The Battle Of White Bird Cañon (Part I)

The first meeting between the Nez Perce and the white man took place in September 1805 when Lewis and Clark led a small group across the Bitterroots into Nez Perce country.  "The Nez Perce received them graciously, gave them supplies, and told them about the river route to the Pacific.  Soon fur trappers and traders, both British and American, followed in their wake. 

In the 1840s settlers began to make their way westward along the Oregon Trail, and in 1846 the Nez Perce found themselves part of the United States when the U.S. and Great Britain divided the Oregon Country along the 49th parallel.  By this time, the Nez Perce had come under the influence of Christian missionaries, who believed that the Nez Perce should abandon their traditional ways and adopt the white man's religion and culture."[i][i] 

In 1855 the Nez Perce reservation was created, consisting of most of the Nez Perce's traditional homeland.  "The discovery of gold on the Nez Perce Reservation in 1860 raised calls from white people for a smaller reservation that would exclude the gold fields.  So in 1863 a new reservation, containing only one-tenth of the land originally set aside, was proposed to the tribe.  Lawyer, a pro-American, Christian leader, and his followers accepted the plan and signed the treaty.  Other Nez Perce leaders rejected it, giving rise to the 'treaty' and 'non-treaty' designations of the respective factions.

Four years later the U.S. Government launched a campaign to move all the Nez Perce onto the new, smaller reservation.  The Nez Perce leaders who had not signed the treaty and who lived off the new reservation ignored the orders.  Foremost among them was Old Joseph, who led a band that lived in Oregon's Wallowa Valley.  Young Joseph, who succeeded his father as chief, hoped that a peaceful solution could be found, for he did not wish to go to war or leave his home.  In May 1877, the non-treaty Nez Perce were told that the U.S. Army would forcibly move them onto the reservation.  So in early June, Joseph and his people crossed the Snake River into Idaho and camped near Tolo Lake while preparing to move onto the reservation by the June 14 deadline. 

On the morning of June 13, 3 young men, angered at what was happening and seeking revenge for the murder by a white man of one of their fathers, rode out of camp.  By midday June 14 they had killed 4 settlers.  Joined by 17 others, the group killed 14 or 15 whites in the next 2 days.  Knowing that Gen. Oliver O. Howard would retaliate, the Indians headed for White Bird Canyon." [ii][ii]

General Howard made the decision to "send immediate relief to Mount Idaho; he had to stop the killings and insure the safety of those living in the vicinity.

He had only two companies of cavalry available at Fort Lapwai for duty, but they would have to suffice.  He hoped the small contingent might also serve another purpose - that of containment.  He wanted to keep the Indians occupied while he marshalled troops to deliver a crushing blow.  His orders would start two more companies of cavalry marching from Wallowa and a detachment of infantry steaming up the river from Walla Walla.  Additional troops and supplies would be forthcoming from more distant posts under his command.  It would take time to assemble the strength he needed, and time was precious, but above all Howard did not intend to 'feed the enemy with driblets."[i][iv]  

The relief force consisted of Company F and Company H of the First Cavalry; Company F consisted of 49 enlisted men with cooked rations that would last 3 days; Company H consisted of 54 men with rations good for 5 days.  Each soldier carried forty rounds of ammunition.  Captain Perry and 1st Lt Theller commanded Co F., Captain Trimble and 1st Lt. Parnell, commanded Co H.  CPT Perry led the command, accompanied by a number of friendly Nez Perce. [i][v]

 When everything was ready, CPT Perry turned to Gen Howard. 

"Good-by, general!"
"Good-by, colonel.  You must not get whipped."
"There is no danger of that, sir."[ii][vi] 

LT Parnell recorded the time of departure as "eight o'clock on the evening of June 15th."[iii][vii]  He also recorded:  "The Nez Perćes were a brave and warlike type of the Indian, tall, strong and well formed, armed with weapons equal, if not superior, to our own, for theirs were Winchesters, sixteen shooters; ours were the Springfield, single-shot, breech-loading carbines.  They had a large herd of good, strong ponies, giving them almost unlimited relays for their remounts, either for pursuit or retreat."[iv][viii] 

The roads were muddy and especially bad in sheltered places.  Terrain features such as heavy timber and deep ravines compounded the problem and combined with the blackness of the night, it was impossible to proceed very rapidly.  After a brief stop around 10:00 am for a hurried breakfast, they reached Grangeville about sunset.  The leader of the citizen volunteers, Arthur Chapman, persuaded Perry "that unless the troops pursued the Indians quickly and caught them before another day had passed, it might be too late."[v][ix]  Perry summoned his officers; they concurred, the attempt should be made.  

"'Boots and Saddles' came at 9 o'clock, and a half-hour later the column was ready to move out…Perry had asked Chapman to augment his force with as many volunteers as he could muster and to provide him with a guide.  Chapman promised twenty-five or thirty men but later showed up with eleven, including himself."[vi][x] 

Somewhere between midnight and 1:00 am, the command reached the head of White Bird Cañon.  Perry gave the word to dismount and keep awake.  "He also issued an order prohibiting fires and smoking.  The men were starting on their second night without sleep and many of them dozed off.

Sgt McCarthy {1st Sgt Troop H} made continual rounds to rouse the sleeping.  He also noted in his journal that the horses were also tired and many lay down next to their masters.  "Forgetting himself, one of the men struck a match to light his pipe."[i][xii]  McCarthy's journal recorded that "it did not come from any of our people for there are imperative orders about lighting matches."[ii][xiii]  Almost immediately, a coyote howl was heard.  Several individuals noted the sound 'was not quite natural'[iii][xiv] and it was assumed that the sound came from an Indian signaling their approach.

When dawn broke at around 4:00 am Sunday morning, June 17th, Perry gave the order to mount.  While moving toward the cañon proper, he set up an advance guard with scouts.  When they neared the Indian Camp, an Indian peace party approached the command but "without a moment's hesitation Chapman opened fire."[iv][xv] Chapman fired twice, the Indians retreated and Trumpeter Jones began to blow the call to battle which would bring the main force forward.  Before Jones could finish, a bullet jarred him from the saddle.

Many Indians were on foot and some of the troops felt at a disadvantage and dismounted.  The volunteers moved forward but when the Indians returned fire, many "turned tail and fled."[i][xvi]  Turning to Trumpeter Daly to give the order to charge, Perry learned the man had lost his trumpet.  Perry could see the Nez Perce advancing below him.  Sizing up the situation, he perceived that the ridge he held was the most defensible position in the vicinity and he would make his sand on the ridge. The Indians began to move around Co H's flank and Trimble detailed McCarthy and six men to hold a rocky point that commanded the ravine and the west half of the ridge.

  "Perry was desperately in need of means of projecting his commands."[ii][xvii]  Battle noise, dust & smoke made communication nearly impossible.  Perry was quoted as saying, "a cavalry command on a battlefield without a trumpet is like a ship at sea without a helm."[iii][xviii]  Soon 2 volunteers were wounded  and  at  the  same  time,  "the regulars on the left of the line began to move back in response to the telling fire delivered by the warriors on the point.  Seeing the soldiers withdrawing, the volunteers hastily galloped to the rear…Perry was too far away to order a charge to retake the hill."[iv][xx]

"He ordered the word passed from man to man to move slowly to the right and rear…A few of the men were having difficulty managing their horses, which were bucking and kicking in cadence with each volley."[i][xxi]  To further complicate things, the last trumpet had also been lost. 

"After the volunteers fled from the knoll, some of the warriors moved round the end of the line and fired into the company from a position in the rear…suddenly the skirmishers on the left saw the right of the line begin to pull back and move up the ridge to the west to join Co. H.  Word had not yet reached them of the tactics being employed by Perry, and they interpreted the movement as a signal for a full-scale retreat."[ii][xxii]

"Scurrying down the banks of the hollow, terror-stricken soldiers swung into the saddle and galloped to the rear - some of them leaving their weapons behind in their haste."  As they fled, "the men on the right panicked and in a short time most of the company joined in the unceremonious retreat."[iii][xxiii]

To further compound the situation, "the Indians had driven a large herd of loose ponies through our line, and scattered in among the ponies were some sixty or seventy warriors who immediately attacked us in the rear, demoralizing the troop, many of whom were recruits,…it became utterly impossible to control them."[iv][xxiv]

Meanwhile, McCarthy reached the point.  "An exchange of shots followed, apparently with little effect on either side.  Presently he observed the right of the line begin to swing near him, and a few men of Company F reached the point and took a position on his left.  A few minutes later he heard a voice summon him to the rear."[v][xxvi]  "Word was passed to us to mount and join the line for a charge, but before we all got back the order was countermanded and we again advanced to the bluffs, dismounted and opened fire wherever we could see Indians."[vi][xxvii] 

(Trimble concluded that the best place to defend given the present circumstances was the bluff held by McCarthy and Perry concurred.  When Trimble encountered McCarthy returning he ordered him back to the point.)

"The main body of troops, however, did not reach the bluff or apparently even come close to it.  The men became scattered in the charge and the column disintegrated.  For the second time, the cavalrymen turned to the rear in hasty retreat."[vii][xxviii]  McCarthy had succeeded in reaching thebluff but the Indians soon had them cut off.  A call to retreat came a second time and McCarthy ordered a rapid withdrawal and they made a "quick run over the boulders through a hail of bullets."[i][xxix]

When he reached Parnell, "Parnell begging me to hold them said he would ride to the rear, overtake the fugitives and 'bring me help.'  Here again, the most desperate part of the business fell to my share.  For a few minutes I managed to hold them…I scolded, swore and abjured the men to deploy and make a stand if for no other reason than to breathe themselves…they are paralyzed with fear or exhausted with fatigue or loss of blood and are killed unresistingly before our eyes…no help appeared…Up to this time I didn't begin to realize that there was a disaster.

My horse was wounded.  It was time to get me back before he gave out.  Harry's gait does not improve so I dismount, turn him loose and take it afoot and get over the ground quite lively, for I am now thoroughly scared.  A half mile dismounted and I am almost exhausted.  I overtake a man of my Company (Fowler) took me on behind."[i][xxx]

"After a bullet wounded Fowler's horse, McCarthy rode double with Cpl. Michael Curran."[ii][xxxi]  [Note, McCarthy's Journal records the loss of his two horses but makes no mention of riding double with Curran] "a friendly Indian catched a loose horse but I was so exhausted that they had to help me on…in a few minutes we overtook a party of our own men with Colonel Parnell.  I reported the result of my attempt."[iii][xxxii] Parnell responded: "I could not help you Sergeant you see how everything is going."[iv][xxxiii]  "The Indians…are getting bolder and are closing in around us."

"I am again unfortunately the last file we have been riding in a column of files, a shot from the Indians following up the road disables my 2nd horse and he stops in the road.  I dismount and try to run up the road but I am so exhausted from previous effort that when I try to run up the very steep incline I fall on my face several times. 

The Indians on the road see my situation and when within almost fifty yards give me a volley.  The bullets striking the bank about the height of my knees.  I cannot go any further, so turning partly towards them I staggered to the side of the road my foot slipped and I fell all abroad by the side of the road.  My fall must have deceived the Indians into the idea that they had killed me in the last volley for …the whole party passed me at a gallop in the pursuit and so as far as I am concerned the battle of White Bird was over."[v][xxxiv]  (End of Part I)

Editors Note:  The White Bird battlefield is 15 miles south of Grangeville and approximately .5 miles from the town of White Bird Idaho.  The Visitors Center in Spalding has a pamphlet detailing a self-guided tour of the White Bird Battlefield.

 

Michael McCarthy

Rank and organization: First Sergeant Troop H, 1st US Cavalry
Date and Place of Birth:
St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, 19 April 1845. Entered Service at:  New York, NY.
Battle or Place of Action:  White Bird Canyon, Idaho.
Date of Issue:  20 November 1897.

Citation: Was detailed with six men to hold a commanding position and held it with great gallantry until the troops fell back.  He then fought his way through the Indians, rejoined a portion of his command, and continued the fight in retreat.  He had two horses shot from under him and was captured, but escaped and reported for duty after three days' hiding and wandering in the mountains.  End of Citation

"Michael McCarthy was the first sergeant of Company H.  Born in St. John's, Newfoundland, he was thirty-two years old.  He had apparently enlisted in the Army shortly after the close of the Civil War."  [According to the Washington National Guard, he enlisted in the First Cavalry on 3 November 1865[i][xxxvi]].  He had seen duty on the Mexican border and had fought in the Modoc War, where he had participated in the capture of Captain Jack.  Before entering the Army, McCarthy had been a printer.  He was five feet seven inches in height.  He had reddish brown hair, brown eyes, and a ruddy complexion." [ii][xxxvii] 

We also know that for a time he went by the name of Augustus Howard.[iii][xxxviii]  McCarthy kept a detailed journal.  Excerpts from it comprise part of his story and that of White Bird Cañon.

June 17th - "After falling I lay still a few minutes as much to rest myself as fear, for of attracting attention for my legs from the knees downward were so tired that even when I did move I had to trail them after me and draw myself along on my hands."

He slowly crawled into a small creek and lay there for "about fifteen minutes allowing the water to flow over my legs and employing the time planning an escape.  It was rather a difficult thing to attempt to leave the creek for the hills were steep and bare upon both sides and there was no doubt of there being Indians about."  "Not daring to leave the creek I retraced by steps, if crawling back again could be called retracing my steps.  I succeeded in getting a short distance above where I had fallen, crawling over a bare spot and into a clump of rosebushes when I hear the patter of a pony's hoofs on the road above me.  Two warriors returning from the pursuit…It didn't seem possible that they could avoid seeing me, but they did not."

"A squaw also mounted came galloping down the road, another following.  The first calling the young warriors back and using the Chinook she told them there was a soldier in the bushes, and she pointed to where I fell about 75 or one hundred yards below.  She described me quite accurately not even forgetting my stripes and chevrons.  She had evidently seen me when I fell in, and was watching my hiding place, but I had crawled away from the spot she watched it seems unobserved by her.  I had also already taken off my coat and hat fearing the color would betray me and believing that my gray shirt would harmonize more with the color of the rocks."

 "I crouched down closer in the channel and managed to conceal the lower part of my body, my head in the thickest part of the brush and my right hand resting on a rock with pistol cocked, determined to have a shot if discovered."  He goes on to say that the two warriors fired shots into the bushes where he had fallen and then rode off.  The two squaws however continued searching now joined by an old man.  They passed so close to him that he recorded, "I could look into their faces …and I could if I so wished grasp the muzzle of the old smoothbore musket that the old reprobate carried."

He lay motionless, holding his breath.  He could see the whites of their eyes but they did not see him.  Eventually they left but one of the squaws returned to continue the search.  He had now been in the creek close to an hour.  He decided to "take up the steep hill behind me and if necessary fight for my life."  Fearing that his long heavy boots would impede his movements, he took them off and slowly, quietly, cautiously, crept away.  He records that with all the dust, excitement, and darkness, he had not taken much notice to the direction of travel while heading to White Bird.  Now, his only guide was Mount Idaho.  "Over the stone and shingle on which I was traveling my pace was dreadfully slow by reason of my barefeet, and once I came near treading on a rattlesnake, halting I took off my drawers tore the legs apart and binding a leg around each foot, I drew the now footless stockings over them to keep them in place.  This was better, but the stones still hurt.  About midnight I reached Rocky Canon, near the Camp the Indians left when they broke out." 

He also records that exhaustion and lack of food compounded his situation.  The first record he made of obtaining food was "about noon I commenced to climb to the top.  I found some wild berries on my way up.  It took me nearly three hours to get to the top, I had to rest every few yards and also to make considerable detours to take advantage of cover, for I was yet only a few miles from the woods I left the day before." 

By now the wrappings on his feet were worn through and he was "a mass of bruises from tumbling and rolling, and the other modes of progression I had to adopt in leaving White Bird and crossing Rocky Canon, singing snatches of all the son[g]s I could remember to keep up my courage."  Later that day he made the disconcerting realization that he was not traveling towards Mount Idaho but was in fact traveling towards Craigs Mountain.  He debated whether to continue on to Cottonwood where he knew of a ranch or to head back to Grangeville and try and locate the rest of his unit.  He knew of another ranch which he concluded he had passed the night before, which was directly behind him and much closer. 

"About 3'oclock in the morning I reached the ranch, crawling into a field of young wheat I lay down and commenced eating it tops and all.  The ears were just beginning to form.  This feast of green wheat was very grateful to my empty stomach and I felt better for it.  Some wheat straw was stacked in the field.  Into this I crawled, burying myself in the straw and I slept about two hours."   

Upon awakening, he made his way into the ranch house and found it abandoned with signs that its occupants had left in a great hurry.  He found a pair of miners' rubber boots and an old pair of stockings which he put on.  He also found about a pound of baked mutton which he also commandeered.  Fearing that there may still be Indians in the area, he left the house and using what camouflage nature provided such as bushes, fences and wheat fields, made his way towards Grangeville.  

When he was approximately 5 miles from Grangeville, he noticed "suspicious movements among some cattle" and he took cover in a field.  After about a half-hour, he moved towards a small rise.  He again heard the sound of people shouting and again took cover, this time in a dry ditch where he was able to hide by covering himself with straw.  Shortly thereafter he heard the sound of wagon wheels and knew the sounds he had heard were from white people.  

"I came out of my entrenchment and ran towards them, shouting and waiving my pocket handkerchief.  A mounted man came to meet me and shook hands.  When I told him I was the First Sergeant of Co. H he was surprised and said 'all the men said you were killed, several said they saw the Indians killing you,' and more to that effect.  I said 'I am not dead just yet, but I am terribly hungry.'  He made me mount his horse and we went towards Grangeville." 

"My advent was quite a sensation.  I had to do considerable shaking hands and answer innumerable questions.  Everybody was wonderfully surprised, so certain appeared my death, and I was examined all over for wounds, but nothing worse than a scratched face, and sore feet was discernible.  Somebody gave me some canned oysters, I ate them and I would be ashamed to record the amount of meat and bread, but it was enormous, and I turned into Sergeant Baird's bed and went to sleep.  Orders were given that I was not to be disturbed and I slept until afternoon, and woke almost as well as ever.  My constitution had [endured] the great strain upon it wonderfully well."  His journal records that on June 20th, he went to Mount Idaho and was given a "pair of boots, a hat and a pair of gloves" by the storekeeper Mr. Rudolph, as a gift.  [The book Forlorn Hope records that the storekeeper had second thoughts about his gift and after the war had ended, Rudolph presented McCarthy with a bill for the items." [iv][xxxix]] 

After his close call at White Bird, McCarthy resumed his military career and recorded the June 30th arrival of McConville and his Lewiston Vols. as well as details about the battle of Clearwater but that is a story for a future newsletter.  

After White Bird, "Michael McCarthy became the Quartermaster Sergeant of the 1st Cavalry on June 10, 1878.  He completed his military service in the Regular Army on May 14, 1879." [i][xl] 

Michael McCarthy[i][xli]

 

"Following the Nez Perce war he did not reenlist and was discharged at Walla Walla where he settled.  He served with Capt. Painter's Militia company in the Bannock campaign and was very prominent in the early organization of the Washington Territorial Militia in the Walla Walla area.  He was elected First Lieut. Of Company A, Walla Walla Artillery, Washington Territorial Militia on 18 May 1881 and to Captain in the same company on 1 Aug. 1881.  

In 1884 the designation of the Company was changed to Company A, Washington National Guard and he was re-elected Captain on 20 May 1884.  On March 28, 1885 he was appointed Assistant Adjutant General with the rank of Captain and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on March 5, 1887, continuing his assignment as Assistant Adjutant General. 

 In a reorganization in 1888 he resigned to accept an appointment as Captain of Company A, 2nd Regiment of the Washington National Guard, serving continuously until he was again appointed Lieut. Col. of the 2nd Regiment on 27 April 1891.  On 22 December 1897 he was appointed Colonel and Quartermaster General of the Washington National Guard in which position he served until he was reappointed in the same grade to serve as Chief of Engineers, NGW.  He retired on 16 October 1905." [ii][xlii]

 The army closed Fort Lapwai in 1885 but continued funding for the cemetery.  In 1890 the army ordered the disinterment of those killed at White Bird and they were reinterned at Walla Walla Washington.  When McCarthy learned of this, he launched a fundraising campaign to build a monument to them in the Walla Walla Cemetery.  When the funds fell short of the needed amount, McCarthy pitched in the remainder.  Forlorn Hope recorded that it is made of Vermont marble and stands 15 feet high.[iii][xliii]  

On November 20, 1897, McCarthy received the Medal of Honor for his actions at White Bird.[iv][xliv]  History has recorded very clearly that the battle at White Bird occurred on June 17, 1877 yet his citation reads Date of Action:  June 1876-January 1877.  His journal does not records his being captured at White Bird as his citation reads; it does however record his narrow escape.

 The book Deeds of Valor gives a very heroic detailed account of McCarthy's time on the bluff and contains the following quote: "He seemed to know of no danger and fought like a lion."[v][xlv] McCarthy referred to it as a "glowing account."[vi][xlvi]   

Col McCarthy died on January 15, 1914 and is buried at the Mountain View Cemetery in Walla Walla, Washington in Block P, Lot 18, Grave 5.[vii][xlvii]

Editors Note:  A special thank you to Mr. Robert Applegate of the National Park Service in Spalding Idaho and to Mr. David Olling of the Washington National Guard State Historical Society for their assistance with this story.

 
The Battle Of White Bird Cañon (Part II)

After 1st Sgt McCarthy lost his footing, the warriors swept by him and continued the chase.  CPT Perry tried once again to rally the fleeing soldiers and turn them about.  “Sometimes he promised to shoot them if they failed to comply, but even under threat of death they would stand for only a short time, and he had to start all over again."[i][i]    

In his own words, First Lieutenant Parnell continues the story.  "As Perry passed in to the right I supposed he would halt the line when in position on the right of Troop H, but not so.  He kept on gaining ground to the right and rear until I saw him finally ascend the steep rise to the bluffs above and disappear from sight.  He afterward explained this officially by the statement “that the men were beyond control.” 

I now found my position one of extreme danger.  The other two officers of the command had followed the movement of Perry's troop to the elevated plateau on our right.  Lieutenant Theller and eighteen men were killed by an overwhelming body of Indians before they could reach Perry's men.  The quantity of empty shells found where their bodies lay indicated that they fought to the bitter end.  

With what men I could collect together I now commenced falling back, fighting, by the way we came; that is, up the White Bird Cañon.  I saw that it would be suicidal to attempt to reach the bluffs on our right, so we slowly retreated up the ravine, holding the Indians in check from knoll to knoll.  I saw that halt must be made pretty soon to tighten up our saddle-girths, so, posting a few men in a little rise in front to hold the Indians, I dismounted and readjusted my saddle, directing the men to do the same.  We then took position on the right knoll and from knoll to knoll we fell back, waiting at every halt until the Indians came near enough to receive the contents of our carbines.  They were swarming in front of us and on the hillsides on both flanks, but the few brave fellows with me obeyed every command with alacrity.  I think there were thirteen or fourteen men altogether.  

The Indians dared not approach too closely, yet at one time they were near enough for my last pistol cartridge to hit one of them in the thigh.  We had several miles of this kind of work up through the cañon, but the men were now cool and determined and fully alive to the perilous situation we were in.  When we reached the head of the cañon, we were rejoiced to find Perry's men, who had been falling back in a line nearly parallel with us, on the mesa above.  He had eighteen or twenty men with him.  I had not seen him since he reached the bluffs two hours before, and neither of us knew anything about the whereabouts or fate of the other.  Our meeting no doubt saved the massacre of either or both parties, for we had yet about eighteen miles to fight our way back ere we could hope for succor.  Immediately in our rear was a deep ravine to be crossed.  Perry requested me to hold the ridge we were on while he crossed and he would then cover my passage from a commanding position on the other side.   

I watched his crossing so as to be ready to move when he had his men in position, but again they failed him.  They had not yet recovered from their unfortunate stampeded condition.  I crossed  the  ravine  at  a  gallop  and 

halted on the other side to welcome the Indians, who appeared to swarm on every hill.  They halted abruptly on receiving a salute from our carbines. 

We then moved quietly down to an abandoned ranch, a mile to the rear, where Perry had his men dismounted in what appeared to be a good position in the rock.  I dismounted our men, tied our horses to a rail fence and took position in the rocks; the house and barn were to our left a short distance, and a small creek between us and the house.  Presently, shots came flying over our heads from the front and right flank.  

The Indians had taken stand in a clump of rocks in our front and flank on higher ground, and therefore commanded our position.  At the same time I noticed some of them coming down on our left, under cover of a fence that ran from the house up the hill perpendicular to our front.  I mentioned this to Perry. Our ammunition was getting very short, as we had but forty rounds per man when we started.   

After a brief consultation under a hot fire we determined to abandon our positions and continue a retreating fight back to Mount Idaho.  When we first reached the ranch, Perry suggested  that  we  should  hold  the position until dark and then fall back, as it was then seven o'clock, and it

would soon be dark. I could not understand his remark and looked at him in astonishment.  I said:  "Do you know that it is seven o'clock in the morning - not evening - that we have been fighting nearly four hours and have but a few rounds per man left?"  I thought he was what is commonly called confused. 

He requested me to hold the position while he mounted his men, and he would then hold it until I had my men in the saddle.  He moved down and mounted.  I then ordered my small detachment down, waiting until every man was away.   

I followed and to my consternation found the command gone and my horse with it.  I hallooed out to the command now more than a hundred yards distant, but, evidently, nobody heard me as they continued to move on.  The Indians were now gaining on me and shots kept whizzing past me from every direction in rear.  I looked around for a hiding-place, but nothing presented itself that would secure me from observation.  

I fully made up my mind that I would not be taken prisoner, and determined to use my hunting-knife or a small derringer pistol I always carried in my vest-pocket.  These thoughts and final determination flashed through my mind in a few seconds, as I kept moving on trying to overhaul the command.  Finally, some of my own men missed me, and looking back, saw me and reported to Perry.   

The troops were halted, my horse caught and led back to me.  A few minutes after Perry halted the men and requested me to reorganize the command.  I did so quickly for there was little to organize, and requesting Perry to support me at a distance not greater than one hundred yards, I stated that I would take charge of the skirmish-line.   

The line was deployed at unusually great intervals, so as to cover as much front as possible and then, after a few words of caution and instruction, we waited the coming of the Indians, who at a distance had been closely watching us.   

We did not have a long time to wait, for they came upon us with a yell.  Not a shot was fired until the red devils rode up to within seventy-five or a hundred yards of us when I gave the order to “commence firing”. Several redskins and half a dozen horses went down from our fire.  We then moved “to the rear” at a walk, and again halted, the Indians waiting for us, but once more our fire sent some to grass and we quietly fell back eighty or ninety yards more.  Thus we continued retreating for several miles.   

Chief White Bird with about seventy warriors made several attempts to drive us off to the right into Rocky Cañon, which, had they succeeded in doing, would have sounded our death knell, but Perry moved his men so as to prevent it and gave them a few well-directed volleys which drove them back.   

In passing over a marsh my attention was called to a man struggling through the swampy ground and long grass about half-way between us and the Indians.  We could just see his head above the grass.  A few minutes more and the Indians would have his scalp.  I advanced the line firing, driving the Indians back, and rescued a man of H Troop whose horse had been shot.  The poor fellow was almost played out, he was taken up behind another man and we continued our retreat.   

When we got to within a few miles of Mount Idaho, a party of citizens came out to our assistance.  While we fully appreciated their action, it was too late for them to be of any service as the Indians disappeared as they came into view.  Men and horses were now completely exhausted.  We had been on the move ever since Friday without rest or sleep, and under too much excitement to hope for sleep now that we had reached comparative safety.”[i][v]  

They reached Grange Hall at 10 o'clock in the morning.  Perry's senior officer, Trimble, had left the battle prior to Perry's retreat and Perry found him in Grangeville along with other men of both companies.  Perry felt that Trimble had deserted him.  [ii][vi]  

Trimble's own account of the situation differed greatly from Perry's and his account raised allegations that Perry had "been derelict in his duty during the campaign".  Two other officers wrote reports critical of Perry as well.[iii][vii] 

Allegations were made that Perry “had been determined to retreat rapidly from the outset”.  Perry was adamant that it was only after his line had completely disintegrated and he had been unable to control the men, in part because he had no trumpet, that he had decided to retreat.

CPT Perry demanded a court of inquiry to clear his name.  [iv][viii]

On November 27, after the Nez Perce war had ended with the surrender of Chief Joseph on October 5, 1877, Gen Howard obliged him and issued the order.  “The Court of Inquiry convened at 10 o'clock on the morning of December 18, 1878.”[v][ix]  Both Lt Parnell & 1SG McCarthy were called to testify.  

On February 1, 1879, the Court's opinion was handed down.  It concluded that "a suitable quantity of ammunition" had not been provided, and that "soon after the fight began, the point was abandoned by the citizens in a panic extending to nearly all the troops, who became so disorganized and dispersed as to be unmanageable."  It held that Perry was not responsible for the shortage of ammunition and could not have foreseen the conduct of the citizen volunteers.[vi][x]  Perry was vindicated.  

Other factors as well had led to the defeat:  "1SGT McCarthy noted that Company F had been stationed at Fort Lapwai for some time, and, as was the case in those days, about half of the enlisted men had been employed on daily duty almost continually.  They had functioned as clerks, carpenters, blacksmiths, and officers' servants and performed many other duties that had nothing to do with soldiering in the professional sense.  Few of the men had been able to attend drill, and target practice had not been encouraged."[vii][xi]   

"We had a great many green recruits in the company.  The horses were green & flighty”.  - Lt Parnell at the Court of Inquiry.[viii][xiii]   

“White Bird Cañon was a terrible defeat to the troops engaged in it.  It put the Indians in ‘high feather’.  It largely increased their warriors from among those on the reservation as well as from the small tribes along the Palouse, Snake, and Spokane Rivers.”[ix][xiv]   

The battle at White Bird Cañon did not as General Howard had hoped; contain the Indians until he could marshall troops to deliver a crushing blow[x][xv], it was the opening battle of the Nez Perce War. 

  

  A Historical Marker Next to the Interpretive Shelter Reads As Follows:

"Near The Base Of This Hill Over 100 Cavalrymen And Volunteers Met Disaster In The Opening Battle Of The Nez Perce War.  

Rushing from Grangeville on the evening of June 16, 1877, Captain David Perry planned to stop the Indians from crossing Salmon River to safety from pursuit.  At daylight the next morning he headed down the ravine before you.  Some sixty to eighty Indians wiped out a third of his force and the survivors retired in disorder.  No Indians were killed."  {A total of 34 soldiers were killed.} 

 

William Russell Parnell[i][xvii]

 

Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, 1st U.S. Cavalry  
Date and Place of Birth:
  Dublin, Ireland, 13 August 1836.   
Entered Service at:
  Brooklyn, Kings County, New York  
Battle or Place of Action:
  White Bird Canyon, Idaho.  
Date of Issue:
 16 September 1897

Citation: With a few men, in the face of a heavy fire from pursuing Indians and in imminent peril, returned and rescued a soldier whose horse had been killed and who had been left behind in the retreat.  End of Citation  

“Born in Dublin, Ireland, on August 13, 1836, Parnell enlisted in the Fourth Hussars of the British Army at the age of eighteen.  He later transferred to the Lancers and fought in the Crimean War, participating in the capture of Sebastopol.  He was one of the few survivors of the fabled Charge of the Six Hundred at Balaclava.  

Parnell immigrated to the United States in 1860, and soon after the start of the Civil War he enlisted in the Fourth New York Cavalry.  Probably because of his military experience, his comrades elected him a first lieutenant.  In 1861 and 1862 Parnell served with Blenker's Division in the Army of the Potomac in the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia.  He took part in the Battles of Cross  Keys,  Port  Republic,  Cedar Mountain, and Second Manassas.  With the Cavalry Corps he fought in the Battles of Fredericksburg, Beverly Ford, Brandy Station, Stoneman's Raid, Aldie, and Middleburg.  During the Battle of Upperville on June 21, 1863, Parnell fell into Confederate hands after leading an unsuccessful cavalry charge, but in August he eluded his captors and made his way to Petersubrg, West Virginia. 

Reunited with his command, he continued to see action in the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Trevilian Station, Petersburg (Virginia), Lee's Mills, Winchester, and Cedar Creek, and in a number of less important engagements.  Before being honorably mustered out on December 5, 1864, Parnell reached the rank of lieutenant colonel and earned one brevet, that of captain, for the gallantry he had displayed at Upperville.  Two years after Appomattox, he received a second brevet for general gallantry and meritorious service.  

Parnell applied for a commission in the Regular Army near the end of the war, and on February 23, 1866, he accepted an appointment as a second lieutenant in the First Cavalry, becoming a first lieutenant on October 15.   

During the summer of 1867, Parnell joined his company from detached service and almost immediately received orders to march to California in order to participate in a campaign against a band of hostiles operating on the Pit River.  Lt. Col. George Crook led the punitive expedition, which consisted of Company D of the Twenty-third Infantry, Company H of the First Cavalry (commanded by Parnell), and a group of Boise scouts.   

Before long the force encountered a band of warriors on the south fork of Pit River.  Entrenched behind boulders on a high and almost inaccessible ledge of rock, the Indians were difficult to reach.  On September 26 Crook ordered an assault.  Parnell led Company H and the Boise scouts up the south bluff, but the warriors drove them back and the troops returned to their camp at the base of the mountain shortly before dark.  At daylight Parnell led a second charge.  Under heavy fire, the attackers gained ground and were able to enter the stronghold.  There they found only twenty dead hostiles, the rest having made their escape through a subterranean passage.

Crook recommended Parnell for another brevet for his part in the action, and he soon earned the right to be addressed as lieutenant colonel.  During the next decade Parnell continued to serve in the Northwest and fought in a number of Indian campaigns.  On March 14, 1868, he was wounded at the Battle of Dunder and Blitzen Creek in Oregon, and like the other officers under Perry's command he saw action in the Modoc War.   

Parnell bore the marks of many hard campaigns.  At Upperville he had been shot in the left hip, and the bullet had imbedded itself in the bone.  His doctor had decided to leave the missile where it was, and the veteran officer still carried it with him. 

Parnell had also received a number of deep saber cuts at Upperville, and one of them had severed the bone in his nose.  As a prisoner of war after battle, he had received no medical attention, and the bone had corroded and fallen away, leaving a gaping hole in the roof of his mouth and making it difficult for him to articulate.   

Parnell had a metal plate made to cover the aperture, and although it permitted him to speak intelligibly, it caused his voice to rise in pitch.  The plate was fragile, and he lived in constant fear of breaking it - as he did in November of 1869 having to travel to Portland to have a new one made and inserted.  Michael McCarthy described Parnell a 'a large fleshy man' who 'taxed the powers of his horse quite heavily.'” [ii][xviii] 

"During the retreat {From White Bird Canyon} the force passed through a marsh, and Parnell noticed a man struggling over the swampy ground about halfway between the column and the  Indians.   He could just see the man's head bobbing above the grass.  In a few more minutes, the Nez Perce would surely have him.  The man was Pvt. Aman Hartman of Company H, who had lost his horse to an Indian bullet.  Parnell detailed a couple of men and charged to the rescue.  Hartman mounted behind one of the men and the little party rode back to the column".[iii][xix]   

{Parnell did mention this incident in his report cited in The Battle Of White Bird Cañon (Part II) above, but did not mention the man’s name and made no mention of its eventual significance.}

 

William R. Parnell[i][xx]   

 

William Parnell reached the rank of captain on April 27, 1879.  Eight years later on 11 February 1887 he retired on disability.  Two sources state that he attained the rank of Colonel yet two others report that his highest rank attained was that of Major.  He spent the last ten years of his life as a military instructor at St. Matthew's School in San Mateo, California.  Parnell received the Medal of Honor for rescuing Aman Hartman during the retreat to Grangeville on September 16, 1897.[ii][xxi] & [iii][xxii]  

Of William Parnell, General Howard wrote the following.  “For continuous pluck, good sense, clean headedness under fire, and for the salvation of one half of the command, I think he is deserving a Medal of Honor.”[iv][xxiii]   

William R. Parnell died on August 20, 1910 and is buried in San Francisco National Cemetery (0S-68 Row 54), San Francisco, California.[v][xxiv]  

HOME   BACK

 

©pbc 2004-Present - Keeping Genealogy Free

If you have information to share, questions or corrections, please email County Coordinator