The Battle of the Big Hole
by G. O. Shields
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General Sheridan has this to say of it:

"During the month of June the Nez Perce Indians made an outbreak in the Department of the Columbia, and when followed by United States troops, hastily collected by Gen. O. O. Howard, commanding the department, were driven eastward, and, about the middle of June, entered Montana Territory via the Lo Lo trail, committing some depredations by the way. Col. John Gibbon, commanding the district of Montana, at once took the field at the head of 146 men and thirty-four citizens, who joined as volunteers, and on the 11th of August attacked them near Big Hole Pass, Montana, and, after one of the most desperate engagements on record, in which both sides lost heavily, he succeeded in driving them from the field.

"When it is borne in mind that the Indians outnumbered the troops and citizens who attacked them more than two to one, and were equally as well armed and equipped, the good conduct of Colonel Gibbon and his men will be appreciated."

And General Sherman comments officially on the fight in these words:

"There was but a single regiment of infantry (Seventh) in all Montana, Col. John Gibbon commanding, distributed to five posts, four on the eastern border and one on the western, with two small companies, A and G, commanded by Captain Rawn, who were employed in building the new post at Missoula. It is near this place that the Lo Lo trail debouches into the Bitter Root Valley, the western settlement of Montana. Joseph had many personal acquaintances among the settlers, some of which are civilized Flatheads, and he managed with Indian cunning to cause information to go ahead that he was bound for the buffalo country; that if permitted to go on unmolested he would do no damage; that he had no quarrel with the people of Montana, only with General Howard, etc.

"Colonel Gibbon was then at Fort Shaw, but by the 27th of July he had drawn to him what few men could be spared from Benton and Baker, marched rapidly 150 miles to Missoula, then taking every man that could be spared from there, he started in pursuit with fifteen officers and 146 men (afterward increased by thirty-four citizens).

"He overtook the enemy on a branch of Big Hole, or Wisdom River, surprised them at daybreak of August 9, and for a time had the Indians at his mercy; but their numbers so far exceeded his own that he, in turn, was compelled to seek cover in a point of timber, where he fought on the defensive till the Indians withdrew at 11 p.m. of the 10th.

"Colonel Gibbon reports his loss at two officers, six citizens, and twenty-one enlisted men killed; five officers, four citizens, and thirty-one men wounded; and on the part of the enemy, eighty-three were buried on the field, 'and six dead were afterward found in a ravine at some distance away.' It is otherwise known that the Indians sustained a very heavy and nearly fatal loss in wounded in this fight, and could Colonel Gibbon have had another hundred men the Nez Perce war would have ended right there."

Some newspaper scribblers have accused General Gibbon of rashness in attacking the Nez Perces when he knew that their force outnumbered his own so largely. He has been censured for sacrificing the lives of a large number of men in an action where he could not reasonably hope for success. But so far as known, no army officer, no military scholar, in short, no one competent to judge of the merits of the case, has ever criticised his conduct adversely.

An old maxim, loved and quoted by all Indian fighters is, that the time to fight Indians is when they are found. In Indian campaigning, a stern chase is usually not only a long, but a severe and tedious one, and the case in point is no exception to the rule, save in that General Gibbon overtook the Indians much sooner than a retreating band is usually overtaken. Yet he had made a hard march. He had been ordered to intercept and strike the renegades. In obedience to this order, he had marched his command more than 250 miles, and now that he had overtaken the fugitives, must he go into camp, fortify himself, and calmly wait for reinforcements, or for the Indians to attack him? Had he done so, the Indians would of course have retreated so soon as they found that he had arrived in their neighborhood. What would have been thought of such a course by his superiors? What would have been thought of it by these same pretentious newspaper critics? They would doubtless have raised the cry of cowardice as promptly as they raised that of rashness.

General Gibbon is not one of the kind of soldiers who stops to count hostile Indians under such circumstances as these. He fights them at sight, just as any other brave commander does, and takes the chances. His brilliant record in the civil war, as well as on the frontier, has long since convinced his superiors that he was made of this sort of material, and this is why he had so often been intrusted with commands in which he was required to exercise just this kind of generalship. While he is a cautious commander, within due and reasonable bounds, he is brave as a lion, and knows no such thing as disobedience of orders. He felt himself and his little army equal to a contest with the band of hostiles in his front, and the result proved that he was correct in his estimate.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press replied to an editorial which appeared in the New York Herald, soon after the fight, and written by one of these carpers, in these cogent terms:

"Both in its conception and execution, the plan of campaign followed by General Gibbon was a master-piece of Indian fighting. Nothing can be further from the brilliant folly of Custer's dash than Gibbon's march and attack. It was wisely planned, and boldly carried out. The necessities of an Indian war are simple. They are to move swiftly, strike suddenly and hard, and to fight warily, but perseveringly and vigorously. All these things Gibbon did. He made a forced march, and completely surprised the enemy at the end of it. He fought the savages after their own fashion, retiring to cover after the first onset, and fighting singly, rifle in hand, officers and men alike, from the commander down, becoming sharpshooters for the time, and picking off the Indians like born frontiersmen. And the battle was a victory, a brilliant success, in that it inflicted a terrible punishment on the Nez Perces, strewed the valley with dead Indians, and sent the crippled remnant of the band fleeing to the mountains. General Gibbon is a shrewd and bold Indian fighter—and the Herald writer is an ass."

General Gibbon took into the action, six companies of infantry. Had these companies been maintained on a war-footing of 100 men each, as all companies and regiments should be, his force would have been 600 men, instead of less than 200. With such a force, he could easily have surrounded the Indians while they slept and have killed them all; but a pettifogging Congress had cut down the strength of the army to such an extent that the companies numbered less than twenty-five men each, and with this force Gibbon was unable to deal with the Indians as he could have done with a proper force. The fight was prolonged, and the loss of life was much heavier than it would have been with a suitable force of soldiers on the field, so that the Forty-third Congress, which first reduced the army to its present beggarly proportions, is morally responsible for many, if not all, of the lives lost and wounds received by the brave men who participated in that affair.

Although, owing to this insufficient force of men, the fight was not a complete victory for our troops, it was nevertheless a most stinging blow to the Nez Perces. They had never before engaged in a war with our soldiers, but Indian tradition and Indian gossip had told them that the pale-faced soldiers were slow riders, slow walkers, and poor fighters; that one Indian could whip five soldiers any day. But this fight proved to them the falsity of these stories. It taught them that even "walking soldiers" were swift pursuers, good hunters, and deadly assailants when led by a brave chief. It taught them that the white man could move by night; that while the Indian slept, the soldier crept; that his tread was so stealthy that even the lightest sleeper, the most watchful warrior, could not hear his approach, and that it was not safe for the red man to close his eyes while the white soldier was on his trail. It taught them that the foot soldiers were marksmen; that their bullets could search out the hiding-place of the wiliest Indian in the mountains; that in the face of the deadliest fire the Indians could pour forth, they, the soldiers, could come into his camp, shoot him down, and burn his lodges. It taught him that one white soldier could whip two Indians; that the Indian's ability to skulk and hide were no match for the white man's courage. In short, it taught him that the Indian's only safety, when overtaken by soldiers, was in surrender or in flight, in reaching a hiding-place beyond the White Father's domain, and that the flight thither, in order to be successful, must be the most rapid that horses could make. It taught the Nez Perces a lesson they will never forget, and undoubtedly rendered their final capture a much easier and less costly affair than it otherwise would have been, if indeed it could else have been accomplished at all.

And the Nez Perces accepted the lesson so taught. So soon as their village was well out of the way of Gibbon's rifles, they started for the British Possessions, and though closely pursued by troops all the way, who thrice overtook and attacked them en route, they made no other stand until General Miles headed them off near Bear Paw Mountain in Northern Montana, and captured nearly all their horses. Then they were compelled to fight or surrender. They made a four days' fight, but it was a spiritless one, and finally succumbed to the inevitable, and laid down their arms.

It has for years been claimed, and repeatedly shown, that one white man was equal to three or four Indians in a fight, position and other things being equal, and rarely has any band of Indians been encountered who would willingly stand their ground and fight white men, either soldiers or citizens, unless certain that they outnumbered the whites to some such extent. But here was a body of Nez Perces who stood bravely up against a force of nearly half their own numbers; who fought so desperately and so gallantly that the troops who assaulted them and at first put them to flight, were afterward compelled to fall back and take cover; who followed these troops; hemmed them in; advanced on them; harassed them with a deadly fire for twenty hours; only withdrawing when they had reason to believe that reinforcements for the troops were at hand.

Yet General Gibbon and his Spartan band of veterans attacked this superior force, charged into its midst, drove it from its camp in confusion, fought it hand-to-hand in the brush, and inflicted on it such a punishment as probably no command of equal numbers has ever before inflicted on Indians under similar conditions and in so short a time. Several of the veterans who were in this action, and who had fought Sioux Indians repeatedly, said afterward that they would rather fight five Sioux than one Nez Perce. It is, therefore, the highest possible tribute to Gibbon and his men, to record the fact that they were able to hold their ground for a day against such a force as this, and to kill and wound so many of them.

Eighty-nine dead Indians were found and buried on the field, nearly three times the number of men lost by General Gibbon, and it is known that a large number of mortally wounded warriors were carried away and hidden during the day and night that the soldiers never found. Ranchmen residing near the battle-field tell us that they find skeletons in the neighboring forests every summer; some of them two or three miles away from the battle-ground; some of them hidden in gulches and among rocks and logs, which they suppose to be those of Indians killed in this fight, and who were doubtless carried away and concealed by their friends, or who, finding themselves mortally wounded, crawled hither and hid themselves to die in seclusion rather than have their bodies fall into the hands of the white men.

Besides, it is said that Joseph carried away with him a number who were so seriously wounded that they died on the trail. He is said to have admitted, after his final capture, that 208 of his people were killed in the Big Hole fight. If this be true, then there were a larger number of Indians killed than of white men engaged. It is a well-known fact, that only about one hundred warriors finally surrendered to General Miles, and that only about one hundred escaped to the British Possessions at the time of the surrender. Hence the conclusion seems just, that 200 or more must have been lost in the fight with Gibbon.

How skillfully General Gibbon planned his attack on the Nez Perces; how quietly and stealthily he moved his little army down Trail Creek and up along the side of the bluff; how carefully he formed it in line of battle within a stone's-throw of the hostile camp without alarming it, and all in the dead of night; how gallantly his men charged through the jungle, waded the river, swept through the camp dealing death to its fleeing occupants; how the men subsequently took and held their position in the mouth of Battle Gulch under the galling fire of these trained warriors, are facts which no one can properly realize and appreciate save those who were there.

But the battle-field tells its own mute story even now. As I walked over it and saw the hundreds of bullet marks on trees, rocks, and logs, and thought of the thousands of other missiles that entered the earth and left no abiding marks, I was impressed with the remarkable accuracy of the shooting done by the Indians. Nearly every tree and every object in the valley and in the mouth of Battle Gulch capable of bearing a bullet mark is cut and scarred in a frightful manner, and some of the trees are literally girdled. Many of the teepee poles that still lie scattered over the river bottom have bullet holes through them, and thousands of empty cartridge-shells still lie scattered over the field, though it is said that thousands more have been carried away by relic hunters or trampled into the earth.

No true American can read the record of this light without feeling proud that he is an American; that he is a brother to the brave men who stood so nobly together under such an ordeal—an ordeal, in short, that will stand in history on a parallel with the charge of Balaklava or the battle of Bunker's Hill.

As an evidence of the severity of this fight, and of the courage displayed by the officers, attention is called to the fact that of the seventeen engaged, seven of them were hit fourteen times, as follows:

General Gibbon, thigh 1 Captain Williams, head and body 2 Captain Logan, head (killed) 1 Lieutenant Bradley, head (killed) 1 Lieutenant Coolidge, both hands and legs 3 Lieutenant English, head, wrist, and back (died of wounds) 3 Lieutenant Woodruff, both thighs and heel 3 —- Total 14


Veterans of the civil war, and men who have been years on the frontier, who have participated in many of the most sanguine Indian campaigns ever fought, say this was the most hotly-contested field they were ever on. They tell us that never have they seen such cool and determined fighting, at such short range, kept up for so long a time, by Indians; that never have they known so many bullets placed with such deadly accuracy, and so few to fly wild as in this fight. Nearly every man engaged in the action, white or red, officer, private soldier, or citizen, seemed a cool, deliberate sharpshooter; and the fact that after the first assault both parties kept closely covered all day, alone accounts for the fact that so many survived the fiery ordeal. The Indians did splendid work and elicited from the beleaguered soldiers expressions of admiration for their marksmanship, as well as for their bravery and prowess in fierce, close work.

An old sergeant, who was with the Seventh at Gettysburg, when it aided so nobly in holding Little Round Top, says there was no hotter place on that historic hill than he found in the Big Hole on the 9th of August, 1877.

After the battle General Gibbon issued the following congratulatory order to his men:

[Regimental Orders, No. 27.]


The regimental commander congratulates the regiment upon the result of the conflict here with the hostile Nez Perces on the 9th and 10th inst. While mourning for the dead, Capt. William Logan and First Lieut. James H. Bradley and the twenty-one enlisted men, who fell gallantly doing a soldier's duty, we can not but congratulate ourselves that after a stern chase of over 250 miles, during which we twice crossed the rugged divide of the Rocky Mountains, we inflicted upon a more numerous enemy a heavier loss than our own, and held our ground until it gave up the field.

In respect to the memory of the gallant dead, the officers of the regiment will wear the usual badge of mourning for thirty days.

JOHN GIBBON, Colonel Seventh Infantry, Commanding.

Official: LEVI F. BENNETT, First Lieutenant and Adjutant Seventh Infantry.

In this connection it is deemed proper to give the following facts in regard to General Gibbon's record as a soldier:

He was born in Pennsylvania and appointed to the Military Academy at West Point from North Carolina. Graduated July 1, 1847, brevet second lieutenant. He was commissioned a second lieutenant September 18, 1847. Served in the Mexican war and in the Seminole war in Florida. Promoted to first lieutenant September 12, 1850. Served as instructor of artillery at West Point 1854 to 1859. Promoted to captain November 2, 1859. Served in Utah 1860-61. Was chief of artillery on General McDowell's staff, October, 1861, to May, 1862. Brigadier-general of volunteers May, 1862.

Was in the battles of Grangeville, Manasas, South Mountain, and Antietam. Brevetted major-general of volunteers for gallant and meritorious conduct at Antietam. He held an important command at the battle of Fredericksburg, where he was severely wounded. Was brevetted lieutenant-colonel U.S.A. for gallant and meritorious services at the battle of Fredericksburg. Was severely wounded at the battle of Gettysburg while commanding the Second Corps, and brevetted colonel U.S.A. for gallant and meritorious service in that action.

He also held an important and responsible command in the Richmond campaign, and was brevetted brigadier-general U.S.A. for gallant and meritorious services at Spotsylvania. Was commissioned major-general of volunteers June 7, 1864. Brevetted major-general U.S.A. for gallant and meritorious conduct in the capture of Petersburg. Mustered out of the volunteer service June 15, 1866, and commissioned a colonel U.S.A. July 28, 1866. Promoted to brigadier-general U.S.A. July 10, 1885, and appointed to the command of the district of the Rocky Mountains. He commanded the column that rescued Reno from the Sioux Indians in June, 1876.

An officer who has served with him several years, and knows him intimately, says:

"He is an able writer and deep thinker, a thorough soldier, and no politician; honest, strict on duty, and genial and kind off duty. He is brave as a man can be in battle. A true and loving husband, a kind father, and the truest kind of a friend. A thorough sportsman, temperate, modest, and as careful of the wellfare of the humblest enlisted man as of his chief of staff." Capt. Constant Williams, in a private letter to the author, under date of December 23, 1888, says: "I wish to bear testimony of the noble bearing of General Gibbon during the whole time the fight was in progress, under the most trying circumstances. His coolness and utter indifference to danger were so marked, and so admirable, that I have ever since that day taken him as my model for a commander."

Yet, notwithstanding this long record of brilliant services and well-merited rewards; notwithstanding this great and good man has grown gray fighting his country's battles; notwithstanding he has acquired, by study and experience, a military education and training second to none ever acquired by an American, a man who was suddenly elevated from private life to the high office of Secretary of War has recently seen fit to publicly reprimand him for what he was pleased to term a disobedience of orders. The alleged offense consisted in General Gibbon's having pardoned a private soldier, who had been by court-martial convicted of a misdemeanor and imprisoned. He had served several months of his term, when General Gibbon, under whose orders the court-martial had been held, deeming him already sufficiently punished, issued a pardon and ordered him released. The One hundred and Twelfth Article of War expressly authorizes such action on the part of department commanders, but the Secretary of War, deeming his power greater than that which makes the laws, had previously issued an order forbidding commanding officers to issue pardons in such cases, and General Gibbon was accordingly severely reprimanded for a violation of this order. He appealed to the President, and that "Man of Destiny," ignoring the organic law of the land, approved the action of his Secretary.

Thus, a man who has rendered such distinguished services to his country as to merit the gratitude and reverence of every loyal American; a man who has spent the best years of his life in fighting his country's battles and in studying and obeying her laws, was insulted and degraded by men who, so far as true moral worth is concerned, are unworthy to sit at the same table with him.

Capt. William Logan entered the regular army before the beginning of the late war, and rose from the ranks through the successive grades of corporal, sergeant, second and first lieutenants. He was commissioned a captain October 4, 1878. He saw a great deal of active service during the civil war, and bore an excellent reputation as a brave soldier.

First Lieut. James H. Bradley had been in the army eleven years, during the greater portion of which time he had been in active service on the frontier; had participated in several Indian campaigns, and had repeatedly distinguished himself for coolness and bravery in the face of danger.

First Lieut. William L. English was commissioned a second lieutenant in the One-hundred and First Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, May 1, 1863. On March 5, 1864, he was promoted to a first lieutenancy, and mustered out of the volunteer service June 7, 1865. He was appointed a second lieutenant in the regular army June 18, 1867, and promoted to the rank of first lieutenant October 24, 1874. His record is also that of a brave and capable officer.

Of the other officers who participated in the fight and survived its dangers, the following facts will no doubt be of interest to the general public:

General Gibbon is now (February, 1888) in command of the Department of the Columbia, with headquarters at Vancouver Barracks, Washington.

Captain Comba is on recruiting service at Pittsburg, Pa. He is within two files of the rank of major, and in the usual course of events will be promoted to that grade within a year or two. Captain Sanno is stationed at Fort McKinney, Wyoming, and Captain Williams at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Captain Browning died in Paris, May 1, 1882, and Captain Rawn at Lancaster, Pa., October 6, 1887.

Lieutenant Coolidge was promoted to a captaincy, vice Logan, August 9, 1877, and is now stationed at Camp Pilot Butte, Wyoming. Lieutenant Jacobs was promoted to a captaincy in the Quartermaster's Department, 1882, and is now stationed at Atlanta, Ga.

Lieutenant Jackson was made a captain November 14, 1885, and is now stationed at Fort Washakie, Wyoming.

Lieutenant Woodruff was promoted to a captaincy in the Subsistence Department for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battle of the Big Hole, and is now on duty at General Gibbon's headquarters, March, 1878.

Second Lieutenant Van Orsdale was promoted to first lieutenant August 20, 1877, and regimental quartermaster June 1, 1885, and is stationed at Fort Laramie, the present headquarters of the Seventh Regiment.

Lieutenant Harden is detailed at West Point as instructor in tactics.

Lieut. Francis Woodbridge is on indefinite leave of absence at Detroit, Mich., awaiting retirement on account of ill health.


A grateful country has erected on the Big Hole battle-field a fitting monument, a modest but enduring shaft of solid granite, which marks the scene of the bloody conflict and tells in mute but eloquent words the story of the victory won there. The base of the monument is five feet six inches square; the pedestal is four feet six inches square by three feet seven inches in height, and the height of the entire structure is nine feet ten inches. On the north face of the shaft are carved the words:


On the East Face the Words:


On the south is inscribed:


And on the west side is a list of the soldiers and citizens killed in the action, which is the same as that already quoted from General Gibbon's report.

The stone was cut in Concord, N. H., shipped to Dillon, Mont., by rail, and hauled from there to the battle-field by ox teams. It was placed in position in September, 1883, by a detachment of soldiers from Fort Missoula, under command of Capt. J. P. Thompson, of the Third Infantry. It cost about $3,000, an appropriation of that amount having been made for the purpose by Congress.

General Howard followed the Nez Perces through the mountains, and learning that they had determined to take refuge in the British Possessions he sent a courier to General Miles, at Fort Keogh, who, taking the field at the head of six hundred men, headed off the fugitives at Bear Paw Mountains in Northern Montana, and captured them after a desultory fight lasting through four days.

Chief Joseph's reply to General Miles' demand for surrender is a curiosity in the way of Indian rhetoric. It is in these words:

"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

As stated in Joseph's message, while the negotiations for the surrender were in progress, White Bird, with a few of his followers, escaped through Miles' lines and fled to the north. They were not pursued, and succeeded in time in reaching Woody Mountain, in the Northwest Territory, where Sitting Bull and his band were encamped at the time. When the Sioux saw the Nez Perces coming, they supposed them to be their enemies, the Black Feet, and prepared to fight them, but White Bird halted when within a mile of the Sioux camp, sent in a runner to announce himself, and when the Sioux learned who their visitors were, they received them with open arms.

Major Walsh, of the Northwest mounted police, happened to be in Sitting Bull's camp at the time, and describes White Bird and his people as being the toughest looking party of Indians he had ever seen. Their horses were mere skin and bone; some of them scarcely able to walk. The Indians, men, women, and children, were half naked, some of them with hands and feet frozen, and they had not a pound of food of any kind with them.

Too-hul-hul-sote and Looking Glass were both killed in the fight with Miles.

White Bird is still living near Fort MacLeod, in the Northwest Territory, with his family and a few followers.

After the surrender, Joseph and a few of his retainers were sent to Fort Leavenworth, where they were imprisoned until July 21, 1878, at which time they were placed in charge of the Indian Bureau and located in the Indian Territory. In June, 1885, they were removed to the Colville Reservation, in Washington Territory, where they now live unrestrained. Joseph is hale, hearty, and cheerful, and has accumulated considerable wealth in the way of cattle and horses. He says he will never again go on the war path; that he has had enough of fighting pale-face soldiers; that their bravery is more than a match for the cunning and prowess of the red man.

And to Gibbon's command, more than to any and all others who pursued and fought Joseph and his men, belongs the honor of having broken the proud spirits of these dusky warriors; of having killed their best men; of having defeated them on their chosen field. To Gibbon and his brave men, in short, belong the laurels of the Nez Perce war of 1877.

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