Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Battles Long Ago: First Stronghold 1873

The First Battle of the Stronghold Dates: 16-18 JAN 1873(Author's Note: Well, I've finally run out of "decisive battles" and even "battles that changed history".


I got nothin'.

Trenton? Done to death. Pearl Harbor? Likewise.

So now I begin writing purely based on my own whim, about places and people that interest me just...because. Because of some personal connection, or because I think the story should be told, or because the mood is upon me.

So this month begins the third and final series in the "battles" posts at GFT; those engagements I want to write about merely because I can.)

Forces Engaged: United States - Regular Army From what I can tell, the following units of the regular U.S. Army were engaged in the combat fought along the south shore of Tule Lake in January of 1873;21st U.S. Infantry
Company B
Company C
Company F (detachment)

1st U.S. Cavalry
Company B
Company F
Company G

4th U.S. Artillery
Battery A (detachment) [2 x 12lb howitzers]

The force also included a variety of somewhat "irregular" military organizations, ranging from volunteer state militia (that ranged from somewhat organized to a complete shambles) to paid mercenary "scouts" from tribes hostile to the Modoc. Probably the best organized, if not the most fierce of these were the

Oregon Volunteer Militia
Company A
Company B

the California Volunteer Militia was in fact nothing more than an armed mob.

The mercenaries included Klamath Scouts and Snake Scouts.

There is some disagreement about both the total number of troops engaged and the number of each type. LTC Wheaton, the force commander during January 1873, reported roughly 400 effectives including 225 regulars. MAJ Greene, commanding the west wing, reported a total of 300, including only 175 regulars. The difference in these numbers results from a difference in method of assessing combat power, as we will see.

The U.S. cavalry fought as infantrymen in this engagement, making the actual force composition simpler to estimate. Given that the mortar section of Battery A, 4th Artillery was unlikely to have consisted of much more then 30-50 redlegs the U.S. force must have consisted of between 250-360 infantry, of which slightly more than half were regular soldiers of the United States Army, and 30-50 artillerymen with two howitzer cannon under the command of LTC Frank Wheaton.

Modoc Nation - Kintpuash's Band The entire portion of the Modoc tribe present in the Lava Beds during this time (many of the tribespeople remained on the Klamath Agency to the north and took no part in the fighting) consisted of little more the 150-160 men, women, and children.

Of this group approximately 52 or 53 were men of military age and both capable and willing to fight. We know this because the white neighbors of the Modocs have testified to the names of pretty much every man there who fought for their people.The actual order-of-battle of the little Modoc force, however, is more difficult to assess. Modoc, as many tribal peoples, organized themselves into bands or groups that nucleated around several different centers. Families and relative groups tended to fight, as they lived, together. Strong soldiers, smart war-leaders, tended to accumulate followers. Some tribes, like the Cheyenne, had organized "soldier societies" that acted as elite troopers in war and, often, as policemen and proctors in peace, but the Modoc had none of these warrior groups.

It is likely that in January 1873 the Modoc fought in groups of between 10 and 20 under the men we still recognize as their leaders, the most prominent of them being Kintpuash, better known by his "white man's name", Captain Jack.Other native leaders included Schonchin John (brother of Old Schonchin, the titular leader of the entire Modoc), Black Jim, Boston Charley, Slolux, and a man known either as Brancho or Barncho.

And another name we should remember: Hooker Jim.This beauty (that heavy-lidded face almost cracks the lens - this is a man who liked killing) was a natural-born fighter and had even more prestige because of his father-in-law, Curley-headed Doctor, who was the spiritual adviser - the "medicine man", in Hollywood lingo, of the band. His love of bloody-handed murder got Kintpuash and his group in a lot of trouble in 1872, and we'll hear more from him in the future.

So a total force of roughly 50 light infantry under Kintpuash and his captains.

The Modoc: Before we go on any further I'd like to introduce one of our combatants to you, largely because they and their little war are typically well and truly forgotten today.The Modoc - or as they called themselves, the Moatokni maklaks or "People of the South" - are one of the many interior plateau tribes that owned the central western and central northwestern part of the North American continent prior to 1492. This group is diverse linguistically and culturally, but can be generally characterized by a relatively sedentary life, with a slow movement between drier summer encampments and winter housing generally near the interior lakes. A hunter-gatherer society the Moatokni maklaks used the great salmon fishery on the western rivers as well as the plateau game - deer and antelope, principally - as well as wild vegetables such as biscuitroot and camas.As with many tribal societies the men's hunting skills translated easily into the raid-and-ambush style of warfare that was endemic to the plateau. The ?ewksiknii, the Klamath people to the north, were the most common victims of and danger to the Modoc, but the young men also raided south into the Achomowai people for slaves, and fun, and I suspect that relations with the tough Northern Paiute weren't always cordial.They were never numerous. Modern guesstimates of the Modoc population of the plateau in the century or so preceding the battle of the Stronghold usually run about 300 to 500; larger than a band but not anywhere near the thousands of Klamaths or the big tribes of the fertile lands to the west and northwest. Life on the interior plateau could be hard; winters were cold, summers hot, and rain always an uncertainty. This was not the lush fecundity of the valleys west of the Cascades.

But overall the Modoc were well suited to their home, and the Moatokni maklaks way of life remained largely unchanged for the thousands of years between the settling of the plateau and the arrival of the newcomers.

The first trickle of white men began in the early 1800s; the Modoc were far enough north of have had little contact with the Spanish and too far inland to have encountered Russians. So the first white-eyes to turn up were Canadians or Americans in the 1820s; Peter Skene Ogden, Hudson's Bay agent, explorer, and general frontier hard man showed up among the Klamaths in 1826 and passed through Modoc lands on the way to Mount Shasta.

But the real collision began in 1846, when a group of Americans led by Lindsey Applegate surveyed out what came to be called the South Road or South Emigrant Trail, or the Scott-Applegate Trail.The groups of white people that passed along this thoroughfare probably had no notion that they were trespassing on someone else's home. Had they, given the way that most contemporary caucasians felt about the native inhabitants of North America they probably wouldn't have cared.

Whatever their feelings, their stock ate the grass and competed with whatever game the travelers didn't shoot or at least shoot at (legend and NRA folklore to the contrary, most white settlers were completely useless with firearms except as a means of killing or injuring themselves or each other), got lost, and then the white men blamed the locals for hunting and eating these stray critters. The whites often took the good watering spots, as well, and tended to shoot when nervous.

Of course, the Moatokni maklaks weren't angels, either. These white people carried cool stuff, were fun to raid, and, being outsiders, the Modoc all agreed that killing them wasn't like killing real people, anyway (the whites would have agreed in reverse).

White historians have estimated that between the two groups perhaps 500 to 600 people of all varieties were killed on and around the South Emigrant Trail between 1846 and 1873.

One thing that really chapped the white boys was that the redsticks had no particular taboos about killing white women.

Mind you, the white-eyes returned the favor with interest. But for a white man on the frontier slotting a white girl of a certain age was the equivalent of throwing away a delicious meal, or burning down a sturdy house - the careless waste of a precious resource.

Women - marriageable, white women - were scarcer than rubies on the frontier, so stories like that of the "Bloody Point Massacre" of 1852, where the Modoc raiders were supposed to have chased two young women several miles for the pure vicious entertainment of their terror before killing them, sent the white guys damn near frantic. Here were two precious chances of gettin' busy with an actual white girl lost forever because these damn savages just whacked 'em in the skull and walked away whistling!

It was enough to make a white boy want to go kill some redskins.

The killing and counter-killing continued well into the 1860's.

Things got so bad that the U.S. government tried to clear the road. In 1864 the federal government strongarmed the Modoc, Klamath, and Yahooskin band of the Shoshone tribe into signing away much of their lands along the trail. In return, the groups would get a one-time kick down of $35,000 in cash and about five grand a year for 15 years, plus three hots and a cot on the Rez.

As part of this shrewd deal the Moatokni maklaks had to give up all their holdings along Tule Lake, Lost River and Lower Klamath Lake, and bunk in with their Klamath cousins along Upper Klamath Lake.This worked about as well as you'd expect.

In his delightful style, Gary Brecher ("The War Nerd") paints us a little picture of domestic life on the Upper Klamath Rez, circa 1868:
"The move to a shared Modoc/Klamath reservation made both tribes miserable. How can you run a feud properly when you're living in the same camp? Where's the fun in that? Gotta stand in line for your Federal rations with some Klamath devil who killed your great-great-great grandma and made her teeth into a necklace - it's embarrassing. Socially awkward: "I see you're wearing grandma's incisors. Mmm, remind me to massacre your entire clan when I get the chance..." then one of those awkward pauses and some phony exit line, "Well, let's have lunch one of these days!" Enough to send anybody on the warpath."
And it did.

Specifically, it sent Kintpuash and his band of Modoc off the rez in 1870.

Kintpuash and his bunch had been latecomers to the Upper Klamath party, and after Klamaths began jockeyboxing the lumber they were issued at Modoc Point (the part of the rez Kintpuash's band was assigned) - and the BIA agent turned out to be a useless example of douchbaggery and didn't do squat about it - AND a move to another part of the rez didn't stop the Klamaths from being pains-in-the-Modoc-ass...well, Kintpuash and about 200 of his posse grabbed a hat.

They headed back to Lost River only to find a bunch of white squatters on their turf and ended up hootched up around Clear Lake on the Klamath River, still pretty pissed off about the whole sorry business.

The BIA boss in Oregon was a pretty sharp guy named Meacham who knew Kintpuash and the Modoc. He suggested to his Higher - the federal Commissioner of Indian Affairs - that the Modoc be settled around Yainax in the far southern part of the Upper Klamath Rez.

The Commissioner never replied.

After raid and counterraid between settlers and Modocs went on for several months there was almost even a prospect of some sort of deal (Meacham, GEN Ed Canby [the commander of the Department of the Columbia, the flagpole for the region]and Kintpuash were within an ace of sitting down to discuss the Yainax plan) but then in the spring of 1872 the Commission of Indian Affairs replaced Meacham with a guy named Odeneal who in turn appointed a cherry agent for the Klamath Agency.

That tore things.

Kintpuash and his gang of Modoc continued to hang out in their old lands, and while they weren't exactly good neighbors they weren't raping and killing, either. You get the sense that Meacham probably would have waited them out and kept pushing the Yainax deal.

Odeneal wasn't that sort of guy.

In late November of 1872 Odeneal requested troops from Fort Klamath force the Kintpuash band back to the Klamath Agency. Company B, 1st U.S. Cavalry and a straggle of militia, all led by one MAJ Jackson, turned up at the Modoc camp near what is today Merril, Oregon on 29 NOV 1872.

Online sources disagree about what happened next, but I'm willing to bet is was something like one of the tales below.

The Wikipedia entry claims that the Modoc leaders came out and listened to Jackson's demand and they agreed to the deal. Then the major demanded that Modoc put their weapons down - which they didn't like but were willing to go along with grudgingly - but as they were complying some sort of donnybrook broke out between Chǐkclǐkam-Lupalkuelátko - "Scarface Charley" - and one LT Boutelle.

Charley, who was a pretty tough guy, was probably not to thrilled about laying down his hogleg. Boutelle, who was a cavalry lieutenant and thus probably about as smart as his horse, probably said something or might even have made a snatch for the pistol, and Charley reacted by reversing the weapon, cocking back the hammer and letting fly. Boutelle pulled his shootin' iron, as well.

And then both men missed from what must have been touching distance - which says a lot about what happens when adrenaline, fear, and sudden panic make your firing arm into a licorice whip.

A scrambling firefight is supposed to have followed.

The Modoc then either conducted a withdrawal south under pressure or were driven off by fire; the regulars and militia did not effectively pursue, however, suggesting the former more likely. One soldier was killed and seven wounded; the Modoc left two dead on the ground and were supposed to have carried off three injured.

That's one story.

However, the Park Service website claims that Kintpuash never showed. Instead the Modoc group which included Charley was milling about when the cavalrymen arrived and...
"(s)eventeen of them dismounted and formed a skirmish line. Seeing (a group of about 10) armed Indians had gathered together about 30 yards in front of his skirmish line, Jackson ordered Boutelle to take some four to six men from left of the skirmish line to arrest this group. Applegate...ran back toward Jackson shouting, "Major, they are going to fire!" Perhaps a trifle too eagerly Boutelle yelled to his men, "Shoot over those Indians," raised his pistol, and fired at Scarfaced Charley. At that precise moment, Charley fired also. Neither bullet, though coming close, found its mark. The Modoc War had commenced."
Whatever happened, we do know that Kintpuash with the main band of Modoc retreated across Tule Lake in boats through the night of 29-30 NOV to the volcanic fortification that he had apparently been contemplating as a refuge for some time.

And we know this, too; our boy Hooker Jim now got involved in the business, and not in a good way.

He led a group of riders, somewhere around a dozen, on the long way around the east side of Tule Lake. This also took them the better part of the next day - the group didn't join the Lava Beds group until two days later.

And on the way they killed 14 unarmed men.

To Hooker Jim and his riders this was payback for the Army's attack. To the good people of Oregon and California this meant that the Modoc were now murderous savages and needed to be hunted down and exterminated. At least, that's the explanation the U.S. government gives for what happened next.

The Sources: One of the most accessible, and readable, online sources is presented by the U.S. National Park Service here: it is an html transcription of "Modoc War, Its Military History & Topography" (1971) by Erwin N. Thompson. A relatively unbiased source, and one of the better secondary materials on the subject. Well worth the time.

One of the more interesting sources has to be "The Indian History of the Modoc War, and the Causes That Led to It" written by the son of the man who was GEN Canby's interpreter, Jeff Riddle in 1914. Said to be told in the vernacular and somewhat dry, it would be worth reading for the familiar connection alone but is said to contain some good contemporary photos.

Of course, all the usual archival sources are present for the Army side of the story; the Park Service lists most of them here.

As always, the Modoc story is told only secondhand and by inference. But go there, stand on the edge of one of the schollendomes and listen to the sound of the cold wind over the black rock and the sage.You'll get the idea, I think.

And I want to recommend one delightful resource that is not a historical document at all, but rather a geologic field trip guide of the Stronghold, entitled "CAPTAIN JACK'S STRONGHOLD (The Geologic Events that created a Natural Fortress)" (Waters, 1981) in Johnson and Donnelly-Nolan, (eds.), (1981) Guides to Some Volcanic Terrances in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Northern California: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 838. Lovely piece of work, and, as you'd expect, just the sort of thing I enjoy and I think you will, too.

The Campaign: Well, some of the both of them - the white-eyes and the Modoc - had been spoiling for a fight for some time. You get the feeling that had they been the same color Hooker Jim and LT Boutelle would have got along like a house afire, abusing those they didn't like (which seem to have been most people outside themselves) and generally being assholes - and now they had got it. But you get the feeling that whilst Kintpuash had been thinking this through for a while Canby, Odeneal and the rest of the government types were pretty much making shit up as they went along.

The government types knew what they wanted to do.

But they were stymied about how to do it.

And, worse - they had no real idea of WHERE they were trying to do it.

Waters (1981) sums up the crux of the Modoc War biscuit precisely:
"How was it possible that 53 Modoc men, aided (or encumbered?) by twice as many women and children, withstood a siege through the dead of winter, routed 300 U.S. troops engaged in the first major assault, withdrew undetected after repulsing a second assault of 650 troops supported by mortars and howitzers, and then only a few days later staged a successful ambush and inflicted 25 fatalities upon a patrol composed of 59 enlisted men and 6 officers?"
The key, as so often in warfare, especially irregular or guerrilla warfare, was intimate knowledge of the terrain.

The Modoc had it.

The U.S. Army did not.And the terrain in what would become known as the "Lava Beds" was as challenging as any in military history.Let's listen to Waters (1981) again:
"The main defense positions used by the Modocs, however, are the deep natural cracks and crevasses along the top of the turndown edges of the plateau, and similar fissures along the tops of high schollendomes which ring three sides of the Stronghold. Note that they form a sinuous line along the entire northwest margin of the plateau, and that they curve into a natural U-shaped ambush line which bars access to the Stronghold from the nearest point of the lakeshore. The floors of these natural defense trenches were cleared of loose debris so that the defenders could pass rapidly along them. Short radial routes by which one can walk to various parts of the trench system from the central Stronghold without encountering difficult crevasses were well known to the Modoc defenders.

Beyond this natural trench system lay scattered Modoc outposts - high isolated overlooks with unimpaired views of the surrounding country. Most such outposts are located in the central cracks of the highest schollendomes, and were further camouflaged by piling loose fretworks of rock through which a sniper's rifle could be extended unobserved. No doubt additional Modoc outposts within the area of the map have gone unrecognized during our mapping (see the description of Modoc Fortifications on the map).

The unigue value of the stronghold chosen by the Modocs was its proximity to the shoreline of Tule Lake. A constant supply of water, and of some food from wocus root, waterfowl, fish, and fresh-water clams was thus assured. Also its location denied communication for an enemy using the easily traversible route along the lake shore. Moreover, the Modocs were well aware of an easy escape route to the south over the flat surfaces of scattered remnants of the lava plateau, whereas one unfamiliar with that terrain would flounder painfully and slowly across the heavily fissured and schollendomed country that surrounds these plateau remnants.

Still another unusual topographic feature, a small and deep collapse basin, bounded on three sides by the steep and heavily crevassed sides of three large schollendomes, and on the fourth (east) side by the steep and deeply fissured turndown flap of the plateau formed a natural corral, (t)hus (ensuring) an adequate supply of beef was available throughout the winter."
Short of engineered defenses, Kintpuash and the Modoc had occupied an outstanding natural fortress.

And they would soon show the U.S. Army just how good their defenses were.The commander of the 21st Infantry, LTC Wheaton, had arrived to take command of the overall field force on 21 DEC 1872. He was concerned about shortages of small arms ammunition and the failure of the 4th U.S. Artillery to march order their howitzers. He did order some combat patrols, which exchanged fire with the Modoc defenders but do not appear to have been particularly aggressive in pursuing their reconnaissance very close to the Stronghold itself.

LTC Wheaton had thoughts of a Cannae-like double envelopment of the pesky savages. He wrote
"The day before the fight I shall move up with the Troops on the west side to a point 3 miles from the Modoc stronghold...at day light next day we will skirmish into the lava beds and close on the Modoc Cave or fortification...while the Troops on the east side, close...simultaneously."
Of the overall chances of success he had no doubt; "a more enthusiastic jolly set of Regulars and Volunteers I never had the pleasure to command." he wrote to GEN Canby, and in the 19th Century version of "bring it on" he vaunted that were the Modoc to try and "make good their boast to whip a thousand soldiers, all will be satisfied."The artillery arrived in the first week of January, and LTC Wheaton fixed on 17 JAN for the decisive attack.

The overall plan was to simply overwhelm the dusky savages, what in classical military terms would have been called a coup de main performed by the assault force with MAJ Green in direct command. This "western" force consisted of:

MAJ Mason's battalion (-) of the 21st U.S. Infantry - about 65 infantrymen
Company B, 2d Lt. H. D. W. Moore
Company C, Capt. G. H. Burton
Detachment, Company F, 1st Sgt. John McNamara

GEN Ross's Oregon Volunteer Militia - about 60 in all
Company A, Capt. H. Kelly
Company B, Capt. Oliver Applegate

Troop F, 1st U.S. Cavalry, CPT David Perry - probably 40-50 dismounted cavalry

California Volunteers, CPT John O. Fairchild - 24 irregular infantry

Mountain Howitzer Section, A Battery, 4th U.S. Artillery, 2LT W. H. Miller

Along the east side of the Stronghold CPT Bernard of the 1st. U.S. Cavalry was in overall command of a blocking force consisting of;

1st U.S. Cavalry - about 60-80 dismounted cavalry
Troop B, CPT Jackson
Troop G, (normally Bernard's but now led by his XO, 1LT Kyle)

Klamath Scouts - about 20 irregular infantryHere we come across the likely cause of the discrepancy in numbers; Wheaton's figure of 400+ includes every swinging richard in his command; ladi-dadee-and-every-goddamn-body that was breathing and drawing federal rations. Camp guards, sick calls, slackers and shirkers...Wheaton was just counting every pair of boots and dividing by two.

Green was looking solely at the guys who turned up on the evening of 16 JAN with a rifle; just the actual fighters, in other words.

Which means that as much as 25% of the assault force was lost before the group crossed the LD.

And things were just getting started.The Engagement: The movement to contact began on Thursday morning 16 JAN. The footsoldiers marched directly east across country towards their objective, while the trains including the artillery moved along the Tule Lake shore - longer but passable for wheeled vehicles. The march column arrived at Wheaton/Green's objective rally point just northwest of the Stronghold in early afternoon, though the vehicles didn't link up until after the early nightfall. The troopers probably ate, and some may have tried to get some sleep. Sergeants should have performed whatever their precombat inspections and precombat checks.

Modern U.S. Army doctrine would make this halt the time for a final leader's reconnaissance of the objective, to ensure that conditions had not changed since the original plans and, if they have, to issue an update or change ("FRAGO") to the plan of attack. Not only does this not have been performed, but there does not appear to have been any real attempt to even scout the Modoc positions prior to nightfall on 16 JAN.

During the night both U.S. forces moved.

From the west F/1 CAV moved out and secured the route to the Lava Beds objective in the early morning of 17 JAN. The rest of the command moved eastwards at about 0630.

It was on the east side that things started to come unstuck.CPT Bernard's element had a 15-16 mile march through increasingly bad country; rough, hummocky ground barbed with jagged basalt outcrops, so he started earlier, before darkness on 16 JAN. CPT Bernard also seems to have been one of those officers who believes that his commission grants him powers denied ordinary men - in this case, intimate knowledge of ground that he had never seen. One of his subordinates later wrote that Bernard "relied on his own judgement [rather] than upon the man employed as guide." He was wrong, and his error resulted in the entire force approaching within effective range of the Stronghold in march order, in daylight.

The Modoc, who must have heard the noise of the troops' approach well before they sighted them, opened fire and then pursued Bernard's men as they withdrew to a large basalt kopje the soldiers called "Hospital Rock" for the night. The Modoc withdrew, but the eastern force had been badly shaken.

Sometime early on 17 JAN the eastern force shook out into skirmish order and again headed west to attack the Modoc.

I can't pretend to do a better job of describing the actual engagement than is contained here in Thompson (1971) and I refer you to the link if you want the complete details of the engagement. What I want to do is present a brief outline of the action and then discuss the tactical issues they present.

So, in short, the U.S. forces began converging probably some time not long after the late morning sunrise, about 7:00 o'clock or so. The day was cold, and the entire field was smothered in the thick fog that is still common in the lowlying portions of inland California and southern Oregon in the winter.Thompson (1971) says that the first defensive fires were encountered at 11 a.m.; this is still extremely late in the morning - January days at 41 degrees north are damn short - and this accords with the U.S. accounts that relate that the advance was extremely slow because of the rough ground and fog.

All the survivor's accounts describe the Modoc fire as persistent and gallingly accurate; many of the regulars sought cover but the poor visibility made their return fire ineffective.

Perhaps the single worst failing of Wheaton's attack was the inattention he paid to his artillery. The howitzers were the only means he had of effectively attacking dug-in defenders behind rock walls.But he also had no effective way of controlling his fires; pre-telephone indirect fire still had to be adjusted by an observer stationed with the cannon, and the gunners could not see their own troops, much less the Modoc. Concerned with the possibility of a blue-on-blue the gunners ceased fire after the initial three rounds used to signal the start of the advance-to-contact.

Without the artillery to keep the Modoc heads down and "shoot them onto" the objective the infantry and foot cavalry found themselves in a bad way.

Between 11 and 1 p.m. the western force edged slowly forward, taking losses from firers they could neither see nor hit, until they encountered a "a very deep chasm, beyond which no advance could be made without great sacrifice of life." (Thompson, 1971) and what progress they had made ended.The eastern force had a shorter, but equally miserable, experience under Modoc fire. With the two cavalry companies in extended order they crept forward until the Modoc chose to open the dance. The troopers rushed forward to assault their ambushers but were halted by another of the ubiquitous "chasms", fell back to east of their start line and went to ground, immediately piling up the numerous loose basalt rocks into improvised fighting positions.By 2 or 3 p.m. the U.S. advance was stymied everywhere. MAJ Green made contact with his east-side commander Bernard by the simple expedient of shouting across the south shore of Tule Lake. LTC Wheaton and Green had agreed that rather than doing their Cannae around the south side of the Modoc position that the two elements would be best united along the north side, along the lake shore.

The Oregon Volunteers had had enough by then. The U.S. regulars were scathing; "...the Oregon Volunteers had learned that the Indians would fight and would not run at the approach of the soldiers..." said LT Boyle of the 21st U.S. Infantry "...they were not as anxious to shoot Modocs as they were in the morning." But the Volunteers hadn't come all the way from the settled lands of the Oregon Territory to be shot down by filthy savages wandering about in the fog.

Fuck this for a game of soldiers, said the Volunteers, and sat tight.The regular infantry and cavalry, and the California volunteers tried to move eastwards across the lakeshore, and found that the open strand made a truly awful place to try moving within range of enemy riflemen.

"It was at this point our greatest number of casualties occurred," reported LT Perry of the 21st Infantry. Much of C/21 and the California militia ended up pinned on the lakeshore until nightfall. Only a handful of the western force managed to link up with Bernard's troops, not including either LTC Wheaton or MAJ Green.

By 5:00 o'clock the day must have been rapidly darkening. LTC Wheaton acknowledged that the entire plan had failed and since the fog had lifted his signal detachment was able to flag-signal the order to retreat to the troops still engaged. As many of both elements that could withdrew - C/21 Infantry and the California Volunteers were pinned on the Tule Lake shore until darkness and then completed their move across to the eastern side.Darkness found both sides back where they started, except for the nine dead white men, six of whom were still lost somewhere between the rock spines on the frozen ground they had died for, who had been alive that morning.

A total of 28 other soldiers had been injured; three died of their wounds.

None of the Modoc had been so much as nicked.The Outcome: Decisive Modoc tactical victory.

The Impact, and The Elements of Tactical Failure: The immediate effects of the defeat of First Stronghold were predictable to anyone who has studied the "Indian Wars"; the surviving whites were enraged that a gang of filthy savages had had the temerity to kill white men who were doing nothing more than trying to drive them off their lands, dispossess, impoverish, and humiliate them.

The "Modoc War" would continue another five months. In April an attempt at a negotiated peace erupted in horror; Kintpuash, Schonchin John, Hooker Jim and five other Modoc were involved in the deliberate murder of GEN Canby at a parlay. Further enraged by this treachery a second, larger attack on the Stronghold was attempted in April - it also failed.

But time, and numbers, and a successful siege forced the Modoc to flee south where, eventually, the U.S. Army would win the Battle of Dry Lake in June, 1873. The loss of the mojo that the Modoc had believed they had held until then was decisive.

The band splintered; our murderous boy Hooker Jim defected to the enemy and helped hunt down Kintpuash. Jim testified against his chief at his "trial"; “I have been a friend of Captain Jack," he said, "but I don’t know what he got mad at me for.”

The unfortunate Kintpuash was hanged alongside his lieutenants Schonchin John, Black Jim and Boston Charley in October, 1873.LTC Wheaton was relieved soon after the debacle of First Stronghold. An editorial in "The Army and Navy Journal" claimed that "Time will fully vindicate General WHEATON in every particular, and those who have cried 'blunder, blunder,' when there was no blunder, will realize the fact of having done a brave officer a cruel injustice."

But has it, really?

Obviously for one force engaged to lose the other is likely to win. And certainly many well-planned and executed tactical elements contributed to the Modoc victory, including;

1. Intimate knowledge of, and expert use of, the difficult terrain of the Stronghold,
2. Good use of the principle of "interior lines" to use the terrain to shift their very small force to meet the most dangerous U.S. courses of action,
3. Effective individual fire-and-movement techniques, and accurate marksmanship, and
4. Integration of political and military leadership.But even with these skillful tactics the U.S. Army had overwhelming advantages over the Modoc in manpower and the technologic advantage of artillery. In order to be so badly beaten LTC Wheaton and his subordinate officers had to make some tactical errors, some fairly serious.

These included;

1. Failure to adequately prepare for the engagement. This included long-term intelligence and planning including familiarizing themselves with the terrain and weather of the Tulelake Basin and the tactical and technical abilities of their enemies the Modoc.

The long-term preparation failures may also have included individual and team training, although the U.S. Army in 1873 was typically poorly trained on the individual level. But certainly the assault force was very poorly trained as a unit, as evinced by the sorry performance of the Oregon Volunteers on 17 JAN.

2. Wheaton's assault plan was poor; it depended on a coordinated attack between two widely separated elements that could not communicate with one another and were liable to defeat in detail - had the Modoc been stronger they could easily have held off one force and overwhelmed the other, as the tribal forces would do three years later along the bluffs overlooking the Greasy Grass. His double-envelopment plan also precluded the employment of the artillery, potentially his most effective weapon. His final maneuver - attempting to join the two elements along the lakeshore - was a disaster, exposing his western element to devastating fires without a real hope of success.

4. The immediate tactical failures of Wheaton or his subordinates on 17 JAN include:
- failure to adequately recon the battlefield, including the routes of the approach marches. The eastern force debacle of 16 JAN may not have contributed significantly to the next day's failure. But it didn't help.
- failure to prepare contingency plans in case of an unexpected or exceptionally dangerous enemy action (such as the attempted annhilation of one of the attack forces as discussed above),
- failure to place effective suppressive fire on the Modoc shooters, an artifact of the initial recon failure to identify the Modoc firing positions.
- failure to use mass and dispersion effectively; the U.S. force was too spread out to form an effective assault force and even for individual troopers to support each other; Thompson (1971) says of that after the eastern element was initially repulsed it formed a defense that "...began about 100 yards from the lake and ran toward the south "about one mile and a half long." If this distance is accurate it means that each of Bernard's troopers was responsible for 80 feet of front." Eighty feet was a lot of ground for a man to secure with nothing but a a rifled carbine in a dense fog.
- failure to execute the assault with sufficient violence of action; this is, I feel, the truly critical failure. As bad as the conditions were, had the U.S. troopers been willing to move forward aggressively the probability is quite high that enough living troops would have gotten into the Modoc trenches to clear a section. Once secured the U.S. force could have either moved into the interior of the Stronghold to threaten the women and children, or moved along the trench-line to clear the Modoc fighters from the positions.

But commanding a force of paid soldiers fighting for an immensely rich, technologically complex, politically integrated nation means you can fuck up epically and still win the war.

Being a tiny, poor, politically fragmented and technologically deficient one means you can't lose. Ever.

The Modoc had a last, cold winter and spring to live as an independent people.

In the autumn of 1873 a total of 39 men, 64 women, and 60 children were loaded into boxcars and transported to the Quapaw Agency in the Indian Territory.Thirty-six years later the Territory had become the State of Oklahoma and the Modoc were offered a return to the Upper Klamath Reservation. Twenty-nine people did so and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are part of the confederation formed around their old enemies the Klamaths, living in the inland lake country their ancestors fought for so effectively.For the number of enemies it defeated the U.S. government has never fought a war, before or since, that was more expensive in lives and treasure than the Modoc War.Touchline Tattles: Tule Lake was diked and drained in the early years of the Twentieth Century. By 1965 the shoreline that had been the deadly killing zone of 1873 was the edge of a farmed field. Today the area is "managed" as a national wildlife refuge and the lake has never returned; a tiny area of open slough is all that remains. Kintpuash and his people would stare uncomprehendingly at the vast fields of winter wheat and haygrass that grow where the waters of their lake once shattered the cold moon into a thousand glittering shards of light.GEN Canby lies under stone in Crown Hill Cemetery in his wife's home of Indiana. The newspaper account of his funeral noted that while the occasion was generally reserved "more than once, expressions of hatred toward the Modoc" marred the silence.

The town of Canby, Oregon is named for him.

The site of the Stronghold, and the Modoc War itself, is largely unvisited today. It is a National Monument, The Lava Beds, but is far east of the main roads that carry travelers along the settled lands of the West in an agricultural basin that is loved only by its rural residents. However the Tule Lake basin is still lonely and beautiful, the black basalt and gray-green sage of the Stronghold still cold and high and clean, much as it was in Kintpuash's day.

If you are traveling that way it is well worth the time to seek out.

In April, 1942, the War Relocation Authority began construction of a "Relocation Center" about 10 miles northeast of the Stronghold, along what had been the east shore of Tule Lake where Hooker Jim led his bloody ride seventy years ago.This Tulelake prison "maximum security segregation center" housed some 18,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry by April of 1944 guarded by almost a brigade of military police including six tanks. It was the destination for almost all the "disloyals" - Issei and Nisei who had flunked the written test for WW2. During the war Tulelake was the most explosive of all the WRA prisons, known for its riots and prisoner strikes.The last Tulelake internee was released in March, 1946, seven months after VJ-Day.

The town of Newell, California, today occupies the site of Tulelake.The Modoc Tribe has opened an casino called "The Stables" in Miami, Oklahoma. The website touts its slots and blackjack tables, as well as the "Clubhouse" Restaurant "known throughout the area for upscale American cuisine".

After he died most of the body of Kintpuash was buried at Klamath Agency.

However, his head was severed at Fort Klamath and sent on to the U.S. Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. where it was reduced to a skull and remained for over twenty years.In the Seventies some of his grandkids found out that the skull had been sent over to the Smithsonian.

The last bit of Kintpuash above ground was returned to the Klamath Reservation in 1984, along with the skulls of the other three men hanged with him that day in 1873; Boston Charley, Black Jim and John Schonchin (and the bits of a Modoc woman found dead in the Lava Beds who had been lying around the Smithsonian as well) and reunited with the bones under the soil that the Ice Ages had formed in the Klamath basin not long before the ancestral Modoc arrived in their new land.

His Wiki entry notes that "The "Captain Jack Substation", a Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) electrical substation named in Kintpuash's honor...is located near the northern end of Path 66, a high-power electric transmission line."The sleepless hum of the substation is all of Kintpuash that remains to look out over the sagebrush, the tule fogs, and the cold empty lakebed where the Modoc once lived and died.


Pluto said...

Nicely done, as usual.

I have a couple of suggestions for winter battles:
- How about covering the Boer War at some level. Lots of interesting comparisons between the success of the Boers (supported by German arms manufacturers) and the native troops in the US and Asia that fought western powers at roughly the same time.

- How about covering some of the battles in the late Vietnam era, (1970-75). I suspect the differences between the RVN and Northern Vietnamese forces (the Vietcong having been decimated in the Tet offensive) would generate some interesting stories.

FDChief said...


I have always avoided the Boer War just because of my distaste for both sides; hard for me not to be disappointed regardless of who wins just because they're both so loathsome.

But militarily it's an important event, the first of the truly modern guerrilla wars as well as the last of the Victorian colonial wars.

The truly sad part (for me, anyway) is that the British had an opportunity to learn some worthwhile lessons about 20th Century warfare and failed, and as a results hundreds of thousands of young men died in the first two years of WW1 who needn't have.

Vietnam? There's a couple of interesting fights in 1972; the ARVN 23rd Division put up a hell of a show at Kontum in May - that'd be a good one to put the lie to the Marvin the ARVN stories. And the Quang Tri counteroffensive in June-July was a classic example of what the ARVN could do when well supported by airpower and artillery.

Hard to pin down an actual engagement for 1975, though I'm tempted to write up Xuân Lộc this April as a memorial to the "Supermen" of the ARVN 18th Division who put up such a hell of a fight there.

Either or both might be worth discussing.