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Historical Review, Part 1

Historical Review, by John Doerner
Chief Historian, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
John Doerner, Chief Historian

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 [1876]: "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.

In command of the Seventh was the 55 year old colonel of the regiment, Samuel D. Sturgis, (West Point Class of 1846), a hard tobacco chewing cavalry veteran of the old army. Sturgis had been captured at Buena Vista during the Mexican War. After his release, he gained experience in the western theater of operations fighting a new type of adversary, Apaches, Kiowa and Comanche. During the Civil War, he fell in disfavor with the Army after being routed by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest at Brice's Cross Roads, Mississippi. Sturgis had sat out the rest of the war awaiting orders. In 1869, he took command of the Seventh Cavalry and spent most of the next six years away from the regiment on detached service. The previous year (1876) had been difficult for Sturgis with the tragic loss of his oldest son Jack, a young 2nd Lt. in Company E, 7th Cavalry; killed with Custer at the Little Bighorn. Sturgis would soon face another difficulty; one that would test the fighting ability and human endurance of his men and horses; and change the destiny of a people.

Nelson Miles

Arriving in Montana, Sturgis and the Seventh, fell under the direct command of Colonel Nelson A. Miles. Miles and his Fifth Infantry had wintered at a new cantonment (later called Ft. Keogh) they had built at the mouth of the Tongue River. Miles had recently been given an independent command over a new district in Montana, the District of the Yellowstone and now faced two challenges: to prevent Sitting Bull from returning to the U.S. and joining the Nez Perce; and capture or destroy the Nez Perce.

Miles sensing that the Nez Perce may try to pass through the Judith Gap north of the Yellowstone River between the Little Belt and Snowy Mountain ranges, ordered Sturgis to:

"With six companies of your regiment and the artillery detachment [12 pound Napoleon Cannon] you will proceed by rapid marches, via the valley of the Yellowstone and Musselshell Rivers to the vicinity of Judith Gap, sending forward rapidly to Fort Ellis, M.T., to obtain all possible information regarding the movements of the hostile band of Nez Perces...It is the object of your movement to intercept or pursue, and capture or destroy them...."

Sturgis' command, numbering approximately 360 officer's and men was comprised of two battalions of three companies each:

Major Lewis Merrill: Co. F, I, & L;

Captain Frederick Benteen: Co. G, H, & M."

On May 23rd the Seventh was ferried across to the north side of the Yellowstone. Miles assumed command of Co. H, D, & K where they conducted routine patrols. Company I left for the Custer Battlefield while Captain McDougal and Company B would remain on the south side but under direct command of Co I. Nelson A. Miles. Col. Sturgis would use their newly established camp on Cedar Creek as a base of operations for what turned out as fruitless patrols. Sturgis and his two battalions would soon move toward Yellowstone Park against Chief Joseph and face a formable adversary.

Captain Frederick Benteen, a veteran of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, wrote to his wife Kate: "No one can tell much what is going to be done by the Indians [Sioux and Cheyenne]. I think there are more of them south than there are north of [the Yellowstone], that none of them will fight if they can help it, to which only getting on their village will push them. Of course this is all guess work…" He was right in that no encounters with Lakota Sioux either from Canada or on the reservation occurred that summer. What Benteen did not know, was that just the day before he wrote this, Chief Joseph and his people were beginning their epic breakout toward freedom in Canada and that the 7th would soon have two fateful encounters; not with Sitting Bull's Sioux, but Chief Joseph's Nez Perce!

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