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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: General Nelson Miles

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: May 11, 2024, 6:08am

At the 1862 battle of Fair Oaks, Brig. Gen. O.O. Howard was wounded twice. His trusted 21-year-old aide, Lt. Nelson Miles, nicked in the heel by a bullet, limped into a slave hut to visit his suffering commander. When the surgeon arrived with four burly soldiers, they placed the general on a stretcher and carried him to the outdoor operating theater. As Miles held his commander’s wounded right arm, the doctor chloroformed the patient, then amputated the arm, tossing the severed appendage into a pile of still-bleeding limbs. Neither officer knew 16 years in the future, the surrender of Chief Joseph would lead to a bitter quarrel regarding credit for the Nez Perce surrender. Nor did they know each would win the Medal of Honor or command the Department of the Columbia.

Miles was working as a crockery clerk in Boston when the Civil War broke out. He volunteered in September 1861. Eight months later, after seeing several battles, he was promoted to lieutenant. By the battle of Antietam, he was a colonel. Following the Civil War, Miles married Gen. William T. Sherman’s niece and participated in the Army’s expeditions against Indigenous tribes on the Great Plains. In 1874-1875, he defeated the Kiowa, Comanche and Southern Cheyenne along the Red River. During 1876-1877, he fought the Lakota and their allies on the Northern Plains, avenging Gen. George A. Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn and forcing natives onto reservations.

When Nez Perce Chief Joseph submitted in 1877, he held out his 1866 Winchester to Howard, who pointed to Miles, to whom he presented it. Quickly, the gesture festered into bitterness. Miles boldly sent a dispatch up the chain of command detailing the Nez Perce submission, and only as an afterthought he named Howard. Initially, Howard praised Miles. Soon, his perspective shifted. Knowing of Miles’ ambition and hunger for rank, Howard feared he’d claim all the credit. Newspaper reports didn’t help. Most left Howard out. Until this incident, Howard had held Miles as his dearest friend.

Miles commanded the Department of the Columbia and the Vancouver Barracks from 1881-1885. In preparation for Sherman’s visit to the region, in 1883 he dispatched Lt. George Goethals, who would later build the Panama Canal, to build a wagon route. Departing Vancouver Barracks to assess the region before the general arrived, Goethals saw he couldn’t build a road in time. Instead, he surveyed the area and set up camps so that he could guide Sherman and his party.

When the 1890 Lakota Ghost Dance uprising began, Miles returned to the Great Plains, where he tried restoring peace. Unfortunately, his efforts led to Sitting Bull’s death and the Wounded Knee massacre of 200 Lakota, including women and children. Miles reacted by demanding that all Lakota should put down their arms, surrender and be placed under military control.

Workers for Pullman Company in Chicago struck for better wages and living conditions in 1894. The strike at the railroad car manufacturer and operator disrupted Midwest train travel. Once a federal injunction was in place, President Grover Cleveland treated the strike as a federal matter. Backing railroad corporations, Miles led troops to squash the strikers. As a pacifying act, President Cleveland and Congress created Labor Day.

Columbian freelance contributor