Lava Beds
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Chapter 6
Gen. Jefferson C. Davis

April 15-17, 1873

The War Department reacted quickly to the tragedy of April 11 and selected Col. Jefferson C. Davis to fill Canby's position as commander of the Department of the Columbia. [1] It would take Davis considerable time to reach the lava beds; for now the full burden of the war rested on Gillem. He moved swiftly to punish the Modocs and to bring an end to the four months of turmoil.

Gillem's resources appeared to be more than adequate for the task of subduing about 60 Modoc warriors, even if they were ensconced in a veritable Gibraltar. Either at hand or enroute were four batteries of artillerymen (prepared to fight as infantry), five troops of cavalry, five companies of infantry, and 70 Warm Springs Indians. To support the troops, Gillem still had the two mountain howitzers and had increased his artillery with the addition of four Coehorn mortars.

Wheaton, after the January battle, had seen the need for mortars in order to get at trenches and caves within the Stronghold that could not be reached by direct fire. Gillem had agreed when he had assumed command in February, requesting the four mortars and 300 shells. While Canby could see the value of mortars, he had reduced the requisition for shells to 75. From what he knew of the Stronghold and from his Civil War experience, hand grenades would also be valuable for close range fighting. The depot at Benicia had no hand grenades and had offered to send 150 time fuze shells instead. Canby had wired back that the hand grenades should be sent for. On March 26 he had learned that 500 hand grenades had been acquired and were enroute to the lava beds. However there is no hint that these grenades ever arrived or ever were used in the fighting to come. [2]

Communications between Gillem's Camp and Hospital Rock had also been improved in recent weeks. Although Gillem had not at first thought much of Wheaton's plan to acquire boats for Tule Lake, he had changed his mind and had put two or three on the lake by this time. These could transport messengers and small amounts of supplies between the two camps — a mere five miles by water but almost fifty by land. [3]

After the first battle for the Stronghold, Wheaton had solicited from Green, Mason, and Bernard their ideas for the next attack. Then deliberating on them, Wheaton had formulated his own plan (see page 49). [4] Undoubtedly, all these ideas were now available to Gillem as he prepared his plans for the coming attack. In the end, his concepts almost duplicated Wheaton's attack of January 17. Gillem recognized that the natural strength of the Stronghold combined with the Modocs' determination would make a direct assault too costly. He too would attack from both east and west, surround the Modocs on the south, and drive them into surrender through attrition. The major differences now were Gillem's far larger force and the fact that he had both howitzers and mortars. Major Mason, accompanied by the artillery section, would attack from the east; Major Green, having the mortars, would attack from the west.

Mason's forces at this time consisted of Troops B and G, and Companies B, C, and I, 21st Infantry. Seventy experienced Warm Springs were already riding down from the Warm Springs Reservation and would join him in time to take part in the attack. Second Lt. Edward S. Chapin, 4th Artillery, took charge of the howitzer section. Mason's total strength was in the neighborhood of 300 officers and men. [5] Green's command was somewhat larger. The total number of officers and men in Troops F and K, Batteries A, E, K, and M, and Companies E and G, 12th Infantry, was approximately 375. [6] About one-third of the regulars had participated in the January 17 attack, and nearly all of these were concentrated on the east side under Mason. Only Perry's Troop F of the "old—timers" was with Green's command on the west. The demoralization they had undergone in January had largely disappeared. However, in the next few days they were to demonstrate a certain caution in tangling with the Modocs. By April 14, all was in readiness. Gillem's orders rang loudly, "Tell your men to remember Gen. Canby, Sherwood and the flag."

During the night of April 14-15, Mason's men moved forward in the darkness and took their position on about the same line that Bernard had occupied in January. The infantry companies were closest to the lake, under Capt. George H. Burton; then the two cavalry troops (dismounted); while the Warm Springs, also dismounted, composed the left flank. Bernard commanded both the cavalry and the scouts. [7]

At two a.m. on the 15th, Green's Troops F and K (dismounted) moved out from Gillem's camp and made their way quietly to the far side of the (Hovey) peninsula. Sergeant Fitzgerald was there: "We advanced in single file, each with carbine and sixty rounds of ammunition; in his haversack, each carried fifteen hardtack and a small piece of bacon." There was no fog to confuse the soldiers this time: "It was a beautiful and balmy night; not a breath of air was stirring, nor could the slightest sound . . . be heard." The silent march seemed uncanny to the sergeant: "There was no moonlight; but a star-bespangled sky afforded enough light to enable us to pick our footsteps over the jagged rocks . . . We were cautioned not to make the slightest noise." [8]

Then, according to Fitzgerald, a soldier stumbled and accidentally fired his weapon. A Modoc sentry gave a cry of alarm, and those in the Stronghold picked it up echoing the cry through the mournful blackness. Gillem reported simply that both the east and west forces "took their positions without loss." [9]

Green had appointed Capt. Marcus Miller, 4th Artillery, in charge of the main force (Batteries E, K, and M, Companies E and G, 12th Infantry). For the time being, Capt. Evan Thomas' Battery A was to remain in reserve with the mortars, already packed on mules. At eight a.m., Miller led his men toward the Stronghold, with Battery E at the head of the column. About one-half mile out, Battery E deployed as skirmishers, staying close to the shore. After passing the cavalry troops, Miller deployed all his units into a skirmish line with Companies E and G, 12th Infantry, on the left nearest the lake, then Batteries K, M, and E on the right flank. As in the first battle, progress was exceedingly slow as the troops dodged from one hump of lava to the next, "a party remaining still and firing to cover the advancing party." Battery E on the extreme right was the first to come under fire from a few Modocs under cover behind rocks. There was one major difference this time: this battle was not dependent on the light of one day only. The troops were prepared to stay.

The first significant action occurred at 1:30 p.m., when Green's infantry and artillery "made a beautiful charge, driving the Indians back several hundred yards, to a very strong position near the crest of the lavabed." Gillem's descriptive word "driving" may have implied too much. The Modocs withdrew skillfully from their outposts, their intention being to resist from their main strongpoints. As they withdrew, they continued to bother the soldiers with flanking fire. [10] The cavalry was able to observe this action from the peninsula, "the infantry instead of pressing forward to form a junction with Col. Mason's command. . . were compelled to turn and face the Indians who were annoying them by persistent sniping on the flank." Fitzgerald was of the opinion that the advance could be characterized as "desultory fighting."

The forward movement carried the infantry companies next to the lake, and commenced a drive on the high rocks far enough to the right to allow Green to order Troops F and K into the line from their holding position on the peninsula. The two troops occupied the extreme left flank that dominated the northwestern end of the Stronghold. It had been from here that the Modocs had pinned down Green's men on the shore during the earlier attack. Fitzgerald got his first good view of the Stronghold at this time: "When the natural formation did not meet all the requirements . . . the Indians had constructed artificial barriers of stone about four feet in height as breastworks with loop-holes to shoot through." The troops charged these positions, finding most of them abandoned, "but behind a barrier which three or four of us reached at the same moment, a Modoc had the termerity [sic] to remain until one of our party named [Pvt. Charles] Johnson looked over it and received a bullet through the head, killing him instantly." [11]

As dark dropped down over the lava beds, Green ordered a halt, straightened the line, and suspended operations for the night. The troops threw up hasty forts of loose rock, each large enough to protect five or six men, many of which structures still stand. Throughout the night the mortars continued to fire periodically into the Indian defenses. Although Green's men had not yet made a serious effort to unite their right flank with Mason's left, the day's operations had been generally satisfactory, albeit slow-paced and undramatic.

On the east side, Mason's day was quite similar. His troops, supported by artillery fire, began to move forward at daylight. They made a rather feeble attempt to move by their left flank around the Stronghold to the south, but found it "impossible to effect the junction without weakening the line too much." A year later, Gillem bitterly criticized Mason's actions on the 15th. The colonel complained that Mason had said, "it was not part of my plan to expose my men unnecessarily." Gillem also doubted that Mason had moved up as close to the Stronghold as he had reported (400 yards) . "I have examined the ground occupied," wrote Gillem, "and am convinced that the distance was was nearer seven hundred than four." Had Mason been more aggressive, thought the colonel, the Stronghold would have been surrounded the first day. [12]

Both the howitzers and the mortars continued dropping shells on the Stronghold during the second day of the fight, April 16. The troops probed and tested the Modoc defenses. The Indians, shifting their few men from place to place, effectively challenged the soldiers. The best that Gillem could say was that progress was slow. He again ordered Green to push out on his right flank. Again this effort failed. This time, Mason reported from his side that Modocs were firing on one of his flanks and from the rear and that this diversion was keeping him well occupied. When Miller, who had been trying to maneuver past the Modocs' trenches to the south, learned that Mason had been driven back, he decided to break off the attempt. [13]

When it became apparent that the southern junction could not be effected, Green crossed to Mason's command (undoubtedly by boat) to confer on alternate plans. Repeating the January experience, they decided to attack simultaneously at the northern end of the Stronghold and unite their forces. Gillem could see little advantage to this plan, except to deprive the Modocs of their water supply. Since Green's cavalry already controlled some of the high ground in this area, the maneuver succeeded after a fashion, although the Indians resisted every step.

Gillem, summarizing the junction, said "During this day the command advanced to within the immediate vicinity of the caves . . . in some places so near as to render it necessary to fall back in order not to interfere with the shelling." Sergeant Fitzgerald was not that certain of the success: "We could make little headway; and, judging from the distant report of firearms in that direction, the other command was not having any better success in its efforts to reach us." He recalled withdrawing a short distance at the end of the day: "we straggled back, tired and hungry, through the rocks, harassed all the time by galling fire, to very near the place we occupied the night before, though a little closer to the Stronghold." Nevertheless, the colonel's confident report, not Fitzgerald's skepticism, became the official document. At any rate, the advance of the 16th seems to have been effective, for "During the night of the 16th the firing [small arms, mortars, and howitzers] was almost continuous, the Indians endeavoring to pass through our lines in several places, evidently for the purpose of procuring water." [14] One hypothesis that may be made is that while the two forces had not physically united, they were close enough to each other to dominate the terrain and to effectively cover the ground between them with fire, thus preventing the Indians from reaching the lake.

Gillem was not happy with Mason's efforts this day either. Mason reported that he controlled "the Mesa which commanded the 'Medicine rock' and the whole eastern and southeastern side of the Modoc Stronghold." Gillem later expressed doubt on the grounds that such a position would have prohibited the Modocs' escape. However, Gillem's memory failed him there. From the "mesa" that Mason controlled, identified today by the line of fortifications thrown up by the soldiers, he could indeed see across into that part of the Stronghold. However, he would not have observed necessarily the withdrawal of the Indians, for a deep ravine separated him from the Stronghold. One arm of this ravine runs off toward the southeast (from the southeast corner of the Stronghold), and at that point it is unusually deep and precipitous. Under cover of darkness, an army could have slipped through it undetected by soldiers behind their fortifications on the high ground farther to the north. [15]

The Modocs harassed the soldiers during the night by random firing and taunts "in very plain, if not classical English." Although Gillem believed that the Modocs were trying to get water, which they may have been, they had other reasons for their activity. They had decided to abandon the Stronghold. During the night, the women, children, and part of the men silently withdrew to the south, working their way through the tortuous lava flow that went back as far south as the mountains. Today this rugged feature, that caps itself at the lake's edge with the Stronghold, is called the Schonchin Flow. A few sharpshooters remained behind to create the impression that the area was still strongly defended. Again, the mortars fired throughout the long night.

April 17 was anti-climactic. Both Green and Mason began moving forward, cautiously at first, then more rapidly as they became aware that, despite a few snipers' bullets, the Indians had abandoned the Stronghold. There was no improvement in Gillem's opinion of Mason's men. The colonel advanced with Green's left on the 17th. He could not find any of Mason's units as he moved forward. Angry, Gillem "got upon the highest rock available, and ordered repeatedly 'Forward' 'Forward,'" until finally, Mason's Troop G under Captain Bernard came up to join with Green in sweeping the area. [16]

The army had at least captured the impregnable Stronghold. It was an empty success. The troops had failed utterly in their prime mission — to capture or destroy the Modocs. Yet, it was a turning point in the war. The Modocs had been driven from the position that head best offered them the chance of continued resistance. From now on the campaign would be different. No longer would assault and siege be the soldiers' lot. The war was about to become fluid, a campaign of motion, of pursuit, and of still more disaster. The Modocs were yet to demonstrate their best — or, from the soldiers' point of view, their worst.

The three-day battle was over. Now it was time to count the cost. Asst. Surgeon McElderry's casualty list was much shorter this time. Yet, it was long enough. The number of casualties was 23, of whom six were killed and seventeen wounded; nearly all of them were from Green's command. Mason's infantry suffered no casualties; one of the wounds was accidentally self—inflicted (Pvt. Eugene O'Connor, Battery M); only one officer was a casualty (1st Lt. Charles P. Eagan, 12th Infantry); and one of the wounded was a Warm Springs Indian. [17]

As in the earlier battles, the number of Modoc casualties is difficult to determine. The Army and Navy Journal reported that 16 "warriors" were killed and one Indian woman captured. A student of the fight determined the bodies of three men and eight women were found in the Stronghold. Lieutenant Boyle wrote that three bodies were found and two old women and one elderly man were taken prisoner. The soldiers lifted at least one scalp. An English artist, William Simpson, on a world-wide tour for The Illustrated London News, arrived at the lava beds shortly after the capture of the Stronghold. While someone held the scalp out at arm's length, Simpson drew the grisly object. He was told that Sgt. G. W. Lee, Troop K, had removed it from the body of Scarfaced Charley. That was a mistake, for Scarfaced Charley was still very much alive. Simpson also reported that three prisoners were taken, but he increased Boyle's count of enemy bodies to four. The artist decided that "the number of Indians killed has never been clearly ascertained." Sergeant Fitzgerald witnessed another gruesome sight, "the head of a Modoc severed from the trunk, perhaps by some soldier, that was as black as the darkest native of the Congo. Passing troopers generally saluted it with a vicious kick." [18]

Another alleged incident illustrated that savagery knows no bounds amoung men of different shades. The soldiers came across a very old Indian woman who begged for her life. The lieutenant asked, "Is there anyone here who will put that old hag out of the way?" A soldier stepped forward, "placed his carbine to her head and blew out her brains." [19]

Simpson, who rendered a number of excellent drawings of the Stronghold immediately after its capture, described it for his English readers: "In the first hollow on the west of Captain Jack's cave, the long ridge of rock on the right has been rent in two along its whole length, and the Modocs could pass along it under perfect cover, with embrasures or holes from which they could fire with safety." In the hollow, or depression, itself "were the wickie-ups, or wigwams of twigs and mats, where the woman and children lived." He visited the cave that was identified as Captain Jack's: "Bones, some of them picked; others with the pickings still left; horns of cattle; hoofs; skins, with the hair on; hides and pieces of deer skin . . . Fish in a putrid state, and fish bones, were in shelves of the rock; pieces of fat and dark, questionable-looking lumps lay about which were said to be meat." As for the cave itself, it "was simply a circular hole in the lava . . . It was perfectly bomb-proof, and only a verticle fire could by chance drop a shell into it. It was near the center of the stronghold, and had a number of similar crater-like holes around." John Muir, who visited the lava beds one year after the war, gave a similar description of the cave: "It measures twenty-five or thirty feet in diameter at the entrance, and extends but a short distance in a horizontal direction." Even then, the bottom of Jack's cave was still covered with animal bones from the Modocs' occupation. [20]

Among the bones, rags, and wickiups there was little of the loot of war that appealed to the collector instinct among soldiers. However there was one trophy that assumed importance in their minds — the "medicine flag." At three different high points in the Stronghold the Modocs had erected these emblems, the guarantors of victory. One in particular, standing on one of the highest rocks, had long been visible to the soldiers, and to them it had become a symbol of Modoc defiance, the enemy's regimental colors as it were.

The troops captured this medicine flag on the last day of the fight. It was no star-spangled eagle embroidered on a field of blazing color. Simpson, realizing its importance as a symbol, drew and described it as consisting of a "mink's skin and hawk's feathers with medicine bead." These were fastened to the end of a stick "about four feet long, and is just as it was cut from the tree." He said that the small white bead had been placed among the feathers, and the pole "stood on a heap of stones during the fighting." After the battle, a photographer took a picture of two soldiers standing on the "medicine rock." This rock may still be identified today toward the northeastern end of the Stronghold. It is quite possible that the medicine flag fluttered from here during the battle. [21] Its capture and removal symbolized the soldiers' success in taking the Stronghold. But that was all it symbolized. The Modocs were still their own masters, somewhere in the lava beds to the south.

site of Thomas Patrol
The low-lying area beyond the ranger is the general site where the Thomas Patrol was so devastatingly attacked by the Modocs. The hill to the right is the butte that was the object of the patrol (today called Hardin Butte).


Modoc War
©1971, Argus Books
thompson/chap6.htm — 11-Nov-2002