midway between the east end of the ridge and the ravine that divided it in half.

Completing his preliminary instructions, Perry told Theller to take command of the line so that he might reconnoiter his position. Looking to his left, he noticed the volunteers posted on a little knoll that was about 100 yards from the end of his line. It was the last high point on the east end of the ridge, and it was a strategic point in the event of a flanking movement because it commanded the position of Company F and the hollow tenanted by the horses. Perry apparently did not realize that Shearer and his men had just returned from the river bottom and that they had already seen action. Secure in his belief that the volunteers protected his flank, Perry galloped toward Company H, then swinging into line. [23]

Trimble was at least 150 yards to the rear when firing commenced. He formed his company left front into line and deployed his men to the right at five-yard intervals. They remained mounted. Trimble cautioned the men to remain steady and rode to the front and to the right of his company. At the same time Lieutenant Parnell moved off to assume a position on the far left of the line. Almost immediately some of the Nez Perce began to move around the right flank of Company H by riding around and over the west end of the ridge. They did not pose a threat to Perry, because he was already on the crest, and the ravine protected his right. To some of the troopers it appeared that the Indians were attempting to drive a herd of wild horses through their line, and although the ponies passed to the right at a distance of 100 yards, some of the men retreated from the flank and bunched together in the center of the company. In truth, however, many of the horses held riders. The warriors leaned to the opposite sides of their ponies as the party swept by, hiding their bodies from the view of the cavalrymen, some of whom were recruits who were not familiar with the ancient Indian tactic. During the next quarter-hour, other warriors followed the horsemen to press the company on the flank and in the rear. Shore Crossing, Red Moccasin Tops, and Strong Eagle led the fighting on the right and gained a special place in the memories of their people. [24]

One of the first men to be wounded in Company H was Cpl. Roman Lee. [25] Shot in the body near the groin, he dismounted with the assistance of his comrades. Suffering from shock, he wondered aimlessly toward the Indian camp and into the sights of Nez Perce rifles. To stem the onrush on his flank, Trimble detailed 1st Sgt. Michael McCarthy and six men to hold a rocky point that commanded the ravine and the west half of the ridge. A natural breastwork fronting the Indian advance, it was open from the rear except for a few boulders on the slope. Trimble rode with the detachment to the bluff and then returned to his company. By this time some of the men had dismounted in order to fire more accurately. [26]

Captain Perry headed for Company H with a dual purpose in mind. He wanted to examine Trimble's position, and he wanted to obtain a trumpet. Cavalry had to be able to maneuver quickly when the opportunity presented itself. With his force strung out across the ridge, Perry was desperately in need of a means of projecting his commands. His voice carried only a short distance in the din of battle, and the length of time it took to pass the word along the line could prove to be disastrously long. Hand signals were fine for close quarters, but not very useful in this situation. Terrain, smoke, and dust combined to reduce their effectiveness in any event. In short, divested of a trumpet Perry was nearly helpless. As he later put it, "a cavalry command on a battlefield without a trumpet is like a ship at sea with a helm." [27] Perry covered about two-thirds of the distance between the companies before he noticed a commotion among the horses in the hollow behind Company F. He saw that the citizens had been driven from the knoll and that it was now in the possession of Nez Perce marksmen.

Two Moons, Yellow Wolf, Fire Body, and the rest of the warriors originally secreted behind the cemetery knoll were responsible for the disaster. When the citizens had returned from their abortive foray on the river bottom, they had found the Indians firmly entrenched on a point about 50 yards from their position. Dismounting the volunteers had tried to hold the line, but they had refused to advance to the point when Shearer beckoned. [28]

One of the warriors had called to Charles Crooks: "You, Charley Crooks: Take your Papa's hoss and go home." [29] Soon Theodore Swarts had taken a bullet in the hip and Herman Faxon another in the thigh. At the same time the regulars on the left of the line had begun to move back in response to the telling fire delivered by the warriors on the point. Seeing the soldiers withdrawing, the volunteers had hastily galloped to the rear. Swarts had jumped his horse over an Indian to make good his escape.

Perry was too far away to order a charge to retake the hill. So he decided that the only thing to do was to move to a new position near Trimble's company. Dashing back to the line he ordered the word passed from man to man to move slowly to the right and rear. [30] Seeing the order in the process of execution, Perry resumed his journey to Trimble's line. He found Company H in poor order. Some of the men fought on foot, while others fired from horseback.

Many of the men huddled close together in the center of the line, and among them were some from his own company, who had gone to the rear without orders after the firing had begun. A few of the men were having difficulty in managing their horses, who were bucking and kicking in cadence to each volley. Continuing to his left, Perry met Trimble, who had just returned from posting McCarthy on the point. He immediately asked Trimble for a trumpet, but learned that he had none. The last trumpet had also been lost. [31]

Glancing back at his company, Perry saw that the left of the line had broken completely, and the men were scrambling for their horses. After the volunteers had filed from the knoll, some of the warriors had moved around the end of the line and fired into the company from a position in the rear. Six men had fallen in a short time. Suddenly the skirmishers on the left had seen the right of the line begin to pull back and move up the ridge to the west to join Company H. Word had not yet reached them of the tactics being employed by Perry, and they had interpreted the movement as a signal for a full scale retreat.

It was not long before the instinct for survival gained the upper hand. Scurrying down the banks of the hollow, terror stricken soldiers swung into the saddle and galloped to the rear--some of them leaving their weapons behind in their haste. As they sped away the men on the right responded in panic, and in a short time most of the company joined in the unceremonious retreat, including Lieutenant Theller. Perry later remarked that he had not seen anything like it since Gordon's raiders jumped the men of the Eighth Corps in their beds at Cedar Creek in October of 1864. [32]

Once again Perry was off on a race to avoid disaster. He tried to rally the men and reform the line and in part succeeded. He managed to contain scattered segments of the company, and some of the men halted after they reached the position held by Company H. Perry returned with the vestige of his company and called Trimble for a quick conference. He told his subordinate that they would have to act quickly or they would suffer a resounding defeat. Company H was on the verge of bolting. Indeed a few of them had already departed. Trimble half-heartedly suggested that they might take the remaining men and charge through the Indians to the Salmon River. Perry replied that the result of such a maneuver would be utter annihilation and instructed Trimble to move his company to the rear, where they might find a more defensible position. There was still time to organize an orderly retreat, because the Nez Perce were not advancing rapidly. [33]

Trimble ordered his company to move back by twos from the right, and the men moved out in fairly good order. Several hundred yards to the rear, Trimble encountered Theller. He was on foot and held a carbine in his hand. It was obvious from his appearance that he had lost control of himself. Parnell saw Theller about the same time that Trimble did, and together the officers rushed to his assistance. They ordered a horse caught for him. One enlisted man held the head of the animal, while the other gave him a boost up. Clinging to the horse bareback, Theller galloped off down the trail leading back up the canyon. Suddenly Parnell remembered that Sergeant McCarthy and his men were still on the rocky point and brought it to the attention of Trimble. Both officers rode back to signal the men to join the command and then returned to their company. [34]

After McCarthy had reached the point, he had dismounted his detail and sheltered the horses behind some of the bigger boulders. On a hillock opposite him, he had seen a number of warriors hunting cover and opened fire. An exchange of shots had followed, apparently with little effect on either side. Presently he had observed the right of the line begin to swing near him, and a few men of Company F had reached the point and taken a position on his left. A few minutes later he had heard a voice summon him to the rear. Looking north McCarthy could see that the command had retreated about 400 yards, and, mounting his detail, he started back at a gallop. [35]

After Trimble returned to his company, he met Ad Chapman, who told him that the best place to defend in the present situation was the bluff held by McCarthy. Trimble communicated the information to Perry, and the commander agreed to give it a try. Shouting his intentions to Parnell, Trimble gave the order to move out. As the officer rode ahead of the column, he saw McCarthy galloping toward him. He shouted for the sergeant to return to the point, and McCarthy obeyed. The main body of troops, however, did not reach the bluff or apparently even come close to it. The men became scattered in the charge and the column disintegrated. For the second time, the cavalrymen turned to the rear and put out. [36]

On the first of the diagonal ridges, which the command had crossed when it entered the valley, Perry made his most strenuous efforts to halt the runaway. He succeeded in rallying a few of the men and had the semblance of a line formed, but when the Nez Perce came within range, the left gave way, and most of the rest followed with Trimble and Perry after them. Only Parnell stood his ground with a handful of men. [37]

McCarthy had been able to bring back only three men with him to the rocky point. After taking his position, the sergeant could see the Nez Perce riding up the canyon, taking the offensive from the front as well as from the flank. He noticed several small war parties pass to his right. Another band of warriors rode by on the left under the lip of the ledge he occupied. He would have to ride through them to reach the rest of the company. The men fired about 10 rounds apiece before they heard a call to withdraw a second time. Showing himself to acknowledge the command, McCarthy was greeted by a hail of bullets, which came obliquely from either side. Realizing that he was completely cut off, the sergeant leaped into the saddle and started back with a rush. Hugging the back of his horse, he made good his escape, but two of his men were less fortunate as Nez Perce riflemen found their mark.

When McCarthy reached Parnell, he found the officer about 10 yards in advance of his men, and he was urging them forward in an attempt to rescue some of the wounded and dismounted men, who had been left behind in the retreat. The wounded seemed to be wandering about in a daze and little could be done for them, because they were under heavy fire. As McCarthy rode up, Parnell shouted: "Sergeant take charge of the line. Try and hold the road and I will ride back and bring you help." The remaining troopers were strung out in open order across the trail and blocked the Indian advance. McCarthy did as he was told. He checked the onrush in his front, but the warriors began to ride around his right in the direction taken by the fleeing column. By this time nearly all the dismounted men had reached and passed the little detachment, so McCarthy began to pull back. Suddenly some of his men on the right flank bolted. The sergeant made an attempt to stop them, but a bullet had wounded his horse, and it soon gave out. He dismounted and tried to move the animal along, but to no avail. In the meantime the rest of his command had been falling back, and McCarthy saw that he would soon be alone. Abandoning the horse, he broke into a run to catch the rapidly disappearing detachment.

Fortunately for McCarthy, Pvt. Charles Fowler saw his predicament and returned for him. Abraham Brooks also came back to assist McCarthy in mounting behind Fowler, and after the sergeant was in the saddle, the three men continued up the trail. At this point the Nez Perce did not follow the retreating detachment in great numbers. Most of the warriors kept to the west in order to pursue the main force led by Perry and Trimble; McCarthy noticed only four or five warriors in their rear. [38] After a bullet wounded Fowler's horse, McCarthy rode double with Cpl. Michael Curran, until he could catch a horse of his own. At intervals they were joined by Cpl. Frank Powers, Pvt. James Shay, and a third man. [39]

It was not long until the stragglers caught up with the detachment. It consisted of 1st Sgt. Alexander Baird of F Company and five or six men of Company H. Parnell had returned to take command of the squad, and he had the men in good order. McCarthy and his companions took a place in the rear, fronting the Indian advance. Parnell was fortunate to have such a preponderance of non-commissioned officers and veteran soldiers in the party, and with them he was able to organize a respectable retreat. The detachment worked its way slowly back up the canyon, passing from one little swell to another--sometimes at a walk--and holding on until the Indians got on the ridges on both flanks and threatened to cut them off. Then they moved rapidly to higher ground, came to a halt, and began the slow withdrawal all over again. They waited at every halt for their adversaries to come near enough to receive the contents of their carbines, and once they stopped long enough to tighten up their saddle girths. Under these circumstances, the Nez Perce dared not to approach too closely, although at one time they were near enough for Parnell to use his pistol.

About one mile from the point where the trail left the canyon floor and began its steep ascent to the summit of White Bird Hill, a bullet crippled McCarthy's horse, and he was forced to dismount. He attempted to keep up with the retreating party by running but gradually fell behind. By the time he reached the foot of the steep hill, Parnell and the rest of the detachment were already high above him. Overcome with fatigue, he fell repeatedly in his desperate efforts to gain higher ground. As his pursuers drew close, McCarthy fired one wild shot from his revolver, and, in turning about, lost his footing and tumbled down the hillside and then lay still. The warriors swept by his prostrate body and continued the chase. [40]

In the meantime, Perry and Trimble had been riding along the base of the west wall on the other side of the canyon. Most of the Nez Perce had followed them. The only way that Perry could make a show of resistance was to gallop in front of a few fleeing soldiers and turn them about. Sometimes he promised to shoot them if they failed to comply, but even under the threat of death, they would stand for only a short time, and he had to start all over again with another shaky squad. [41]

The men followed the lead of the volunteers, who knew of a cattle trail which led up the west wall of the canyon to the high plateau above. Nearing the place where the trail began, Perry noticed a point that he believed could be defended, if he could reach it before the men rushed by. His horse, however, failed to respond to his urging and, realizing that the animal would never make it in time, Perry hailed a passing trooper and requested a lift to the bluff. When he reached the point, he slid to the ground and called to Trimble, whom he saw riding up the trail about 50 yards ahead. Perry ordered his subordinate to post some men on a second point in the vicinity, and Trimble replied that Chapman believed there was a more defensible place higher up. Perry repeated the order and Trimble complied. [42] Turning to Sgt. William Havens of Company H, who occupied a third point close by, Perry told him to hold that position, while he attempted to form another squad and find another point above them that commanded the trail and the defenses organized below. [43]

Busying himself with the work at hand, Perry succeeded in stopping a few other cavalrymen. Glancing back to see how Trimble was doing, Perry discovered much to his dismay that his senior officer had departed along with Sergeant Havens and the rest of the men who had been holding the bluffs a few moments before. Because he was on foot, Perry could only watch the retreat. His shouts and gesticulations were either ignored or misunderstood. [44]

With the few men that were left, Perry made his way up the bluff, keeping under cover as much as possible and steering clear of the trail until near the top of the wall. As the men ascended, they were able to stem the onslaught of the Nez Perce. Higher ground have them better positions to fire from, and the warriors became wary. Perry broke his tiny command into equal parts, and as one retreated to assume a position a short distance in the rear, the other delivered a volley. Repeating the maneuver again and again, the small remnant gained confidence and soon reached the summit. About half way up the bluff, Perry was able to catch a loose horse, which he rode for the rest of the day. [45]

When the troops reached the top, the Nez Perce were not far behind. Some of them were already making their way along the high ridge and were threatening to flank them in the rear. Others were moving rapidly up the trail to the top and promised to continue the assault at close quarters in a matter of minutes. In the distance, Perry saw Trimble, who was galloping obliquely to the left. Perry was too far away to make himself heard, so he attempted to wave the officer to right, because he believed Theller and Parnell must be coming up the road below, and he hoped to combine forces as soon as they appeared on the summit. Trimble, however, continued on his course and soon disappeared from sight. [46]

Moving to the right, Perry soon encountered Parnell, who had just emerged from the narrows and stood on the summit of White Bird Hill. Their combined force numbered about two dozen. [47] Theller, however, was nowhere in sight, and Parnell had no knowledge of him. Perry surmised that perhaps he had preceded Trimble and was far ahead of them on the way to Grangeville and Mount Idaho. Immediately in front of them was a deep ravine that had to be crossed. Perry told Parnell to hold the ridge while he moved his men to the other side, and he would do the same for him. Parnell did as ordered, but when Perry's men reached the opposite bank, they refused to stop. Parnell crossed the gulch at a gallop with the Indians hot on his heels. Halting on the high ground, he ordered a volley, and the Nez Perce reined short. [48]

Perry continued to fall back until he reached the Henry Johnson ranch, about four miles from the head of the canyon. There he dismounted his men and took a position on a high rocky point. To his left were the house and barn. A small creek ran between the bluff and the buildings. Parnell arrived shortly there after, and Perry ordered him to deploy his men on the firing line. Perry kept his own men in reserve. In the course of conversation, Perry remarked that he believed that they could defend their position until dark. Astonished, Parnell informed his commander that it was about seven o'clock in the morning, not evening, and that each of the men had only 10 or 15 rounds of ammunition left.

Presently bullets came flying over their heads from the front and from the right flank. The Indians had taken shelter in a clump of rocks on higher ground about 200 yards from their position and therefore commanded the bluff. At the same time another party of Nez Perce began to move around to the left. They were hidden by a fence that ran up from the house and was perpendicular to Perry's front. Luckily one of the men discovered them before they got close enough to do any damage. Had they been able to move around the flank, they might have captured the horses. Quickly Perry mounted his command and gave the order to move out. Parnell and his detachment provided cover fire, while Perry and his men got under way. Parnell then ordered his own men to mount, and he waited until all of his men were in the saddle before he began to look for his own horse. While he searched for the animal, his men rode off after Perry, and suddenly Parnell found himself alone and on foot. He shouted to the troops, now more than 100 yards distant, but none heard him.

Bullets whizzed past Parnell from every direction. He looked for a hiding place, but there was little cover to be found. He made up his mind that he would not be taken prisoner. If he had to, he would use his hunting knife and the little derringer that he always carried in his vest pocket. Breaking into a run, he struggled to catch the column. Finally some of his men missed him and reported his absence to Perry. The command halted, and one of the men caught a horse and led it back to him so that he was able to rejoin the column.

After the men had covered another quarter of a mile, Perry gave the order "fours left" and directed Parnell to organize the party. He divided the men of each company off, threw out the men of Company H as a skirmish line, and asked Perry to keep within a supporting distance of no more than 100 yards. Parnell deployed the line at unusually great intervals; he wanted a broad front, so that flanking movements would be more difficult. After a few words of instruction and caution, Parnell took his place beside the men and awaited the coming of the Nez Perce.

He did not have long to wait. The warriors charged with a yell, but the men remained steady. Not a shot was fired until the Indians were within 100 yards of the line and coming fast. Then Parnell gave the order to fire, and a volley knocked half a dozen Indian ponies to the ground. Following the barrage, the command moved to the rear at a walk and halted a short distance away. Another volley kept the Nez Perce back. The Indians made several other attempts to drive the party off to the left toward Rocky Canyon, but every time they charged the right flank, the soldiers repulsed them.

During the retreat, the force passed through a marsh, and Parnell noticed a man struggling over the swampy ground, about half-way between the column and the Indians. He could just see the man's head bobbing above the tall grass. In a few more minutes, the Nez Perce would surely have his scalp. The man was Private Aman Hartman of Company H, who had lost his horse to an Indian bullet. Parnell detailed a couple of men and charged to the rescue. Hartman mounted behind one of men, and the little party made good its escape. [49]

The column continued to move toward the settlements on Camas Prairie. A few miles from Mount Idaho, a band of armed citizens rode out to meet them, and the Nez Perce finally abandoned the chase. The weary force rode on to Grangeville and comparative safety. Sleep was uppermost in the minds of the men. It was 10 o'clock when they reached Grange Hall.

In Grangeville, Perry found Trimble and a number of other men of both companies. The commander greeted the company officer rather coolly. He had good reason to suspect that Trimble had deserted him. Apparently Perry did not ask Trimble for an explanation but kept his feelings to himself.

But what had happened to Trimble? About 18 months later, the officer told his story to a court of inquiry.


The bluffs were very high; it was some distance to the top. My object there was to get on a high point that projected out on our left and commanded a view of the whole ground. The Commanding Officer hollered out to me two or three times, "Trimble do you know where you are going?" I hollered back that I was going to try and get on that high point. I thought that would be the best place to see the Indians coming in from that direction. As soon as I got high enough up, I turned in the direction of that point. Some men were still going further on.

I got on that point. I rode out on it pretty well; it seemed to be the top of a ridge. A ridge ran right up to it. I saw two Indians riding up this ridge towards this point where I was. I thought they were a good distance off. I got off to adjust my saddle . . . . Two or three men were there . . . . these Indians rode up quite close, though a little lower down on the ridge, and I could see them dismount. I knew they would fire in a minute, but I had not quite cinched up my saddle. I jerked my cinch quickly. Just then one of them fired. The bullet went just under my stirrups . . . As soon as this Indian fired, I jumped on my horse, and the only man I saw there was a Corporal of F Company. He was back sitting on his horse. He had a gun. I hollered . . . [for him] to come out where I was. I thought we could stay there a minute or two. Just then another shot was fired by the other Indian. I suppose it was fired at the Corporal. I heard the ball whistle. As it did not come very close to me, I supposed it was fired at him. We both turned our horses and galloped to where we saw a larger number of men to be. They were galloping down from the ridge. They seemed to be all in motion.

I kept somewhat to the left along the edge of the bluffs, and I looked down from these high bluffs and saw something glittering like water. I was afterwards told it was Salmon River. I then turned to the right and rode over to where I thought the main position of the men were. I came up to quite a number. They all seemed to be going to the rear . . . . Chapman was there too. I heard Chapman say "The House" [Johnson's ranch] was the only place where we could make a stand. I did not know what house he meant. He (Chapman) rode off very fast. All were galloping to the rear . . . . I kept along in the same direction.

I was going down a slope. In a hollow to the right, I saw a man without a hat, dismounted and running about. Sergeant Havens and myself rode down towards him and told him to hide himself in the bushes. The man ran into the bushes. The horses were jumping around, and it was hard to restrain them.

Two men of F Company rushed past me. Neither of them had guns. One of them was bareback. They seemed to be coming from another direction further to the right. I hollered to them several times to stop. Sergeant Havens remarked that they had no guns anyway. We started on some distance further and found one of these men lying in the road. His horse had thrown him and [he had] broke[n] his neck. I stopped long enough to see that the man was dead; [he] had broken his neck by a fall from his horse. Just then, considerably over to the right, I saw a large body of men galloping down into a ravine [Perry and Parnell]. There seemed to be 40 or 50. They disappeared very quickly. I saw then that there were only five or six men with me, two with guns: Sergeant Havens and Private Powers of H Company. The Sergeant told me he had but one cartridge and that was in his gun.

We seemed to be inclining to the left. Someone remarked we were going toward Craig's Mountain. There were some parties in front of us. Several men could be seen down in the valley, going across the valley. I supposed [they] were going in the direction of Craig's Mountain too. Am not positive. I said then that [that] was not the proper direction to go. We ought to go towards Mount Idaho and turned to the right.

We got down into the lowlands then and went towards a house that was on the right. Going from that house were several men. Among them, I think, was Chapman, a man on a white horse, going across the valley. There was some water near by, and I stopped some of the men. Two went on. We got off our horses and watered them. The men with me reported seeing two or three Indians on our right towards the mountain, and I heard one or two shots fired up in that direction. I mounted up and moved along slowly, and I thought I saw several men up near the timber. I was not positive whether I saw them or not.

After we moved along a mile or two, probably three miles, the men reported seeing a number of men moving along between us and the mountain. I halted them and sent a man, Private Powers of H Company, over to see if they were stragglers and bring them over to where we were. He came back in a little time and said that he could not get to where they were. There were fields and fences, so I moved on with the party towards Grangeville.

I met one man beside the three men left in camp. It was Mr. Crooks, the proprietor of the place. It [Grangeville] consisted of two or three houses, a mill, and a large hall stored with flour. The soldiers had the mules packed up ready to go off to Mount Idaho. Some of the men that had come in before had told them that there was a disaster. Mr. Crooks told me there was no one to defend the place, that he had rather die than lose all his property. It was all he had and asked me to stay and help him. Just then a citizen rode over from Mount Idaho about two miles off and wanted me to go to that place to defend it. I went with Mr. Crooks down to the Hall, and ordered the party down there [and] concluded to stay there. I discovered quite a party of men going along the mountain towards Mount Idaho. I sent two men to where they were to tell them where I was. A short time after Captain Perry came in with quite a large party. [50]

After he had talked with Crooks and Trimble, Perry decided to go to Mount Idaho to inspect the fortifications erected there by the citizens. He ordered his men to make camp in Grangeville and departed. During his absence, Trimble and Parnell counted heads. Thirty-eight were missing, including Theller. Among those present, only two were wounded: Pvt. Thomas McLaughlin of Company F and Pvt. Joseph Kelly of Company H. McLaughlin suffered from a bullet wound in the right arm and Kelly from one in the left thigh.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 09-Mar-2003