After defeating the Seventh Cavalry at Canyon Creek, Chief Joseph headed north to the Mussel Shell and Missouri River fighting a rear guard action with the Crow and Cheyenne scouts. On September 23rd they reached the crossing at Cow Island on the Missouri River and were able to seize much needed army and citizen supplies stored there. As Joseph moved off, an Irishman named Michael Foley is said to have penned the following facetious note to his Commander Col. Clendenin:
Rifle Pit at Cow Island September 24, 1877 – 10 am.
Col. Chief Joseph is here, and says he will surrender for two hundred bags of sugar. I told him to surrender without the sugar. He took the sugar and will not surrender. What shall I do?
- Michael Foley
Sturgis far back on their trail, no longer posed an immediate threat.
Continuing their trek north and badly in need of rest, they made temporary camp along Snake Creek in the Bear Paw Mountains and prepared buffalo meat and hides (killed along the way) for the coming winter. Yellow Wolf recalled, "We knew General Howard was more than two suns back on our trail. It was nothing hard to keep ahead of him." What they didn't realize was that Howard would now deliberately slow his advance while Miles got into position to head them off.
Earlier on September 17th from his Cantonment at Tongue River, Miles sent the following dispatch to Howard:
Acting on the supposition that the Nez Perce will continue their movement north, I will take the available force I have, and strike across by the head of Big Dry, Musselshell and Crooked Creek and Carroll, If I do not get any information before. I fear your information reaches me too late to intercept them, but I will do the best I can. Please send information of the movement and course of the Indians.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Nelson A. Miles,
Colonel Fifth Infantry, Brevet Major General
United States Army, Commanding
Miles now left his cantonment with every available man, including the Fifth Infantry which Miles had mounted and soldiers nicknamed the 11th Cavalry; the Second Cavalry; and three companies of the Seventh (F under Captain Owen Hale; D under Capt, Edward S. Godfrey; & A under Capt. Myles Moylan).
Battle of Bear Paw, September 30 - October 5, 1877
Finally on September 30th, after 200 miles of forced marching, Miles finally caught up to the Nez Perce, and as Miles put it in his report, "Surprised the camp.” Benteen would later write to his wife after the fight, "You may possibly surprise those fellows...but I guess they don't stay surprised worth a cent."
The morning of September 30th was a cold one. Capt. Snyder, Fifth Infantry wrote in his diary that day, "Off early this morning. Ground frozen and ice upon streams. After marching five or six miles discovered Indians to front and left... the entire command moved forward to charge . . ."
Miles had his scouts out in advance looking for Joseph. Cheyenne Scout Brave Wolf, who had fought Custer at the Little Bighorn discovered the camp seven miles out, and in a daring move actually entered it undiscovered before reporting back to Miles! Yellowstone Kelley, Lt. Manus and several scouts also saw a heavy trail on the eastern edge of the Bear Paw Mountains, and were soon discovered by Nez Perce scouts.
At the same time, a group of Seventh Cavalry officer's were gathered together talking. Captain Owen Hale made a prophetic comment that sobered the men. "My God! Have I got to be killed this cold morning?" When he began to say this the men took it as facetious, but when he ended he was serious and his remark was received by the others in silence." Ironically, Hale would be killed later that very morning!
Joseph's camp was situated in a kidney or crescent situated on the east bank of Snake Creek. Three sides were undulating grassland; the upper end of the crescent rose some 25' higher and created a natural obstacle for cavalry in that direction. Wottolen, one of Joseph's warriors had a similar premonition. In a haunting dream the night before the battle, he saw Snake Creek running red with the blood of the soldiers and his people. Yellow Wolf said that the scouts had warned the camp earlier after seeing buffalo stampeding, a sure sign of soldiers. Looking Glass, however, told the people to "take their time in packing and make sure the children finished eating." As the soldiers attacked another scout waved the blanket signal, alerting the village. Yellow Wolf recalled the stir in camp that morning and the shouts of his Uncle Joseph that could be heard above all the noise, "Horses! Horses! Save the Horses!"
One can only imagine today the sound of 600 cavalry horses thundering toward the camp. Yellow Wolf remembered "a rumble like stampeding buffaloes…Hundreds of soldiers were charging in two wide, circling wings. They were surrounding our camp."
Captain Edward S. Godfrey vividly recalled, "At 9:15 word was received that the Nez Perce village was located on Snake Creek bottom and the command was ordered to march at the trot. The Cheyenne scouts were ahead. The 2nd Cavalry battalion. . . . was ordered to take the advance after the scouts and charge through the village. The 7th Cavalry battalion was ordered to follow the 2nd Cavalry as support and charge through the village.
The 5th Infantry battalion (mounted) with the mountain howitzer and pack train was ordered to follow as reserve. Colonel Miles rode with the 7th Cavalry during our advance. After getting into the valley of Snake creek and when two or three miles from the village, we were ordered to gallop."
As the command passed the divide it formed into line; first at the trot, then the gallop. When the charge was sounded the troops were due south of the camp which was hidden from view by old cutbanks. However the horse herd was visible on the prairie to the west (left) of line. Lt. Romeyn recalled seeing "a portion of the lodges had been struck and about 100 ponies packed for the days march. These guided by women and children and accompanied by 50-60 warriors, were at once rushed out and started northward." After a chase by Lt. McClemand, Co. G, 2nd Cavalry to cut them off, a brief battle ensued and encumbered by captured ponies and heavy fire, McClernand was forced to fall back to the main command. Capt. Tyler of the 2nd Cavalry swung to the left and captured 600-800 ponies. Joseph recalled, "the captains dash cut our camp in two, and captured nearly all of our horses." With the left pivot by the 2nd Cavalry, the Seventh swung in to strike the south end of the camp. Miles now ordered a charge "with pistols."
In a classic cavalry charge right out of a John Ford western, the Seventh in line, thundered down on the camp. Capt. Moylan's A on the left, Capt. Godfrey's D in the center, and Capt. Hale and Lt. Biddle with K wheeling around to the right making first contact. Nez Perce warriors rallied and waited until the soldiers got within 200 yards and then rose and opened up with deadly accuracy on Hale's Company K. Hale's charge was repulsed with light casualties.
The warriors then concentrated their fire at the other two companies charging head on toward the high bank that overlooked the camp. Due to the nature of the high ground, Moylan ordered the command to fall back executed by the command "fours left about." Some confusion occurred during this order and luckily a heavy depression in the ground protected most of the command, and Nez Perce rifle fire over shot the men.
After the withdrawal the two companies reformed right of line of the Fifth Infantry who had dismounted and began pouring in an accurate fire with their Springfield Rifles.
During this withdrawal, Captain Godfrey horse was shot from under him. He recalled later, "Just after we started to the right I saw an Indian taking aim to me. I was not more than 50 - 75 yards from him to my left. I was riding an iron gray horse and my men were mounted on black horses. This, of course, made me a conspicuous mark and I was quite a bit nearer to this Indian. . . [trying to find a way] to get down in column of fours. His rifle cracked and down went my horse, dead. [As we were galloping] the momentum threw me forward; and I lit on my head and shoulder. . . . but I turned a complete summersault and lit on my feet. I had my revolver in my hand and as soon as I had recovered somewhat from the daze of my stun, I thot [sic] I'd try to defend myself but when I tried to raise my pistol found my arm was disabled. ."
Capt. Moylan seeing Godfrey's predicament recalled, "Capt. Godfrey would most certainly have lost his life at this time as the Indians were advancing in his direction but for the gallant conduct of Trumpeter Thomas Herwood [a green recruit]... .who seeing Capt. Godfrey's danger, separated himself from his company and rode between where Capt. Godfrey was lying and the Indians thereby drawing the attention of the Indians to himself till Capt. Godfrey was sufficiently recovered from the effects of his fall to get his feet and join his company." Lt. Edwin P. Eckerson took over temporary command of Company D and led it back several hundred yards. Godfrey on seeing this move recalled that, "things were looking pretty squally for me."
The blood-spattered horse of Sgt. James Alberts who had just been killed was brought to Godfrey and after some difficulty, he mounted and rejoined his company, who were now dismounted and skirmishing on the right to reinforce Hale's Company. Godfrey was not out of the danger yet. As he was reeled to the right he recalled,
I had just 'jumped' a corporal whom I saw 'ducking' and I thought trying to stop in a ravine when I looked up and saw, not 50 yards away partly concealed by the bank an Indian drop to his knee and squint over his rifle. I turned my horse toward the right…at the same time the Indian fired and felt a shock as if hit by a stone or club on my left side. I was just congratulating my good fortune in having turned enough to have the bullet strike my cartridge belt and glance off.. . [when] I felt my body swaying forward and stinging pain in my side and body. I was powerless to prevent going over my horse's neck.. .My horse partly lowered his head and I slid to mother earth!
I now looked at my antagonist; he had started in my direction a few steps, stopped and seemed satisfied with his job.. .and evidently began shooting at others... then he soon ran under the bank and disappeared evidently to join his comrades now hotly engaged by the whole battalion. I thought it singular, if I was wounded, that I didn't bleed.. .In order to investigate I loosened my belt and the instant I did I felt the warm blood running down my body. So I 'cinched' up again as quick as I could.”
Holding on to his McClellan saddle, Godfrey made it back to his companies former position now occupied by the Fifth Infantry. Helped to his horse, he rode back with great difficulty to the field hospital set up 1/4 of a mile in the rear. Not long after he arrived, Moylan rode up with a wound in his right leg.
As you will recall, during the initial charge, Hale had swept to the right of line. Hale with Co. K was having a difficult time. Riding ahead on a white charger he crossed a coulee just beyond the site Godfrey would be hit, and rode up to the flat prairie on the east side of the camp. Moylan recalled, "When opposite the village he charged front and advanced toward the village, the Indians opened fire from the top of the bluff and Capt. Hale could see he could not charge thru so he dismounted to fight on foot and advanced to near the edge [of the cutbank], but the Indians pushed up the ravines on his flanks and had the troop surrounded and rushed his horse holders and led horses. The conflict then became hand-to-hand. By this time A & D were approaching...at the double time and the Indians withdrew to take position along the bluff to cover the village.
Capt. Hale reformed his line...several were wounded and the dead were left on the line…several who could not help themselves, among them Lt. J.W. Biddle were subsequently killed Capt. Moylan had just dismounted to report when a bullet struck him in the thigh...A few minutes after Moylan left for the hospital, Capt. Hale who was kneeling behind the firing line...reloading his revolver was shot, the bullet entering just under his 'Adams Apple' and passing through the neck killing him instantly."
Lt. Baird rode up to Hale with orders from Miles and unaware that he had just been killed, saluted and salutated, "The General's compliments and he directs." which he cut short upon observing that he was saluting the dead!
The Nez Perce had picked their targets carefully that morning (Shoulder straps and Chevrons-Trouser Stripes) Of the three companies of the Seventh, only Lt. Eckerson was left on line and all the First Sergeants were killed! Eckerson reported to Miles, "I'm the only damned man of the Seventh Cavalry wearing shoulder straps who's alive."
Loses to the Nez Perce were heavy too, especially on the first day. Looking Glass was shot in the head as he stood up to greet what he thought was one of Sitting Bull's warriors.
Synder and the Fifth advanced to the cutbank vacated earlier by Godfrey and Moylan, and drove the warrior's back to their camp. The Nez Perce then began to dig rifle pits and tunnels using trowel bayonets captured from Gibbon at Big Hole, and tools taken at Cow Island.