Dunn County, North Dakota
General Alfred Sully's Expedition of 1864.
BATTLE WITH THE COMBINED TRIBES OF SIOUX INDIANS AMONG
THE BAD LANDS OF THE LITTLE MISSOURI.
FROM THE DIARY OF JUDGE NICHOLAS HILGER.
[Source: From "Minnesota in the Civil War and Indian War.", reprinted in the "Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Volume 2 - By Historical Society of Montana", State Publishing Company, 1896 -- Transcribed by K. Torp.
Transcriber's Note: The location of the battleground is in modern Dunn County, North Dakota. We place this item on this county site since many of the survivors settled in this county.]
In the spring of 1864, the United States Government sent out General Alfred Sully, with troops from north-western Iowa and Minnesota, to discover and punish the combined tribes of the hostile Sioux Indians, which were supposed to be located in the Big Horn and Yellowstone valleys, in eastern Montana. This expedition was one of the most powerful, costly and best equipped ever sent out against hostile Indians, consisting as it did of four thousand cavalry, eight hundred mounted infantry, two batteries or twelve pieces of artillery, three hundred government teams and three hundred beef steers; all this, with fifteen steamboats to carry the supplies for the expedition along the course of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.
On the fourth day of July of the same year, near the present site of Fort Rice, an emigrant train of one hundred and sixty teams and two hundred and fifty people, bound for the gold mines of Montana, joined the military forces; and on the seventh day of July seven steamers commenced crossing the expedition over the Missouri River, which was accomplished in three days. Fort Rice was located by General Sully on the west side of the river, where the command remained eight days to assist in planning the fort and to start its construction. Eight hundred Wisconsin infantry were here left to finish and occupy it, while the General proceeded westward with the expedition, up the Cannon Ball River to its head and thence across the country to Heart River, in search of a body of hostile Sioux who were reported to be camped on Knife River, immediately east of the Missouri Bad Lands.
When the command arrived at Heart River the government and emigrant trains were left in camp, guarded by the emigrants, while General Sully with his cavalry and artillery went after the Indians who were found where reported, on Knife River. Here he fought them for three hours when the Indians gave up the battle and fled into the bad-lands, having lost many in killed and wounded. A few soldiers were wounded but none killed. For want of supplies General Sully returned to his camp on Heart River, having been absent for seven days though provisioned for only four. (See Note, end of article.)
From this camp the whole expedition marched toward the south-west, up Heart River to its source, and, after a march of three days over a high, rolling prairie country, on the evening of August fifth, approached the eastern border of the so-called "Bad Lands of the Little Missouri." While passing over slight elevations on the prairie we would get an occasional glimpse of a vast expanse apparently built up with cities, castles, fortresses, and all imaginable kind of structures. At every step in advance we would be excited by new sights of what seemed to be towers, cones, monuments, etc., of every conceivable description, which so impressed all that but few words were spoken, every one apparently imagining that he was about to enter among the ruins of some gigantic prehistoric city. As the setting sun cast his last golden rays upon the vast assemblage of mammoth brick-colored structures, the grandeur and beauty of the scene was wonderfully increased.
On the brink of the eastern ramparts of these prairies — vast ruins that were elevated about five hundred feet above the apparent streets, squares, parks and drives immediately below — we encamped for the night; the rear of our long column filing into place like some huge serpent casting his coils into a compact circle. Darkness stole upon us unawares during the enchantment which held us spell-bound. While admiring the scene we had all forgotten to look for water, feed, or fuel to supply the wants of men and beasts. The heat of the day was over, but the earth was dry, hot and dusty, and we had not a drop of water for our thousands of thirsty horses, mules and cattle, nor for ourselves. The neighings and bellowings of the poor animals made the night hideous and ourselves anything but comfortable.
Here a sad accident happened to one of the men belonging to the cavalry. His company, composing the rear guard, had halted on the edge of the high bluff above the general encampment after darkness had set in, and was thereby prevented from following the trail of the army down among the mass of broken rocks below. Blinded by the glare of a camp fire and deceived by the shadows, this soldier in attempting to pass around the fire stepped over the edge of the bluff, falling two hundred feet onto the rocks below, and was found in the morning an unrecognizable, mangled mass of broken bones and bloody flesh. The remains were buried by his comrades on the spot where he fell.
The night before we reached this camp, our guides, consisting of members of different tribes of Indians, all of whom had been in the Yellowstone valley by other routes, expressed doubts as to our ability to cross the Bad Lands and said that we would probably be obliged to back out. By this time our faith began to weaken, but the General determined to make a desperate effort to cross before turning back.
By daybreak next morning (August sixth) every man was at his post ready for the march. The guides with one exception had weakened during the night. He, a young Blackfoot of only eighteen years, saying that he had crossed here seven summers before and that he believed he would be able to guide us through, took the lead. About two hours after the head of the column had disappeared in the deep gorges, wagon after wagon following as the camp kept unrolling from its resting place, the advance hove in sight a few hundred yards distant, coming directly towards us as though lost and attempting to retreat, but soon turned and entered the apparent opening of a fortress to disappear once more from view. Meanwhile the camp had uncoiled, the last teams losing themselves in a cloud of dust which rose all along and was the only indication of the movements of the train.
The cavalry horses became an encumbrance, each fourth man having to manage four horses while the other three were deployed on foot, for no advance or flank movement could be made on horseback. Many exploring parties struck out in different directions and returned laden down with samples of petrified wood, plants, fishes and reptiles, giving descriptions of wonderful scenery. One place in particular, situated about two miles north-west from our last camp, I will try to describe. After passing over and along a sharp, zig-zag ridge for about half a mile, then climbing a narrow deep gorge, not over fifty feet wide at the top, and following the same for a considerable distance, it finally entered into a level opening or park about one hundred feet wide. Continuing, the gorge wound about in various directions between all imaginable shapes and kinds of rocky structures, in many places opening into dark caves, until we found ourselves within a park of circular, stone monuments or columns, that varied in size from three to eight feet in diameter and from ten to fifty feet in height, and which were of an equal thickness from base to summit. On the tops of these pillars were flat stones or "caps," which lay horizontally, their rims extending over and beyond the pillar below, on all sides, by from one to five feet and giving the whole the appearance of a crop of gigantic mushrooms.
Leaving this park and further explorations, we took a south-westerly direction towards the supposed course of our train, passing many more such "mushroom" parks, climbing up and down ovei many mounds, resembling the crumbling ruins of brick-kilns, walls and chasms, and finally reached a flat, about a quarter of an acre in extent, upon the top of a cone or circular mound. In the distance, from one to three miles to the west and south-west, we could see clouds of dust hanging in the hot air above our train; also groups of men standing upon the various castles, towers and mounds, and, again, hundreds of others scrambling and climbing in all directions in order to gain the highest points of observation. Half a mile away to the south-east we could see a portion of the train crawling like a mighty serpent around a circular mound in the valley below and passing in a north-easterly direction along a narrow gulch to its upper end against the abrupt bluffs, then circling to the west and returning against its previous course, but a few rods only from its former track, and through seeming gateways passing out of sight.
The reason for this roundabout course was an almost fathomless narrow crevice in the earth, through which the expedition toiled its weary and dusty way. At different places to the west of us could be seen parts of the train forming and unfolding at the same time along its course, and yet with such regularity as to seem that the whole consisted of but one living body.
A large pick and shovel brigade followed close behind the guide and this guard, cutting and opening a narrow road over and through all conceivable barriers. About four o'clock P. M. a temporary halt was made in a narrow flat that was composed of clay, burned red, of piles and stacks of black vitreous furnace-slag and klinkers. A strip of dead underbrush lay along the dry and slaggy channel of a former water course, and here the command awaited the reports of the guide and pioneers in advance. The red-burned peaks and heights surrounding us were covered with crowds of citizens and dismounted soldiers. Major Brackett, commanding the cavalry, who was at the time leaning against a huge tower of klinkers, asked of General Sully what he thought of the country; whereupon the General, drawing a long breath, answered: "I, think it is h—1 burnt out!"
About this time the order, "Forward, march!" came. When the train had gotten started again, skirmish firing was heard about half a mile south-west of us and in the course of fifteen minutes the whole command was surrounded by thousands of hostile Sioux. Before sunset the panoramic view had changed from "hell burnt out" to "hell alive." The red devils were everywhere, firing and sending bullets and arrows into our ranks. One of our chaplains, after watching the quick, bold and desperate charges of,the Indians on our resolute and defying forces, exclaimed: "Here we have a true picture of his Satanic Majesty's forces welcoming their new guests on Judgment day." From every point, cliff, hole or cave, the Indians fired upon us. Our parties of explorers rushed in from all directions, many having had narrow escapes. It is a mystery to this day how so many stragglers got into our lines alive.
By sundown the advance reached the Little Missouri River and, following up the stream about a mile, went into camp on a little flat upon which the whole expedition was crowded for the night. The Indians by this time seemed to feel assured of success, for our camp was almost surrounded by high and perpendicular walls, from the top of which they could even hurl stones into our midst. Scarcely had the camp been formed, however, when the artillery was placed and at once the two batteries (twelve pieces) opened fire with solid shot, shells and grape. Such running and scrambling, such jumping over precipices and up and down almost perpendicular walls and cliffs and gorges as was done by the red devils, many dismounted and bloody, and by riderless horses and ponies that went dashing in all directions, was hardly ever seen before. The noise of the guns and their roaring echoes made the hills almost shake. Nowhere, I venture to say, did artillery sound so noble and grand and commanding as on this occasion. By dusk the firing ceased, for the Indians had all fled. Without feed for our animals and with a double line of pickets around our camp, we passed our first night in the heart of the Bad Lands with no unusual disturbance.
The next morning (August seventh), at daybreak, the train started on again; every citizen as well as soldier standing side by side in line for duty. The pioneer brigade, armed with pick and shovels, was largely increased for the road had all to be made. We moved up along the Little Missouri about one mile, fording it twice, and turning to the west entered a narrow and deep crevasse that was barely wide enough for the wagons to pass through. This we followed upward from the river, in a zig-zag course for about three miles, and emerged as though out of the ground upon a high bluff about one mile westward from our last camp.
Just as we emerged from this under-ground passage, so to speak, our Indian guide was shot through the body. He was immediately picked up by Richard Hoback, now a resident of Helena, who was a member of Company H, Minnesota Mounted Infantry, and carried to headquarters where the wound was dressed by the surgeons. At this critical moment a complete rout seemed inevitable, for the other Indians accompanying us, not knowing the way through the mysterious pass, all turned back on the run and frightened the led-horses which had been placed in charge of every fourth trooper, who by a resolute stand averted a general stampede in which disaster would have been assured.*
The men, during a portion of the day, had to feel for and find their own way, until the guide had recovered from the shock of his wound. He was then held up by the men in a carriage, and thus riding was able to point out the course of our route.
The general formation of the country ahead of us was similar to that behind, but much worse for our wagons. Additional assistance had to be furnished to teamsters, and at the roughest and steepest places men were stationed to assist the passing of the teams, with orders to destroy every conveyance that should upset or break down in order that the route for those following might not be obstructed. The dust arose in thick clouds from the hot ash-like formation of the ground, so that no teamster could see the leaders at the head of his team, and by two o'clock in the day the heat had become so great that the work horses, from lack of sufficient food and water for several days past, began to give out by dozens. New teams were made up from animals surviving from the old ones, and wagons and their contents were destroyed because it was impossible to transport them further. The rear guard killed all animals that gave out in order that they might not become of service to the Indians.
By 3 P. M. of this day we began to fear we should lose all of our animals; but soon thereafter a pool of stagnant rain water about fifty feet in diameter and four inches deep, with from ten to eighteen inches of mud underneath, was found at a foot-hill against a mountain. The horses of the cavalry rushed for this pool, and only by the greatest difficulty were they prevented from trampling it into mud. As it was the supply was insufficient and many belated citizens and soldiers offered a dollar for a canteen full of the muddy water. Here we pitched our camp for the second night in the bad-lands.
[*At this time I was in command of a squad comprising every fourth trooper of Company H, 2nd Minnesota Cavalry, being those who were left in charge of the horses while the remainder of our company, officers and men, together with other troops, were deployed on foot upon either flank of the command.
When the young guide was shot the Indian scouts, about two hundred in number, with their chief at their head, in a panic came rushing back upon the cavalry horses which had been moving forward immediately in their rear. This left our front open to the attack of the hostiles, who swept down towards the exposed point in a body. The one company in our front doubled up and came in upon us with the scouts; whereupon I pushed through the rout to where the chief was, and, cocking the hammer of my carbine, drew the gun down upon him and told him to halt the scouts immediately or I would kill him then and there, he at once obeyed the order, and then said that the guide had been killed at the front and that he with the scouts were on their way to report the turn of affairs to General Sully. Forcing them to keep their position in the van I caught up the guide, whom some of the scouts had brought in, and carried him back some distance to an open place where I left him in the care of two troopers. There he lay until General Sully reached him with his ambulance. This halt of the scouts enabled the troops, who were advancing on either flank, to come in and cover the front, thereby saving the command from what might well have been an irretrievable disaster.
The command of the expedition this day devolved upon Colonel M. T. Thomas, of the 2nd Brigade (Minnesota); General Sully being quite ill at the time.— Richard Hoback. ]
In the morning (August eighth) the Indians returned in greater numbers and more defiantly than ever. The firing began at the front, but soon they charged us at all available points. Our artillery was now distributed; six pieces were placed in front, two on each flank, and two in the rear. General Sully ordered shell to be thrown into all the numerous hiding places (places of ambush) along the route, and so effective were these means in dislodging the Indians that by noon they feared to occupy such positions and thenceforth fought upon open ground.
The dead bodies of many Indians lay strewn along the route. Our chief guide, the young man who had been shot through the body as before described, still rode with us in a carriage, but many of our men were killed and wounded by the bullets of the hostiles. Owing to the inferiority of their arms we could keep the savages at a tolerably safe distance with our longer range guns and the artillery; otherwise there might not have been a man of us left alive, so numerous were they and so persistent in their attacks. (See Note, end of article.)
Before arriving at the pool of water, above mentioned, the Indians made one more desperate attack upon our front, but meeting with a severe repulse withdrew by sundown. With one quarter of our men on guard duty we passed the night serenely and quietly, with the exception of the pitiful cries of our hungry and thirsty animals. At this time many of the citizens fed flour, bread and anything eatable from their scanty supplies to the animals in order to keep them alive.
The next morning (August ninth), at daybreak, the command started forward. The Indians came on stronger than ever and attacked us on all sides. Close to the camp a high and rocky "butte", arose above the surrounding country. Many of us climbed to its summit, from which vantage-ground we could overlook the whole field of battle. Indian chiefs and commanders could be seen in all directions, signalling and directing the movements of their forces. It was a sight one may never forget. About two miles west of us our front seemed to have been checked by the hostiles, while the reports of fire-arms and artillery indicated a desperate struggle. About this time the rear of the train got in motion, and shortly thereafter the firing ceased. Soon a great cloud of dust was seen rising about two miles to the south-west of our advance, which upon close inspection proved to be a living mass of warriors, with their families and herds, stampeding in a south-easterly direction into the badlands and endeavoring to escape from their victorious and unconquerable enemies. We did not pursue them, however.
By noon our advance had reached the western boundary of the badlands, at a small creek on a rolling prairie that stretched to the westward. Here had been the chosen spot of the Sioux for a safe camp and a stronghold against all enemies. The camping ground was about three miles long, from north to south, and three-fourths of a mile wide. Their fires were yet burning; and many of their effects, including the undisposed-of bodies of dead warriors, were left in the camp to tell of the hasty and unexpected flight. About three miles farther west we camped for the night, with water in plenty but with grass scant.
The hostile warriors, as soon as their camp was in safety, climbed up onto the highest elevations around us and there sat by thousands, looking quietly on to see us move forward at our leisure towards their new Eldorado—the Yellowstone country.
The next day (August tenth) the command traveled north-west over a rolling prairie that was intersected by broken ridges, without feed or water for our animals until near midnight, when we found a little strong alkali water and a little "wire" grass. On this day our animals began to give out by the hundreds, and the rear guard kept up a continuous fire to kill them as they fell. Their carcasses and the abandoned wagons will mark our route here for many years to come.
Upon August eleventh, in order to recuperate, we did not start until late. The citizens, now in the advance and feeling safe from Indian attack, about ten o'clock in the morning heard the welcome sound of steam whistles, which proved to be those of the steamboats on the Yellowstone River about ten miles west of us. Immediately upon the receipt of this news, General Sully pushed forward his command through the bad-lands and by dark we had arrived upon the banks of the river, a short distance below the site of the present town of Glendive. Here, in the wilderness, we once again beheld those splendid government steamboats, two in number (Chippewa Falls and Alone), which had been moving up and down the beautiful stream for two days in their endeavors to find our expedition. Laden with supplies, they had been sent on in advance early in the season to meet us here, thousands of miles from civilization. They were the first that had ever ascended the Yellowstone River to this point, we were informed. As there was no grass for animals up the river, the country having been stripped of vegetation by the drouth and grasshoppers, and the season being too far advanced for further military operations, the command took its march down the Yellowstone. It took the steamers three days to ferry across our supplies and the baggage to the opposite bank. The wagons and animals were necessarily compelled to ford the river; in doing which many government teams and teamsters, and two citizens from Shakopee, Minnesota, were carried down the stream and drowned. The expedition then moved across the country about thirty miles to opposite old Fort Union, a mile or two above the present site of Fort Buford, and there crossed the Missouri River in the same manner as we had crossed the Yellowstone; many government horses and animals being drowned at this crossing also.
From this point, Fort Union, the military forces returned eastward to the frontier posts of Minnesota and Iowa, there to go into winter quarters. Many citizens, also, discouraged by the hardships they had suffered, returned with the military command to the "States." The remainder of the citizens, however, turned westward to Milk River and moved up that stream to the Bear Paw Mountains, then across the country to Fort Benton and from there south to Sun River, thence by the old "Mullan Road" along the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains to the present site of the City of Helena,* where the travel-worn emigrants finally located with their train and animals for the winter.
(* This route is approximately that of the present (1896) Great Northern and Montana Central Railways.-W. E. S.)
Starting upon the journey from Fort Bidgely, Minnesota, we had been four months on the road, and arrived at Helena on the twenty-first day of September, 1864, after an experience the like of which few emigrants have ever been called upon to pass through or compelled to endure.
Many members of our expedition remained and are still living in the vicinity of Helena, well known to our citizens, and, I believe, respected by all for their true worth. Their names are:
Nicholas Hilger, wife and daughters, cattle owner, Helena.
David N. Hilger, cattle owner, Helena.
Matthew Hilger,* cattle owner, Helena
Henry Jurgens, merchant, Helena.
Hon. Thos. J. Lowry,* attorney-at-law; Helena.
Hon. John H. Shober, attorney-at-law, Helena.
George B. Foote, civil engineer, Helena.
Joseph W. Hartwell, lumberman, Helena.
George White, builder, Helena.
Gilbert Benedict, farmer, Helena.
Adam Crossman,* wife* and children, mason, Helena.
Anton Miller,* Helena.
Dr. S. Irwin Blake, dentist, Helena.
Paul Weidert, wife and children, Lewiston.
M. Lemline* and wife.*
Philip Constans, merchant, Unionville.
Hon. Frank Welles, merchant, Badersburg.
--- Handsheidt,* wife* and children.
John Somerville* and wife.
--- Le Brash and wife.
--- Hase and wife.
P. Hopefield, wife and children.
Paul Kratke and wife.
[*Deceased (as of 1896.)]
Beside those mentioned above there were five ladies, whose names are not remembered, who accompanied their husbands through with the expedition.
Andrew J. Fisk, Quartermaster Sergeant, now one of the proprietors of the Helena Herald, and Richard Hoback, Sergeant Company H, 2nd Minnesota Cavalry, returned with the Sully expedition from Fort Union to Minnesota. Both returned to Montana with Captain James Fisk's expedition in 1866 and yet remain here.
Herewith is appended a table showing the military forces under the command of General Sully, as taken in part from his official report of the expedition:
First Brigade (Iowa), under the immediate command of General Sully:
6th Iowa Cavalry, eleven companies, Lieutenant-Colonel Pollock.
7th Iowa Cavalry, three companies, Lieutenant-Colonel Pattee.
Dakota Cavalry, two companies, Captain Miner.
Brackett's Minnesota Battalion, four companies, Major Brackett.
Prairie Battery (Iowa), two sections, Captain N. Pope.
Nebraska Scouts, one company, Captain Stuff.
Second Brigade (Minnesota), Colonel Minar T. Thomas, commanding:
8th Minnesota Infantry, mounted, ten companies, Lieutenant-Colonel Rodgers.
2nd Minnesota Cavalry, six companies, Colonel R. M. McLaren.
3d Minnesota Battery, two sections, Captain John Jones.
In charge of train and transportation, Captain Anson Northrup.
Note—"The following paper, prepared by Colonel M. T. Thomas of the eighth Minnesota some years ago, gives an outline history of what is known as Sully's Indian expedition of 1864:
[Source: From "Minnesota in the Civil War and Indian War.", reprinted in the "Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Volume 2 - By Historical Society of Montana", State Publishing Company, 1896 -- Transcribed by K. Torp. Transcriber's Note: The location of the battleground is in modern Dunn County, North Dakota.]
"The campaigns of Generals Sibley and Sully of 1863 had driven the Indians westward across the Missouri River, and for the time had freed all of Minnesota and most of Dakota of their terrifying presence. They had been worsted in several engagements, but were still strong and defiant, and openly boasted that the white soldiers dare not follow them further. During the winter of 1863 and 1864 a campaign was planned, of greater magnitude and importance than any previous one; its object, to follow the Indians west of the Missouri, and to fight and conquer them if possible. General Alfred Sully, an officer who had seen much service, was detailed to command the expedition. His immediate command consisted of the 5th and 6th Iowa Cavalry, a battalion (Brackett's) from Minnesota, and the 30th Wisconsin Infantry. His force was to be joined on the upper Missouri by a brigade from Minnesota as early in the spring as possible. The Minnesota brigade was formed of the 8th Infantry, mounted, six companies of the 2nd Cavalry, two sections of artillery, and a company of mixed white and Indian scouts. The utmost care had been exercised in the fitting out and equipment of the forces, and when spring came everything was waiting for the grass to start its growth, for the subsistence of the animals depended upon it. I had the honor to be placed in command of the Minnesota brigade, a position to well be proud of, for a finer body of men could not be found in any army.
In the afternoon we joined General Sully's command, and for the first time I had the pleasure to report to him. General Sully was an unpretentious man of medium size, and rather past the vigorous days of the prime of manhood, yet his perceptions were remarkably clear, and he appeared to know intuitively just where the Indians were and what they would do. These instinctive qualifications, that had been more fully developed by long service in the regular army, rendered him fully competent for the duty to which he had been assigned, and, added to these, a genial temperament made him an agreeable commander.
"The boats came in and in a day our store of supplies was renewed and the united command again resumed the march on July 2d and crossed the Missouri and located Fort Rice July 9th. Colonel Dill, with six companies of the 30th Wisconsin, was stationed there with orders to construct the fort. On the 4th of July the General reviewed the troops, which was all the celebrating that was done, except that a captain got drunk and was placed in arrest. On July 19th, the whole command having been supplied with sixty days' rations, and every pound of surplus clothing and equipments stored away, the march again commenced into what was then an unexplored country. Our route lay up the Cannon Ball River for several days, and then across to the Heart and up that to its head. As Surgeon Murphy used to say, we were making history. Then no white man's eyes had seen the land we marched over; now a well-established railway is running on our trail, and the country has been so often described that a repetition would be waste of time.
Battle Of Killdeer Mountain.
"On July 26th we corralled our train on Heart River, and, leaving it under a strong guard, started northward in search of the Indians, and in the afternoon of the 28th found them located on Knife River, or rather among the foothills of some mountains near it. The camp was an extensive one, and embraced one hundred and ten bands of Sioux. They had congregated this great force to clear out the white Soldiers, and appeared to believe that they could do it. We were about three miles from the camp when they were first discovered by the scouts. There was no excitement apparent on either side, and both deliberately prepared for battle with equal confidence. The line was formed by dismounting three men out of four, leaving the fourth man in charge of the horses, who followed the line in close columns. The dismounted men were formed in line as skirmishers, about four paces apart, with a reserve of cavalry to cover the flanks, and the artillery within supporting distance of the line of battle. It was a formidable looking force, and when the 'Forward!' was sounded there was a determined look on the faces of the men that indicated that they now had a chance to get satisfaction from the redskins. The Indians gathered on their horses, stripped for battle, and began to leisurely ride out towards us; first a few fine-looking fellows rode up nearly within gunshot to reconnoiter, and then little bands would leave the camp and advance, but without any demonstration other than waving their arms in the air orcantering across the plain. At last they came within our reach, and a few rifle shots precipitated the conflict, but not until we had passed half the distance to their camp. At the first shot everything was changed. The bands concentrated, and, uttering their war cries, they dashed toward our lines. Riding at full speed, they would fire their guns and wheel and disappear to load, and come again, in front and flanks and rear. It was a continuous succession of charges that were always repelled by the steady volleys of our men. We kept steadily advancing, their camp our objective point. Their confidence was such that they did not make an effort to save it until we were within half a mile; then, for the first time, we set the artillery to work and threw shells from eight guns with terrifying effect. It was a magnificent sight — 1,600 lodges filled with women and children, dogs, horses and all paraphernalia of their homes, and they attempting to save them with the shells bursting about them, carrying destruction in their path. The lodges came down, but too late. The warriors shot their guns, and arrows hissed through the air, but onward went the blue-coated line, and the camp was taken. The fighting was kept up in a desultory way until the sun went down, but the Indians were whipped, and, what was worse, had lost their camp and all supplies, and were fleeing, almost naked, into the mountains. The white soldiers camped upon the ground. General Sully ordered Major Camp, with Companies E, F, H and I of the 8th Minnesota, to follow the Indians through the deep-wooded ravines and drive them off the high hills beyond the camp, which they accomplished, with some loss to the Indians. From these hills a fine view of the Indians and their families could be had as they swarmed away through the ravines of the Bad Lands, mostly beyond reach. This detachment reached camp, where their horses were, at 11 P. M., and supperless and exhausted, lay down, only to be called to saddle again at midnight. Sully had 2,200 men and he estimated the number of Indians at from 5,000 to 6,000, and that their loss was 100 to 150 killed. Half of the next day was spent in destroying the camp and killing the dogs that were left behind. The one supremely sad thing about a battle is burying the dead, and in this case, although there were but few, it was sad indeed. In the middle of the night the graves were prepared, and without a light or the sound of a drum or bugle, their bodies were placed in the earth and carefully covered up, levelling the surface so that the grave would not be noticed, and when the command marched over them they would be hidden from the sight of the Indians, who would mutilate and despoil them. This battle was called Tah-kah-o-kuty, or Killdeer Mountain. After destroying their camp and an immense amount of material, we moved back six miles and camped. That night the Indians killed two men on our picket post and tried to stampede our horses. The next day we started back for the train in rapid order and reached it after a five and a half days' raid.
"After the engagement the Indians complained to our scouts that they had not had a fair show, because we had come onto their camp when most of their young men were absent looking for us, and that they would call in their young men and meet us again. The scouts told them that was just what we wanted them to do, and that if they would only stand up and fight, instead of running away, we would kill every one of them. Brag is natural to an Indian, and when the scouts and Indians had a little hill between them their tongues had many a wordy contest. We returned to our camp in a heavy rainstorm, everybody tired and nervous for want of sleep. We had marched one hundred and seventy-two miles, fought a battle of eight hours and destroyed the camp in less than six days. After the guards and pickets were placed the camp settled down, but not to sleep. First the shrill yell of a wolf startled the drowsy senses, and then another, and then the air was filled with the piercing, harrowing sounds: a picket gun was fired, and then another, and the men seized their arms, and, because they were awakened, damned everything. The officers on duty went to see what was the matter at the outposts; the men thought they had seen something and fired. To reassure them was impossible; the firing was kept up all night long, and only the warm sunshine of the morning dispelled the delusions of the night. Going west again the stream led us up to the plains, and after we had passed its source we had a day's march across level country. In the afternoon of the 5th of August we were marching leisurely along, the Knife Mountains just visible in the north and the Black Hills equally distant in the southward. In front there was no indication of anything but an almost level plain, but suddenly the head of the column halted, and, riding to the front, I found the General and the advance guard gazing down at the
As I halted beside the General he said: 'This is hell with the fires put out.' The description was brief, but to the point. Dante must have received his inspiration from such a scene. For forty miles to the west, and as far as the eye could see to the north and south, the body of the earth was rent and torn, leaving gorges, buttes and yawning chasms, and everything showing the color of burnt-out fires. It was an awe-inspiring sight. True, it had not come without warning, for some knowledge of it was general, but no description could bring to the mind a comprehension of its magnitude. We had among the scouts a little Blackfoot Indian, who said that when he was a boy he had crossed the Bad Lands with his father's band, and that he could find the way again. This young Indian was now installed as guide, and following him, the command, by turning devious ways, plunged down into the abyss. We camped that night under the shadow of some buttes whose towering heads threw shadows that hid us from the world. The next day we toiled among the rocks, up and down, and across a seemingly endless mass of obstructions, and at last, as the sun was going down, the heart of the Bad Lands was reached by striking the Little Missouri River.
Fighting In The Bad Lands.
"It was Saturday night, and we went into camp to spend a Sunday in the heart of the region that had never before been seen by white men's eyes. The day went by quietly until in the afternoon, as a reconnoitering party was returning, they were attacked by a few Indians, but not much force appeared. At five o'clock I was ordered by General Sully, who was sick, to move the camp about four miles up the river and to keep a sharp lookout for Indians. The movement was made without any trouble, although the redskins began to show themselves at every elevated point along the way. When the new camp was made there were at least 1,000 warriors on the hills surrounding, sitting quietly on their horses, observing our movements. After everything was in order I went to the General's tent for further orders. He was very ill, but after listening to my report of the condition, he said: 'Have everything ready to move at six o'clock in the morning, in perfect fighting order; put one of your most active field officers in charge of a strong advance guard, and you will meet them at the head of the ravine, and have the biggest Indian fight that ever will happen on this continent.' Of course I felt the responsibility. The drill and discipline of a soldier's life will school his nerves so that his face and voice do not show excitement, but the mind and heart responds to the occasion still the same. I made the details for the position of all the troops, and calling the field officers together, in a few words informed them of what they had to do, and ended by saying: 'You will remember that under no circumstances must any man turn his back on a live Indian.' A few minutes before six the next morning, Monday, August 8, 1864, the columns were formed and, I rode forward to the front, near which the General was lying in his ambulance. He was looking up and down the lines of troops, and to him, old soldier as he was, and disease and suffering preying upon him, it must have been inspiring, for his salutation was: 'Those fellows can whip the devil and all his angels.' I asked him if he had any further orders and he said: 'Hold them well in hand, but push for the Indians' camp, if you can find they will fight for their families; protect your flanks and I will protect the rear.' He extended his hand and as I pressed it, a weary smile came to his eyes, as he said: 'You must make some history to-day.' I could appreciate what it was to surrender to a subordinate the honor that might be won that day.
"At the sound of 'Forward!' one-half the men in the advance guard and in the flanking columns dismounted, and scrambling up the abrupt bluff, soon appeared on the summit; the batteries and the mounted men and trains followed me into a narrow gorge, only wide enough for a wagon trail, that gradually led upward to the high land. The advance seemed tedious; not a sound disturbed the progress. Occasionally a man in the advance on the plain would come to the brink and report that all was going well, and indicate their position. Almost an hour passed in steadily climbing up the narrow and secluded way, and when almost out upon the plain, or at the head of the gulch, from the beautiful stillness of the morning the pandemonium of war broke loose. The artillery followed myself and staff like a flash, and in an instant the whole field was in view. The advance guard was enveloped by the Indians, and on either flank their bands were charging, yelling and firing. But our soldiers were not idle; every man was facing the foe, and with steady, unerring aim their shots began to tell. The battery guns were unlimbered and the boom of artillery and the bursting of shells added to the magnitude of sounds. The redskins could not stand it and fell back. Their first grand charge had failed. The sounds were too much for the General. As the Indians were falling back he rode up on his horse and cast a searching look about the field, and, without speaking a word, dismounted and took a seat upon a rock with as indifferent an air as though he had no interest in the matter. Waiting for a few minutes for the trains to close up, I went to the General and said: 'I am ready to advance, sir.' He answered: 'Go ahead, you will find the camp beyond those buttes,' pointing his hand to a range of hills some miles away. The advance was taken up, the wounded and slain cared for, and the fight went on. Sometimes in the gulches and then upon the hills, through the bright morning hours and the sultry heat of noon, and until night closed down, there was no instant in which the sharp crack of rifles was not answering the yells of the savages, and the zip of their bullets and the whiz of arrows gave us an answer back. We drove them from point to point, our trains laboring after us for twelve long miles. But darkness came too soon; we had not reached their camp. I had not seen the General or had an order from him since the early morning, and after ordering the troops to bivouac around a little water hole, and seeing that the wounded were properly cared for, I sent an orderly to hunt him up. The General returned with the orderly and much to my astonishment, appeared to be quite well. I was lying on the ground eating hardtack and trying to drink some coffee made out of most villainous water. He sat down and congratulated me heartily on the day's battle, and instructed me to take charge of the rear in the morning and he would make a dash to the front if the Indians wanted any more fight; a contingency about which he had serious doubts. We smoked our pipes and drank toddies for an hour or two while talking over the incidents of the day. The tired men and animals were all, except the guards, fast asleep, and that long day's furious warfare was over.
"In the morning the General went to the front with not an Indian in sight, but just as the rear was leaving camp they made a spasmodic attack upon it, and for an hour it seemed as though the scenes of the previous day were to be re-enacted; but they were easily driven off, and the march continued, and by noon not an Indian could be seen. We learned afterward that there were about 8,000 warriors engaged and that they lost 311 men killed and between 600 and 700 wounded. Our losses were only 9 killed and about 100 wounded. The Indians were poorly armed, bows and arrows being the best weapon many had. The field was named Waps-chon-choka. We followed the Indians for some days, and until they scattered in little bands and went in every direction and then we started northward to meet some steamboats that the General had ordered up the Yellowstone.
At The Yellowstone River.
"After leaving the Bad Lands the water was very scarce and all of it impregnated either with alkali, sulphur or salts, so it was dangerous to use it; and to add to the hardships of the march, we got into a grasshopper region, where the grass had been eaten down to the roots. Besides, the General's commissary had made an error in quantity, and as we only took half-rations to start on, when I had to divide that half with his men the living became rather thin — two hardtacks, a little piece of 'sow-belly,'and a pint of coffee (when we could get the water) per day. And hot! By two o'clock in the afternoon the tongues of many of the men would be so swelled that they could not talk. The animals suffered equally with the men, and many a poor mule had his brains blown out, as he dropped from exhaustion, to end his misery. But from day to day, through the spirit of the men under the stern discipline of army life, the unbroken squares went northward.
"On the 12th of August, when a climax had almost been reached in heat and desolation, a scout came flying back to the troops waving his hand frantically in the air. As soon as it was seen that he was an Indian we knew that he had found something. He halted breathlessly and handed General Sully a little chip of wood. It did not need words to tell what that chip meant; it had been cut by our steamboat men and was floating down the sweet, cool waters of the longed-for Yellowstone. An orderly carried that little fresh-cut chip down the weary, straggling line, and as the burning, bleary eyes of the men beheld it, their strength came back and with a desperate energy the speed was rapid and unflagging to the river. And when the bank of the beautiful river was reached, for the moment all discipline was. forgotten: men and animals rushed into the stream and swallowed the life-inspiring fluid, and joy and happy shouts took the place of misery in the command. I wanted to, but did not quite lose my self-possession. Dismounting, I sat down upon the bank, and an orderly brought up several bucketfuls of the water; my staff gathered around and we swallowed cup after cup of it, and under its effects a happy intoxication pervaded the senses, and fatigue and hardships were forgotten, and then we would toast the yellow fluid 'The Nectar of the Gods.' Being satiated at last, camp was pitched and hunting details made. Some timber bottoms a little way down the river were full of elk and black-tail deer. Soon the fresh and luscious ribs and steaks were sizzling in the blaze and hunger was being appeased as well as thirst had been. It was a joyful evening, and, to fill our cup of satisfaction, just as the sun went down, two steamboats, loaded with supplies, came floating down the stream and tied up at the bank. We crossed to the north side the next day and loafed along down the beautiful valley for several days afterward, hunting, eating and resting, and August 18th crossed the Missouri at old Fort Union." -- From "Minnesota in the Civil War and Indian War."
[Source: From "Minnesota in the Civil War and Indian War.", reprinted in the "Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Volume 2 - By Historical Society of Montana", State Publishing Company, 1896 -- Transcribed by K. Torp]
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