The Pursuit and Capture of Chief Joseph
by Charles Erskine Scott Wood
The battle in White Bird Canyon was the first armed conflict of the Nez
Perce War. I helped bury the dead in that canyon. The next clash was the
two-day battle on the north fork of the Clearwater, July 11 and 12, 1877.
Then Chief Joseph's retreat through the Lolo Pass began, only to end at
Bear Paw Mountain, Montana, within about thirty miles of the British line
and safety. (Joseph could easily have made his escape by pushing his march
a little further, but, as General Howard anticipated, he kept his eye
on our rate of progress and when we slowed down, he did the same.)
If the battle of the Clearwater is considered as the start and the surrender
at Bear Paw Mountain as the finish, General Howard and I were the only
two persons who were in the Nez Perce campaign from beginning to end.
Some joined us later, and the entire command was stopped by order a day's
journey from the scene of the surrender. Of the small detachment with
which Howard pushed on to find Miles, he and I were the only ones who
had participated in the earlier part of the campaign. And now I am the
only survivor of the little group which stood on the rolling hilltop at
Snake Creek and watched Joseph come up to surrender. Therefore I feel
it is somewhat of an obligation for me to give my own experiences in the
Nez Perce War.
After the battle of the Clearwater, came skirmishes at the beginning
of Lolo Trail, then the battle at Big Hole, where Gibbon was wounded;
then the early morning attack at Camas Meadows, where Joseph ran off with
our packtrain and we, recovering only about half, had to stop at Henry
Lake and send into Virginia City, Montana, for pack horses and wagons.
Then we built the bridge across the Yellowstone River and brought over
it the first wagons that had ever gone through the National Park. Joseph's
trail had let us so far through some of the most terrific fastnesses of
the Rocky Mountains.
Howard had wired Sturgis to have his six or seven troops of the Seventh
Cavalry watching for Joseph's debouchment from the mountains somewhere
in the neighborhood of Hart Mountain, for we judged by his line of trail
and the trend of the water-courses and passes that he would have to descend
from the mountains at that point. We tried to send messengers ahead of
the Nez Perce to give Sturgis definite information of our coming, but
not one of our couriers got through, all being killed by the Indians.
Nevertheless it did not seem possible for Joseph to make the maneuver
in this country which he had done at the eastern end of the Lolo Trail
-- that is, go over the hills and around the waiting enemy. I shall never
forget the actual pass through which he made his exit into Clark Basin
near Hart Mountain. It was the spout of a funnel -- the dry bed of a mountain
torrent, with such precipitous walls on either side that it was like going
through a gigantic rough railroad tunnel. Had Sturgis remained at Hart
Mountain in accordance with instructions, ready and watching, Joseph's
escape would certainly have been blocked. But in the night Joseph had
sent a few of his young men quietly around Sturgis' force toward Hart
Mountain. There, at daybreak, they stirred up a great dust by tying sagebrush
to their lariats and riding around furiously, dragging the bundles of
brush along the ground. Sturgis thought Joseph's whole body had got past
him, and started in pursuit of the long dust trail, abandoning the mouth
of the pass. When he saw it clear Joseph went through safely. The young
men who had acted as decoys made a long circuit and joined Joseph out
on the easy plains of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.
At this time Howard sent a written order down the Yellowstone by boat
to Miles at Fort Keogh and a duplicate overland by mounted messenger.
I myself wrote this order, which was in substance as follows:
Joseph and his band have eluded Sturgis and he is now continuing his
retreat toward British Columbia, and we believe is aiming at refuge with
Sitting Bull. He is traveling with women and children and wounded at a
rate of about twenty-five miles a day; but he regulates his gait by ours.
We will lessen our speed to about twelve miles a day and he will also
slow down. Please at once take a diagonal line to head him off with all
the force at your command, and when you have intercepted him send word
to me immediately and I will by forced marching unite with you.
I am not sure whether that order mentioned the fact that we had with
us two old Indians whose daughters were in Joseph's camp: Old George and
Captain John, and an interpreter, Arthur Chapman, a Nez Perce squaw-man,
in whom Joseph had great confidence. We believed that if Joseph could
be stopped he would surrender without further resistance on our arrival.
I do think there was some such information given to Miles in the order
I wrote or verbally by messenger. Nevertheless the essential thing was
to notify him of Joseph's whereabouts, of which at this time he had no
knowledge at all, the direction of his flight, and his rate of march,
and also our intention of slowing down till we heard from Miles. My memory
is clear on these particulars.
When General Howard left his own military department (Department of the
Columbia), at the eastern end of the Lolo Trail, he sent General Sherman
at Washington a telegram which I wrote. Its substance was:
Shall I continue pursuit of the hostile Nez Perces beyond the limits
of the Department of the Columbia? And if so, what provision will be made
for the subsistence of my troops, horse and foot?
In due time, and before we reached the Yellowstone, General Sherman's
reply reached us, which I remember was about as follows:
Pursue the Indians until captured or driven beyond the boundaries of
the United States. When captured, care for them as prisoners of war in
your own Department. Subsist on the country as the Indians do.
As the Indians were sweeping the country bare ahead of us, this last
seemed a poor joke. But we did manage to subsist, although at times on
very meager rations -- and when tobacco ran out, it was tragic.
I mention these despatches now, to show how thoroughly General Howard
and all of us were affected by the words "When captured, care for them
as prisoners of war in your own Department." This meant Idaho, so far
as the Indians were concerned. From that time on no one, including General
Howard, had any other thought but that when the Indians were captured
they would be taken back to Idaho.
This should be kept in mind when I come to the surrender, for it was
Joseph's claim that he was promised as a condition of the surrender that
he and his people would be taken back to their own country.
Miles acknowledged the receipt of Howard's order, and said he would at
once set out on the diagonal line to intercept Joseph. The messenger returned
and said that he had delivered the order to Miles and that Miles had immediately
issued orders to his command, and made all necessary preparations that
night, including rations, ammunition, horsefeed and two howitzers, and
had at daybreak set out at a rapid pace on the diagonal line which General
Howard hoped would enable him to intersect the Indian line of march.
When General Howard was told of this rapid efficiency, he was as happy
as a schoolboy, and said, "That is just like him! I knew we could depend
We lessened then our pace to about twelve miles a day in accordance with
our communication to Miles, and so proceeded for a few days, following
the Indian trail, until Howard felt certain that sufficient time had elapsed
for Miles, with his mounted command, to have made the interception and
to have sent word to him by mounted messenger. Meanwhile, Sturgis and
his cavalry joined our command on the Musselshell, September 20th. Here
we received word from Miles that he was in hot pursuit on the diagonal
line indicated. Again Howard was jubilant. We continued at our leisurely
pace for about a week and then received a despatch from Fort Benton, addressed
to either General Howard or Colonel Gibbon, to the effect that the Indians
had crossed the Missouri at the mouth of the Musselshell and that Miles
was closing in along the diagonal line of interception. We now pushed
on rapidly and at Carrolton on the Missouri took the steamer Benton and
in one day went up the Missouri to Cow Island, where the Indians had crossed.
General Howard now began to worry about Miles, fearing he had been surrounded
as Gibbon had been. He felt in view of all the information received it
was ample time he had received word from Miles. But at Cow Island a messenger
from Miles arrived, saying the Indians did not suspect his whereabouts
and that he was closing in on the line of interception as planned. Howard
estimated that by this time Miles should have met the hostiles, and he
grew more uneasy; so with Miles' messenger as guide he set out October
3rd accompanied by his two aides, who were his son Guy and myself, and
seventeen men, including the two old Indians who had daughters in the
hostile camp -- Old George and Captain John -- and Arthur Chapman, the
Nez Perce squaw-man.
The wreck of the freighter's train greeted us as we left the steamer.
It was now very cold and we had only "buffalo-chips" for fuel. We bivouacked
that night on the open prairie. Some of the men got sick from the villainous
alkali water-melted snow, caught in buffalo wallows. At earliest daylight
of the 4th of October we resumed our quest of Miles, still following the
Indian trail. In the afternoon we saw a man at a distance across the prairie,
evidently puzzled by our appearance. General Howard sent a couple of our
scouts to bring him in. He turned out to be a bearer of mail and despatches
for Miles from Miles' post at Fort Keogh, and was trying to find him.
He was a frontiersman called Slippery Dick or "Liver-Eating Johnson" --
because, by his own story and popular report, he was supposed to have
eaten a piece of the liver of an Indian whom he had killed and scalped,
thereby following the tradition of the Indians, that if one ate a part
of the heart or liver of an enemy, he would acquire all the bravery of
the dead man.
We continued our march with this liver-eating recruit. I, with two of
our scouts, branched from the direct line of march, and went off on the
prairie after a herd of buffalo. I shot one, and found that by chance
I had killed what is known as a "Silk Robe" buffalo, that is, an animal
whose coat was nearly as soft as beaver-fur. It was a very rare and valuable
specimen, and I was anxious to preserve it. The two scouts set to work
skinning the buffalo, and they had just finished and the hide had been
rolled up by one of the scouts and loaded on his pommel, when one of the
soldiers came riding back at full speed, saying that General Howard ordered
us to close up -- there were Indians ahead. Regretfully we threw the hide
to the coyotes and rode to join our party.
Against the snow of Bear Paw Mountain some ten miles away we saw what
seemed to be a line of black ants crawling down the butte. They turned
out to be some of Miles' Cheyenne scouts. While I was absent, one, or
as I think two, scouts overtook us and said they were messengers from
Miles to Sturgis who had been sent to notify the latter that the Nez Perce
had been encountered.
Later I was told by other scouts they had been sent to notify Howard
also, and having missed him, had reported to Colonel Edwin Mason, next
After the surrender there was so much bitterness toward Miles in the
Howard command and so many stories afloat that my memory has been confused.
The last message from Miles that I remember had been received at Cow Island
on about September 27th, and I know Howard had been worried because he
did not hear further. One explanation may be that the messengers went
first to Sturgis, then to Howard's command, but he having pushed on ahead,
they reported to Colonel Edwin Mason.
When Howard met Miles at Bear Paw he said, "Why didn't you let me know?
I was afraid you had met Gibbon's fate." When I told Howard in private
conversation, as I shall relate later, that I distrusted Miles because
he had failed to notify us to hurry, Howard defended Miles. Nevertheless
I do not remember Miles' telling me messengers had been sent to Howard,
even though they had missed him. There was a prevalent opinion that Miles
did not want Howard to close up for fear Howard, as senior officer, would
by operation of military law, supersede him in full command. I think in
all this confusion the proper solution is to accept Miles' own statement
that he did send messengers to Howard, and to assume that the messengers
who overtook us had been to Howard's camp but missed him. After all these
years I would not want to put my memory forward as exact.
Still it would be interesting to know the exact purport of Miles' messages.
If the one to Sturgis asked him to come at once to his support and relief,
Sturgis with his fresh cavalry should have arrived on the scene at least
as soon as the returning messengers, but in fact these troops never arrived
on the Bear Paw field at all, nor made any effort in that direction, nor
seemed to be expected. If the message to Howard was to close up by forced
marches as agreed, Colonel Mason would have done this, and if Howard's
personal presence was desired why did Miles meet him so coldly, and in
his official report make not the slightest allusion to his personal presence
nor to the important part played by the two old Indians and Chapman, the
interpreter? They would have vouched for Howard's presence and the proximity
of his whole command -- facts that really brought about the surrender.
Could it have been possible that Colonel Miles did not wish Howard to
be present (lest he oust him from command and share credit for the surrender)?
As Miles' messengers were sent off immediately after the first attack
it would seem Miles anticipated victory, and that the messages were to
that effect, declaring any junction of forces, either by Sturgis or Howard,
unnecessary. Every commander who had surprised these Nez Perce -- Perry,
Gibbon and Sturgis -- had confidently expected that after the first assault
all would be over, since such had been their experience with all other
Indians they had met. If Miles also shared this confidence and sent, immediately
after the attack, messages anticipating victory and showing any junction
of forces to be unnecessary, then the failure of Mason to push on to overtake
Howard and his small escort, and above all the failure of Sturgis ever
to arrive on the scene are understandable.
With the above explanation to show that I was very likely wrong in having
held that Miles did not send back some message to Howard, I shall go on
with my story as I remember the incidents. This particular incident is
not important. What are important as historical facts are the conversations
between Howard and Miles in Miles' tent at Bear Paw and between Howard
and myself at that time and the subsequent train of events and incidents.
As to all these my memory is absolutely clear; they were burned in.
As we approached Miles' camp that cold snowy evening it was dark, and
we saw the flashes of the rifles from the rifle pits on both sides. Miles
met us with his adjutant, Lieutenant Oscar Long, and an orderly and perhaps
two or three soldiers all mounted. General Howard dismounted and we all
followed his example. Howard advanced toward Miles, who had also dismounted,
and Howard held out his hand, saying very delightedly "Hello Miles! I
am glad to see you. I though you might have met Gibbon's fate. Why didn't
you let me know?"
Miles made no answer to this but replied with a cold formal greeting
and asked the general to come to his tent while he was having a separate
tent prepared for him. Howard motioned to the Indians Old George and Captain
John, and said, "Miles, I have two old Nez Perce Indians here who have
daughters in the hostile camp. I have brought them as witnesses and negotiators.
Also Arthur Chapman there has lived with these Indians and they trust
him. I wish you would have them all taken care of."
As I remember it Miles told Long to take care of them, keeping the Indians
under guard, and they all went off accompanied by the General's son, Lieutenant
Guy Howard. Miles and Howard went on to Miles' tent, I following.
General Howard said as we entered, "Lieutenant Wood always occupies my
tent with me; he is my aide-de-camp and is adjutant general in the field
for my command." Colonel Miles nodded in my direction at this, and then
General Howard plunged earnestly into the heart of the matter:
"Miles, you have given me the sort of assistance I wanted, and what I
expected of you. You stopped those Indians, and I intend to see you have
the credit for it. I know you are ambitious for a star (the insignia of
a brigadier-general) and I am going to do all I can to help you. We will
have a surrender tomorrow. These old Indians will tell Joseph and the
others that I am here on the spot and my entire command is only one day's
march away which they will be by the time we are through negotiating tomorrow.
We will have a surrender, beyond shadow of a doubt -- and I repeat --
you shall receive the surrender. Not until after that will I assume command.
Tomorrow morning you and I will talk things over."
Colonel Miles' entire manner changed; he became cordial, thanked the
General for all he had said, and added "You must be very tired. We will
meet in the morning to arrange matters."
When we left the tent and entered the one assigned to us, I said to General
Howard, in substance:
"General, I am a little surprised at what you have just said, and feel
as your aide I ought to speak very freely, as the confidence you have
in me deserves. You have just said that you are going to help Miles to
a star. I feel that is very impulsive and may lead to some feeling on
Gibbon's part. He is a much older man of the Civil War than Miles and
we have left him behind us, wounded at the Big Hole battle. He also is
an aspirant for a star, and his Civil War record gives him a great superiority
over Miles. But, of course, Miles has a father-in-law, Senator Sherman,
and his uncle-in-law, General Sherman, and other political influence.
But that is not exactly what I am troubled about. You have told Miles
you are not going to assume command until after the surrender. Now, the
Articles of War expressly say when two commands meet, the senior officer
must assume command of all, so I do not think this chivalrous act of yours
will have any recognition in military law, and, if there is any criticism
hereafter, you will certainly have to bear the responsibility."
"Yes, yes," he said, "I know that. But this is an act of generosity not
uncommon between commanders, and I am willing to bear the responsibility,
as of course I must."
"Well," I replied, "General, the chief thing is your command, in which
is my own regiment. They have followed you from the Battle of the Clearwater
and across the Bitter Root Mountains and the Rockies, -- a terrific march,
filled with hardships , and now, only a day's march away, you halt them
there and deprive those ragged and footsore foot troops and the jaded
and worn out cavalry of their right to be in at the death."
"Well," he said, "that touches me very deeply, but we will adjust it
so that my own immediate command will be given full credit. I will have
Miles in his report say that my entire command was present and assisting
at the surrender which in a military sense they are. As you say, they
are only one march off. Joseph will know all this tomorrow from Captain
John and Old George and Chapman, and it will be because of the presence
of myself and my command that they will see how hopeless is further conflict.
So my immediate command will produce the surrender. In a military sense
it is present on the ground."
"Well," I said, "all right. I am not convinced, but I have nothing more
to say. I do not trust Colonel Miles. I am sorry to say it, but I do not
trust him. When you asked him this evening when you first met, 'Why didn't
you let me know, Miles?', he didn't answer, and you hurried on to tell
him he had given you the assistance you had expected of him, and he never
answered. He knows the Articles of War, and I think he deliberately refrained
from sending you a report, because he knew that by forced marching in
one day, or two at the most, it would place you here on the spot and in
command by the fixed rules of military law. Of course he could not foresee
your doing this chivalrous deed -- letting him receive the surrender and
taking all the credit."
I give this as I remember it and it is substantially accurate. It was
too important and has been too often repeated to be forgotten. When I
had concluded General Howard put his left hand on my shoulder (he had
lost the right at Fair Oaks) and said:
"Wood, you are wrong to distrust Miles. Why, I would trust him as fully
as I would you. He was an aide-de-camp on my staff during the Civil War,
just as you are now. I got him his first regiment. I would trust him with
This ended the discussion. The bedding was brought in and we went to
sleep. Next morning General Howard, his son Guy, I, Colonel Miles and
his adjutant Lieutenant Long, the interpreter Arthur Chapman, and the
two old Indians, Old George and Captain John, all met at a rather commanding
spot on the rounding brow of a hill opposite to one where were the rifle
pits dug by the trapped Indians. In the winding ravine between lay their
camp, but now all its inmates were dug into the hill for protection. After
a little discussion between General Howard and Colonel Miles which I did
not hear, as I, Long and Guy Howard were off to one side, Chapman was
called and was told to tell the two old Indians to go in and assure Joseph
and White Bird and all the rest, that General Howard himself was here,
ready to be their friend; that his whole command was only one march away
and if necessary would be brought up and the fight resumed, which could
now have only one end. Chapman was also told that the old men could say
that if the band surrendered they would be supplied with food and blankets
and otherwise taken care of. All the warriors would be considered as honorable
prisoners of war, and there would be no trials or executions for anything
done in the past. I am sorry I do not remember whether it was distinctly
said that they would all be returned to the country of their people in
Idaho. I am very sure nothing was said about their being returned to their
homes in the Wallowa or the Imnaha valleys, because General Howard well
knew that the government had given its final decision in that matter and
that those valleys would never again be Nez Perce territory. It was on
this very decision of the government that General Howard had held his
last council with Joseph and the other chiefs, at the conclusion of which
they had agreed to give up their claims to the Wallowa and Imnaha valleys
and to take allotments in the existing Nez Perce reservation in Idaho.
But I am very sure that no matter what the exact words were, everyone
there, including General Howard, understood and fully expected the final
disposition to be the return of these prisoners to the Department of the
Columbia -- that is to say, to the Lapwai reservation in Idaho.
I must here recall attention to the telegram of Sherman's, mentioned
above, to the effect that the Indians if captured were to be taken to
the Department of the Columbia (which meant Idaho). Everybody took this
as an accepted fact, including the old Indians, Captain John and Old George,
and the interpreter, Chapman. It was one of those accepted facts which
become part of a contract or agreement, as much as if definitely expressed
in words. Colonel Miles had had two conferences with Joseph before we
arrived. In these conferences he had promised in clear terms that if Joseph
surrendered, he and his people would be returned to their own country,
and I feel that if Miles promised this at any time, it unavoidably became
a condition of any surrender Miles received as full commander.
I will a little later quote another order I wrote at General Howard's
dictation, which will show how after the surrender he himself was still
firmly of the opinion that he not only might but that he must return the
Nez Perce to the Department of the Columbia. Every excuse made for not
doing so -- that it was for the welfare of the Indians, that the whites
would take revenge on them, that it would bring on another Indian war,
though perhaps good reasons in a way -- clearly broke faith with the Indians
and repudiated one of the conditions of the surrender.
Without digressing further, let me say that on that same day, the 5th
of October, the ground covered with a light fall of snow, the surrender
was agreed on. About an hour or so before sunset there came from the ravine
below, up to the knoll on which we were standing, a picturesque and pathetic
little group. Joseph was the only one mounted, and he sat, his rifle across
his knees at each side of his horse talking earnestly. Slowly they mounted
to where we stood at the top. General Howard and Colonel Miles were grouped
together, and a little retired, myself, Lieutenant Howard, Lieutenant
Long, and further back an orderly and Arthur Chapman, the interpreter.
Still further away, at some little distance, a courier stood at the head
of his horse, holding loosely the bridle while the horse pawed the snowy
ground. When the Indians reached the summit those on foot stopped and
went back a little, as if all was over. Then, nothing but silence. Joseph
threw himself off his horse, draped his blanket about him, and carrying
his rifle in the hollow of one arm, changed from the stooped attitude
in which he had been listening, held himself very erect, and with a quiet
pride, not exactly defiance, advanced toward General Howard and held out
his rifle in token of submission. General Howard smiled at him, but waved
him over to Colonel Miles, who was standing beside him. Joseph quickly
made a slight turn and offered the rifle to Miles, who took it. Then Joseph
stepped back a little, and Arthur Chapman stepped forward so as to be
between Joseph and the group of two-Howard and Miles. I was standing very
close to Howard, with a pencil and a paper pad which I always carried
at such times, ready for any dictation that might be given. Joseph again
addressed himself to General Howard, as was natural, for he had had several
councils with Howard, including the last one which led to the war. he
said (Chapman interpreting):
"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before -- I
have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Too-hul-hul-sit is dead.
Looking Glass is dead. He-who-led-the-young-men-in-battle is dead. The
chiefs are all dead. It is the young men now who say 'yes' or 'no.' My
little daughter has run away upon the prairie. I do not know where to
find her-perhaps I shall find her too among the dead. It is cold and we
have no fire; no blankets. Our little children are crying for food but
we have none to give. Hear me, my chiefs. From where the sun now stands,
Joseph will fight no more forever."
(He-who-led-the-young-men-in-battle was his brother, Alikut.)
As Joseph finished he drew his blanket over his head and turned to walk
away to where his friends had remained standing, but I motioned to him
to wait. Colonel Miles took a paper from Lieutenant Long and stepped aside
with General Howard and showed it to him. General Howard read it attentively,
then looked up and smiled and said, "That is all right, Miles." Colonel
Miles then walked away with Lieutenant Long, and General Howard, now assuming
command said to me, "Mr. Wood, take Chief Joseph as prisoner of war into
camp; see that he is well treated, not in any way annoyed, but carefully
guarded against escape." I had Chapman translate this to Joseph and I
nodded pleasantly to the chief and tried to look, at least, as if it were
all friendly. I beckoned him to come with me, and he promptly came forward,
and we started to walk back. I noticed that Colonel Miles and Lieutenant
Long, who had gone together to where the courier stood at the head of
his horse, did not at once despatch the message which had been shown to
Howard, but that with the courier they were slowly walking back into camp.
Presently I saw the courier galloping away. Colonel Miles returned and
joined General Howard. They overtook me and Chief Joseph just as we reached
the tent assigned to him. General Howard told Miles he had put me in charge
of the prisoner, and he would be glad if Miles would issue orders to have
him carefully guarded. When I had seen Joseph into his tent and had said
to him through Chapman that we wished to make him very comfortable and
if there was anything he wanted, or anyone he wanted to see, or any messages
he wanted to send, he was to communicate his wishes to Chapman. I told
him I myself would see him again. For General Howard and all the soldiers
I wished him good luck and hoped his troubles were over, and then left
him. It will be observed that true to Indian custom, Joseph had not spoken
for White Bird. That night this chief with his family and a few of his
band escaped and finally joined Sitting Bull in Canada. General Howard
maintained that in permitting this Joseph had violated the terms of surrender,
and so the government was not bound to return the Indians to the Department
of the Columbia.
I had written in lead pencil Joseph's speech as he gave it through Chapman,
but eventually I gave the original to the adjutant general of the army,
at his request, because he said he had in his archives the speeches of
Chiefs Logan, Red Jacket and one other of the great Indian chiefs I forget
the name-and he would like to add this speech of Joseph's to the collection.
I gave it to him, and as it was not long I made a copy immediately. Later,
after I had resigned from the army, and was on one of my visits to Washington
to appear before the Supreme Court, I went into the War Department and
as a matter of curiosity asked to see this lead-pencil memorandum which
I had made, as I had lost my own copy. The clerks made diligent search
for it, but the then adjutant general told me it had disappeared. I have
done my best now to reconstruct it from memory, but it will be found correctly
given in the account of the surrender which I wrote for a Chicago newspaper
and in the article I later wrote for the Century Magazine.
I wrote in these articles all that I here say in criticism of Colonel
Miles and more, and all that I will hereafter say in this introduction.
Also, I freely criticised Miles to my former fellow-officers stationed
at Vancouver Barracks, where Miles, now a general, was located in command
of the Department of the Columbia. I was then practising law in Portland,
Oregon, just across the Columbia from Vancouver, Washington, and General
Miles and I frequently met at formal functions, but he never accused me
of doing him an injustice. Indeed, he never alluded to the matter. This
present comment is therefore not as if I for the first time censured one
whose lips were sealed in death.
General Howard almost immediately after Joseph's surrender prepared to
leave with his command for the steamer Benton, ordered to wait for us
on the Missouri. The river was beginning to run low by reason of the freezing
nights, and both the captain of the steamer and General Howard were exceedingly
anxious to be off before navigation closed. As a part of his final adjustment
of matters relating to the Indians, Howard issued an order to Colonel
Miles, which I wrote. It was substantially as follows:
COL. NELSON A. MILES, etc., etc.
You will take care of the captive Nez Perce Indians at your post, or
as in your opinion may be most desirable, until the passes in the mountains
are clear of snow in the spring. You will then send them under guard
as prisoners of war to the Department of the Columbia, reporting to
me or my successor in command.
My comment on this is that as it was written after the surrender, after
White Bird's escape was known, it conclusively shows General Howard was
up to the very last intending to have these captive people returned to
the Department of the Columbia-that is, so far as the Indians were concerned,
Idaho-and I think this intention is more important even than words.
No one could possibly be kinder to me than was General Howard, of no
one in the service could I have a more grateful memory. The cheap epithet,
"The Christian Soldier," applied him by the Eastern newspapers during
the campaign was simply ignorance, and nothing short of infamy. We stopped
but two Sundays in that entire campaign. The first of these was to care
for the wounded and wash up in the waters of the Clearwater after the
battle on that river, and the second was part of our enforced delay at
Henry Lake. Both delays were for military reasons. Yet the newspapers
reported that every Sunday Howard halted his command to hold religious
services and compelled all the men to learn Bible texts!
General Howard commanded the right wing of Sherman's army on his march
to the sea. His ability and gallantry as a military commander need no
defense against the lies of the newspapers. I can say of him, as General
Sherman himself said: "Howard is so brave because he believes he is going
to heaven." I myself say he gave me many an uncomfortable moment under
fire when he didn't seem to know we were being made targets! After joining
his staff, I rode at his side by day and slept by his side at night, and
never did he assume the role of religious teacher.
We embarked on the Benton and started down the Missouri, steaming by
day and tying up at night. At Fort Abraham Lincoln officers came aboard
to pay their respects to General Howard and someone brought him copies
of the Chicago daily papers. After these officers had departed General
Howard began to read one of these papers-I think the Tribune. Suddenly,
with a startlingly pale face, he came toward me, his empty sleeve jerking
and waving on one side and the newspaper waving on the other. "Look at
this, Wood, look at this! I cannot believe it!" Examining the paper, I
found it contained Colonel Miles' telegraphic report of the surrender
to General Phil Sheridan in Chicago. It read: "I have had my usual success!
I have surrounded and captured the hostile Nez Perce Indians," etc. etc.,
giving the number of men, women, children and horses and saying that he
was holding them as prisoners of war subject to instructions. Not a single
word of Howard or his command, not a word of Howard and the old Indians-no
more than if they were all in the moon. Yet undoubtedly Howard's arrival
had produced the surrender-but not one word.
General Howard was absolutely brokenhearted over this; he could not understand
it: the man who had been his aide and for whom he had got his first regiment.
He now ordered me to get one of the steamer's boats and some negro deckhands,
and getting into it, we proceeded that night down the river until we reached
what is now Bismarck, which then was the advanced construction camp of
the Northern Pacific Railway. They gave us an engine and we went into
St. Paul, and thence to Chicago. Arriving in Chicago in the evening, I
went to a hotel, and General Howard went to stay with his brother Charles.
I asked him if I might write a true account of the surrender and he said
he would be glad to have me do so. I said, "General, I shall state the
facts. It may make trouble." "Go ahead," was his reply. I did this, and
sold it to one of the Chicago papers. I forget which one, but think it
was the Times. (That was the year Congress had refused any appropriation
whatever for the army. I had no money.) In that newspaper article was
printed in full everything I have detailed here concerning Colonel Miles-especially
as to the substitution of telegrams.
Next morning we went to call on General Sheridan. He received General
Howard with a furious outburst, such as a well-bred man would not display
toward a stable-boy. He shouted at him: "General Howard, what do you mean
by printing that article about Chief Joseph's surrender without my consent?
You know the Articles of War forbid it!" General Howard said, "Well, General
Sheridan, when I saw in the papers the utterly untrue account which you
must have authorized the papers to print, which is utterly false by reason
of vital omissions, concerning me and my command, I felt I had a right
to tell the truth. My aide, Lieutenant Wood wrote the article, but I have
read it in the morning paper and fully approve of it."
"I don't care who wrote it!" shouted General Sheridan. "I hold you responsible.
"I accept the responsibility," replied General Howard.
"You should have come to me," said Sheridan, "and passed everything through
me. I have a good notion to courtmartial you for this!"
General Howard replied: "I wish you would, General Sheridan. We will
then get the truth. I wish you would, and we will see whether in the sense
of the law you are my superior officer in this matter, or General Sherman,
from whom I had express orders to ignore all department lines and pursue
the Indians to an end, which I did. And I was personally present at the
surrender, and I and my command brought it about as stated in the article
you object to!"
Another outburst from Sheridan-"I don't care where you were"-etc., etc.,
till Howard grabbed me by the arm and said, "Come on, Wood, we will leave
here," and we did.
Needless to say, there was no courtmartial. Sheridan's real objection
was that the article told facts scandalous according to the military code.
I think I may here close my part in this matter, except that I want to
say General Howard and I constantly differed on his position as to Chief
Joseph's surrender. He maintained he had made no specific terms, he had
had no authority to make any, it had been a matter entirely with the Secretary
of War and the President; and that Joseph had violated the terms of surrender
in permitting White Bird to escape to Sitting Bull the night of the surrender.
I never have thought and do not now think these arguments sound. Authority
or no authority, Howard, following Sherman's order, had assumed the captives
were to go back to Idaho. If White Bird had escaped before the surrender,
he was not included in it; if he had fled after the surrender, it was
our part to hold our captives, no Joseph's. In any event, Joseph's word
by Indian custom could not have bound White Bird.
They were sent to the Indian Territory. General Miles objected to the
sending of the captured Indians to a strange and unwholesome region, and
continually contended that he himself had specifically promised they should
go back to their own country. All that I know of General Miles' statements,
in his book or otherwise, show that the claim that he was the great champion
of these unhappy prisoners of war is correct. He was, and no one respects
him for it more than I do.
I should say further that I made the first draft of General Howard's
official report of the Nez Perce campaign. In this I incorporated as fully
as here the entire picture of the changed despatch and Miles' failure
to send Howard prompt notification that the hostiles had been checked.
General Howard struck all this out, saying we should do good to those
who despitefully use us, and neither as a military reflection or in any
other way would he attack Colonel Miles. It was enough for him that to
the best of his ability he had pursued the Indians till captured, let
the glory rest wherever it might fall. As I remember General Howard's
book, it was supported to a certain extent from the official journal which
I kept as adjutant in the field. But its treatment of all matters relating
to General Miles was such a suppression, probably from high Christian
motives, as really not to be true. Certainly it does not prevent Howard
from complaining that he had no reports nor cancel the picture of the
frantic man on the deck of the Benton, claiming he had been betrayed.
As for Joseph and his people, after I resigned from the army, I also
tried in my own way to carry on the fight for justice for them. I made
some addresses before philanthropic societies, and did what I could to
keep the matter alive and to get it before Congress.
After I resigned and was practising law in Portland, and Joseph and his
people had been returned, not exactly to their own country, but to a neighboring
reservation in northern Washington, I saw Joseph several times on his
way to and from Washington on matters relating to his people. We talked
over the old bitter days. He asked if I still had his saddle-we had exchanged
saddles before we parted at Bear Paw. Once he wanted my boy Erskine to
come to his camp-which he did. General Gibbon, who succeeded Miles in
command of the Department of the Columbia, invited Joseph to come to Portland
as my guest, to sit for his portrait by our great sculptor, Olin L. Warner,
who at that time was in Portland erecting his beautiful work the Skidmore
Fountain. Joseph came, and the result was the magnificent bronze medallion
now in the Metropolitan Museum. My son has very affectionate memories
of Joseph and his motherly wives and thinks he profited much from that
acquaintance. One injunction Joseph laid upon him is exactly that laid
upon the Spartan youth-"Be brave and tell the truth."