Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Knots in that tale

Posted on Wed, Sep 12, 2012 at 4:27 PM

The article "A Yellowstone Tale" (see Aug. 23), examining the Nez Perce War of 1877, is deserving of further comment. In discussing the conflict, the author states:

1. "U.S. General Oliver O. Howard...was nicknamed 'The Christian General' for his tendency to make policy decisions based on religious beliefs." Howard did convert to evangelical Christianity during his service in the Seminole War of the 1850s, and was noted for his efforts to practice his faith in service of the oppressed. He was appointed head of the U.S. Freedman's Bureau after the Civil War, and in that capacity sought to provide humanitarian relief and political integration to the freed slave population. He also founded the traditionally African American Howard University of Washington, D.C. after the war. But any capable review of Howard's command during the 1877 war indicates Howard took actions based on superior's mandates, political constraints and military pragmatism.

2. "The tribe suffered a brutal massacre in Montana's Big Hole Valley." No serious scholar of the American West's military history ranks the August 9-11, 1877 Battle of the Big Hole on par with the 1864 Sand Creek, Colo. Massacre or the 1870 Baker Massacre in northern Montana. The term is usually reserved for unprovoked attacks against noncombatants, not for actions within the context of hostilities. Such niceties of course matter little to those that died in the battle's inherent violence. But the site is today acknowledged as Big Hole National Battlefield—and there is no need to deny agency to the Nez Perce resistance, which inflicted 29 dead and 40 wounded upon the attacking infantry.

3. "The cavalry...augmented with whiskey-fueled volunteers...struck at dawn [at Big Hole]." U.S. units fighting in the 1877 War included the 2nd and 7th Cavalry Regiments as well as the 5th, 7th and 21st Infantry Regiments. Aside from a small scouting detachment and volunteers, the Big Hole force was almost entirely composed of the 7th Infantry, which included the garrison of Fort Missoula. I cannot recall a single reputable source that indicates the Big Hole volunteers entered the battle in an alcoholic state. The Big Hole commander, Col. John Gibbon, was a battle-proven veteran of the Civil War. He would hardly have permitted such behavior during the silence-required night march prior to the battle.

4. "Chief Joseph surrendered to General Howard, who...promised that upon surrender that the 500 remaining Nez Perce would be taken back to their reservation in Lapwai, Idaho." Howard allowed the surrender to be accepted by General Nelson Miles, whose command vastly outnumbered Howard's at the final battle at Bear Paw in 1877. Sources are at best one-sided as to what was promised the Nez Perce at the surrender, but recent secondary sources give no indication of such a promise by Howard.

Hopefully the Independent will continue to publish articles of general interest about Montana history. And hopefully in doing so it will practice the same rigorous editorial sourcing and fact-checking evident in its investigative and political features.

Tate Jones

Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History


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