Home -> Miscellaneous Books -> Reminiscences of a Pioneer -> Chapter 11 - Battle in the Lava Beds

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Chapter XI.

Battle in the Lava Beds.

On Sunday, January 12, 1873, a strong reconnoitering force was sent out under Colonel Perry of the regulars and Captain O. C. Applegate of the volunteers. On the bluff overlooking the lava beds they found the Indians and found them full of fight. A picket was surprised and a gun captured, but they were unable to say whether any of them had been wounded in the skirmish. The Indians, however, came out in force and a brisk skirmish was kept up for some time when the troops, having accomplished the object of their mission, retired.

All the reinforcements having now arrived it was determined to attack the savages on the following Friday. The plans of General Wheaton were submitted to the volunteer officers and fully approved. General Frank Wheaton was an officer of experience and unquestioned ability. He was a veteran of the Civil war, and commanded 20,000 troops at the battle of the Wilderness, besides having the confidence and esteem of officers and men. Every contingency was guarded against, at least as far as it was possible to foresee it. The troops organized for the attack were Bernard's and Perry's troops of cavalry, and Green's and Mason's infantry, numbering 250 men; Captain Applegate's and Captain Kelley's volunteers, numbering 225 men, Donald McKay's Indian scouts numbering fifty and the California volunteers under John Fairchilds and Presley Dorris.

By general field order, Bernard was to move down from Land's ranch on Wednesday, January 1 16th, and occupy a position not less than two miles from the stronghold. At the same time Colonel Perry was to push across the trail to the bluff with his dismounted troop, while General Wheaton with the infantry and volunteers, ambulances, three howitzers, reserve ammunition, etc., was to go around by Little Klamath Lake and join the command of Colonel Perry under cover of darkness. This was regarded advisable as it was feared that the Indians, discovering our numbers, would leave the lava beds and scatter. Every soldier and volunteer had been ordered to prepare four days' rations, cooked. There was no question in our minds as to whipping the Indians, but we wanted to surround and capture them.

On the morning of the 16th all was astir and as day began to break the troops were all drawn up in line. I had determined to cross the trail with Perry and was sitting on my horse when I heard a man hallo "O," and as I turned my head heard the report of his gun. The fellow, a recruit in Mason's battalion of regulars, had deliberately shot off his great toe to keep from going into the fight. He pulled the trigger of his gun and halloed, before the gun was discharged. I mention this to show the difference in men. Here was a poor weak devil who would rather maim himself for life than to face danger where he might be killed, but it is safe to say that nine-tenths of the rest would have gone even after the loss of the toe.

We arrived in sight of the rim of the bluff about 2 o'clock and saw the Indian pickets. Colonel Perry threw out a skirmish line and the advance was ordered. Before getting within rifle range the pickets disappeared and we took possession. I now got my first view of the lava beds, as they stretched black and forbidding nearly a thousand feet below. A fog rested over the lake, but we could soon see through the rifts along the lake shore the Indians on horseback coming out to attack us. They appeared like phantom horsemen, and our Indian guide told us they were coming out to attack us, as there were "only a few and they are afoot." A few had reached the bluff and had begun a scattering fire, when we heard several shots that appeared to come directly from the stronghold. The Indian guide told us he thought they were killing some Indians that did not want to fight. As he had relatives among them the poor fellow showed the distress he felt. A few minutes later we heard several more shots, and I told Colonel Perry I heard Bernard's bugle. A few minutes later the clear notes of the bugle rang out clear and distinct, though it was fully five miles away. Yet in that clear, cold, dry atmosphere every note sounded as clear and distinct as though but a mile away. Bernard's column had followed the lake, and under cover of the fog enveloping the shore, had approached much nearer than his orders contemplated. He was at once savagely attacked and all evening the rattle of the guns sounded like many bunches of fire crackers. Repeatedly we heard him sound the charge and we all fretted that we could not descend and join in the battle. Perry's men were desperately afraid that "the Apache boys," as Bernard's men were called, would clean out the Indians and leave them nothing to do on the morrow. But our orders forbade and we contented ourselves with listening to the fight from a distance without being able to take a hand. Toward night the fog cleared away and we had an unobstructed view of the stronghold.

I have often been asked to describe the lava beds. That is beyond the power of language. In a letter to the Army and Navy journal, written at the suggestion of General Wheaton, I compared the Indians in the lava beds to "ants in a sponge." In the language of another it is a "black ocean tumbled into a thousand fantastic shapes, a wild chaos of ruin, desolation, barrenness - a wilderness of billowy upheavals, of furious whirlpools, of miniature mountains rent asunder, of gnarled and knotted, wrinkled and twisted masses of blackness, and all these weird shapes, all this turbulent panorama, all this far-stretching waste of blackness, with its thrilling suggestiveness of life, of action, of boiling, surging, furious motion was petrified - all stricken dead and cold in the instant of its maddest rioting fettered, paralyzed and left to glower at heaven in impotent rage for evermore."

Towards night the rattle of the guns gradually died away and the yell of the savages was hushed for the day. Leaving a strong guard on the bluff we joined General Wheaton a few hundred yards in the rear, anxiously awaited the coming of another day, little dreaming what that day was to bring forth. There was little sleep that night. The frozen ground with a pair of blankets is not a bed of roses, and is little conducive to sleep and rest. Most of the night was spent around the fires until 2 o'clock when all were ordered to "fall in." The order of march and battle was as follows: The command of Fairchilds and Dorris occupied the extreme left along the lake shore; Mason's infantry battalion, with mountain howitzers packed, joined Fairchild's right; Captain Kelley's command occupied the center with his left resting on Mason's right; Captain Applegate connected with Kelley's right and Perry's left, who occupied the extreme left wing; while Donald McKay's Indians formed a skirmish line in advance. The whole line stretched out a mile or more. As the line filed out of camp, their arms glittering in the bright moonlight, they formed a beautiful and inspiring sight. The command, "Forward on the line" was now given and we moved forward at a brisk walk. I galloped down the line and watched it as it descended the steep bluff. Low down and stretching over the lava beds lay a dense fog, and as the head of the line disappeared it looked as if it were going into the sea. As I sat there General Wheaton came up and insisted that I should leave my horse. On my consenting reluctantly, he detailed a soldier who took the animal back to camp.

As we reached the bottom of the bluff the entire line was deployed in the form of a half wheel, the intention being to surround the savages by connecting with Bernard's left and capture the entire band. Daylight now began to peep through the fog and night, and "forward on the line" was given and taken up by subalterns and repeated until it died away in the distance. There were no skirmishers now. McKay and his Indians fell back and remained in the rear for the rest of the day. Slowly the line moved forward, stumbling along over rocks, but keeping in perfect order of battle. Soon several shots were heard on the extreme right. It was daylight, and someone called that the Indians were escaping around Perry's right. Up to this time I had been with General Wheaton in the rear, but ran out to the line in time to see the Indians in our front leaping from rock to rock about five hundred yards away. The fog had lifted and a clear day was promised. I jumped upon a lava wave and waited for them to stop to get a shot. Instantly a bullet sang over my head, but thinking they were shooting at me from that distance paid no attention, but continued watching the leaping red devils. In about the time that is required to throw in a cartridge and take aim, another bullet went by, but it hissed this time and raised the hair on one side of my head. Still thinking that they were shooting at me from a long distance, I dropped on my knee with rifle to shoulder. Instantly the red devil, with sage brush tied round his head raised up about ninety yards from me and again fired. I only caught a glimpse of him as he made a few zig zag leaps among the rocks and disappeared. I fired at random but failed to wing my game. That taught a rash, presumptuous young fool a lesson, and he contented himself for the balance of the day imitating the men in the line, and keeping well under cover.

"Forward on the line" was ever the command and by 12 o'clock we had driven the Indians through the rocks several miles. Presently word came down the line that the volunteers could not be found. I started up the line when General Wheaton called to me to come back. Returning he directed me to give that order to Donald McKay. It was fortunate for me that I was called back, otherwise I should have gone in behind the "juniper fort," a strong fort built around a stunted juniper tree, and standing on a high point of lava. I gave the order to McKay who was riding a small pony, and he had proceeded but a short distance when the Indians opened on him from the fort and killed his pony. Some one remarked that "the volunteers are firing on McKay," as the shooting was considerably in the rear and to the right. We all ran up on a point when half a dozen bullets came singing around us. For once in my life I was glad as I distinctly saw Col. John Green dodge. He was an old soldier and had probably been in more battles than any man in the army and to see him dodge from bullets was salve to my pride.

A few minutes later we heard a yell to the right and rear as Kelley's and Applegate's men found the fort and charged it on the run. It transpired that it was Mason's line that had given way and the volunteers, feeling their way, had found the fort and taken it. But they lost two men, Frank Trimble and a man named Brown of Kelley's command. Lieutenant Evan Ream of Kelley's company, was also wounded, but he, refused to leave the line after his knee had been bandaged. A large caliber bullet had hit a rock and glancing had struck him on the knee with the flat side, cutting through his clothing and burying itself in the flesh. He was knocked down and we all thought for a time he was killed. He is now a merchant-banker at Klamath Falls. To give the reader a slight idea of the difficulties under which we labored, I will relate one incident occurring near where I was standing. A soldier was crawling up an upheaval, pushing his rifle before him, when he was shot through the body from underneath.

At about 2 o'clock Col. Perry came down the line and told Gen. Wheaton that he could go no further. A deep chasm, he said, in his front could not be crossed. "By gad," replied the General, "Col. Perry, you must cross it." "I can cross it, General, but it will cost me half my command. Every man attempting to cross it has been killed, and two litter bearers going to the relief of a wounded man were killed." Word now reached us from Fairchilds that Bernard was calling for help. He had called across an arm of the lake that ran up into the lava beds that he had more wounded men that he could take care of. Gen. Wheaton was now thoroughly distressed, saying "when Bernard hallows he is badly hurt." We then determined to try shelling the Indians with the howitzers and I started back to find the pack mules. Reader, if you ever tried to appear as if you were'nt scared, with bullets screaming around you, and with your back to the enemy, you will know something of my feelings. Those big fellows, striking in the rocks would glance and scream with an unearthly noise. My legs wanted to run, but pride held them in check. And right here I want to say, that bravery is only pride and a good control over your legs. I finally found the pack mules and started back, but it wasn't half as hard facing it and we came bravely up to the line. The guns were planted and opened with shells timed to three hundred yards. Two burst and a call came from Bernard's men that we were shelling their rear guard.

Firing with the howitzers ceased as it was clearly a failure, and a consultation was held. We knew our loss was heavy, Gen. Ross declaring it "is worse than Hungry Hill." It was finally determined to send a column to relieve Col. Bernard. Accordingly Fairchild's California volunteers, Mason's battalion and Perry's dismounted cavalry were ordered to cut their way around the lake shore and join Bernard. Fairchild's men passed over the point without loss, but several of Mason's men were killed in plain sight. The soldiers balked and refused to advance. Col. Green ran down the line and leaping upon the point turned his back to the Indians and with a gauntlet in his hand used language that was scarcely fit for a parlor. Gen. Wheaton also joined and with a sword taken from a bugler boy, ran down the line urging the men to move forward. They soon began the advance and passed over the point and out of sight. Meantime I was moving the volunteers down towards the lake to take the places in our front vacated by the relief column. The battle now became desperate, the Indians concentrating all their forces against the column going round the lake. In this situation the volunteers pressed forward and soon we could hear the women and children crying. Applegate's men were almost on top of them and were getting into camp. We were within 50 yards of the scalp pole over Jack's cave which was the center of the stronghold. The volunteers were anxious to charge. I went back to where Gen. Wheaton was standing and explaining the situation asked permission to charge with all the volunteers. The fog had raised and Capt. Adams of the signal staff was signaling to Bernard. I told Gen. Wheaton if he would have Bernard cease firing I would charge and close the Indians out in twenty minutes, that our men were on top of them.

The General walked rapidly back and forth, snapping his fingers for a few moments, and then turning to me exclaimed: "You can go, but not with my consent. We have lost too many men already - five times more than Jackson lost at New Orleans. The country will not justify this sacrifice of human life. You have taken these young men and boys off the farms and from stores, schools and shops and their lives are worth something to their families and to their country. You can go but not with my consent." Then turning to Gen. Ross, who had scarcely spoken a word during the day, he said: "General, what had we better, do?" "We had better get out of here, by God," exclaimed the bluff old veteran. "All right, Capt. Adams, tell Bernard that as soon as the relief column reaches him to hold his position until dark and then withdraw," exclaimed Wheaton in rapid succession. Then turning to me he said: "Colonel, we will have to depend on the volunteers to protect our wounded and mule train in getting out of this place." It was soon arranged that the men were to keep firing until dark and then begin the retreat. Just after sundown Bernard signaled that the relief column had reached him, but there is not a question of doubt had not the volunteers pressed the Indians so hard at a critical time Fairchild's, Mason's and Perry's command would have been annihilated. Jud Small was badly wounded in the shoulder and afterwards told me that he was shot by an Indian not twenty feet away. At one point the men lay in the water and rolled over and over with only their heads exposed.

Night finally closed in and with the gathering darkness the fog rolled in from the lake, increasing its intensity. Kelley's company was formed in the rear with Applegate's company on the flank, and formed parallel with the lake, along the shores of which we were to make our way, with the wounded men on litters between. Finally the word was passed along the lines to move forward. The night had meanwhile settled down to one of Stygean blackness. Objects a foot away were indistinguishable, and we had to feel rather than see our way. I fully realized the difficulties and dangers of our situation, but my anxiety was for the nineteen wounded men on the litters. I told Col. Bellinger that we must remain together and behind the litter bearers, that I would rather leave my body with our dead comrades in the rocks than to leave behind any of our wounded men. But we had proceeded but a short distance when the lines crumbled and became mixed up, in fact, an undistinguishable mob. Under these circumstances, and relying on undisciplined troops, our position was critical in the extreme. One shot would have precipitated a stampede. Wheaton, Ross and Miller were somewhere mixed up among the troops, but Bellinger and I stuck to the litter bearers and kept as many of the men behind us as possible.

Donald McKay's Indians were in the advance, somewhere, but we knew not where. In this order, or rather disorder, we stumbled along blindly, knowing the waters of the lake were on our right. The bottom of the bluff was finally reached and word passed back that the Modocs had captured and held the summit. I stopped as many of the men as possible and asked Col. Bellinger to remain with the litter bearers and I would go forward and if necessary capture it back. Reaching the front I found Indians, volunteers and officers all jumbled together without semblance of order. The Indians were confident the Modocs had killed the guards left there in the morning and held the top of the bluff. I called for volunteers, but not an Indian would go. I finally got a few volunteers and began the ascent of the steep, rocky trail. The climb was tedious in the extreme, and one can imagine my joy when on nearing the crest there came the sharp call, "Who comes there?" I was prompt to reply "friends." Learning that all was well, I retraced my steps to the bottom and gave out the welcome news that everything was clear.

Then began a scramble to reach the top. It was everybody for himself, as it was too dark to even attempt to preserve a semblance of order or discipline. Going to the rear I found Col. Bellinger with the wounded men. Holding as many men as possible we began the ascent. As the litter bearers gave out others took their places and the tired men slipped away in the darkness. As we neared the top, Col. Bellinger and I relieved two worn out bearers and that was the last we saw of them. In this condition we staggered into camp at 2 o'clock in the morning, more dead than alive. To add to the discomfort of the situation others had reached our store of provisions ahead of us, and we simply had to do without. We had now been on the march 24 hours. Our boot soles were almost cut away on the sharp lava, and we were all but barefooted. But I had my horse, and though I had nothing to eat, I felt greatly relieved. A few hours sleep on the frozen ground and we were again astir. I was holding my horse to graze when Gen. Wheaton's orderly came to me and stated that the General wanted to see me at his tent. Handing him the halter strap I walked down to the tent and stepped in. The General was sitting on the ground with a can of coffee before him. He said he had a couple of cups of coffee and four crackers and wanted to divide with me. It required no persuasion on his part to induce me to accept.

While we were sipping our coffee we discussed the events of the previous day. The General was visibly affected and greatly worried. Even then we did not know the full extent of our losses. The dead were left where they fell and only our wounded carried out. Would the country justify the sacrifice of life, not knowing the character of the country over which we had fought? Speaking of the lava beds, the General remarked: "I have seen something of war and know something of fortifications. I commanded 19,000 men at the battle of the Wilderness and saw many of the great engineering works of the Civil war, but I do not believe that a hundred thousand men in a hundred thousand years could construct such fortifications." This will give the reader a faint idea of the lava beds. Indeed a regiment of men could conceal themselves in its caves and fissures and ten thousand men could be marched over them without seeing a man.

Placing the wounded in ambulances we now broke camp and started to our camp at Van Bremer's ranch. After a tiresome march by way of Lower Klamath Lake, the wounded men undergoing terrible sufferings, we reached camp at 11 o'clock that night. Here another difficulty confronted us. Our provision train had not arrived and we were reduced to beef straight. There was some murmuring among the men, kept up and agitated by a doctor attached to Kelley's company who told the men that they had been robbed and swindled by the officers. Hearing of this I hunted him up. He said that a "soldier did not dare to complain without being called a s-of-a-b." Twenty or thirty volunteers were standing around. I explained that the wagons had been two weeks on the road; that they had made only ten miles in seven days; and that a man, private or officer who would talk about asking for his discharge, though all were entitled to the same, was a son of a b-h, and a d--d one at that. He went to Gen. Ross and complained of my language, but was told that the "Colonel knew what he was talking about." The disgruntled pill mixer mounted his horse and left, and that was the last we heard about being discharged. We continued feasting on beef straight and fattened on the diet, at least I did.

The day after our return we buried the man I had seen shot through the stomach, while crawling on his belly. Patrick Maher was buried with military honors. On the fourth day the troops sent to relieve Col. Bernard arrived at camp, and the reports all being in we found that 41 men had been killed in the fighting on the 16th and 17th of January. The death of Patrick Maher made 42, besides a long list of wounded. When we consider that there were not more than 500 engaged, counting McKay's Indians, the loss was heavy, and would the Government endorse or censure the officers, was the question.

As before stated, we were camped at the ranch of Van Bremer Bros. On our return Col. Bellinger and I had to give up our quarters in an out house to accommodate the wounded men and after that we slept, when we slept at all, on the frozen ground with two thicknesses of blanket beneath us. Under such circumstances it may easily be imagined that our periods of sleep were of short duration. We would drop asleep and in an hour wake up shivering. We would get up, cut off some beef and roast it before the fires that were constantly kept burning, get warm and then lie down again. I mention this, not because we were undergoing hardships more trying than others, but to show how all, officers and men, fared. There was no difference. One day a surgeon came to me and asked if I could obtain some eggs for the wounded men, so I went to Van Bremer and got half a dozen eggs and paid 50 cents each for them. He would not take script but demanded and received the cash, nearly all I had. From that time until our departure I spent a considerable portion of my time in studying human villainy with the Van Bremers as a model. But I got even with them - and then some. Before leaving I asked Gen. Ross for permission to settle our hay bill in place of the Quartermaster, Mr. Foudray. Capt. Adams and I then measured the hay used respectively by the regulars and volunteers, and I feel safe in saying that those eggs cost the Van Bremer Bros. $50 each.

Of course they raved and ranted, declaring that we were worse than the Modocs, but when they saw the tents of the regulars and blankets of the volunteers being pulled down and rolled up they came to me and asked what it meant. I told them that we had been ordered to the mouth of Lost River on Tule Lake to protect the Oregon settlers, and that the regulars were going also, but that Gen. Wheaton was going to leave a detail at the Fairchilds ranch and that if they did not feel safe with the Modocs they could move up there. They lost no time in loading a few effects into a wagon and started with us to the Fairchilds ranch. On the road they mired down and every man, regular and volunteer, passing them had something bitter and mean to say to them. The story of the eggs was known to all, and if ever men paid for a scurvy, mean trick it was the Van Bremers.

We moved around to Lost River and struck camp, where we remained about ten days. As Gen. Wheaton felt competent to protect the settlements, and as the term of enlistment of the volunteers had expired more than a month before, we proceeded to Linkville and from there to Jacksonville where the command of Capt. Kelley was disbanded, Applegate's company having been discharged at Linkville. I then returned to Salem and a few days later paid a visit to Gen. Canby at Ft. Vancouver in company with Governor L. F. Grover. The entire situation was gone over, Gen. Canby expressing entire confidence in the ability of Gen. Wheaton and his officers. Fortunate, indeed, would it have been had that brave officer and splendid gentleman been left to develop and carry out his plans, but unhappily that was not to be, for the churches succeeded in hypnotizing the grim soldier in the White House, and the result was the "Peace Commission.

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