Lava Beds
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Chapter 8
Scar-Faced Charley

April 29-May 8; Battle of Sorass Lake, May 10, 1873

Col. Jefferson C. Davis, who never forgave the other Davis for having the same name, arrived at Gillem's Camp May 2. His 27 years in the army had involved many adventures, some of them unfortunate. Nonetheless he was all soldier — he knew it, and his subordinates knew it. He was well aware of life in the enlisted ranks, having been a corporal and sergeant in the Indiana Volunteers during the Mexican War. In 1848 he had gone into the regular army by accepting a second lieutenant's commission in the 1st Artillery.

When the Civil War came, he jumped to the volunteer grade of brigadier general in the first year, only to remain at that level throughout the war despite an outstanding record as a combat leader — although he did receive the brevet grade of major general. He might have gone higher had it not been for an unfortunate incident in the fall of 1862, when his commanding general, Maj. Gen. William Nelson, argued with him in a hotel lobby. Davis, insulted, retaliated in the fiery tradition by throwing a card in Nelson's face. Nelson then slapped him. Davis left the room, procured a pistol, and shot the general dead. Saved from punishment through the efforts of his friend, eyewitness, and participant in the original argument, Gov. Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, Davis was never to regret that he killed Nelson. He believed however that this incident was the reason he did not make major general in the Volunteers nor brigadier general in the regular army. After the Civil War he became colonel of the 23rd Infantry and went to Sitka where he received the newly-purchased Alaskan Territory from Russian authorities. [1]

Davis took one look at his new command and realized that it was in no condition to attack the Modocs for the time being: "I found them laboring under great depression of spirits; their cheerless winter camps, heavy losses, and repeated failures, had doubtless diminished their zeal and confidence" even before the disaster of Thomas' patrol. This latest tragedy had further lowered morale, "so much so that I deemed it imprudent to order the aggressive movements it was my desire and intention to make at once. As for the soldiers as fighters, a great many . . . are utterly unfit for Indian fighting of this kind, being only cowardly beef-eaters." Nevertheless they were salvageable, and he recommended they be kept in the field, trained, and made to fight. "I shall," he concluded, "take such steps while here as I think will ensure this training." [2]

The new colonel set out to rebuild morale and to make soldiers once again out of the dispirited men. He let Gillem retain his title as commander of the expedition for the time being. However the real commander was Davis himself, and the word spread quickly throughout the camps. Gillem, sick at heart and in body, realized that he was through, yet he outwardly went through the form of office. Davis, displaying his energy and confidence for all to see, continued his inspection of both terrain and troops. On May 5 he advised Schofield, "I have examined the lava beds, they are very strong but not insurmoutable. Troops not now in condition to attack but will be soon." [3]

As after the earlier set-backs, the army's reaction to the Stronghold and Thomas fights was to order still more troops to the lava beds. Wheaton's long-ago request for a minimum of 1,000 troops was finally being recognized. Batteries B and G had preceded Davis, having arrived at their camps on April 28 and 29 respectively. Until now the artillery batteries had been equipped to fight as infantry. Battery B however had been mounted at Redding, California, the head of the railroad, and would be used as cavalry in the coming events. The War Department now advised Schofield that he was authorized to enlist 400 Indian scouts, and it ordered the 4th Infantry Regiment in Arkansas to proceed to California. Almost immediately there were second thoughts. The 4th Infantry was held at Omaha, and the idea of 400 additional scouts died a quiet death. [4]

During Davis' first week at Gillem's Camp, he employed two Indian women to scout around the base of the Sand (Hardin) Butte to search for the bodies of Cranston and his men. By May 6 these women had found the bodies; but not until the 9th did a patrol (the remnants of Batteries A and K and Company E, as well as Company G, 12th Infantry) go out to attempt recovery. This effort failed because the bodies had already decomposed too much for removal. The troops gave them a hasty burial on the spot, marking the graves with headboards. [5]

Davis' plans to suspend operations until the troops were fit to fight received a jolt on May 7. The Modocs seized the initiative by swinging out of the lava beds to attack a wagon train traveling from a new camp being established on the Peninsula, or Island, to the old cavalry camp on Scorpion Point. This was the fourth such attack in this general area since the beginning of hostilities.

The four wagons were lightly guarded, having an escort of only 15-20 men. The soldiers defended them briefly, suffering three men wounded. The 20 Modocs drove off the escort, captured the wagons, eleven mules, and three horses. Peter Schonchin, a youth at the time, recounted in later years that the Indians discovered two barrels of whiskey in the wagons, got gloriously drunk, then drove the wagons through the lava smashing them to bits. This good story is probably apocryphal. The wagons were returning to Scorpion Point to pick up another load of Boyle's quartermaster supplies and thus were probably empty. The Army and Navy Journal reported simply "They burned the wagons." [6]

When the two squaws went out to search for Cranston's body, they found no sign of Modocs in the vicinity of the butte. On May 7, Davis, anxious to learn where they had gone, sent out a patrol of Warm Springs to search their trail. McKay's scouts returned with the information that the Modocs had moved through the lava beds in a southeasterly direction. It was possibly a flank guard of the Modocs who discovered and attacked the wagon train on that same day. Peter Schonchin claimed that after leaving the vicinity of the butte, the Modocs "crossed the lava flow to the east and stayed there several days at an ice cave at the end of a large natural bridge," Captain Jack's Ice Cave today, using the ice as a source of water. From there, according to Schonchin, they made their way south to today's Caldwell's Cave, which is north of the Tickner Road, then eastward toward Dry Lake. [7]

When Davis learned that the Indians were moving toward the southeast, he decided to send a patrol down the east side of the lava beds to prevent the Modocs from escaping. [8] He appointed Captain Hasbrouck to lead the three units of the patrol, companies that had moved to the new Peninsula camp on May 8: his own Battery B, temporarily under 1st Lt. James B. Hazelton; Jackson's Troop B, with Lieutenants Moss and Boutelle; and Troop G, now under the command of Lieutenant Kyle (Bernard having returned to Camp Bidwell because of illness). [9]

Hasbrouck and his command, which also included a detachment of Warm Springs Indians, moved out the morning of April 9, proceeding on horse to a shallow lake near the southeast corner of the lava beds. The troops had already affectionately named this Sorass Lake. [10] They reached the lake that evening. Finding no water, Hasbrouck imaginatively renamed it Dry Lake, which unfortunately is what it is called today. He directed the two cavalry troops and the scouts to set up their camp on the west side of the lake bed. The battery moved farther south about one mile and established its camp within the trees that dotted the plain below Timber Mountain. [11]

Two hundred yards north of the cavalry camp was a line of low rock outcroppings running west to east, and another two hundred yards farther this line was superseded by a higher rock bluff, rising some thirty feet above the lake. Before retiring for the night, Hasbrouck placed some guards on the higher bluff in case the Modocs should appear.

Just before daylight, May 10, the Modocs did just that. They slipped past the outposts, took up a main position on the high bluff, and sent a smaller group down to the rocks below. The first the sleeping troopers knew of all this was a roar of shouting and firing as the Modocs attacked the camp.

The soldiers fell out of their blankets, the horses stampeded, and all was confusion. For once however panic did not overtake reason. The officers reacted swiftly and succeeded in restoring order among the startled troopers. Private Hardin recalled the scene; "Men rolled over behind saddles and bundles of blankets — no covering however small being ignored, fastened on belts and pulling on boots under a hail of bullets." [12]

Hasbrouck ordered Boutelle to Battery B's camp to order the artillerymen up. Then he directed Kyle to take part of his G troop to round up the horses. Within a few minutes after the Indians' opening fire, Hasbrouck's command had organized sufficiently for him to order Captain Jackson to take the right and Lieutenant Moss to take the left and charge the Modocs with B Troop and the rest of G.

McKay's men had succeeded in catching their horses, and Hasbrouck dispatched the mounted Warm Springs, one-half to the left the other to the right, to outflank the Modoc position.

According to Hardin, the troopers paused momentarily when ordered to charge. At this critical instant 1st Sgt. Thomas Kelley, G Troop, "sprang up and shouted, 'God damn it, let's charge.'" Five months of frustration gave way at that moment, and the troops rushed the lower ridges, paused, carried the higher bluff, and pursued the running Modocs across sage and lava toward the west. So swift was the action and the Modocs' retreat that McKay's scouts were unable to get behind the enemy. By the time Battery B arrived, the fighting was over. [13]

The troops chased after the Modocs three or four miles but finally gave up because of lack of water. The Modocs had withdrawn in such haste that they left behind the body of a dead warrior, Ellen's Man George. Hasbrouck's men searched the field and recovered "a number of ponies, a lot of blankets, fixed ammunition, and loose powder and bullets." Still, it was an expensive battle for the troopers; eight lay wounded, three of them mortally. The Warm Springs lost two men killed also.

That night, "just after sundown, the wagons sent for having arrived, the wounded were transported to Peninsula Camp." Hasbrouck led his men to Scorpion (he called it Promontory) Point, "the nearest place to water." [14] Lieutenant Boyle, as usual not terribly impressed with the conduct of his fellow soldiers, called the battle more of a draw than a victory. But he did admit that "it was the beginning of the end." Davis, pleased that his men had not run away, was more optimistic — allowing that the Modocs were still at large, it had been "a very square fight, and whipped the Modocs for the first time." [15]

Gillem Bluff
Gillem Bluff. The black line shows the general course of the trail that led down to Gillem's Camp.


Modoc War
©1971, Argus Books
thompson/chap8.htm — 11-Nov-2002