ONE HUNDRED YEARS WITH THE SECOND CAVALRY
By Joseph I. Lambert, Major, Second Cavalry
Copyright 1939 Commanding Officer, Second Cavalry, Fort Riley, Kansas
Capper Printing Company, Inc.
By Brigadier General Frank U. Robinson
Thus matters went on, we scouting in a small way hoping to strike some war parties before they could get in their work, until the latter part of June, 1874, when word came that Washakie’s scouts had located a small village of 40 lodges of hostiles near the head of Norwood River, a small stream heading in the Powder River mountains and running northwest into the Big Horn River below Owl Creek Canon, and about 125 miles from Fort Washakie. Having received this information and having the promise of Chief Washakie that he would go with us with a band of warriors, Captain Torrey concurring, Captain Bates resolved to strike. All was soon ready. Just as soon as it was dark enough so as not to be seen by any scouts of the enemy that might be lurking in the vicinity, our little command started from Fort Washakie the evening of July 1, 1874. It consisted of Troop B, 2nd Cavalry, 56 men, Captain Bates, Lieutenant Robinson, 20 Indian scouts under command of Lieutenant Young, acting assistant surgeon Thomas McGee, four hospital men, a pack train of ten mules with a chief packer, and about 50 Snake warriors under Chief Washakie. Captain Bates was in command. We marched all night and just as soon as the day began to break went into camp in the brush low down on the Little Wind River. Washakie, on intimation, sent out videttes to keep a bright look out during the day, to see without being seen, which the Indians understood to the letter. There are no scouts who could have performed this duty better. We lay very close during the day of July 2nd and just as soon as darkness set in were on the march, pushing at a rapid gate, mostly on the trot, across an underlying sagebrush country. Our course was a little north of east. Just as the day was breaking we went into camp in the brush on a little creek which, I presume or am quite sure, was Bridger Creek, named after old Jim Bridger, the pioneer and scout of this line of country. This bivouac was, I am quite satisfied, near the old Bridger Trail leading up into Montana. Here we lay well concealed all that day, taking more precautions than on the preceding day. By this time men, horses, and mules had taken on that quiet business air that is so noticeable when all realize that something serious is at hand. Nothing of note transpiring, we were in the saddle again as darkness set in and marched at a rapid rate around the eastern point of the Owl Creek mountains. The night was clear and starlit, and I noticed by the stars that our course was about north-east. Our Indian guides appeared to understand themselves perfectly and evidently knew every inch of the country we were passing over. We crossed over a considerable range of mountains on this night, which I judged to be an offshoot of the Powder River mountains. The trail was good and we made excellent time, not hearing a sound during the night but the clicking of the horses hoofs as they occasionally struck a rock. Just at daylight we were entering a rather close valley beyond. Here was the place that our Indian scouts had located the village. A halt was made while our scouts went forward to reconnoiter. It was not very long before they returned with the information that the village was not where it had been located but from the very fresh signs and other indications, they felt quite sure the village was not far off. This they said was certain, as there was quite a little bunch of ponies grazing further up the valley. Every moment was precious, yes more than precious, so we just could not wait for the pack animals to close up. Bates gave the command to mount and the whole command took the broad trail and broke into a swinging gallop, keeping well close up to Captain Bates, who, accompanied by two orderlies and Norcott the Indian interpreter, was leading. I was with the troop, and Young with the Indian scouts, just in the rear. Washakie with his warriors, except quite a number who were acting as videttes, was in the rear of the scouts. We were entering a rather close country, high hills covered with bunch grass, and deep arroyos, not very precipitous sides and opening bottoms. To the west lay a narrow undulating sage brush plain. We had traveled in this manner for nearly an hour before day began to break in earnest, it becoming quite light except for a mist which hung about the hills. Some of the videttes, riding furiously in, caused a halt and reported that the village was right ahead but a little to our left and down in a deep arroyo. Captain Bates and party went ahead to reconnoiter, leaving me in charge. The Indians under Washakie having by this time come up, commenced chanting their war chant, decking themselves in their war bonnets and feathers, and making a horrible din. I tried my best to stop them; I cursed and swore, calling on Washakie in Heaven’s name to stop them or all hope of surprising the village would be at an end. He did what he could but these Indians were so terribly excited that they could not keep still, so I resolved to push on and join Captain Bates, for now we had not a moment to lose. After proceeding a short distance I met him returning. He told me that the village was about a mile away and was a large one, many more than 40 lodges which we had expected to find. It proved afterwards that there were 112 lodges, more or less in regular order, besides numerous outside lodges that were not counted. I saw at once that the time of our lives had come and that this Fourth of July, for it was the morning of July 4, 1874, would in all probability be my last on earth. But I felt about as ready as ever I should be, so did not worry. On meeting Bates we came down to a walk while he was giving the order for Lieutenant Young and the scouts to branch off to the left and come down on the head of the village. Washakie and some of his warriors went with Young and the rest followed in our rear. We pushed down the line of hills to take or hit the village in flank. I saw at once by these dispositions that Captain Bates understood himself and the situation perfectly, and I felt satisfied that the country would hear a good account of us on that day.
It now became broad daylight so we pushed on at a gallop out to a point on the hill overlooking the village, and there it was with its long lines of lodges. As Bates and I looked at it and then at our handful of men we saw at once that we must hit them and hit them hard or our chance of getting out of the country would be slim. Our men had 80 rounds of carbine cartridges in their belts besides some in the saddle bags. We carried at that time the Springfield carbine, caliber .45, a fine little gun of its kind, excellent for short range but not much use for over eight hundred yards. We looked for the pack mules carrying additional ammunition but none of the pack train was in sight. We did not give this a second thought then, but I assure you it came in for very serious consideration afterwards, when it appeared that all our extra ammunition had been lost during the night. Besides the carbines, our men were armed with Colt revolvers. On the other side of the village the hills were very much higher and very much more abrupt than the side we were on. A very high rocky point with many gnarled cedars growing in the crevices of the rocks was just above the lower end of the village, and some way further down was a little creek. The descent on our side was grassy and easy.
The village beneath us, about six hundred yards away, had not yet taken the alarm, so we dismounted to fight on foot. Leaving every fourth man as horse holder, the horses were placed in charge of Sergeant Fuller. Our gallant Surgeon McGee was on hand with plenty of first aid to the wounded and was directed to hold himself in the rear. All this did not take more than two minutes. Then Captain Bates, with only thirty-two men in line and about twenty Indians in the rear, led us down the hill at a double time to the attack. We had gone but a short distance when, seeing such a hot time ahead of us, Bates and I and many of the men threw away our blouses, for we preferred to meet it in blue shirts. After making about half the distance and directing our course to hit the village about midway in the flank, we heard yells and the sharp crack of many rifles at the upper end of the village, showing that Young and the scouts had opened fire. We then doubled our pace and rushed into the village in close skirmish order. When partly down the hill our Indians had halted and by this time had commenced firing over our heads, but we did not fire a shot until we were close to the first tepees, although the enemy had opened fire on us some little time before. Then we came to a halt and the battle opened in earnest. It was almost a perfect surprise. If it had not been, we certainly could not have cleaned them up as we did. There was a wide ravine, running down through the center of the village, into which the Indians crowded and were running down to escape at the lower end. Many pushed across and gained the rocks on the other side and opened a deadly fire on us from this quarter. Now the fight became deadly. Yells, cries, and curses rang out far above the incessant rattle of the carbines and the sharp crack of the Winchesters with which the enemy was mostly armed. Part of the time it was hand to hand and in some instances the Indians and our men were wrestling for the same gun. This lasted for about twenty-five minutes, when we were complete masters of the village. In the meantime the firing had ceased at the upper end of the village. Lieutenant Young had fallen badly wounded and I understood one of the Indians was killed and some others wounded. They had fallen back carrying the Lieutenant with them and were up at a point some distance above the upper end of the village. We then had time to look at our losses and found we had only two men killed and eight wounded, which was astonishing considering the way the bullets had been flying. As fast as men were hit they were taken to the rear and the men taking them would bring back the ammunition from the saddle bags. I would say here that after the fight was over we only had an average of seven rounds of ammunition per man, this owing to the serious loss of the ammunition mule which I mentioned before. The enemy lost, as near as we could count, about 60 killed in the village. There were 17 dead in the main elbow of the ravine.
Surgeon McGee, who did not think he had work enough in the rear pushed into the village. As he was dressing a wounded man an Indian, gun in hand, rushed from one of the lodges close by and was taking aim at one of our men. The doctor dropped his bandages, seized the man’s carbine and shot the Indian dead, then returned to his work as if nothing had happened. I also noticed Captain Bates killing an Indian with his revolver. I had the honor of doing the same thing during the fight. All being over, Captain Bates gave the order to fall back to the horses and without disturbing any of the lodges, we gained the hill and found the horses near where we left them. The enemy still held the high point of rocks before spoken of. As our ammunition was at it’s lowest ebb, and having accomplished much more than we dared to hope for, and having eight wounded men to look after, we concluded that it would be foolish to cross over and attempt to drive the Indians from their very strong position. It would be little or nothing gained and would very muck jeopardize our chances of getting out of the country without having serious trouble, so we decided to start on the return march for Fort Washakie. Our Indians rounded up three hundred and fifty horses and ponies which we took with us. There must have been 1,200 to 1,400 head of stock belonging to this village, as we could see their herders, as the attack was about to be made, driving off large bunches. Those we captured were grazing on the upper side and were cut off from the main herd. By this time it was nearly eleven o’clock and the wounded were suffering a great deal. We got them on their horses and, detailing men to hold them from falling off, commenced our long slow march back. This was the 4th of July and it was very hot even for this mountain region. The wounded men suffered terribly but we marched steadily all day, halting often to give them a drink of water.
Captain Bates directed me, with ten of the men who were holding horses and were not in the heat of the fight as rear guard.
We were returning by an entirely different route from the one taken on our advance, and it was much shorter. This day we were marching over a sage brush plain with rolling hills.
The enemy had somewhat recovered themselves and were following us in quite a force, but I would hold the rising ground long enough to let the column gain the hill far in advance. As soon as it had disappeared I would take the gallop and hold that point in the same manner. I am quite sure the Indians were as bad off for ammunition as we, for they did not offer to come close nor attempt to fire a single shot, and besides they had been so roughly handled that they evidently had no stomach for more. Yet, I believe they had been reenforced in the meantime by some band in the vicinity. Of course I gave them no chance to get in on us. Thus the day wore on and just as the sun was setting the column halted at a little creek near the eastern end of the Owl Creek mountains, far to the north. I joined with the rear guard and, as we were making coffee, could see the enemy watching us from the far hills.
The wounded were all doing remarkably well, except one man by the name of French who had his left eye shot out, and from the nature of the wound I thought it a little less than wonderful that he was alive, to say nothing of his being cheerful. The day had been very hot and the night set in cold. After about two hours rest we resumed the march and pushed on over the east end of the Owl Creek mountains, crossing down near the head of Badwater Creek, arriving here a little after daylight in the morning, thence down the Badwater to Big Wind river, arriving about ten a.m. After posting our pickets we bivouacked and prepared to take a little rest. I need not add that the whole command was completely tired out. Two days and nights constantly in the saddle, except when fighting, with but little to eat in the meantime, had done its work. After lying down all were like dead men. I would add here that Captain Bates, the night before, sent two noncommissioned officers, mounted on fresh Indian stock, forward into the post notifying Captain Torrey of the fight and requesting him to send out ambulances as far as possible for the wounded men. This he did at once and they met us that same evening at the Big Wind river about thirty miles from the post.
We slept about four hours when all were awakened, made some coffee, and moved on up the river to the big bend, where quite a number of settlers, who had pushed down to help us, were waiting. Here we met the ambulances for the wounded. The next day we marched into the Fort and our troubles were over for the time being, for other raids and scouts were soon to interest us.
The battle of Snake Mountain, by which this fight is known, had been fought and won. Of the officers engaged, Lieutenant Robert H. Young, 4th Infantry, and Surgeon McGee deserve much praise for their gallant conduct throughout. As to the men, with two or three exceptions, their conduct was most gallant and meritorious. No command could have behaved better. The village of hostiles which we attacked was mostly made up of Arapahoes, under Chief Black Coal, some Cheyennes, and also what was known at that time as Dog Soldiers – discontents from many tribes who joined for rapine and plunder. It appeared that this village was a head center for these raiders who raided not only along our line of country but along the Union Pacific railroad as well. This whipping that they received almost entirely broke that sort of thing up. It showed them they were not even safe in their own country. Their base was destroyed as was also their confidence in finding a safe retreat after their bloody raids were over.
In all my experience on the Frontier, which covered many years, I will say that the Battle of Snake Mountain, not because I was in it, was one of the most gallant and spirited little fights that ever occurred in the West.
Too much praise cannot be given to Captain Bates, not only for his gallantry in the fight and for the ability shown in handling the little campaign from the start to finish, but for striking this deadly blow to these hostiles and, in a great measure, completely breaking up their bloody raids. He deserves well of his country and the hearty thanks of the settlers in the Wind River country even to the present day.
Proceedings of the Order of the Indian Wars, 1933.