17 January 2020

The Modoc Victory [guest post by Edward Fox, 8 February 1873]

[From the New York Herald, 1873; story by Edward Fox]
he battle of the lava beds has attracted so much general attention, both from the fact of the United States troops receiving such a severe check and from the varied descriptions of the scene of the contest, that I have prepared a pretty full report of that memorable engagement, feeling convinced that the details will be read with interest by the public in general.
After Captain Jack was driven from his camp on Lost River and took refuge in the lava beds, it was thought at first that he would come to terms and the war would be ended without further bloodshed.  The addition, however, of fourteen warriors to his forces, that were really driven to the lava beds by the threats of the Linkville citizens, heated by Linkville whiskey, resulted in Captain Jack wishing to make his own terms.
But Major General Frank Wheaton, who, as the commanding officer of the [District of the] lakes, had come down in person to attend to this affair, soon arrived at the conclusion that if fighting was to be done the sooner this lava bed was inspected the better.  Arrangements were then made for an attack, and as soon as the available troops had arrived in the neighborhood General Wheaton had several councils with Colonel Green, Colonel Mason and others as to the best means of getting at Jack in his lair.  The lava beds were inspected and all the old settlers interrogated as to the geography, with reference to the moving of troops in that direction.  There appeared to be a good many opinions as to the nature of the ground within the lava beds section, and, although all agreed in saying it was a very rough country, no one was competent to describe the extraordinary volcanic formations that were afterwards discovered by the troops when they made the assault.  After mature consideration of the various plans of attack that were suggested General Wheaton decided to make a movement in force, which, should it prove successful, would at least enable him to obtain a satisfactory reconnaissance of the ground upon which to base his plans for any future aggressive movement.  Everything being arranged, the following orders were issued to the officers in command:—
General Field Orders—No. 3.
1.  The troops will move from their present camp east and west of the lava beds on Thursday, 16th of January, and take positions for the attack on the Modoc camp at sunrise on the following morning.
2.  At four A.M. on Thursday next Major John Green will detach Captain D. Perry’s Troop, F, First cavalry, and order it to clear the bluff southwest of Tule of Indian pickets and scouts, and cover the movement of the main force to a camp some three miles west of the Modoc position.
3.  Major E. C. Mason’s battalion Twenty-first infantry, two companies—C, Captain G. H. Burton, and B, commanded by Second Lieutenant H. D. W. Moore—and a detachment of twenty men of F company, Twenty-first infantry, under First Sergeant John McNamara; General J. E. Ross, Oregon volunteer militia, two companies—A, Captain Hugh Kelly, and B, Captain O. E. Applegate—and Lieutenant W. H. Miller’s battery—a section of mountain howitzers—will march from Van Brimmer’s Ranch to camp on bluff west of Tule Lake, in time to reach the designated camp not later than three P.M. on the 16th inst.  The camp will be so located and arranged as to be secure from observation by the Modocs, and every precaution taken to prevent the Indians from discovering our numbers and precise location.
4.  District Headquarters will accompany the troops.
5.  Early on the 17th of January the troops above named will move into the lava beds to attack the Modoc camp, and in the following order:—Major E. C. Mason’s battalion, Twenty-first infantry, leading, followed by General J. E. Ross’ Oregon volunteer militia and the section of mountain howitzers packed.  Captain D. Perry, Troop F, First cavalry, will follow the howitzer battery.
6.  When the troops have reached a position near the Modoc camp the main force will be deployed on the right of the infantry battalion, in close skirmish order, and a left half-wheel of the whole line will be executed in order to enclose the southern side of the Modoc position and connect the right of the main force with the left of Captain Bernard’s troop, who are simultaneously to attack on the east.
7.  Also the troops operating against the Modocs are to move from this camp, with three days’ cooked rations in haversacks, two blankets, one hundred rounds of ammunition on the person, and fifty rounds in close reserve.  Canteens will be filled at Little Klamath Lake by the troops moving from Van Brimmer’s Ranch, and care taken to water every horse and pack mule at that point, as there is no water on the bluff where the main force will encamp on the night of the 16th inst.
8.  Major John Green, First cavalry, is charged with the execution of these movements and the details of the attack.
9.  Lieutenant W. H. Miller, First cavalry, commanding the howitzer battery, will report to Major Green for orders and instructions as to when and where to prepare his guns for action in the proposed attack.
10.  The troops on the east side of the lava beds at Land’s ranch, Troops “G,” Captain R. F. Bernard, and “B,” Captain James Jackson, First cavalry, and the Klamath Indian scouts under Dave Hill, will move from camp on the 16th inst. to a point not more than two miles from the Modoc position.  At sunrise on the 17th this force will attack the Modoc camp, with their right resting on or near Tule Lake, and when sufficiently near to render the movement advisable a right half wheel will be executed, in order to connect the left of this force with the troops attacking from the west.  In his advance Captain Bernard will take steps to capture any canoes the Modocs may have near their camp, or at least use every effort to prevent Indians escaping by water.  Captain R. F. Bernard, First cavalry, will execute these movements under such detailed instructions as he may receive from Major John Green, First cavalry.
11.  After the first three shots have been fired by the howitzer battery as the signal for the troops attacking on the east side of the Modoc camp firing will cease for fifteen minutes, and an Indian scout directed to notify the nearest Modocs that ten minutes’ time will be allowed them to permit their women and children to come into our lines.  Any propositions by the Modocs to surrender will be referred at once to the District Commander, who will be present.
12.  Lieutenant W. H. Boyle, Twenty-first infantry, Acting Field Quartermaster and Commissary of Subsistence, and a guard of ten men, will remain at this camp in charge of the temporary field depot until further orders.
13.  Lieutenant John Adams, First cavalry, Acting Assistant Adjutant General, District of the Lakes, and commanding detachment, H troop, First cavalry, will furnish from his command such details as may be required for the howitzer battery, and accompany the District Commander.  Lieutenant Adams will be prepared to communicate by signals with the Signal Sergeant, who has been detailed for duty with the troops operating on the east side of the Modoc position.
14.  Assistant Surgeon Henry McElderry, United States Army, will give the necessary directions and instructions to the medical officers with the different commands and detachments in the field.
By order of
Brevet Major General Frank Wheaton, U.S.A.,
Lieutenant Colonel Twenty-first infantry,
Commanding District of the Lakes.
John Q. Adams, First Lieutenant First cavalry,
Acting Assistant Adjutant General.

In pursuance of the above and according to instructions, the troops moved from their quarters on the 16th inst. and camped in the respective locations to which they were assigned.  Colonel Bernard, with two troops of the First cavalry, had a little skirmish on the evening of the 16th, as in the fog, which is very prevalent in that section of the country, he advanced rather nearer to Jack’s stronghold than he intended, and when he found out his mistake and made a move to retire, the Indians opened fire from a position they had taken in the rocks.  They were finally driven from their shelter and forced to retreat to their stronghold, but not before they had wounded three of the cavalry.
On the following morning the troops had all arrived at their assigned positions, and at daybreak Lieutenant Adams, Acting Assistant Adjutant General, reported to General Wheaton, the District Commander, the following force in the field:—
Commanding Officer                                          Muster
First cavalry
Captain Perry, F troop
First cavalry
Captain Jackson, B troop
First cavalry
Captain Bernard, G troop
First cavalry
Lieut. Adams, H troop
Twenty-first infantry
Lieut. Ross, B company
Twenty-first infantry
Capt. Burton, C company
Oregon field officers

Oregon volunteers
Captain O. Applegate, A company
Oregon volunteers
Captain Kelly, B company
California volunteers
Captain Fairchild
Indian scouts
Dave Hill



There was also a section of mountain howitzers under the charge of Lieutenant Miller, of the First cavalry.
                                                                     Table 2.1
The troops on the west side moved down the precipitous bluff from their camping ground in the direction of the lava beds, Colonel Mason’s battalion of the Twenty-first infantry leading, followed by Captain Fairchild’s California riflemen, General Ross’ two companies of Oregon volunteers, the howitzer section, packed on mules, under the command of Lieutenant W. H. Miller, of the First cavalry, and Brevet Colonel D. Perry’s troop of the First cavalry bringing up the rear.  The morning was damp and cold, and the lava beds were nearly obscured from sight by a dense fog, which, however, only hung over that section and did not rise to the bluff which the troops had just left.  The troops on the east side, commanded by Brevet Colonel R. B. Bernard, of the First cavalry, comprising his Troop G, and Brevet Major James Jackson’s Troop B, First cavalry, with twenty Klamath Indian scouts, commanded by Dave Hill, simultaneously advanced from the position they had taken the previous evening, two miles from Captain Jack’s stronghold.  On account of the deep chasm and gorge in his front Colonel Bernard was unable to advance further than the position he had reached by severe skirmishing on the evening of the 16th.
The advance, attack and management of the troops were conducted by Major John Green, First cavalry, Brevet Colonel United States Army, and the district commander, Brevet Major General Frank Wheaton, Lieutenant Colonel of Twenty-first infantry, accompanied the troops, operating on the west side.  This force had moved forward from the base of the bluffs, with Captain Burton’s company of the Twenty-first infantry ahead in skirmishing order.  Upon the arrival of the troops at the lake a rush was made for water, as the men were naturally thirsty, having passed the night at a dry camp.  The advance was then resumed across this rugged country, and it was with the greatest difficulty the men were kept in line, as the unnatural irregularities of the volcanic rock formed nearly insurmountable obstacles to their progress.  The line was now being deployed to the right, with Colonel Perry on the extreme right, stretching into the heart of this fastness about a mile and a half, while Captain Burton moved with his company on the extreme left, supported by Lieutenant Moore and his command on his right.  The Oregon and California volunteers spread out the line between the extreme points and kept a steady advance, although the nature of the ground kept an irregularity in the face of the line.
The plan of the attack was to keep deploying in a half wheel to the right until Colonel Perry should connect with Colonel Bernard, who was adopting similar tactics, but moving from the left.  The fog still hung low and shrouded the mysteries of this craggy fastness from these daring explorers, though the frequent crack of a rifle, followed by an unearthly war whoop, denoted some fresh victim to the unerring marksmanship of these dusky warriors.  It was impossible for men to do more than both the soldiers and the volunteers did on this occasion, and although every now and then there would be a vacancy in the muster roll, and some gallant soul would fall by the bullet of an unseen foe, another brave heart would fill up the gap and press on with the steadiness of a disciplined soldier.  In vain the troops looked high and low for some Indian sign, and although the fog would rise every now and then, not an Indian showed as much as the top of his head feathers.
About noon Captain Perry, on the extreme right, arrived at an impassable chasm, at least it was impassable without a fearful sacrifice of life.  Captain Perry sent back to the district commander that it would be impossible for him to connect with Colonel Bernard by the right except by an immense loss of life, and added that if necessary he would carry the chasm, but he did not expect to take ten men across.  General Wheaton then came to the conclusion that if the proposed connection could not be made they might as well retire and wait for a few days, and consequently issued orders to that effect, but gave Major Green a discretionary power to push forward and connect by the left if he deemed it feasible.  Major Green then ordered a flank movement by the left, and, skirting along the lake under the shadow of some craggy strata of volcanic rock, in the possession of the enemy, they finally made the desired connection, but not before the galling fire to which they had been subjected had thinned their ranks considerably.
It would fill columns to detail the incidents of this fight, which proved such a trial to the officers, soldiers and volunteers that formed the attacking party.  General Wheaton told me the other day that he had been through all the principal battles during the rebellion and he had never seen officers and men appear so utterly indifferent to danger or so cool and steady under such a harrassing fire.  The Indians did not waste much powder and shot, as they were excellent marksmen, and, having the advantage of a rest for the rifle and perfect safety from a return fire, were unerring in their aim.
Often a man would fall badly wounded, and, looking eagerly around for his enemy, would only see the smoke of a rifle curling up from a small hole on some inaccessible crag overhanging his position.  On one occasion a man was shot dead at a certain spot, and another man was sent with a stretcher to carry away his body.  The second met the fate of the first, and a third, who went on the same errand, fell badly wounded.  These three men all fell without knowing the position of the Indians who had shot them.
Every little narrow passage between the rocks that was likely to be of importance was guarded by two or three rifles peeping out from loopholes that the Indians had formed for that purpose.  On the move along the lake to the left the men had to move with the greatest caution, as the Indians had lined the overhanging bluffs with their men, and to show yourself in full view was nearly certain death.  They crawled on their hands and feet, making a dart every now and then from one rock to another, but still pushing forward in the direction of Colonel Bernard.  Captain Perry, who was with his troops on the left, while stretched behind a rock accidentally turned on his side and exposed a portion of his shoulder and arm, receiving a severe flesh wound, which compelled him to retire.  Colonel Green and Colonel Mason were perpetually in the hottest of the fire, and appear to have charmed lives, as although their uniforms were, in many instances, cut by a passing ball, neither received a scratch during the fight.  There was not an officer that went into the lava beds that did not come out with some portion of his clothing marked or torn by a bullet.  When the troops on the west side finally connected with Colonel Bernard they found him stopped from further advance by an immense chasm that appeared impassable, and which was strongly defended by Indians.
Shortly before dark the fog lifted slightly and showed the Oregon volunteers, a portion of Captain Perry’s troop and the infantry reserve still on the west side, and, at a signal from the District Commander, Major Green fell back to Land’s Ranch to camp for the night with Bernard’s command and the infantry battalion.  The Oregon and California volunteers retired by the west side and fell back in Van Bremer’s Ranch.  I cannot conclude without saying something of the difficulties experienced in the retreat to Land’s ranch, and of the bravery and heroism exhibited by the officers and men on that occasion.  They had been up since four A.M. and fighting since half-past six A.M. up to dark.  The retreat commenced at half-past ten P.M. and continued all night and up to one A.M. next day.  Thirty-three hours without rest or food are enough to try the patience and endurance of most men, but these gallant fellows never uttered a word, and were always ready to relieve one another at the end of a blanket, carrying the sick and wounded.  Surgeon McElderry worked unceasingly, and through the day was exposed on several occasions to a dangerous fire, but never flinched from his duty, and rushed from place to place to the assistance of the wounded.

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