Nez Perce
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Chapter 11: Yellowstone Command

The Tongue River Cantonment was but a year old in September 1877, when troops from the post began to play an integral part in the widening Nez Perce War. Constructed on the left bank of the Tongue River at that stream's confluence with the Yellowstone, the cantonment—little more than a ramshackle collection of mud-chinked cottonwood log huts with earthen roofs—already boasted a record of accomplishment in the army's prolonged campaign against the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes in the wake of the Little Bighorn battle. By September, operations out of the cantonment against those tribes had significantly subsided following Colonel Miles's aggressive campaigning through the autumn and winter of 1876 and the spring and early summer of 1877. Miles's campaign had resulted in the surrender of many of the people at the cantonment and at the agencies in Dakota Territory and Nebraska. Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa visionary at the heart of the Sioux-Cheyenne coalition, had gone into Canada in the spring of 1877 and posed but a lingering, if not altogether remote, objective for Miles and his Yellowstone Command. In the interest of maintaining accord with Great Britain, however, General Sherman temporarily precluded further operations by Miles north of the Missouri River. [1] Meanwhile, signs of the permanent military occupation of the Yellowstone hinterland came with the start of work that spring on a substantial new post slightly upstream, to be christened Fort Keogh, after one of Custer's dead officers, next to the hovels constituting the cantonment. Construction of a sister fort, Bighorn Post (later called Fort Custer), was underway at the junction of the Little Bighorn and Bighorn rivers about one hundred miles southwest of the cantonment. Anchored squarely at the epicenter of the area recently occupied by the Sioux and Cheyennes, the twin stations were to insure that those tribes never again achieved hegemony in the region. [2]

In his conduct of operations from the Tongue River Cantonment with troops of the Fifth and Twenty-second infantry regiments, supplemented with a battalion of the Second Cavalry from Fort Ellis, Miles had molded his command into an efficient fighting force reflecting his own aggressive leadership. Like many of his contemporary career officers, Nelson A. Miles (1839-1925) lacked the professional credentials of a West Point education, rising instead through the echelons of rank afforded by service in the Civil War. Born in Massachusetts, Miles worked in a crockery shop before the war erupted. An interest in military precepts prompted him to raise a company of volunteers in 1861, and he joined the Massachusetts volunteer infantry as a first lieutenant, quickly distinguishing himself to his superiors for his bravery and judgment in battle. By the conclusion of the Civil War, Miles was a senior officer, a veteran of many hard-fought contests, including Fair Oaks, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville (for which service he received a Medal of Honor in 1892), and Petersburg. Wounded four times in combat, he received many brevets, and in May, 1864, he won promotion to brigadier general of volunteers. Miles commanded the First Division, II Corps, Army of the Potomac, during the fighting leading to Appomattox, for which duty, at age twenty-six, he was appointed major general of volunteers in 1865.

After the war, Miles served as custodian for the deposed Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, drawing much negative and unwarranted notice from Southerners for his treatment of the ex-president. Reverting to his regular army rank of colonel upon the reduction of the postwar army in 1868, he married the niece of General William T. Sherman, opening a relationship that the ambitious Miles exploited for personal gain in subsequent years. When the army was reorganized in 1869, Miles received appointment to the Fifth Infantry, and it was with this unit that he first gained notice for his success as an Indian campaigner. His work in 1874-75 in the Red River War on the southern plains marked him in his superiors' eyes as a dedicated, resourceful leader, and in 1876, in the wake of the Little Bighorn, the army leadership turned to Miles to subdue the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes.

Miles's adept prosecution of these tribesmen through the balance of 1876 and into the spring and early summer of 1877 virtually ended the Great Sioux War. The colonel hoped that the reward for his work would be his upgrade to brigadier general and achievement of an independent command. In pursuit of the former objective, and in what must have seemed awkward to both men in light of later events, Miles in February 1877 solicited the favor of none other than General Howard:

Since the war it has fallen to my lot to successfully engage larger bodies of Indians than any other officer, and to have gained a more extensive knowledge of this remote frontier than any living man. I feel that I have earned it [promotion] and should prize your endorsement very highly. If you please you can communicate with Genl. Sherman on the subject. [3]

Although a brigadier's star was not immediately forthcoming, in the creation of the District of the Yellowstone in September 1877 with himself as commander, Miles attained his goal of an independent command. [4]

As indicated, Miles anticipated a role for his soldiers in the Nez Perce conflict and signaled his involvement as early as August 3 and 12, even before receiving instructions from department and division headquarters, when he sent Lieutenant Doane and then Colonel Sturgis west from Tongue River to the Judith Basin to seek out, intercept, and destroy the Nez Perces after they emerged from the national park. Early in September, he had dispatched Second Lieutenant Hobart K. Bailey, Fifth Infantry, with a small detachment to Carroll City, on the Missouri, to guard ammunition at that place. Miles's motivation for this activity lay in his anxiety that the Nez Perces were passing through country only recently occupied by Sitting Bull's Sioux, and that in Canada (or near the line), the two tribes might collaborate in new warfare on the frontier settlements. [5] Thus, for Miles the Nez Perce threat was important as it could potentially affect his longstanding fixation on Sitting Bull. As he wrote Sturgis: "If they [Nez Perces] could be destroyed it would have an excellent effect on all the Indian tribes, and relieve all the troops in northern Montana." [6] That the self-exiled Hunkpapa leader was still considered a potent concern to United States officials was manifested in the creation of the so-called Sitting Bull Commission, headed by General Terry, which was in late September slated to cross the border north of Fort Benton, meet with the chief, and induce him to surrender. On September 14, in accordance with directions from department headquarters, Company K of the Seventh Cavalry, under Captain Owen Hale, crossed the Yellowstone en route up the Missouri to serve as escort to Terry's party. Two days later, Miles received orders to send the battalion of three companies of the Second Cavalry under Captain George L. Tyler instead of Hale's unit, and these troops ferried the Yellowstone and headed out accordingly. [7]

Miles's personal involvement in the army campaign against the Nez Perces began on the evening of September 17, when a courier reached the cantonment at 6:00 p.m., bearing the Howard/Sturgis dispatch of the twelfth from Clark's Fork, more than 150 miles west of the post. [8] In his letter, Howard described the movements preceding the fight at Canyon Creek and appealed for Miles's help:

COLONEL: While Colonel Sturgis was scouting toward Stinking Water, the Indians and my force in close pursuit, passed his right, and they, after a short detour, turned to Clark's Fork, and by forced marches avoided Sturgis completely.

I have sent Sturgis with Major Sanford, First Cavalry, and Lieutenant Otis, Fourth Artillery, with howitzer battery in fastest pursuit, and am myself following as rapidly as possible with the remainder of my own immediate command. The Indians are reported going down Clark's Fork and straight toward the Musselshell. They will in all probability cross the Yellowstone near the mouth of Clark's Fork, and make all haste to join a band of hostile Sioux. They will use every exertion to reach the Musselshell country and form this junction, and as they make exceedingly long marches it will require unusual activity to intercept or overtake them.

But it was Howard's final remark—in effect, a plaintive cry for help—that impelled Miles to action: "I earnestly request you to make every effort in your power to prevent the escape of this hostile band, and at least to hold them in check until I can overtake them." [9]

Miles immediately fired off a dispatch to General Terry, enclosing a copy of the Howard-Sturgis missive. "I will leave nine (9) companies of infantry and one (1) of cavalry at this point and on the Yellowstone. With the remainder I will strike across by head of Big Dry, Musselshell, Crooked Creek, and Carroll, with the hope of intercepting the Nez Perces in their movement north." He requested that "an abundance of rations and grain" along with quantities of clothing be sent up the Missouri by steamer from Fort Buford for his own men and for the destitute commands of Howard and Sturgis. [10] Miles also sent a cautionary note to Howard: "I fear your information reaches me too late for me to intercept them, but I will do the best I can." He asked that "the movement of my command be kept as secret as possible, so that it may not become known to the Crows or other friends of the enemy." [11] As the couriers departed, Miles made preparations through the night of the seventeenth for assuming the chase. He directed that supplies, thirty-six wagons, two ambulances, artillery (one breech-loading 1.67-inch caliber Hotchkiss gun, one bronze twelve-pounder Napoleon cannon) plus its requisite ammunition, small arms ammunition (two hundred rounds per man, with fifty rounds on the person and the balance carried in the wagons), mule teams, pack mules, horses, baggage, and troops be ferried to the north bank of the Yellowstone preparatory to leaving in the morning. [12] "All was commotion from the time the order was rec'd and no sleep for anyone," noted Captain Simon Snyder. [13] By sunrise, all was in readiness for departure. General Sherman's young niece, Elizabeth, visiting at the garrison since July, stood under an American flag at Miles's quarters waving two small flags as the troops departed. [14] "My command," remembered Miles, "slowly wound its way up the trail from the Yellowstone to the high mesa on the north side of that river. Then commenced a most laborious and tedious forced march." [15]

When Miles dispatched Sturgis into the field in August, that officer had taken the strongest companies of the Seventh Cavalry with him, leaving the most underofficered and understrengthed units of the regiment at the cantonment. Therefore, Miles's command on leaving the Yellowstone on September 18 consisted of Companies A (Captain Myles Moylan), approximately 30 men; and D (Captain Edward S. Godfrey, First Lieutenant Edwin P. Eckerson), approximately 40 men, Seventh Cavalry. En route, Miles would overtake and absorb Company K of the Seventh (Captain Owen Hale, Second Lieutenant Jonathan W. Biddle), with approximately 44 men, plus Captain George Tyler's battalion of Second Cavalry, consisting of Companies F (Tyler), about 54 men; G (Second Lieutenant Edward J. McClernand), about 50 men; and H (Second Lieutenant Lovell H. Jerome), about 60 men. Departing the cantonment with Miles were units of his own Fifth Infantry regiment riding captured Sioux ponies and consisting of Companies B (Captain Andrew S. Bennett, Second Lieutenant Thomas M. Woodruff), about 26 men; F (Captain Simon Snyder, commanding mounted battalion), about 28 men; G (First Lieutenant Henry Romeyn), about 23 men; and I (First Lieutenant Mason Carter), about 28 men; plus a complement on foot consisting of Company K (Captain David H. Brotherton, Second Lieutenant George P. Borden), about 29 men, with 21 men attached from Company D, to act as escort to the wagon train and to serve the artillery pieces (the latter in the charge of Sergeant John McHugh). First Lieutenant George W. Baird (on temporary duty at Fort Peck) served as Miles's command adjutant, First Lieutenant Frank D. Baldwin his aide-de-camp, Second Lieutenant Oscar F. Long his acting engineer officer, and Second Lieutenant Marion P. Maus his commander of several white and 30 Indian scouts. Surgeon (Major) Henry R. Tilton and Assistant Surgeon (First Lieutenant) Edwin F. Gardner accompanied as medical officers. There were 20 packers, a detachment of around 12 men to service the artillery, plus teamsters. Altogether, Miles's troop complement after incorporation of the units of the Seventh and Second cavalry regiments totaled approximately 520 officers, men, scouts, and civilian employees. [16] It was the largest command Miles had fielded since arriving on the northern plains in August 1876.

Miles's commissioned officer corps mostly reflected experience and commitment in past frontier service. While all played significant roles in the days and weeks ahead, several deserve special mention. Captain Owen Hale (1843-1877), commander of the Seventh Cavalry battalion and of Company K, had served with the New York volunteer cavalry during the Civil War. He was commissioned first lieutenant in the Seventh Cavalry in 1866 and captain in 1869. His twenty-two-year-old second lieutenant, Jonathan W. Biddle (1855-1877) from Pennsylvania, had been appointed scarcely a year earlier, August 31, 1876. Captain Myles Moylan (1838-1909), a Civil War veteran, had risen from the enlisted ranks and had been with the Seventh Cavalry since its formation in 1866. He had reached the grade of captain in 1872 and had commanded Company A at the Little Bighorn. Captain Edward S. Godfrey (1843-1932), who commanded Company D, had been with the regiment since his graduation from West Point ten years previous and had served in most of its campaigns and engagements with Indians, including the Washita, Indian Territory, in 1868; the Yellowstone and Black Hills expeditions of 1873 and 1874, respectively; and the Sioux Campaign and its resultant Little Bighorn battle in 1876. Godfrey's lieutenant, Edwin P. Eckerson (1850-1885), appointed from civilian status in 1872 and dismissed from the Fifth Cavalry in 1875, had rejoined the army into the Seventh Cavalry in May 1876, but was on detached service at the time of the Little Bighorn.


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap11.htm — 26-Mar-2002