Lava Beds
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Chapter 4
Boston Charley

Jan. 17, 1873

Back in December, Wheaton had drafted his first plan of attack on the Stronghold. Although circumstances, such as the Modocs' attack on Bernard's supply wagon, had brought about a few changes, his battle order of January 12 was essentially the same. His forces, all dismounted, would attack on both the east and west, with the main blow falling on the western side under the immediate control of Major Green. Bernard's smaller force would hit on the east side, keeping the Modocs from escaping in that direction. Green's right flank and Bernard's left flank would push toward each other and by joining would prevent the Modocs from fleeing into the masses of lava to the south. The lake itself would be an effective barrier against escape to the north. [1]

Green's western force would consist of:

Major Mason's battalion of 21st Infantry
   Company B, 2d Lt. H. D. W. Moore [2]
   Company C, Capt. G. H. Burton
   Detachment, Company F, 1st Sgt. John McNamara [3]
General Ross's Oregon Volunteer Militia
   Company A, Capt. H. Kelly
   Company B, Capt. Oliver Applegate
Troop F, 1st Cavalry, Capt. David Perry
California Volunteers, Capt. John O. Fairchild [4]
Section, Mountain Howitzers, 2d Lt. W. H. Miller

The California Volunteers were a quite irregular group. In contrast to the governor of Oregon, California's chief executive could not get himself excited over the Modocs. He refused to call up the militia, feeling assured that the U. S. Army could take care of the situation. He did authorize the sending of 50 Springfield rifles to Yreka when that town demanded weapons. The citizens were furious when they learned they were expected to pay the freight. Some of the rifles were sent to Fairchild at his ranch, north of Van Brimmer's. [5] By the eve of the January 17 battle, Fairchild, although considered to be a friend by the Modocs, had recruited and armed 24 men from the general area. Wheaton was glad to have bodies and accepted their services for the attack.

Bernard, on the eastern side, had his own Troop G with Lieutenant Kyle and Jackson's Troop B, which had been at Land's ranch since the wagon skirmish. Also under his command was a group of twenty Klamath scouts under Dave Hill.

Green's command marched from Van Brimmer's in the morning, Thursday, January 16. The wagons and artillery (on pack mules), guarded by a detachment from Applegate's Company B, took an easier but longer route along the shore of Lower Klamath Lake to the north, thus avoiding a series of parallel ridges between Van Brimmer's and the lava beds. The cavalry and infantry, traveling light, marched directly eastward twelve miles, arriving at the southwest corner of Tule Lake at one p.m. The wagons did not arrive until dark. [6]

Before dawn, January 17, Captain Perry led Troop F down the narrow trail leading from the top of the bluff to the lava beds. His men secured the trail against possible Indian outposts and remained in position along it for the time being. At 6:30 a.m., the main command descended in this order: Mason's battalion of 21st Infantry, Fairchild and the California Volunteers, Ross with the Oregon Volunteers, then Miller with the two howitzers. When the last of these reached level ground, Perry's troop came down the trail and formed at the rear of the column. [7]

On the east side, Bernard's command moved out on the 16th also. His rough, rocky trail wound some 16 miles through the lava flows. A thick fog wiped out landmarks, and Bernard suddenly discovered he had approached the Stronghold more closely than he had planned. A sharp critic of the battle, Lieutenant Boyle, who was in charge of the supply depot back at Van Brimmer's, wrote that Bernard "relied on his own judgement [rather] than upon the man employed as guide." Bernard ordered a "retreat as skirmishers" when he saw his error; however the Modocs were already tailing him and fired on his left flank and pack train. He ordered a small charge to discourage the Indians from getting closer, three of his men being wounded in this exchange. After pulling back one-half mile, the eastern force went into camp at dark near a rock outcropping that the troops called Hospital Rock. Boyle, probably reflecting camp gossip, thought it was "a sad blunder for had the troops taken their position at night without the knowledge of the Indians, how different might have been the result of the next day's fight." The next morning, leaving the wounded and a small guard behind, Bernard's force of 100 officers and men moved through the thick fog toward the Stronghold two miles away. [8]

Green too was hampered by the fog which created weird patterns as it drifted across the jagged edges of the lava flow. Burton's Company C, deployed as skirmishers, led the way until its left flank reached the shore. Here the whole command filled canteens and then lined up again. The skirmish line was extended to the right, or south, in the following order: Company C on the extreme left, one-half Company B to its right (the other half had been held back as a reserve and to protect the artillery until the latter was moved up), then the Oregon Volunteers. The California Volunteers served as flankers for the 21st Infantry battallion. This skirmish line moved forward. After it had traveled 1-1/2 miles, about half way from the base of the bluff to the Stronghold, the line reached the head of a bay (Canby Bay) and pivoted toward the northeast in order to head for the Stronghold. At this point Green ordered Troop F into line on the extreme right flank. Around eleven a.m., however, Green ordered Perry's troop to move to a position between the 21st Infantry and the Oregon Volunteers. He did not make clear his reasons for this change in his reports. [9]

Getting underway again (no easy task in the extremely uneven terrain where a lieutenant or a sergeant could see and control not more than a handful of his men at any one time), the western command came under its first enemy fire. (Pvt.?) J. N. Terwilliger, F Troop, later recalled, "Several of F Troop were wounded as the line advanced. Guttermuth and Hollis, close to myself, were victims. We took Hollis under cover, took off his belts, gave him a drink of water, and as he was badly wounded we signalled the hospital corps, and two men were shot in attempting to reach him." The Modocs, hidden by the fog, knowing the terrain, and taking advantage of the excellent concealment provided by the hundreds of outcroppings and ridges, slowly withdrew, reducing Green's advance to a mere crawl. Terwilliger described the scene, "We all remember the cold dismal foggy day, the fog being so thick we could almost cut it with a knife." Then, at two p.m., Green's men reached "a very deep chasm, beyond which no advance could be made without great sacrifice of life." [10]

A great deal has been written about the deep chasms around the Stronghold. Most participants in the battles who wrote then and later tended to overestimate these depressions between the fingers of lava. When one was being fired upon, they undoubtedly did look wide and deep. However, they were not nearly the chasms the soldiers described. Murray, who has studied the terrain in detail, writes, "The whole area . . . is broken into a series of roughly parallel gullies about a quarter of a mile long, possibly a hundred feet wide, and averaging about twenty feet deep. In some places, jagged rock outcroppings make the depth as much as thirty feet. The slopes up either side vary from gradual to precipitous." [11]

Meanwhile, Bernard's force was advancing from the east. It too was affected by the grotesque rock formations looming through the fog, although the terrain on the east was not quite as difficult as that on the west until one reached the Stronghold itself. Bernard's units advanced in a skirmish line also, Troop G on the right next to the lake, Troop B and the scouts on the left flank. Suddenly, the Modocs opened fire. Bernard reported that his men reacted by rushing forward 100 yards when they too were stopped by "a deep gorge." The troops then fell back 150 yards where they established a defensive line behind "forts" quickly thrown up with the plentiful loose rock on the ground. This static line began about 100 yards from the lake and ran toward the south "about one mile and a half long." If this distance is accurate it means that each of Bernard's troopers was responsible for 80 feet of front.

When Green's troops reached the chasm on the west, he reported the situation to Wheaton. Both men were reluctant to order a charge that would cause "an immense sacrifice." Although he could hear Bernard's fire, Wheaton now agreed with Green that the attempt to encircle around the south must be given up. Green then proposed that an attempt be made to connect his left flank to Bernard's right by moving along the shoreline immediately north of the Stronghold.

Contact was made with Captain Bernard by shouting across an arm of the lake. Bernard reported that he was four or five hundred yards from the Stronghold and learned of the change in plans. His troops, behind their rock walls, were apparently defense- rather than offense-minded by now and could not or would not move readily toward the north. However Green later gave them credit for drawing some of the Modoc fire at this time, thus assisting the western force's advance.

The drive around the north began about mid-afternoon. The Modocs fired accurately from the heights of the Stronghold at the running soldiers below them. The Oregon Volunteers, saying that a ravine prevented them from advancing, took no active part. Green, Mason, and Perry, with nearly all the 21st Infantry, Troop F, and the California Volunteers, pushed on. Under the Stronghold's rock outposts, within fifty yards of the Modocs, they were pinned down among the boulders along the shoreline. "It was at this point our greatest number of casualties occurred," reported Perry later. "I was wounded about 4 p.m., having raised myself upon my left elbow to look at a man who had just been killed." [12] It was here too that Green is said to have bravely exposed himself to enemy fire in order to encourage his men to keep going. Many years later he received a Medal of Honor for this feat.

Part of this group, knowing "that, killed or wounded, they would fall into the hands of the Indians" fought their way across and reached Bernard's position. Burton and a part of his Company C and Fairchild with his California Volunteers found themselves trapped and unable to proceed. Only by lying prone and not moving could they escape the accurate fire of the Modocs. They were ordered to remain in place until darkness, when they finally succeeded in joining the rest on the east side. [13]

At five p.m., Wheaton, stranded on the west with the Oregon Volunteers, Lieutenant Ross and his reserve detachment, and a few men of the infantry and cavalry who had not succeeded in crossing with their units, realized that he had failed to capture the Stronghold. The fog had lifted by then and, through his signal officer, 1st Lt. John Q. Adams, he signaled Green and Bernard that the battle was over. [14]

The two howitzers had been brought into action earlier in the day, but the results had proven disappointing. Wheaton's general field order had included a paragraph that three shots would be fired at the beginning of the battle as a signal for Bernard to attack. Firing was then to cease 15 minutes while the Modocs were given an opportunity to let their women and children leave the Stronghold. The fog changed all that. The guns were brought up, assembled, and fired. But no one could tell where the rounds were landing. Afraid of hitting Bernard's men, the leaders ordered the guns silenced. They fired no more that day. "It was a very unfortunate circumstance for the howitzers that we had waited so long for," wrote Boyle, "as the troops had to depend on their rifles." However, Wheaton learned one important lesson from this experience—it was impossible "to carry the enemy's position by direct attack unless more artillery was employed." [15] After signaling to Green that the remnant of the western force was retiring, Wheaton turned to General Ross to discuss the retrograde movement. There was not much to discuss, "With as little delay as possible . . . we gathered up our wounded . . . Company B, Capt. Applegate, being in front and Co. A, Capt. Kelly, acting as rear guard." In the official report, the Oregon Volunteers climbed the bluff rapidly but orderly. Morale was not high, for they had failed to take the Stronghold. One of their number said bitterly that the Volunteers could have won the war that day had Wheaton let them.

The regulars, as so often before and since, were not impressed by the performance of the thirty-day soldiers. Lieutenant Boyle noted that when "the Oregon Volunteers had learned that the Indians would fight and would not run at the approach of the soldiers . . . they were not as anxious to shoot Modocs as they were in the morning." He felt that "had the volunteers maintained their line during the day and not fallen back . . . we might have succeeded." Although the Oregon troops appear to have held back when the drive around the north began, Wheaton was kinder than Boyle. In his dispatches, the colonel spoke highly of the performance of both the Oregon and California Volunteers. Now he and Ross climbed the bluff with their disheartened men. An observer of the withdrawal disagreed sharply with the official version, calling the climb, "a wild free-for-all." Taking the long route by way of Lower Klamath Lake, the Volunteers reached the relative comfort of the camp at Van Brimmer's long after dark on the 18th. It was a slow march for "it was only with the greatest difficulty our wounded . . . could be moved." The dead were left on the field. [16]

Casualties were equally a problem on the east side of the battlefield. When Green reached Bernard's command at dusk, he found that the eastern force "could scarcely move" because of the "deep chasm." Assuming command, Green ordered Bernard to challenge what seemed to be a Modoc attempt to approach the position via another ravine, "which he did successfully." Like the Oregon Volunteers, old-fighter Bernard came under criticism for his actions. Not only did he advance too far on the 16th, thought Boyle, he "did not obey the orders of Colonel Green, when ordered to advance his left so as to draw the fire of the Indians," when Green's units were trying to encircle around the north. Bernard's reply probably would have been that the chasm prohibited mobility and, besides, the mission of his smaller force was simply to assist the larger western command, whose job it was to take the brunt of the battle.

Another problem that Bernard may have faced was his Klamath scouts. They were on his left and appear not to have been excessively offensive-minded. One student has suggested "that the Klamath called over to the Modocs and reached an agreement that they would not shoot at each other." Whether or not this occurred, the army did not again employ these scouts. At any rate, their small number precludes their being a major factor in Bernard's troops' ineffectiveness. In the end, Bernard's reputation suffered little. When news of the battle reached the outside world, the Army and Navy Journal proclaimed that "Bernard's forces bore the brunt of the battle, and suffered terribly."

When he learned that Wheaton was retreating to the west, Green decided to withdraw to Land's ranch by way of Hospital Rock. In the official report, this slow march appeared simply, "this I began to do at 10-1/2 p.m., but as several of the wounded had to be carried in blankets, it was 1 p.m. the following day before the last of the column reached there." This march, "over the rocky path that only a chamois could make its way on," averaged barely one mile an hour, including a stop for rest at Hospital Rock. A participant, 2d Lt. William Miller, recalled, "It was through this bright moon light and over this echoing rock that the regulars, already worn out . . . laden with their wounded . . . were compelled to make their way to safety."

The straggling column reached Hospital Rock without incident. Here, the small guard had hot coffee and some food waiting. Some of the men slept during the break, but not Terwilliger who knew one of Troop G's cooks and coaxed him into a meal. Terwilliger recalled that "the cook took an axe, and broke open a cracker box. It sounded like a shot, and every trooper was out of his tent with his carbine."

The battle-weary soldiers zig-zagged in their torn boots over the razorsharp lava. Lieutenant Miller described "a California volunteer, whose leg was broken . . . riding horse back . . . with the broken leg hanging loose." A comrade tied a rope to the ankle of the broken leg "by which the swinging limb was pulled this way and that . . . in order to avoid a jagged rock and sage brush along the trail." Another wounded man was carried the whole way in a blanket. When the column reached Land's ranch and the order to halt was given, the men promptly fell asleep right where they were.

After a day's rest, Green led his men (except Troop G) around the north side of Tule Lake back to Wheaton's headquarters at Van Brimmer's, arriving there on the 20th. The wounded jolted on to the hospital at Fort Klamath aboard wagons, there being no ambulances. Captain Bernard took his troop eastward to establish a new camp at Applegate's ranch on Clear Lake. [17]

Within a few days after the battle the various officers began compiling their reports. Out of this avalanche of words emerged the statistics, figures that caused the nation to wonder what had happened at the Stronghold. Wheaton set the overall strength of the attacking force at 400, of whom 225 were regulars. These figures included camp guards, Lieutenant Ross' reserve, and others whose duties kept them out of battle. Major Green took a more careful count and found that the total actually involved in fighting was 300—175 regulars, 104 volunteers, and 20 Klamath scouts.

As to the number of Modocs who participated, none of the whites was certain. One of the major problems in guessing this figure was that no one had seen a single Modoc on January 17. Wheaton put forth the most conservative guess—150. Governor Grover raised the figure a little by estimating from 150 to 200. The Yreka Union accepted 200 as correct. None of these would have believed that less than 60 Modoc men took part in the engagement.

Casualty figures presented an equally unbalanced picture. Among the whites there were 37 casualties, broken down as follows: [18]

Regular troops—19 wounded, of whom one later died

7 killed

Oregon Volunteers—5 wounded

2 killed

California Volunteers—4 wounded, of whom two later died


Total 37

In the rapid withdrawals, the Army was forced to leave at least six bodies on the field. [19] The Modocs left none. Neither did they have any casualties. Even the eternally optimistic army reports for once remained silent on this subject. Three hundred men had been unable to make the slightest dent on the magnificent union of lava ribs and Indian skills. That night, even the shabby "medicine flag" of animal skins and hawk feathers assumed the appearance of elegant defiance in the cold moonlight.

Who was to blame? The Army and Navy journal was not at first certain: "It is hard to determine at this distance, but . . . there would seem to have been a miscarriage somewhere in allowing our troops to struggle so ineffectually in the fog against an unseen foe." [20] Wheaton knew that his men had entered the battle with high morale and with the anticipation of victory in their eyes. Then to what was due the miscarriage? The men who fought knew the answer, "The Modocs were scarcely exposed at all to our persistent attacks. They left one ledge to gain another equally secure. One of our men was wounded twice during the day, but he did not see an Indian at all, tho' we were under fire from Eight a.m. until dark." There was only a handful of Modocs, but a handful that fought from a superb, natural defensive position. The soldiers lost that day not so much to the Modocs as to a bewildering enemy composed of fog and lava. Wheaton prophesied that 1000 men and "a free use of mortar batteries" would be needed to dislodge the enemy. [21]

His critics ridiculed such an extravagant statement. Shortly, Wheaton himself would pay the price of failure. He would be relieved and sent back to the quiet of Camp Warner. The Army and Navy Journal made a prophecy too: "Time will fully vindicate General WHEATON in every particular, and those who have cried 'blunder, blunder,' when there was no blunder, will realize the fact of having done a brave officer a cruel injustice." Time and events would prove both prophets right.

A strip of canvas missing from the Peace Commissioners' tent was torn off to cover the body of General Canby by those first to reach the scene of the Indians' attack.


Modoc War
©1971, Argus Books
thompson/chap4.htm — 11-Nov-2002