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Battle of Clearwater

Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Military,Native American,Oregon | No Comments

The most fearful excitement prevailed at this time, and citizens and friendly Indians and their families flocked from all directions to Fort Lapwai for protection. All kinds of rumors as to Colonel Perry’s destruction and indiscriminate massacres were flying in to the post from all sources and directions. Lewiston was made the base of supplies and the concentration of troops was actively pushed.

Troops were soon hastening to the scene of trouble from all directions. Captain Whipple, in Indian Valley, near the Wallowa, made forced marches with Company L, First Cavalry. The few troops at Fort Walla Walla and those near Wallula, and all available men from Forts Vancouver, Stevens, Canby, Townsend, Klamath, and Harney, were also in motion. The artillerymen about this time returning from Alaska were caught on the wing and turned toward Fort Lapwai. The call for troops was answered from California, Arizona, and even Georgia, whence came the Second Infantry.

By June 21st, eight companies of troops (in the aggregate about two hundred and fifteen men) had arrived at Fort Lapwai, and a small organization of volunteers under Captain Paige had arrived with Captain Whipple. The friendly Indians generously supplied a sufficiency of Indian ponies. While preparations were being made for departure to the front, Capt. Evan Miles, with several companies of the Twenty-first Infantry, Capt. Marcus P. Miller, with several companies of the Fourth Artillery, and Captain Winters, with a company of the First Cavalry, by quick movements had arrived at Lewiston. Lieutenant Bomus improvised a mule packtrain and impressed into the service all the transportation that could be found available.

The moment of starting was solemn – the Indians were numerous and the air was full of rumors, and the daring messengers, who had skulked through from Colonel Perry to Lapwai, over roundabout and unlooked-for paths, largely magnified the dangers. The column consisted of cavalry, infantry, and artillery (on foot), flanked with two Gatling guns and an old mountain howitzer, formerly used as the morning and evening gun at Fort Lapwai, all followed by an unstable packtrain of noisy mules, every animal carrying its maximum load. Every foot of the march over Craig’s Mountain was carefully skirmished, the column proceeding at ease, stretched out about a mile.

The column, under command of Captain Miller, went into camp on the 22nd of June, after the first day’s march, at junction Trail (Mount Idaho and Craig’s Ferry Trail). The next morning reveille was sounded at four A.M., and a hard march was made to Norton’s Ranch. The next day, June 24th, was Sunday, and was spent in concentrating the forces as far as possible, and ascertaining the then position of the victorious Indians.

On Monday a brisk movement was made forward, the infantry, bearing off to the right, went to ” Johnson’s Ranch,” where Perry made his stand, when retreating, and enabled his stragglers to close in. General Howard, with the cavalry, deviated to Grangeville and there met the remnants of Perry’s command and made provisions for additional supplies. Leaving the cavalry to rest until his return, the General made a hurried visit to Mount Idaho, nearly reassured the trembling, frightened congregation of people, and ministered to the many who had suffered outrages at the hands of the Indians.

Camp at “Johnson’s Ranch” was broken early the next morning and the column was moved to the head of White Bird Canon, with two objects in view- first, to bring Perry’s dead, and to reconnoiter to locate Joseph and White Bird. These, with all their warriors, women, children and baggage, were well across the Salmon, and from high sharp-pointed hills were observing every movement of the troops. Joseph had at first intended to give General Howard battle before crossing the Salmon River; but changed his plans, great general that he was, and sought to draw the troops into the vicinity of the “Seven Devils,” where they could be more easily cut off from supplies or flanked. Having buried the dead and made a satisfactory reconnaissance, the command gathered, over muddy trails, at the head of the canon, and returned to Johnson’s Ranch to camp for the night.

The troops were quickly gathered near the mouth of White Bird Canon. From the high bluff lying between the forks of White Bird Creek could be seen the irregular mountain valley held by the Indians beyond the restless Salmon. Their sentries and outposts were shouting back and forth. While the troops were constructing rafts and preparing to cross, the Indians came from ravines and hilltops and opened fire. This was merely a ruse to engage the attention of the troops, while the main body of Indians were moving to recross the Salmon twenty-five miles lower down at Craig’s Ferry.

Chief Looking Glass, in the rear, was now giving trouble. Captain Whipple was sent to the fork of the Clearwater to take him and his band to Mount Idaho. Looking Glass and his band escaped to join Joseph, and Captain Whipple’s cavalry proceeded to Norton’s ranch. On the morning of July 3rd, Captain Whipple sent two citizen scouts, Foster and Blewett, in the direction of Craig’s Ferry in search of indications of the presence of any Indians. Blewett was killed; but Foster returned to camp and reported that he had seen Indians about twelve miles distant, proceeding from the direction of Craig’s Ferry.

Captain Whipple then hastened to send Lieut. Sevier M. Rains, of his company, with ten picked men and the scout Foster to recover Blewett and ascertain the strength of the enemy. The command was soon in motion, and closely followed Lieutenant Rains. Firing was soon heard in the front. A rapid gait was assumed and after traveling two miles Indians were seen in force about half a mile distant; and on approaching nearer, it was found that Lieutenant Rains and every man of his detachment had been killed. This was a terrible disaster.

At the appearance of Captain Whipple’s command the Indians took the back track and soon had the prairies to themselves and leisurely crossed the road between Grangeville and Cottonwood, where Colonel Perry and Captain Whipple had joined forces. At this time Joseph picked up Looking Glass, and his war parties made it very lively for the troops and volunteer detachments at Cottonwood and other points.

The Two Days of Hard Fighting

The 11th of July, the commencement of the Clearwater battle, was a memorable day. Early on this day the troops were moving carefully through rough forests and deep ravines, over ridges and through ravines, to the confluence of the two Clearwaters. About noon the Indians were in close proximity in several deep ravines, near the mouth of Cottonwood Creek, and were watching the approach of the troops. As quickly as possible a howitzer and two Gatling guns, mounted by a detachment under Lieut. H. G. Otis, Fourth Artillery, were brought to bear on the masses of the Indians below.

The Indians lost no time in running their horses up the south fork of the Clearwater, on both sides, and quickly placing their stock beyond range. It was their intention to escape by a canon on the left, leading to the rear, at a small angle with the river. But this was prevented by a quick movement of the howitzer and Gatling guns to a second bluff in that direction, beyond a deep and rocky transverse ravine, almost at right angles to the canon.

Beyond the second bluff, Joseph and his warriors were quickly dismounted and in position, awaiting the approach of the troops, and lost no time in despatching about forty or fifty mounted Indians to annoy the left flank of the approaching column. At this moment Colonel Mason, the Department Inspector-General, appeared, with Burton’s and Farrow’s companies of infantry, which deployed, stretching off to the right, with Winter’s cavalry on his right. All now pressed forward, in open line, under a hail of fire.

The line of troops was rapidly extended to the left by the cavalry, and to the right by the infantry and artillery battalions, gradually refusing the flanks until the bluff was entirely enveloped. Four hundred men thus held a line about two and one-half miles in extent. The main pack had passed by this position, but a small train was still on the road near the line of battle. The Indian flankers, by rapid movement truck the rear of this train, killed two men and disabled two packs loaded with howitzer ammunition.

The steep and high banks of the river are roughly cut with numerous most rugged transverse ravines. The Indian camp, from which the hostiles emerged on the approach of the troops, yet hidden from view, was beyond the river, and hundreds of ponies and horses were herded in the ravines near this camp. The warriors, finely mounted, had forded the river under cover of the bluffs and were racing up a transverse ravine, endeavoring to cut off the trains and stampede the cavalry, then dismounted and on the firing-line.

From this moment the Indians manifested remarkable quickness and boldness, planted sharpshooters at every conceivable point, made terrific charges on foot and on horseback to the accompaniment of savage yells and demonstrations. Many remarkable feats of courage were noticeable throughout the engagement, all calculated to encourage the warriors to follow in the bold attempts to turn the flank of the position. All these attempts were resisted at every part of the line.

At about four P.M. a spirited countercharge was made by Capt. Evan Miles, commanding the infantry battalion, down into a ravine on the right. Captain Bancroft, Fourth Artillery, and Lieutenants Williams and Farrow, Twenty-first Infantry, were wounded at this time. This was a desperate but successful movement, many Indians were then killed and the ravine was thoroughly cleared of a murderous enemy at short range. A little later, Captain Miller led a second charge near the center, while a demonstration was made on the right, using artillery and infantry, and thus was secured the disputed ravine near Winter’s position. Further spasmodic charges by the Indians on the left were repelled by Perry’s and Whipple’s cavalry and Morris’s artillery. At dark the Indians still held the only spring or water-supply, in spite of many successful charges made by the troops.

During the night, additional rifle-pits and barricades were constructed by both the troops and Indians, each party still hopeful of a final victory. Firing was kept up throughout the night, every flash drawing return fire. Under cover of darkness, all available canteens and buckets were filled at the spring, in the midst of flying bullets, and taken to the thirsty men on the firing-line. As promptness and courage had saved the ammunition and supplies, so gallant exposure during the darkness saved the water-supply.

At daylight of the 12th every available man was on the line. By a magnificent feat, executed with great spirit by Miller and Perry, with Otis’s howitzer, the spring of water was captured from the Indians and brought within the lines. This enabled the famished troops on the firing line to have a taste of coffee, and consequent new life and energy. The artillery battalion was then withdrawn from the lines and held as a reserve force for any offensive movement that might become necessary.

The firing was rapid throughout the day, the Indians from time to time threatening to force the weaker parts of the line and fighting at very close range. About three P.M. a dust appeared in the distance, toward the South, beyond the Indian position. This proved to be an approaching pack-train, escorted by Captain Jackson’s company of cavalry. The artillery battalion under Captain Miller was immediately sent out to meet it, and after considerable skirmishing, brought it safely in. Captain Miller, instead of returning with the train and reinforcements, marched slowly by the right flank toward us, and when crossing the Indian line, faced to the left and quickly and rapidly moved in line for nearly a mile across our front, and repeatedly charged the Indians’ positions.

The Indians made a desperate effort, by ferocious charges, to turn his left flank; this, however, failed as Rodney’s reserve company in the rear quickly deployed and flanked the flankers. There was a most stubborn resistance at Joseph’s barricades for a while, when suddenly the whole Indian line gave way, and the Indians, closely pursued, rushed down the canons and crossed the south fork of the Clearwater.

The infantry pressed them to the river opposite their main camps and there awaited the cavalry, which slowly worked its way through the ravines, over rocks and down precipices over steep and craggy trails. The Indian camp was taken, after the Indians had hurriedly left it, and were fleeing in all directions up the heights and going to the left of Cottonwood Creek. The Indian camp so hastily abandoned had the lodges still standing filled with blankets, buffalo robes, cooking utensils and plunder of all descriptions. The many dead and wounded horses in the camp and along the trails leading to it indicated the great damage done by the troops in this desperate engagement.

General Howard had four hundred fighting men in this two days’ engagement, and it is remarkable that only thirteen were killed and twenty-two wounded. The Nez Percés fought with great skill and obstinacy and were more than five hundred strong, not including the squaws or women, who assisted in providing spare horses, and doing all manner of things, while acting as, a substantial reserve.

Letter from Maj. H. L. Bailey, United States Army, Regarding the Battle of the Clearwater

I believe our present excellent Quartermaster-General, Gen. Charles F. Humphrey, got his Q. M. appointment and later a brevet for gallant services in the battle of Clearwater, July 1 1 and 12, 1877, in the Nez Percés Indian War. He was a first lieutenant, Fourth Artillery at the time. He was awarded a medal of honor March 2, 1897, for most distinguished gallantry in action at the Clearwater, Idaho, July 11, 1877, where he voluntarily and successfully conducted, in the face of a withering fire, a party which recovered the possession of an abandoned howitzer and two Gatling guns lying between the lines and within a few yards of the Indians, while serving as a first lieutenant, Fourth United States Artillery.

On the morning of the 12th, General Humphrey and myself found ourselves apparently the only officers on the outer line where the men had dug a line of detached holes or trenches during the night. We were very thirsty and hungry, and the fire from the Indians having slackened considerably, in their preparations for some new attacks and tricks, we insisted on each other going back to the central rendezvous where General Howard had his headquarters and supplies, to get water or coffee and some bacon. Finally, we drew cuts and I won, taking first turn. I found most of the officers at the headquarters.

I was given an order to execute upon my return to the long section of line where Humphrey and I had met. I relieved him and then, alone, walked along the lines some hundreds of yards, getting the men placed at proper intervals for a grand or general charge to be made later. I had a task, as you may imagine, as many men would run back to the holes or trenches as soon as I had gone a few rods farther along, but I got them into place. Away to the left I found Capt. James A. Haughey, Twenty-first Infantry, and Lieut. F. E. Eltonhead, Twenty-first Infantry (now both deceased), lying flat behind small head shelters with dusty sweat streaks down their faces, dodging bullets. They yelled at me to “get down” as I was “drawing fire.” I was careless until two bullets tipped the earth between their heads and my ankles, when I thought it fair to squat till I got away from them again. I left to them the arranging of the men to their left and returned to where I had left Humphrey.

Later the final, beautiful charge was made, full of interesting details, for which I have not now space. Humphrey was as cool as though at a parade or drill. Col. M. P. Miller (then Captain Fourth Artillery, now Brigadier-General, retired) was also as cool under fire as though taking a summer stroll. The latter was also brevetted for gallant service in this battle. When he took his company to a point where a gap in our line permitted the Indians to climb up the river bluff and enfilade us, he was smoking a short stem pipe which good luck kept the bullets from knocking from his mouth.

When placed, his men faced so that their backs were toward my company (B, Twenty-first Infantry). It was while I was back at the center for cartridges and hospital men that his men took the men of my company for Indians, all being in the prone position in rocky, grassy ground, and as I was returning the artillery company and the infantry company were bobbing up and down firing at each other at a lively rate.

Lieut. Peter Leary, Fourth Artillery, commissary officer, rushed out with a carbine flourishing in the air, shouting: “Packers to the rescue, packers and scouts to the rescue.” I saw and knew the situation at a glance, as I had seen Captain Miller lead his men out, and I passed Leary, rushing between the two lines, yelling: “Cease firing, you’re firing into your own men.”

The trouble was quickly ended, though at least one poor man (Winters of my company) always believed his dreadful hip wound was by a friendly bullet. This was during the first day of the battle. It was Captain Jocelyn (now Colonel-General Staff, and I hope soon the next Brigadier-General), who got General Howard to send Captain Miller out to that vital part of our lines.

By Capt. E. S. Farrow, late United States Army


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