Lay the Mountains Low: The Flight of the Nez Perce from Idaho and the Battle of the Big Hole - August 9-10, 1877

Lay the Mountains Low: The Flight of the Nez Perce from Idaho and the Battle of the Big Hole - August 9-10, 1877

by Terry C. Johnston

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312274429
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/10/2000
Series: Plainsmen Series , #15
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 446,509
File size: 981 KB

About the Author

Terry C. Johnston was born on the first day of 1947 on the plains of Kansas, and has lived all of his life in the American West. His first novel, Carry the Wind, won the medicine Pipe Bearer's Award from the Western Writers of America, and his subsequent books have appeared on bestseller lists throughout the country. He lives and writes in Big Sky country near Billings, Montana.

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Chapter One


JUNE 21, 1877

BY TELEGRAPH

* * *

An Indian War in Idaho.

* * *

Twenty-Nine Settlers Killed—The Troops Pursuing.

* * *

IDAHO.

* * *

Still Another Indian War.

WASHINGTON, June 20.—The following dispatch has been received by the commissioner of Indian affairs from the Nez Perces agency, Idaho: The non-treaty Indians commenced hostilities on the 14th inst. Up to date, the 16th, twenty-nine settlers are reported murdered, and four Indians killed. Gen. Howard is here in command. The hostiles are about one hundred strong. They are reported to have gone to the Solomon river country and are making for the Weiser Geysers, in southern Idaho. Troops are in pursuit twelve hours behind. The reservation Indians are true to the government. A company is formed under the head chief, and is protecting the settlement of Kamarah and employees.

[Signed] WATKINS, Inspector, and Monteith, Indian Agent


He had fought against the cream of the confederacyand chased, then hung, the leaders of the Modoc insurrectionin southern Oregon years ago. So why did he findhimself dreading this ride down intothe canyon of WhiteBird Creek the way a frightened schoolboy would fear amidnight trek to a cemetery?

    Deep in the marrow of him, Captain David Perry knewthat what awaited him on that abandoned battlefield was farworse than anything a schoolboy might encounter in somehaunted graveyard. Not only would he be forced to view thebloated, contorted bodies of those men he had led into thevalley at dawn on the seventeenth of June, but he was comingto believe that he just might confront the restless, disembodiedspirits of those soldiers who would forever walkthat bloody ground.

    If Brigadier General Howard, even that damnable, self-servingcoward Trimble, didn't utter a public charge abouthis debacle in the valley of the White Bird, then Perry wasafraid his greatest fear would come to pass: The ghosts ofthose men sacrificed to the Nez Perce would shriek aloudtheir charges of incompetence and timidity ... if not outrightcowardice.

    Oh, the hours and days he had brooded over every deploymentof his forces, every action of his company commanders,each tiny reaction of his own during the short,fierce fight since that damp morning when he had beentested and somehow found wanting. Had he committed hisone-hundred-man force to battle without trustworthy intelligence,taking only the word of the civilian volunteers thatthe Nez Perce wouldn't dare stand and fight?

    David Perry, post commander at nearby Fort Lapwai,simply could not shake the unrelenting sleeplessness hisdoubts awakened within his most private soul, nor rid himselfof the constant horror he saw behind his eyelids everytime he shut his eyes and attempted to squeeze out therespite of a little rest from each endless night. He wonderedif he would ever find a way to rid himself of this haunting.

    Like an arrow a man would release into the air, aimed directlyoverhead—an arrow that might well fall back towardearth to wound or even kill that bowman—Perry understoodhis hasty, ill-considered journey into the White BirdCanyon would one day return to be his undoing. But thecaptain fervently prayed this would not be that day.

    Before he led his men south from Grangeville thatThursday morning, the twenty-first of June, Perry confidedin those fellow officers who, with him, had survived theirhumiliating defeat on the White Bird.

    "We'll make a reconnaissance as far as the top of the divide,"he instructed them. "And stop where we began to descendinto the valley on the seventeenth ... halting wherewe can view the battlefield at a distance."

    "We best keep our eyes skinned for them redskins" injectedArthur Chapman, a local rancher who was betterknown as Ad, bastardized from "Admiral," a name bestowedupon him for his uncanny ability to handle smallcraft on the region's swollen, raging rivers.

    Perry turned to peer at that volunteer scout coming to astop within the ring of officers. "You volunteering to lead usback across the ridge, Mr. Chapman?"

    The tall civilian appeared to weigh that briefly, his eyesdarting among the other soldiers who stood at Perry's elbows.Pushing some black hair out of his eyes, Chapmansighed. "I figger it's the decent thing to do, Colonel," he explained,using Perry's brevet, or honorary, rank earned duringthe Civil War. "But mind you, if them Injuns whuppedus and drove your soldiers off once, they sure as hell canwipe you out now—they catch us in the open again."

    Perry squinted his eyes, peering at that knot of horsemenwho warily sat far off to the side of his column of blue-cladsoldiers. "What of your recruitment efforts among the civilianpopulace, Mr. Chapman?"

    "Maybe a dozen," the civilian replied. "No more'n thatcome along with me."

    "That'll have to do—-as many local citizens as you canmuster." Perry did his best to sound upbeat. "Gentlemen,prepare your companies. We'll move out on our reconnaissancein thirty minutes."

    Here at the top of the White Bird divide, the captain hadhalted his depleted, nervous command. Gathering both leftand right at the front of Perry's column Chapman's civilianssat atop their horses, letting their animals blow. At theirfeet lay the steep slope Perry's doomed battalion hadscrambled back up on the morning of 17 June. Only fourshort days ago.

    His heart pounded in his chest. Surely the victoriousNon-Treaty bands had abandoned the area.

    "Don't see no smoke, Colonel," Chapman advised as heeased back to Perry's side.

    Civilian George M. Shearer, a veteran of that all-too-briefWhite Bird battle, agreed, "Likely moved their village."

    "Where?" Perry demanded.

    With a shrug, Chapman answered, "Gone up or downthe Salmon, I'd reckon. They whupped you already. Tookwhat they wanted from your dead soldiers, then moved on."

    "Surely Joseph has put out some war parties to roam thiscountry, Colonel," Captain Joel G. Trimble asserted with anunmistakable air of superiority.

    "At the least," added Second Lieutenant William RussellParnell, "the chiefs assigned some spies to remain in thearea to watch for us."

    As some Of the officers prattled on, Perry gazed into thecanyon, not completely sure what he had spotted below. Hiseyes might be playing tricks on him the longer he stared. Adark clump here and there across that narrow ridgeline hehad attempted to hold without a trumpet. More of themscattered back in this direction. Bodies. The unholy dead,their spirits raw and restless—

    "Mr. Chapman." Perry suddenly turned on the civilian."Select from your men a number of volunteers to accompanyyou for a brief reconnaissance."

    The civilian cleared his throats his eyes narrowing. "Youain't bringing these soldiers of yours down there with us?"

    Perry straightened in the saddle, feeling every pair ofeyes heatedly boring into him this warm midmorning. "No,Mr. Chapman. Make your search brief. Determine if thereare any war parties left behind, then return to this position.We'll await your return"

    For a moment Chapman glanced over the faces of theother citizens gathered from the nearby communities ofGrangeville and Mount Idaho. Shearer, the Confederatemajor who, so it was said, had served on General Robert E.Lee's staff, shook his head. Eventually, Chapman waggedhis head, too, his eyes boring into Perry's. "You ain't goin'down there with us, ain't no reason for me and my friendsto stick our necks out neither"

    "You won't search the valley?" Perry asked, his voicerising an octave.

    "No, Commander. Not without what few soldiers yougot left coming along with us, what soldiers can still fight ifthem Injuns show up again."

    With a sigh of finality, Perry said, "I can't chance that,gentlemen. My battalion is diminished in strength as it is. Idare not lose any more—"

    Almost as one, the civilians turned away behind AdChapman without uttering another word, starting backdown the slope for Grangeville and Mount Idaho. A few ofthem peered over their shoulders at those relieved officersand soldiers nervously sitting there with their cavalry commander.Overlooking what had become a field of death.

    Perry shuddered with the frustration he swalloweddown, reined his horse around, and signaled with his armfor his battered, beaten battalion to follow him back to thesettlements.


BY TELEGRAPH

* * *

An Indian War in Idaho.

* * *

IDAHO.

* * *

Official from General Howard.

WASHINGTON, June 20.—The following telegrams in regard to the Indian troubles in Idaho were received at the war department: From Gen. McDowell, San Francisco, to Gen. Sherman, Washington.—The steamer California arrived at Fort Townsend this morning with all the troops from Alaska. I have ordered them to go to Lewiston Friday morning. Gen. Hully will go to Lewiston by that date.

[Signed] MCDOWELL, Major-Gen.


SAN FRANCISCO, June 19.—-General Sherman, Washington—The following from General Howard at Laparoi to his staff officer at department headquarters is just received. There is rather gloomy news from the front by stragglers. Captain Perry overtook the enemy, about 2,000 strong, in a deep ravine well posted and was fighting there when the last messenger left. I am expecting every minute a messenger from him. The Indians are very active and gradually increasing in strength, drawing from other tribes. The movement indicates a combination uniting nearly all the disaffected Indians and they probably number 1,000 or 1,500 when united. Two companies of infantry and twenty-five cavalry were detached at Lewiston this morning and an order was issued to every available man in the department, except at Forts Harney and Boize, to start all the troops at Harney or Boize except a small guard. They may receive orders en route turning them.


    Dear Merciful God in heaven—did he feel all of hisforty-six years at this moment.

    Commander of the Military Department of the Columbia,headquartered at Portland, this veteran Civil Warbrigade leader, this survivor of the Apache wars in ArizonaTerritory, Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard steppedinto the midday light and onto the wide front porch of thejoint Perry-FitzGerald residence here at Fort Lapwai, slappingsome dust from his pale blue field britches with thegauntlet of the one leather glove he wore at the end of thatone arm left him after the Civil War.

    The ground of the wide parade yawning before himteemed with activity this Friday, the twenty-second of June,as company commanders and noncoms hustled their meninto this final formation before they would dress left anddepart for the seat of the Indian troubles. As the officers andenlisted were falling into ranks here at midday, the incessantdinging of the bell-mare as her mule string wasbrought into line, a little of the old thrill of war surgedthrough him anew.

    If ever Otis had hoped to be given one last chance to redeemhimself after the shame unduly laid at his feet withthe scandals at the Freedmen's Bureau down south ... thenOtis, as he had been called ever since childhood, wouldseize this golden opportunity to bring a swift and decisiveend to this Nez Perce trouble. A foursquare and devout believerin the trials and the testing the Lord God would putonly before those men destined for greatness, Howard wasall the more certain that this was to be his moment.

    The days ahead would yank him back from the precipiceof obscurity, redeem him before Philip H. Sheridan and especiallyWilliam Tecumseh Sherman himself—commanderof this army—and win for Oliver Otis Howard a secureniche in the pantheon of our nation's heroes. This was rightwhere he should have remained since losing his right arm inbattle during the Civil War. The winding, bumpy, unpredictableroad that had seen him to this critical moment hadbeen a journey that clearly prepared him for, and allowedhim to recognize, this offered season of glory.

    Born in the tiny farming village of Leeds along the AndroscogginRiver in the south of Maine on the eighth of November,1830—the same day his maternal grandfatherturned sixty-two—-his mother dutifully named Oliver Otisfor her father. His English ancestors had reached the shoresof Massachusetts in 1643, migrating north to Leeds nomore than a score of years before he was born.

    After passing the most daunting entrance exams, he wasadmitted to the freshman class at Bowdoin College in Septemberof 1846. Four years later found him beginning hiscareer in the United States Army as a cadet underclassmanat West Point. In the beginning he suffered some ostracismand ridicule because of his regular attendance of Bibleclasses, as well as his abolitionist views, being openly despisedby no less than Custis Lee, the son of Colonel RobertE. Lee, who himself became superintendent of the academyin 1852. Nonetheless, one of Howard's fastest friends duringhis last two years at West Point proved to be Jeb Stuart,who would soon become the flower of the Confederate cavalry.

    While Custis Lee was ranked first in their graduatingclass in June of '54, Howard was not far behind: proudlystanding fourth in a field of forty-six. After those initialstruggles, he was leaving the academy in success, a powerfulesprit d'corps residing in his breast. Back when he hadbegun his term at the academy, Otis had little idea exactlywhat he wanted to become when he eventually graduated.But across those four intervening years, Oliver Otis Howardhad become a soldier. It was the only profession he wouldever know.

    It had come as little surprise that the autumn of 1857found him on the faculty of West Point, where he would remainuntil the outbreak of hostilities with the rebelliousSouthern states. Just prior to the bombardment and surrenderof Fort Sumter, the spring of 1861 found Howard consideringa leave of absence to attend the BangorTheological Seminary. Until the opening of hostilities, thevery notion that the North and South should ever go to warover their political squabbles was hardly worth entertaining.

    But now it was war. Oliver Otis Howard had stepped forwardto exercise his duty as a professional soldier. Ratherthan remaining as a lieutenant in the regular army, he insteadlobbied for and won a colonelcy of the Third MaineVolunteers. Before that first year was out he had won hisgeneral's star, and scarcely a year later he became a majorgeneral.

    Few men in the nation at that critical time had the trainingor experience to assume such lofty positions of leadershipin either of those two great armies hurtling headlonginto that long and bloody maelstrom. While Otis had indeedbeen an outstanding student during his time at the U. S.Military Academy, it was over the next four years that he,like many others, would struggle to learn his bloody professionon-the-job.

    Ordered to lead his brigade of 3,000 toward the front inthose opening days of war at the first Battle of Bull Run, onthe way to the battlefield he and his men passed by the hundredsof General McDowell's wounded as they were hurriedto the rear. The nearness of those whistling canisters ofshot, the throaty reverberations of the cannon, the incessantrattle of small arms—-not to mention the pitiful cries of themaimed, the sight of bloodied, limbless soldiers—suddenlygave even the zealous Howard pause.

    He later wrote his dear Lizzie that there and then he puthis fears in the hands of the Almighty, finding that in an instanthis trepidation was lifted from him and the very realprospect of death no longer brought him any dread. Fromthat moment on, Oliver Otis Howard would never again beanxious in battle.

    Not long after George B. McClellan took over commandof the Union Army, Howard was promoted to brigadier generalof the Third Maine. In action during the PeninsulaCampaign, his brigade found itself sharply engaged on themorning of the second day of the Battle of Fair Oaks as theConfederates launched a determined assault. Ordered tothrow his remaining two regiments into the counterattackrather than holding them in reserve, Howard confidentlystepped out in front of his men and gave the order to advance.Although Confederate minié balls were hissingthrough the brush and shredding the trees all around them,Howard continued to move among the front ranks of hismen, conspicuous on horseback, leading his troops againstthe enemy's noisy advance.

    When he was within thirty yards of that glittering line ofbayonets and butternut gray uniforms, a lead .58-caliberbullet struck Otis in the right elbow. Somehow he remainedoblivious to the pain as his men closed on the enemy. Whenthey were just yards from engaging the Confederates inclose-quarters combat, a bullet brought down his horse. AsHoward was scrambling to his feet an instant later, a secondball shattered his right forearm just below the firstwound.

    With blood gushing from his flesh, Howard grew faint,stumbled, and collapsed, whereupon he turned over commandof the brigade to another officer. Later that morninghe was removed to a field hospital at the rear, where the surgeonsexplained the severity of his wounds, as well as thefact that there was little choice between gangrene—whichwould lead to a certain death—and amputation of the arm.By five o'clock that afternoon, the doctors went to work tosave Howard's life.

    Fair Oaks had been Otis's bravest hour.

    Across these last few days, while panic spread likeprairie fire across the countryside as word of the disaster atWhite Bird Canyon drifted in, townspeople, ranchers, andeven the white missionaries from the nearby reservationhad all streaked into Fort Lapwai, seeking the protection ofits soldiers,

    Now at last, five days after Perry's debacle on the WhiteBird, his army was ready to move into the fray. While hewas leaving Captain William H. Boyle and his G Companyof the Twenty-first U. S. Infantry to garrison this small post,Howard would now be at the head of two companies of theFirst U. S. Cavalry, one battery of the Fourth U. S. Artillery,and five companies of the Twenty-first—a total of 227 officersand men. One hundred of these were horse soldiers,and once Howard had reunited with Perry and his sixty-sixsurvivors of White Bird Canyon, Otis would be leading aforce of some three hundred after the Non-Treaty bands.

    Oliver Otis Howard had a territory and civilians to protectand a bloody uprising to put down. To his way of thinking,he had just been handed what might well prove to besomething far more than even his bravest hour had been atFair Oaks.

    This war with the Nez Perce could well be the definingmoment of his entire life and military career.


Excerpted from LAY THE MOUNTAINS LOW by TERRY C. JOHNSTON. Copyright © 2000 by Terry C. Johnston. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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