Nevada mystery: Medal of Honor reveals 147-year-old error


PARADISE VALLEY – The only Medal of Honor approved for action inside Nevada’s borders remains unrecognized in the official citation and the answer to whether or not the recipient ever received the medal remains a mystery.

On April 29, 1868, a group of 17 Paiutes ambushed a search party of four U.S. cavalry soldiers, one rancher and an Indian guide looking for alleged horse thieves while traveling through snowpack near Hinkey Summit, about 50 miles north of Winnemucca in Humboldt County.

Three soldiers suffered gunshot wounds.

Pvt. James C. Reid, the only soldier of the four without a wound, dismounted from his horse and dragged the injured soldiers through the snow into a nearby cave as the rancher ran for help. Reid held off the Paiutes into the evening while in the cave. Pvt. Thomas Ward and Sgt. John Kelly eventually died of their wounds. Second Lt. Pendleton Hunter, the detachment’s commanding officer, survived.

For his efforts, Reid was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Reid’s citation for the medal, though, was issued more than a year later on July 24, 1869 — after his unit, Company A, 8th U.S. Cavalry, re-located to Arizona. To this day, Reid’s Medal of Honor citation says the incident occurred in Arizona, not Nevada.

Additionally, Reid’s command never received it, according to several letters written between Reid’s command and the War Department in the summer of 1869.

Fierce fighting

The two soldiers killed as a result of the skirmish were hardly the first casualties in the region during battles between Paiutes and the rapidly growing settlement in Paradise Valley.

After the Comstock boom in 1859, the need for food products — livestock, animals and grain crops — increased across northern Nevada. The Pyramid Lake War in 1860 was the bloodiest consequence of growing hostilities. In other places like Paradise Valley, white settlement created increased competition for resources and several years of continued conflict with the native Paiute, Shoshone and Bannock in the region.

“Fighting became far more intense as one side’s attack became the other side’s justification for reprisal,” said retired Nevada Guard Col. Dan C.B. Rathbun, author of “Nevada Military Place Names of the Indian and Civil Wars.” “Many Indians who had been ambivalent or peaceful before took up the fight against the whites.”

Animosities grew in 1867 after the killing of Nevada Speaker of the Assembly, James A. Banks, who was fishing at a creek in the northern portion of Paradise Valley near Camp Winfield Scott, the region’s newly-constructed military post.

Soldiers at the nearby post became concerned when the Nevada lawmaker failed to return at nightfall. A search party eventually found Banks “shot through the breast, the assassin having stripped and mutilated his body,” according to Myron Angel’s “History of Nevada,” written in 1881. Lt. John Lafferty, stationed at Camp Winfield Scott, “took his entire available command and started upon the war-path,” according to Angel’s history. He and his troops killed several Native Americans in retaliation.

An immigrant and veteran

After a particularly harsh winter quieted hostilities, an “outlaw” Paiute band allegedly stole stock from ranchers in the valley the following spring.

One lieutenant and three enlisted soldiers set out to find the stock, particularly one rancher’s prized horse.

Among them was Reid, an immigrant born in 1833 in the southern Ireland town of Kilkenny. It’s not known when Reid arrived in America, but he enlisted Nov. 18, 1861 in Company B, 1st Regiment of the Oregon Cavalry, a volunteer unit that stayed in Oregon during the Civil War. In 1866, Reid discharged out of service in Oregon and re-enlisted in Company A, 8th U.S. Cavalry at Camp Winfield Scott in Nevada. Of the 12 companies in the 8th U.S. Cavalry, Company A was the only one in the Nevada. Most were in California and the Pacific Northwest.

There are no known records of Reid’s first-hand account of the incident leading to his Medal of Honor. In the incident report to the War Department following the skirmish, Lt. Joseph W. Karge, Camp Winfield Scott commander, wrote: “I cannot forebear to make special mention of the heroic behavior of Pvt. James C. Reid, who, being the only sound man in the party, stood nobly to his work in defending the lives of his disabled comrades.”

Karge, using anti-Native American rhetoric of the time, said his soldiers had been “hotly pursued by blood thirsty foes” and held them off in an “oblong cave some one hundred feet in circumference surrounded on the side by high and perpendicular rocks affording a solitary entrance.”

Hunter suffered gunshot wounds to the right upper hip and right forearm. The detachment sergeant, John Kelly, was shot through the right thigh and also the left collarbone and seriously injured his ribs and left lung. He later died of his wounds. Pvt. Thomas Ward, shot through the lungs, also died. All their horses were killed.

The “Humboldt County Register” recognized the soldiers involved in an editorial written June 20, 1868, but not without railing against the Military Department of the Pacific, which they alleged had failed to provide “sufficient material for the protection of our frontier.” The newspaper admitted some considered Hunter’s search a “mistake,” given his men ended “so badly cut up.”

However, the newspaper defended Hunter’s action: “We advise some of the other officers to make the same mistake, as such conduct will show a good intention on their part, while the citizens will feel a vast deal more secure in both life and property to know that such officers are at hand and ready to move and slaughter their treacherous foes.”

Similar rhetoric advocating action proliferated editorials of frontier newspapers and showed a growing demand for military intervention in the face of escalating hostilities — as was the case in Paradise Valley in the late-1860s.

The following year, the War Department engraved and sent 40 Medals of Honor to Army Department Headquarters in San Francisco for soldiers fighting in the American West.

According to letters written between Reid’s command and the War Department, Reid’s medal failed to make it out west. The letters, available in Reid’s Medal of Honor file at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., say the medal was engraved and sent, but never received. The final letter concerning the medal was written Aug. 12, 1869, acknowledging the War Department’s error. But that’s the final letter written concerning the matter.

“He (Reid) is one of many on the list, the majority of which were recognized for actions in Arizona,” Laura S. Jowdy, archivist for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Fort Knox, Ky., said. “I find it likely that this is where the mistake occurred.”

According to Army statistics, 1,948 Medals of Honor were awarded during the Civil War and Indian Campaigns, more than half of the nation’s total, 3,465. But in those early days, some Civil War soldiers received the medal simply for re-enlisting.

That changed when Congress passed legislation in 1917 striking the names of more than 900 people who were awarded the medal. In 1918, other medals were created, including the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. But unlike many removed from the record, Reid received his medal in battle, resulting in him saving the life of his lieutenant. Reid’s medal remained on the record.

However, his discharge and pension paperwork make no mention of his Medal of Honor.

After leaving Camp Winfield Scott in 1869, Reid re-enlisted with Company A, 1st U.S. Cavalry and returned to service in the Pacific Northwest. He served in Portland, Ore., and at Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory, until ending his 21-year military career 1882.

In 1882, after being hospitalized for chronic alcoholism and diagnosed with rheumatism, Reid, aged 52, applied for entrance in a Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C. Records after his application for veteran benefits and information on his death weren’t available.

The fighting in northern Nevada subsided in the 1870s as the tribal members were forced from their homeland to reservations around the state.

Uncovering history

In the 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service surveyed land in the region east of Hinkey Summit, where the skirmish occurred. One survey showed a cave in the area.

Last October, I visited the cave with Nevada Guard Public Affairs Officer Maj. Mickey Kirschenbaum, U.S. Forest Service Archeologist Chimalis Kuehn and retired Nevada Guard Col. Daniel C.B. Rathbun.

On the eastern side of Hinkey Summit, where the mountain depresses into a gulch, sits a large perpendicular rock formation with a cave at the base, matching the description and spot noted in the incident report.

“I’d say it’s likely this is the cave where the fighting occurred,” Rathbun said.

Kuehn inspected the area around the cave for shrapnel or other elements possibly left from the 1868 skirmish, but found nothing.

Of about 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients, four have connections to Nevada.

Two recipients lived in Nevada at the time of their deaths, while another had enlisted in Nevada.

The fourth, Lt. Cmdr. Bruce Avery Van Voorhis, a bomber pilot of Fallon, Nev., was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his mission in the Solomon Islands in 1943. In an urgent mission to save American lives, Van Voorhis destroyed several Japanese planes and communication devices on a 700-mile night flight, according to his citation for the medal.

“As of this point, there are no known MOH actions that took place in Nevada, unless you include Reid’s, which I can’t because the official record hasn’t been changed,” said Jowdy, of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Correcting the mistake in the official record can take more than a year and must be approved through petition to U.S. Army Human Resources Command. The Nevada National Guard Public Affairs Office is in the process of writing that petition.

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