Historical Review, by John Doerner, Retired
Chief Historian, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Note: The following is a paper that Mr. Doerner presented in October, 2002 during a conference at Big Hole National Battlefield. The presentation is entitled: "To Intercept or Pursue, And Capture And Destroy Them: The Seventh Cavalry In The 1877 Nez Perce War."
When I was asked to present a talk on the Seventh Cavalry during the 1877 Nez Perce Campaign several months ago, I began to search for first-hand accounts, records, and reports that may exist, to do justice to the story. Being used to the thousands of books, letters, articles, and artwork on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the events of the 1876 Sioux Campaign which had taken place just one year before; I was surprised at the lack of material and coverage dedicated to the Mee Poo Crisis! Unlike the Battle of the Little Bighorn, relatively few authors have devoted ink to the memorable and courageous trek by Chief Joseph (Thunder Rolling in the Hills) and his people 1,700 miles from their ancestral homeland on the Wallowa Plateau in Oregon, to their fateful encounter with, and eventual surrender to, forces under Col. Nelson A. Miles, and General Otis Howard (including a battalion of the 7th Cavalry) at Snake Creek; just 40 miles south of the Canadian line! This story as I found out while doing my research, was just as compelling as the 1876 Sioux War! As you will soon note, my talk relies heavily on first hand accounts by actual participants which I feel, best tells this truly remarkable story!
The previous summer, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Seventh Cavalry had suffered what would be the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Army west of the Mississippi River in action against American Indians. Hunkpapa Lakota political and spiritual leader Sitting Bull and his allied Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne, had defeated the regiment in two separate battles along the Little Bighorn River. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and five companies (210 soldiers, Indian scouts and attached personnel) were killed, with the balance of the regiment under Major Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, entrenched above the Little Bighorn, with 53 men killed and 59 wounded. However, by September 30, 1876 the Seventh had been brought back up to regimental strength of 938 officers and men, including 18 new replacement officer's, and 896 enlisted men. 2nd Lt. Hugh L. Scott recalled that upon its return from the Little Bighorn that fall : "The regiment [7th Cavalry] had got back from its post on the Yellowstone only a short time before and was in reorganization; with 30 new officers,…500 new recruits, and 500 new horses had just arrived from the east...It was in the air that we were to take the field again in a short while…"
The winter of 1876-1877 was a cold one on the northern plains, too cold and stormy for drill out of doors or target practice. Lt. Scott recalled that the new men were not sufficiently disciplined and "They were a rough lot who had enlisted in cities under stress of the excitement caused by the Custer Fight, and were called the 'Custer Avengers'."
With the coming of spring, the regiment soon regrouped from winter quarters, and left Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 2, 1877, crossing the Missouri River and marching up the east bank in a westerly direction to join forces with Col. Nelson A. Miles on the Yellowstone River. Their mission: aid Miles in his renewed pursuit of Sioux and Cheyenne. This included patrolling the Yellowstone River; escorting supply wagons; recovery of the remains of Lt. Col. Custer and fellow officers killed on the Little Bighorn River and reburial of the rest of the command; round up any stray bands of non-treaty Sioux in the region; and also prevent any large bands that escaped to Canada the past winter from slipping back across the border from their refuge in Canada. It was not known at the time but Sitting Bull would escape into Canada within a few short days after the regiment left Ft. Lincoln.