21 April 2013
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Major Guido Ilges (1835-1918): Indian Wars Hero to Disgrace—Part 2
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
April 24, 2013
This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Central Montana. This month concludes the adventures of Civil War hero Guido Ilges as he commanded Fort Benton Military Post during the Indian Wars Army before resigning in disgrace.
Many Civil War veterans served in the Indian Wars in frontier Montana. Among these was the colorful and popular Major Guido Ilges who like many German immigrants served in the Civil War and continued to make the Army a career after the war. Major Ilges served with distinction during the Civil War and the Montana Indian Wars, commanding the Fort Benton Military Post from 1875-79, only to fall victim to bad judgment, court martial, and disgrace.
Prussian-born Guido Joseph Julius Ilges (1835-1918) was a natural soldier and leader. During the Civil War he rose to the rank of Captain in the Union army, earning brevets to lieutenant colonel for gallantry in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania. He remained a Captain in the 14th Infantry Regiment after the war and served in the Southwest during the Apache Indian Wars. Stationed in Arizona, Capt. Ilges was active in scouting and operations against the hostile Apaches. In April 1867, Capt. Ilges led a scouting expedition against Apaches in the Tonto Basin and one year later fought at Cottonwood Springs.
In 1867 he rescued a seven-year-old boy named Ernest Amelung, who had been captured by the Apaches. Capt. Ilges adopted the boy as his ward, sending him to San Francisco to live with Ilge’s aunt until relatives could be located. Finally, an uncle was located near Frankfurt, Germany, and Ernst was sent to live with him. About 1882, when Amelung was twenty-two, he returned to the United States, securing work as an interpreter in the War Department. He began a long search for the man who had saved his life, and finally found Ilges in 1912 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Promoted to Major, December 10, 1873, Ilges joined the 7th Infantry Regiment under Col. John Gibbon in frontier Montana Territory. Assigned to command the Fort Benton Military District, Maj. Ilges became a popular and respected figure around that lively head of navigation town.
On September 25, 1877 with a depleted company from the 7th Infantry and a strong mounted civilian volunteer column, Ilges fought the Nez Perce at Cow Creek Canyon, suffering light casualties. [See this author’s series “Facing Danger Down: Fort Benton Men in the Nez Perce War,” available online at fortbenton.blogspot.com] In 1883 Ilges responded to an account of the Nez Perce War with which he took exception. In his letter to the Benton Record of August 12, 1883, Ilges wrote:
“In justice to one enlisted man, Private Bundy, Company B, Seventh Infantry, and thirty-seven citizen volunteers under my command, I desire to say that this [Ilges’] column took up its line of march from Fort Benton at noon of the 21st of September, 1877, crossing the Missouri at Fort Claggett, and reaching the opposite shore of Cow Island on the evening of September 24th, six hours after the departure of the Nez Perces from that point and having traveled about two hundred miles; that this column on the morning of the following day (September 25th) crossed the Missouri, followed the trail of the Nez Perces leading up Cow creek, overtook these Indians at noon and engaged in a battle of two hours’ duration with them, during which one volunteer and several Indians were killed; that during the following night I dispatched two of my volunteers, Charles Bucknam and William Gantes, as couriers to General Miles, paying them for their dangerous service the sum of $300; that these two couriers delivered my letter of information as to the whereabouts of the Nez Perces on September 26th to General Miles, who was then operating on the eastern slope of the Little Rockies, and that they conducted as guides Gen’l Miles and his command to Snake creek, where the final capture took place after five days’ severe fighting.
“Although these services rendered by my command have for some unaccountable reason never been publicly recognized, either officially or otherwise, I hold in my possession a private note from Gen. Miles of subsequent date, in which he acknowledges the receipt of my information and service rendered, of which he made such good use.
“In justice to my independent command, I claim that the same discovered the trail of the Nez Perces, after evading the different commands in pursuit, and the exact location of their crossing of the Missouri; that it relieved the dangerous position of Fort Claggett; that it saved by its prompt advance and pursuit two steamboats (then near Cow Island) and over one hundred tons of Government freight; that harassed, fought and delayed the Nez Perces for about two days, and that it furnished the information to General Miles which rendered final success probable and even possible. Guido Ilges Lieut. Col. 18th Infantry.”
While Ilges exaggerated the impact of his small Army and civilian force, no doubt their greatest contributions were delaying the movement of the Nez Perces to safety and the intelligence delivered by scouts Bucknum and Gantes to Col. Nelson Miles.
National interest and newspaper coverage of Montana’s Indian Wars of 1876-78 was intense. On June 2, 1878 the New York Times headlined, “An Indian War Threatened. News From Sitting Bull—Hostile Demonstrations—A Speech From the Old Chief—Runners Dispatched to Arouse the Northern Tribes.
“Special Dispatch to the New York Times. Chicago, June 1.—Some interesting intelligence concerning the movements of the Indians in the North-western Dominion has just been received at military head-quarters in this city. Under date of about a month ago Major Guido Ilges, commanding a detachment of the Seventh Infantry, stationed at Fort Benton, Montana, reports to Gen. Sheridan that from reliable information at hand he is convinced that the hostile Sioux under Sitting Bull, encamped at the eastern extreme of the Cypress Hills, British America, design an early excursion southward for scalps and plunder. The officer [Ilges] states that the situation seems to him so serious that he felt it to be his duty to bring it to the notice of the proper authorities. At that time he claimed that there were encamped at the place designated about 1,400 lodges, at least 2,000 of the dwellers in which were warriors. Only a short time prior Major Ilges had been told by Major Irvine, commanding officer [of the North West Mounted Police] at Fort Walsh, that there was no dependence to be placed on the peaceable professions of the Indians under Sitting Bull. Their demeanor was overbearing and defiant, and they were mistrusted by the Canadian authorities. Major Irvine had also said that he regarded the outlook as of so grave a nature that he was in favor of removing Fort Walsh to a more suitable site for defensive purposes.
“Major Ilges also reported information to the effect that the hostiles had assembled at Sitting Bull’s camp on a certain day, and were harangued for several hours by that chief. Some 20 or 30 young bucks dressed in blouses and pantaloons stripped, from dead soldiers on the Custer battle-field, were paraded for the purpose of exciting a war feeling. Old Sitting Bull told the assembled warriors that he had fled from the Yellowstone country because he wanted to, and not because he was afraid of the whites. He said he could not live there for the stench arising from the dead bodies of the soldiers he had slain. He longed for fresh air, and crossed the line expecting to find the true sons of the mother chief, but instead, he added, he had found only Canadians, snakes, and crabs, and they had all lied to him. He boasted that when the grass grew he would “make the Canadians weep,” after which they would retreat to the Yellowstone.
“During the delivery of these remarks Sitting Bull became so excited that he removed the clothing which he wore, and tore it into shreds, this performance being wildly applauded by the thousands of bucks and squaws present. This was followed by a war-dance, and on the next day runners were dispatched to all the neighboring tribes both north and south of the line, inviting them to a grand council to be held early in May. Word was sent by the hostiles to the [Metis and Cree] half-breeds on Milk River, warning them of the coming danger, and the latter fled in dismay.
“In a communication of a later date, Major Ilges reports to Gen. Sheridan information gathered while making an inspection of the soldiers’ graves at Snake Creek. At Old Fort Belknap he learned that the Gros Ventres and Assiniboines had accepted Sitting Bull’s invitation, and had nearly all gone to the Cypress. A few lodges had refused to go, and were encamped at Sweet Grass Hills. Major Ilges reported that they have certainly crossed the line, and for no good purpose. The half-breeds, with the exception of three families, had all fled from Milk River Valley before Major Ilges reached there. They were fearful that the Sioux would murder them. The American half-breeds, some 42 families, had fled South, while the other 65 families, whose nativity is unknown, had gone north to the neighborhood of Fort Walsh.”
By the summer of 1878, the Third Infantry Regiment had relieved the Seventh at Fort Shaw and Fort Benton. On October 22, Maj. Ilges used his Fort Benton based Third Infantry Company to capture a camp of 35 Metis from the Red River in Canada, and returned them northward across the border.
In December 1879 Maj. Ilges transferred to the Fifth Infantry at Fort Keogh, near today’s Miles City. One year later with five companies from his new regiment, he moved through bitter winter weather from Fort Keogh to Camp Poplar on the Missouri River. On January 2, 1881 with about 300 officers and men, Maj. Ilges attacked a strong camp of Sioux on the north side of the Missouri River, killing eight and forcing about 300 to surrender. One week later some 20 additional Sioux were captured, and on the 29th of January 64 more were taken, without casualties to the U.S. Army troops except for many cases of frostbite because of the bitterly cold weather. Among the captured Sioux were warriors Gall and Iron Dog who had participated in the Custer defeat on the Little Big Horn River five years earlier. Continuing to pursue the hostile Sioux, Maj. Ilges arrested 185 in a Yankton camp at Redwater, Mont. on February 12, 1881. One year later on February 6, 1882, Ilges was promoted Lieutenant Colonel of the 18th Infantry.
In 1883 Lt. Col. Ilges found himself with financial problems and was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman and in violation of the 61st article of war for depositing duplicate pay accounts. Col. Ilges pleaded “not guilty” to the charges, and was court martialed. His trial was conducted in St. Paul from 17-20 July.
Col. Ilges admitted his errors, but denied any intent to defraud anyone, stating in his address to the court:
“Has this act on my part, under the circumstances shown, rendered me a fit subject to be branded by you as a felon; to be hurled from the high position of an officer and a gentleman to the level of a criminal, to be loathed and shunned by honest men? I think not! . . . I am compelled to come to you, not asking for mercy, but for simple justice to preserve for me my standing as an officer and a gentleman . . . You will rather remember some good act of my life and my twenty-two years of faithful and hard service to the country in determining as to my intent.”
Despite his eloquent protestation, the court found Lt. Col. Ilges guilty of financial irregularities, although no dishonesty was involved. The court recommended his dismissal from the Army. President Chester A. Arthur approved the recommendation, and on October 31, 1883 Guido Ilges was cast out of the Army.
Ilges’ friends in Fort Benton rose to his defense. The Benton Record of October 27 editorialized, “We cannot allude to the recent action of the President in approving the sentence by which Lieutenant-Colonel Ilges was dismissed from the army, without emotions of grief and indignation. . . Col. Ilges had climbed too high upon the military ladder for a man who was without family influence. His sole claim to preferment was, that for long years he had undergone all the privations attendant upon early campaigning in this country; that he had conducted the most successful campaigns ever made against the Indians in this country; that he had furnished information which made it possible for Miles to capture Chief Joseph; that his energy was unequalled and his bravery unsurpassed; that no man in this country who ever knew him did not recognize in him the brave soldier, the courteous gentlemen, the steadfast friend.”
The Record kept up the drumbeat of support in its news columns, “Just how much sympathy is felt for Colonel Ilges, the gallant officer whose unjust sentence has been referred to in these columns, among the men he had commanded so long, may be judged from this incident: When Troops B and K, of the Second Cavalry, left Assinnaboine last week, and were marching by the Colonel’s headquarters, the band involuntarily wheeled about and played with spirit the grand old tune, ‘Hail to the Chief.’ Every soldier in the ranks drew up his horse and burst into cheers over the pretty compliment paid the man they all so much admired and then in silence rode away. That Colonel Ilges fully appreciated the mark of respect cannot be doubted. In fact, he was completely broken down and was forced to retire. There will never be a man in the army who can obtain such a hold upon his men as Colonel Ilges has today and the sentence which deprives him of his position also deprives the government of one of the best officers that ever entered the service.”
After the crushing blow of dismissal, Ilges traveled around Montana speaking of the Apache Wars and his other experiences to enthusiastic and supportive audiences.
Eventually, civilian Guido Ilges settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, and began working for German-language newspapers there. For eighteen years Ilges worked as a journalist in Cincinnati and then another thirteen years as a weight master at a hay market.
In March 1905 a Cincinnati reporter visited the old soldier just as he was celebrating his 67th birthday. The journalist described his visit with Guido Ilges, “The tall [6 feet two inches], commanding form of this distinguished old soldier looms up into the cupola of the little shanty when he rises from the little old desk where he keeps his accounts and at the side of which he adjusts the balance for the loads of hay and other produce and all sorts of things needing certified weighings. The bronze of many campaigns during the great Civil War and of many marches against Apache and Uncapapa Sioux clings to his face and reminds one immediately of the Indians, against whom he marched and fought for many years.
By 1917 Ilges was crippled from war wounds, nearly blind, and almost destitute. As a last resort to avoid the poorhouse, he applied for a pension based on his Civil War service, rising from Private to brevet Lt. Col. After a lengthy delay, his pension was granted finally for thirty dollars per month. Yet, Civil War hero Lt. Col. Guido Ilges never cashed his first pension check—he died Jan 13, 1918 a few days before it arrived.
[Sources: Benton Record; 12 Aug 1883, 27 Oct 1883; Washington Evening Star 19 April, 26 April 1861; Unident Cincinnati Newspaper 19 Mar 1905; New York Times 2 Jun 1878; Civil War Service Records; Official Report 146, War of the Rebellion; U.S. Census 1860-1910; Byron Farwell. Encyclopedia of 19th Century Land Warfare. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001, p. 415; Guy V. Henry. Military record of civilian appointments in the United States Army, 347-48; Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, vol. 2; http://www.guilfordgreys.com/14th_US-Regiment_and_Battles.htm ]
1. Major Guido Ilges in the center of his men of the 5th Infantry Regiment. (Courtesy of OHRC)