Carrying a Stretcher through the LavaBeds
About the most saddening, as well as the most fatiguing, experience which happened in my career as a soldier in connection with the above, took place at the lava-beds during the Modoc Indian War, 1873. The brave Capt. Evan Thomas, Fourth Artillery, and his small command had just been massacred or dispersed, and the relief under the command of Col. John Green, having arrived on the ground late in the evening, drove off the few remaining hostiles, and wearily awaited the approach of day to commence the search for the bodies of the slain and wounded.
Early in the morning these were found, presenting different forms of anguish and distortion, some in the position of desperate defense, others prostrate in figures of dire helplessness, and quite a number yet alive, but in the agony of painful wounds. All were soon gathered in, some to be informally interred, others attended with the means at hand and prepared for transit to the camp. As the sun disappeared from sight on this sorrowful day, and the dusk was thickening over us, the order of march was announced, carrying parties told off, and the nine stretchers with their bleeding occupants placed in column. Only a few miles of journey lay before us, but these were miles of rock, precipice and chasm; and as we took up the march, black and swiftly gathering clouds began to discharge their bucketfuls of wrath, and with short notice all were soon drenched and shivering in our thinly covered pelts. The Warm Spring Indians in charge of the famous scout, Donald McKay, took the lead, and in the order by file we moved forward.
The hostiles, who had been confronting us all day, toward evening showed in considerable numbers on the ridge near by, apparently close, but from the nature of the country far beyond reach. They lit their signal fires, and danced about them in glee; and some, suspecting a movement on our part, had posted themselves between us and our destination, there to intercept and annoy.
Our movements were slow, the head of the column frequently halting, and those at the stretchers calling often for relief, as the poor sufferers had to be lifted over high rocks and across gulches. They were jarred and shaken terribly and frequently had to be adjusted in position. Not a sound was heard except those made by the fall and shifting of the great black boulders, as they were displaced to clear the trail, and the occasional groans from the wounded.
We had progressed about half a mile when the wild braying of our two released pack-mules, stumbling past, disclosed our movements to the wily Modocs. Quickly some two or more rifle shots broke the stillness, and as before arranged, all on our side promptly took the position of squat. This was the only demonstration from the Indians, and we soon resumed the march.
The darkness had now become so intense that each man had constantly to tap the shoulder of his comrade in front in order to keep the direction and avoid being left entirely behind. Soon the halts became so frequent as to give rise to the fear among many of our being discovered at daylight weary, unprepared and struggling with our helpless burdens. About midnight the rain changed to snow, and the wind from a gentle breeze to keen and cutting storm. All had now served many times at the stretchers and ready volunteers were sought in vain; details were made by orders, and repeated and vociferated orders at that; many, from a slight feeling of panic and uncertainty, slyly shifting the labor to those more resolute and manly.
The peculiar state of feeling of the whole had been very much wrought upon of late by the numerous disasters and doleful events just transpired; such as the treacherous killing of our esteemed commander, General Canby, and his colleague, Rev. Mr. Thomas. Would that I could command language to describe these two great characters – martyrs to duty in the strictest sense. After gentle remonstrance from loving subordinates, they went forth, their lives in their hands and the cause of humanity uppermost in their hearts. Besides, we had the three days of hard and unsuccessful battle, and the several murders and killing in the region adjacent to the lava-beds. Each stretcher required the work of six strong and feeling men, and in this duty the officer fully shared the labor imposed upon the soldier; none more willingly than our veteran colonel.
After climbing, stumbling and tramping, until the first rays of the coming day appeared, we reckoned our journey but half accomplished, and the sun had mounted high as we halted across the famous stronghold of Captain Jack, luckily for us then deserted. Now was the extent of the great lava-bed disclosed to us under these circumstances, the row of black lava buttes towering grimly in the distance, resembling huge red ovens gone out of business. Aided by the storm in the air and our own abject feelings, amidst this chaos of nature one could almost discover in imagination a resemblance to a scene in the drama of the “Inferno,” substituting the misery of cold for the torture of heat. There were only lacking the little black Modocs to represent the demons; and again in imagination I think these were supplied.
What a weird and woebegone sight we presented The want of proper water for the past thirty-six hours, the scant food and scantier clothing, and the chilling storm had blanched every cheek. Add to this the heavy coating of snow on the head and shoulders of each, the many bandaged heads and limbs, and sadder than all else, our racked and tortured charges, whose pallid faces now became visible as they lay resigned to any event, and you have a picture none could forget. We reached the main camp all alive at eight o’clock A.M., thus consuming thirteen honest hours in traversing a distance of five miles. The wounded comrades were quickly placed under skilful treatment, and all but three finally recovered.
One circumstance, in my opinion, contributed not a little to this disaster; that was the certain knowledge by the Indians of the approach of the command, even from the beginning of the march. From the high sand butte behind which they were intrenched the glistening gun-barrels, reflected on the black vitreous lava, distinctly marked each movement. Some of us, who took post at the signal-station, easily traced the troops up to the very moment of contact, and afterward almost each individual movement, though no firing could be heard. A reconnaissance to find the enemy had to be made in daylight, and the hostiles with knowing, snake-like maneuvers and clinging moccasins could always anticipate the soldiers.
Lieut. George Harris, Fourth Artillery, was one of the wounded found upon the field and carried across the lava-beds. The Lieutenant bore his great suffering manfully, being one of the least complaining. His wound was through the body, very severe, and as it transpired, mortal. He was tenderly cared for in a good wall tent pitched for the purpose, and his mother telegraphed for, – at least informed as quickly as possible of his condition.
This refined and delicate lady, past middle age, lost not a moment after getting the painful despatch, but taking train to San Francisco from her home in Philadelphia journeyed day and night until reaching the terminus of railroad transportation at Redding, California; thence she came on without rest by stage-coach, ambulance or spring wagon to the vicinity of the high bluffs which bound the lava country; thence by saddle mule down the boulder strewn trail until the camp was reached and her darling boy clasped in tender embrace.
I was on duty some distance from the main camp when my attention was called to a strange object traveling down the trail, and which could not be made out properly until a gray lace streamer floating behind established the fact that it was a lady’s veil! Only a mother’s devotion could have withstood such a journey, and the good Lord seemed to have held the ebbing life of her son in His own powerful keeping until her arrival. She was thus enabled to soothe his dying moments, to be recognized by him and remain by his cot side until the last. His death occurred just twenty-four hours after she arrived. The body was inclosed as fittingly as the circumstances would allow and carried to the hilltop, where it was placed, I believe, in the same conveyance that had brought the dear lady from the frontier to the Modoc stronghold, and borne thence to its last resting-place near his native city. I was told that Mrs. Harris was a sister or relative of Bishop McIlvaine, the once eminent Bishop of Ohio.