Nez Perce
National Historical Park
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National Battlefield

Chapter 12:Bear's Paw: Attack and Defense

Word of the presence of the village ahead, coupled with reports that the Nez Perces might already be fleeing to the north, impelled Miles to hurry his troops forward. It was shortly after 9:00 a.m. [1] Operating on knowledge gained from his scouts that the village lay between four and six miles ahead over generally open terrain, the colonel started his cavalry forward at a trot, the Indian scouts well out in front. The battalion of the Second Cavalry caught up with the Seventh, and on direction each unit formed into columns of fours. Lieutenant McClernand remembered that "the 7th was directed to move to the right of the Second and on a line with it, taking sufficient interval to form left front into line." [2] Miles ordered Tyler to follow the lead of the scouts and charge directly through the Nez Perces' camp, while the companies of the Seventh would come in closely behind in support. The mounted Fifth infantrymen would follow in reserve, followed by the Hotchkiss gun and pack train.

The distance to the village proved to be several miles greater than reported, and perhaps with the belief that the Nez Perces might be getting away, Miles ordered the horsemen to spur into a gallop. [3] Eventually, the command, still moving northwesterly, crested the low divide from which the Nez Perce horse herd could be seen on the flat west of Snake Creek; some witnesses reported seeing parts of the village, yet two miles away, as the troops started the gentle descent toward the bottom. Here the column momentarily slowed, the battalions reforming left front into line preparatory to opening the assault. [4] The final configuration kept the Seventh on the right, the Second on the left, and the Fifth somewhat behind and between the former battalions. [5] The Cheyenne scouts hurried their own advance far in front, and as they closed on the camp, they swerved gradually left, sweeping broadly toward the pony herd grazing on the bench west of the camp. Tyler's battalion, following some distance behind—probably believing that the ponies and Nez Perces moving among them represented the main part of the encampment, most of which still lay hidden in the creek bottom—responded in kind, veering left after the scouts.

Miles was riding close to the Seventh troopers as they resumed a trot down the slope leading toward the south end of the village. As Tyler's men diverged, Miles saw what was happening and quickly ordered the battalion of the Seventh Cavalry to lead the charge into the camp, Captain Hale transmitting the directive to his company commanders and reforming the companies back into columns of fours. [6] Miles reportedly yelled, "Charge them! Damn them!," drawing a chorus of approving shouts in response as the horses broke into a gallop, Hale leading the way. [7] "He was splendidly mounted on a spirited gray horse," wrote Miles, "and wore a jaunty hat and a light cavalry short coat. . . . [He had] a smile on his handsome face." [8] The descending plain lying before the charging column was flat and broad, and gradually the soldiers reached a point where their view in all directions became obscured by the rising ground ahead. Whatever glimpse they had previously had of the village was now lost as they plunged ahead, now moving up a moderate slope toward the crest of what appeared to be a gentle hill leading down to the village, but what, in fact, was a much more precipitous drop into the creek bottom. Approaching over the broad flat now bordered on its right by a gradually narrowing coulee, the Seventh troopers, revolvers drawn, charged ahead with Company K, under battalion commander Hale, on the right, Moylan's Company A on the left, and Godfrey's D in the center. [9] As their horses thundered toward the top of the hill rising south of the bottom, the field suddenly narrowed as the coulee extending on the right increasingly crowded the command. Hale's men, pressed by Godfrey's company on their left, deviated right, riding into and through two swales, while Moylan and Godfrey stayed on course.

map of Battle of the Bear Paw Mountains: Morning
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press, do not use without permission of publisher.

What followed happened quickly. Passing through the swales, Hale's company ascended a flat ridge leading from the southeast down toward the Nez Perce camp. Warriors hidden in the coulees and washes suddenly opened a devastating fire on them that abruptly stopped their advance. Almost simultaneously, Companies A and D, galloping full stride, converged as they arrived on the top of the bluff, their horses grinding to a halt within twenty yards of its edge. [10] "We could then see the village," remembered Private Fremont Kipp. "All of it lay within 400 yards of us, to our right, at the mouth of a coulee." [11] Before the troops could react, a group of warriors suddenly sprang up from beneath the crest of the bluff and delivered a point-blank volley into them. Some riders fell or were shot from their saddles, the momentum of the charge carrying their mounts to stumble over the bluff. Private John McAlpine of Company D recalled:

Those Indians stopped our charge cold. The bullets flew fast and thick. My horse went down . . . , and when I pulled myself free a slug took my hat off. There was a man . . . riding beside me. His horse was shot and as he got to his feet a bullet caught him square in the forehead. . . . I reached over and took his hat. It was a fur one, and I wiped the blood and brains off it and put it on. [12]

Hopeless of carrying a mounted assault beyond the precipice, Captain Moylan commanded the troops to fall back. "The movement was executed by 'Fours left about,'" he recalled. "In the execution . . . some confusion occurred for the very good reason that the men were under a heavy fire from the Indians, and that the large majority of them had never been under fire before, being mostly all recruits." [13]

Intent on withdrawing and reforming the battalion components, Moylan started his own men to the rear. Before Godfrey could follow suit, however, a Nez Perce marksman let loose, his shot striking and killing the captain's horse, throwing the officer to the ground. Godfrey later described the incident:

I saw an Indian taking aim at me. I was not more than 50 to 75 yards from him. [He was] to my left. I was riding on an iron gray horse and my men were mounted on black horses. This of course made me a conspicuous mark and I was quite a bit nearer to the Indian, looking [to see] if it were possible to get down in columns of fours. His rifle cracked and down went my horse, dead. The momentum (we were galloping) threw me forward; I lit on my head and shoulder, leaving my shoulder strap and hat on the ground, but I turned a complete somersault and lit on my feet. I had my revolver in my hand, and as soon as I had recovered somewhat from the daze of the stun, I tho[ugh]t I'd try to defend myself, but when I tried to raise my pistol found my right arm was disabled, paralyzed at the shoulder. While advancing to the charge my trumpeter, [Private Thomas] Herwood, who was a boy recruit, gasped to me, "Ca-Ca-Captain, there'll be a good many of our saddles emptied today, won't there?" I replied, "Well, perhaps yes; but you keep right along with me and you'll be all right." Soon after this I had occasion to speak to him again and I found he had recovered himself. [14]

The actions of Trumpeter Herwood and Sergeant Charles H. Welch probably saved Godfrey's life. As the captain lay prostrate near his dead horse, his company moving to the rear, Herwood rode his own animal between the Nez Perces and the officer, drawing the warriors' attention to himself while Welch delivered a covering fire until Godfrey could regain his feet. During this heroic endeavor, Herwood received a gunshot wound in his side. [15] With Godfrey thus incapacitated, Lieutenant Eckerson took charge. Eckerson turned the head of the column back to the rear, and the partly stunned Godfrey ran after them. Seeing this, Moylan rode up, halted the reversal, and on orders from Colonel Miles, directed Companies A and D to dismount and face front, adjoining the right of the mounted Fifth infantrymen who had arrived on the field. Together, the Fifth and the two units of the Seventh now occupied a line perhaps two hundred yards back from the edge of the bluff. [16] Miles next commanded the two cavalry companies to connect with Hale's K, then under intense fire from the warriors. Thus far, casualties among the two units remained light, with only three soldiers killed and four wounded, mainly, Moylan believed, because of the presence of a large depression in the terrain some distance from the edge of the bluff and between the Nez Perce warriors and the troops. This "protected them somewhat, the Indians overshooting them." [17]

Company K, meanwhile, was sustaining severe losses more than three hundred yards away on the right. There, Hale's men had advanced in formation along a flat ridge descending toward the southeast side of the Nez Perce position, only to find themselves isolated and exposed to sharpshooters in gullies adjoining the bluff on the south who now turned on them with telling effect. Hale ordered his men to dismount and to move forward in skirmish formation, their shooting forcing the Nez Perces from their position below the bluff embankment from which they had fired on Companies A and D. In the exchange, Lieutenant Biddle was one of the first casualties, killed by Nez Perce fire, according to one witness, while in the act of kneeling to shoot. From this point, the battle intensified, the warriors quickly circling through the swales and gulches to flank the soldiers and drive off and capture their animals, and when the troops approached the edge of the coulee, the fighting became hand-to-hand.

But as the dismounted troopers of A and D drew nearer in support, moving at double time, their horses advancing with the holders, the warriors gradually withdrew, assuming a protective stance behind ridges and in gullies between the soldiers and their village, where many noncombatant family members now lay hidden. Hale took advantage of the pause to pull back and reassemble his company, leaving several dead and wounded on the ground in his front. Private Peter Allen was among those hit:

While we were on our retreat I was wounded, one bullet crushing my left arm from elbow to wrist, another passed through my belt and clothing grazing the skin on my right side, and a third bullet passing through my hat plowing a ferrow [sic] through my hair across the top of my head, which rendered me unconscious for a short time. After I realized my condition and the position I was in, being about midway between the two lines of battle under cross firing, I gave the comrade just in front of me a signal to cease firing while I crawled over in rear of our line of battle, my over-coat having nine bullet holes in it. Capt. Owen Hale . . . directed me to go to the Hospital. [18]

Some injured soldiers struggled back to the line, while others, unable to move, lay helplessly near the edge of the coulee until caught and killed in the ensuing crossfire. Godfrey recalled that "they were in the line of fire from both sides, and these bodies had many shot wounds that were made after death." [19]


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap17.htm — 22-Feb-2002