Major John Green, field commander in the Modoc War, had a problem. During the night of April 15, 1873, 150-plus Modoc men, women, and children resisting the United States military’s campaign to force them onto a reservation had slipped undetected out of their stronghold in northeastern California’s Lava Beds and gone to ground in parts unknown. Green needed to find them.
His Warm Springs scouts were betting that the Modocs had hidden out in a lava flow a few miles south and just east of a lone hill dubbed Sand Butte. That gave Green an idea: dispatch a patrol to determine whether a mortar battery on the butte’s summit could pinpoint the Modocs’ position and rain down fire on them.
Green selected Captain Evan Thomas to command the patrol. Thomas was a promising young officer, a Civil War veteran, and son of a prominent military officer. He was also supported by four lieutenants, two of them were veterans and sons of the army. Green gave Thomas explicit orders: avoid picking a fight. This patrol was a reconnaissance in strength, not an offer of battle.
The column leaving the army’s main camp on the morning of April 26, 1873 looked invulnerable, comprising approximately 70 officers and men, including a local guide, a packer with his muleskinners, and a civilian contract physician. As the patrol headed south, infantrymen spread out in a loose skirmish line on the flanks, a standard tactic. But, finding the walking difficult on the rough lava ridges along the line of march, the skirmishers drifted down toward the main column.
Following the very ridges the skirmishers abandoned, Modoc fighters led by veteran combat leaders Kientpoos (a.k.a. Captain Jack) and Scarface Charley paralleled the line of march yet stayed out of sight. They could hardly believe their good fortune when Thomas call a halt to eat lunch in a hollow at the base of Sand Butte, a low spot hemmed in on three sides by ridges. Despite the vulnerable position, the confident captain posted no guards. His soldiers stacked rifles and kicked back.
Meanwhile, the Modocs were slipping into position. The Indians numbered but 25 to 30 men, yet they occupied the high ground above the patrol. The only way out of the trap ran to the north, along the route the patrol had come, and that lay within range of Modoc rifles for the first few hundred yards.
As the soldiers finished eating, Thomas ordered three men to a picket position close to where, unknown to him, a band of Modocs was hiding. As the soldiers neared, the Natives fired. In the following seconds, all the Modocs on the ridges opened up. Round after round poured into the hollow, a sudden, crashing chaos. The patrol’s picnic spot became a killing field.
When the first distant cracks of gunfire reached the army camp four-and-a-half miles away, Major Green knew a firefight had broken out. Still, given the numbers, he was sure that any engagement would tip to the army’s favor. Soon, though, the first few panicked runaways emerged from the sagebrush, screaming that Thomas’s command was being pounded in a crossfire. As more frightened men streamed in, Green realized things had gone badly. He assembled a hasty rescue column and set off for Sand Butte, arriving only as dark was falling. Fearing another ambush, Green had his men build defensive walls and bed down.
As the sun rose, the scene unfolding on the battlefield stunned even veterans who had beheld acres of Civil War casualties. All the officers were dead or mortally wounded. Every enlisted man who had stood his ground was dead or shot. Of the survivors, only half could walk on their own. The rest had to be carried on makeshift stretchers back to camp through a miserable night of freezing rain and cold wind. The Modocs killed 20 at Sand Butte, without taking a single casualty. Sixteeen enlisted men and the civilian physician survived their wounds, although most of them were too badly hurt to return to duty. Some 30 soldiers plus three civilians had survived unscathed by running from the fight.
Colonel Jefferson C. Davis, the new Modoc Expedition commander, arrived at the Lava Beds soon thereafter and discovered “a very perceptible feeling of despondency pervading the entire command” as a result of Sand Butte. Assessing what went wrong, he gave Green, Thomas, and the patrol’s other officers an earful. The root cause of the patrol’s destruction, he insisted, was cowardice in the ranks: “a great many of the enlisted men here are utterly unfit for Indian fighting of this kind, being only cowardly beef eaters.”
Davis was refusing to admit what really happened: the army had been out-officered. Scarface Charley and Kientpoos exploited Thomas’s every tactical error as the captain succumbed to the common military hubris that his larger force struck fear in “primitive” Indian hearts and rendered skirmishers and noontime guards unnecessary. The Modocs made the army pay for this cocky overconfidence. Trapped in an ambush set up by incompetent officers whose sense of honor compelled them to fight to the death, many enlisted men made the rational calculation: running away over getting killed.
As word of the Sand Butte debacle spread, newspapers weighed in on what had gone wrong. The New York Times reported, somewhat tongue in cheek, a tale from Kentucky that made the Modoc leader Kientpoos, the mixed-blood son of a Southern adventurer in the California gold rush. This mixture of white brains and “savage” ferocity produced an unbeatable war leader. The Daily Alta California, a San Francisco paper, lay blame on the army’s purportedly civilized rules of warfare, which gave the no-holds-barred Indians an unfair advantage.
The ironic truth was that, as bad as Sand Butte went for the army, the Modocs could have made it far worse. Not only did they refrain from attacking the rescue column ferrying survivors back to camp; they had also declined to hunt down and kill the wounded in the battle’s aftermath. Indeed, when the shooting was over, Scarface Charley, whose English was good and baritone booming, called out, “All you fellows that ain’t dead yet had better go home. We don’t want to kill you all in one day.”
Further Reading About Modocs
Boyd Cothran. Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Daily Alta California online and searchable on the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
Don C. Fisher. Papers: Correspondence and related documents from the Modoc War, vols. 7, 9, and 10. Available online.
Cheewa James. Modoc: The Tribe That Wouldn’t Die. Happy Camp, CA: Naturegraph Publishers, Inc., 2008.
National Parks Service, Lava Beds National Monument. A Brief History of the Modoc War.
Erwin N. Thompson. Modoc War: Its Military History & Topography. Sacramento, CA: Argus Books, 1971. Chapter 7 can be found here.
Robert Aquinas McNally is a writer and poet whose narrative nonfiction book “The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age” will be published by the Bison Books trade imprint of the University of Nebraska Press in October 2017. Find out more about his work on his website.