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His heroism in the Fetterman Fight impressed the Indians.

Among the Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes, the bravest of the brave among the enemy was honored as if he were a brother warrior. One such honoree was Adolph Metzger, killed at the December 21, 1866, Fetterman Fight  and given what amounted to a full-dress military funeral by the warriors who killed him.

Metzger, born in Württemberg, Germany, first enlisted in the U.S. Army in Philadelphia on May 29, 1855. He put down “laborer” as his vocation. Typically, south German immigrants of this era joined the U.S. Army so they could learn English well enough to succeed as shoemakers or whatever skilled trade they had mastered under the guild system in the German states. Metzger had no such fallback. He signed on for $13 a month. His enlistment signature suggests he was literate if not especially literary. He was 21 years old, 5 feet 5 inches tall, with blue eyes, brown hair and a “dark complection,” likely due to outdoor work before he found a home in the Army.

Metzger’s first regiment was the 1st U.S. Mounted Rifles, based primarily in the Southwest. The unit was heavily Irish and German, filled with soldiers who had learned the rudiments of soldiering in their own countries. The 1st Mounted Rifles later became the 3rd U.S. Cavalry.

Metzger served a full five years and was mustered out, still a private, at Hatch’s Ranch, New Mexico Territory, on May 29, 1860.The Army leased Hatch’s from ranch owner Alexander Hatch as an outpost of Fort Union. Metzger may have had enough of the Army in 1860. But whatever he thought of wind-blasted Fort Union and the lone adobe building at Hatch’s Ranch, Metzger had come to love America. On November 14, 1860, after Abraham Lincoln’s election virtually guaranteed a civil war, Adolph Metzger reenlisted in the Union Army.

Metzger’s second hitch was as a bugler in the elite 2nd U.S. Cavalry, which spent much of the Civil War defending Washington, D.C. Metzger saw action during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg in hard fighting against Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry. The bugler signed up for a third hitch, in war-weary Virginia, during the brutal summer of 1864, when Ulysses S. Grant decided to finish off the Confederates at all costs. Metzger found time to marry Fredericka Cooper in Philadelphia on August 2 of that year.

In the wake of the Civil War, the federal government ignored a standing treaty with the Sioux—still a sovereign nation in 1866—and built three forts along the Bozeman Trail, which led to the Mon tana goldfields. In response, the Sioux, Northern Cheyennes and Arapahos besieged the forts. This was Red Cloud’s War—the only successful Indian campaign in the West, and the war in which Adolph Metzger became famous, however briefly, as the bravest of the brave.

Fort Phil Kearny, DakotaTerritory (in the part that would become Wyoming) was manned by a mixed detachment of the 18th U.S. Infantry and the 2nd Cavalry, including Metzger’s Company C. Commanding the post was Colonel Henry Carrington, a Yale graduate who had spent the Civil War as an administrative officer and had never seen combat. Among Carrington’s subordinates was Captain William Fetterman, a Civil War combat veteran who was unimpressed with the Lakotas, although he might not have actually said, “With 80 men, I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” On December 6, 1866, Lieutenant Horatio Bingham and Sergeant Gideon Bowers were killed when they pursued Lakota decoys into an ambush. The other troopers, including Metzger, barely escaped with their lives after Carrington encountered the self-possessed bugler and told him to blow recall.

Following this incident, the colonel apparently warned Fetterman never to pursue Indians out of sight of the fort. Then, around noon on December 21, Indians attacked a party of woodcutters not far from the fort. Fetterman set out with two other officers, 27 men of the 2nd Cavalry, 49 men of the 18th Infantry and two civilian scouts, James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher. The latter two had served in the Civil War and wanted to try out their new 16-shot Henry repeating rifles. As Fetterman’s foot soldiers followed his horsemen over Lodge Trail Ridge, at least 1,500 warriors rose from the snow-filled gullies and attacked.

Wheatley and Fisher with their repeaters and a half-dozen troopers with seven-shot Spencer carbines forted up in some rocks and hit an estimated 60 Indians or horses before being overwhelmed and literally cut to pieces. The 49 infantrymen died next. The Indians rushed in as soon as they saw the flashing ramrods of their single-shot Springfield muskets, and they clubbed or slashed the soldiers to death. Fetterman and his second-in-command, Captain Frederick Brown, did not place revolvers to one another’s temples and commit double suicide, though Brown might have shot himself. Many soldiers died cringing and piled in a heap while the Indians hacked at them.

Not Adolph Metzger. As the cavalrymen around him fell amid showers of arrows —40,000 according to one estimate— Metzger kept firing his seven-shot Spencer until he ran out of ammunition. As the Indians closed in, he used his bugle as a club, hitting several Indians over the head until the bugle was a twisted piece of brass. Wounded a dozen times, Metzger collapsed and died.The Sioux, instead of carving him up, cut a simple cross on his chest to indicate he had died facing the enemy and then covered his body in a buffalo robe as if he were sleeping. “His heroism had aroused the admiration of the savages,” Finn Burnett, a civilian at the post, said later. “They had covered his corpse with a buffalo robe as a symbol of extreme respect.”

At the time of the ambush, the Lakotas were mostly armed with bows and arrows and remained leery of the Army’s firepower. They had taken the precaution of having a hermaphrodite ritually curse the ambush site, zigzagging around with a black blanket over his/her head until envisioning 100 dead soldiers—and no survivors. Hermaphrodites, said to control life and death because they had two sets of genitals, garnered unwavering respect among the Lakotas. Nobody and nothing could be spared; the Indians even killed the soldiers’ pet dog, though one of them later said, “He looked so sweet.” The only survivor was Dapple Dave, an Army horse so badly wounded he had to be shot.

The Fetterman Fight was the worst defeat the Plains Indians handed the Army until Custer’s Last Stand, 10 years later. Metzger’s courage became frontier legend; it was later resurrected by Dee Brown in Fort Phil Kearny: An American Saga in 1962 and Evan S. Connell in Son of the Morning Star in 1984. In Lakota tradition, the German bugler remains among the bravest of the brave.


Minjae Kim helped research this story.

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here