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This illustration originally appeared in the March 23, 1867, Harper's Weekly and was captioned "The Indian battle and massacre near Fort Philip Kearney [sic], Dacotah [sic] Territory." The clash is now known as the Fetterman Fight.

‘Generations of Americans have dismissed Fetterman as not just a fool but a maniac—a victim of his own dysfunctional degree of boastful chauvinism’

The Fetterman Fight, sometimes called the Fetterman Massacre, is among the best-known events of the Indian wars. According to the version of the story accepted for well over a century, Captain William Judd Fetterman, 18th U.S. Infantry Regiment, was an arrogant fire-eater of an officer, contemptuous of the fighting abilities of the Plains Indians. As a Civil War combat veteran, he had no respect for Colonel Henry Beebee Carrington, the commanding officer at Fort Phil Kearny, Dakota Territory (in present-day northern Wyoming). Carrington headed the 18th Infantry, but he had spent the Civil War years sitting behind a desk.

Fetterman’s arrogance, according to the accepted story, led to grand recklessness on December 21, 1866, when he disobeyed Carrington’s direct orders to relieve a woodcutting detail under attack west of the fort, bring it in safely to the pinery blockhouses and, above all else, refrain from crossing Lodge Trail Ridge in pursuit of the Indian attackers. Ignorantly and defiantly, Fetterman led his command from Fort Phil Kearny in pursuit of a decoy party of 10 Lakotas and Cheyennes over the forbidden ridge into an ambush of 1,500–2,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. The Indians annihilated the captain and his command in a short, brutal action. The battle has lived in memory because of Fetterman’s alleged earlier boast that “with 80 men, I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” He died with exactly 80 men.

By leading his men into an ambush, Fetterman earned a high degree of notoriety in Western history, although 10 years later Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s greater disaster at the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory overshadowed Fetterman’s failure for the ages. Practically everyone has heard of Custer’s Last Stand, and historians have endlessly criticized and defended Custer the military man. By contrast, the Fetterman story, though remembered by those who study the Indian wars, has seldom been analyzed, let alone challenged. Two basic tenets of that story merit scrutiny: Did Fetterman actually utter the famous “80-man boast,” and did he disobey orders by crossing Lodge Trail Ridge?

According to many modern accounts of the Fort Phil Kearny saga, Fetterman made his infamous boast shortly after arriving at the post in November 1866. In fact, this statement does not appear anywhere prior to 1904—38 years after it was allegedly uttered. Since then it has colored the impression of Fetterman’s character and served as an ironic synopsis of his fate. Indeed, the fact he died with exactly 80 men at the hands of a substantial portion of the Sioux Nation has turned the captain’s alleged boast into a memorable irony—and historical ironies endure even longer than many historical facts. Such ironies are powerful literary forms.

So why, then, if it is factual, did this ubiquitous and powerful phrase not appear prior to the 20th century, given that the captain and his 80 men died in 1866? The earliest Fetterman rhetoric regarding the fighting abilities of Plains Indians came to public attention in 1868 via Margaret Irvin Carrington, wife of the Fort Phil Kearny commander. In her book Ab-Sa-Ra-Ka: Home of the Crows, Mrs. Carrington wrote that Captain Fetterman arrived at the fort imbued with the opinion that “a company of regulars could whip a thousand, and a regiment could whip the whole array of hostile tribes.” More than four decades later, Frances Carrington, Henry’s second wife, repeated the boast attributed to Fetterman almost verbatim in her 1910 book My Army Life: A Soldier’s Wife at Fort Phil Kearny. While at Fort Laramie en route to Fort Phil Kearny, she wrote, Fetterman declared he would demonstrate to the Army within six months that the new garrison would not be “afraid to meet Indians or anyone else,” and that all the officers and men would share that sentiment.

But what is unusual about such boasts? Are they in any way different from the high-spirited sentiments common among junior officers of the era who had yet to encounter Indians in combat and held preconceived chauvinistic notions of the tactical superiority of the U.S. Army? Margaret Carrington wrote that Captain Frederick Brown and Lieutenant George Grummond strongly seconded Fetterman’s boast. Brown, who by November 1866 had some experience fighting Indians, even boasted he could not proceed to his transfer assignment at Fort Laramie until he had personally taken Chief Red Cloud’s scalp. Obviously, Fetterman never would have told soldiers at Fort Laramie in early November that the garrison at Fort Phil Kearny would be afraid to meet Indians.

Such parlor bluster was simple patriotic pedantry, as it had been in references to Confederates during the Civil War. Certainly Brown, Grummond, Lieutenant Horatio Bingham and other junior officers at the fort were equal to Fetterman in their boastfulness. Was Custer any less arrogant at Fort Riley, Kan., the following year? And in May 1876, was it not a general officer, Alfred Terry, who wrote to Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan as his 600-man Dakota Column (including Custer and the 7th Cavalry) prepared to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln, “I have no doubt of the ability of my column to whip all the Sioux whom we can find”?

Grandiosity was a common personality trait in the 19th-century officer corps. Although officers on the frontier had their social vices, as historian Kevin Adams recently wrote, they “had no doubts about their station in life; they viewed themselves as elite members of American society…an aristocracy of merit.” Fetterman fit this stereotype. Born to a middle-class Connecticut family in 1835, he was the son of a West Point graduate. After his father’s untimely death, the boy went to live with an uncle who had also graduated from West Point. Fetterman received an officer’s commission immediately upon enlisting in the 18th Infantry in 1861.

A version of Fetterman’s 80-man boast first appeared in print in 1904 in Cyrus Townsend Brady’s book Indian Fights and Fighters and in serial version by Brady that same year in Pearson’s Magazine. Brady had interviewed Henry Carrington extensively in 1903 for the story. Never before had Carrington or his wives broached Fetterman’s offer “with 80 men to ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” Thus, the statement is surely a literary contrivance of Brady’s with Carrington’s approval. Carrington read over the manuscript prior to publication. But it was Brady who penned the legacy, setting up a historical irony that has been profusely repeated since 1904. If either Margaret Irvin or Frances Grummond Carrington had heard this startlingly ironic boast back in 1866, they certainly would have quoted it in their books.

In his speech at the 1908 dedication of the Fetterman Battlefield Monument, Henry Carrington said Fetterman had told him, “I can take 80 men and go to Tongue River.” This was the first time Carrington himself made reference to the 80-man boast, and it came four years after he had proofed Brady’s book.

In 1933 aged former Army scout Philip Faribault Wells wrote a letter to the South Dakota Historical Society, claiming to have overheard Jim Bridger remark in a Denver saloon a half century prior that he (Bridger) had heard Fetterman make the 80-man boast verbatim. But in the intervening three decades, Indian Fights and Fighters had become somewhat of a classic for its generation of readers. Furthermore, Jim Bridger was almost blind in 1872, living in New Santa Fe, Mo., and engaged in a court fight with the Army to regain title to old Fort Bridger.

The boast Fetterman likely did make in 1866, as recorded by both Margaret and Frances Carrington, carries no ironic power. And after the captain actually did engage Indians, in a fight on December 6, he came to Carrington and timidly informed his commander he had “learned a lesson, and that this Indian war has become a hand-to-hand fight, requiring the utmost caution.” Fetterman told Carrington he wanted no more such risks.

Yet where the bogus boast appears in print alongside Fetterman’s reported disobedience in crossing Lodge Trail Ridge, the captain comes out looking like either an outrageously ignorant and vainglorious individual or a fire-eater, as he is often depicted. But did Captain Fetterman actually disobey Colonel Carrington’s orders?

According to Henry Carrington’s own testimony in 1867—at both an inconclusive Army court of inquiry and the more significant investigative hearings of a special committee known as the Sanborn Commission—he told Fetterman to relieve the wood train under attack about four miles west of the fort but under no circumstances to pursue the attacking Indians over Lodge Trail Ridge. Although no officers claimed to have heard Carrington’s orders, several enlisted men were ready to testify they had personally heard the colonel issue those orders to Fetterman. The Sanborn Commission never called those reported witnesses to formally testify, but the men later shared their stories with the Army and Navy Journal and other magazines in the early 20th century.

Several soldiers also heard Carrington issue the same orders to Lieutenant Grummond, who led 27 troopers of the 2nd Cavalry out of the fort to join Fetterman’s infantry minutes after their departure. In addition to testimony by Carrington and his enlisted staff, Lieutenant A.H. Wands stated in detail before the Sanborn Commission that Carrington had ordered Grummond, both in person and through Wands, to take out the cavalry, join Fetterman, obey his orders and relieve the wood train, and that “under no circumstances were they to cross the bluff [Lodge Tail Ridge] in pursuit of Indians.”

But as Grummond joined him, Fetterman turned east, away from the wood train, picked up the Bozeman Trail and then turned north up Lodge Trail Ridge. By 11:30 a.m. or thereabouts, the garrison watched Fetterman’s command, with Grummond’s cavalry out in front on the flanks, cross out of sight over the ridge in pursuit of 10 Indians, who were in fact acting as decoys. The main Indian force then sprang its trap, quickly wiping out the entire command, in part because the impetuous Grummond had ridden out ahead of Fetterman’s infantry.

Given the weight of evidence, Fetterman clearly disobeyed orders. It is illogical to suppose Carrington would grant him leeway to pursue the Indians at his discretion and then minutes later order Grummond to join Fetterman, obey his orders and under no circumstances pursue the Indians over Lodge Trail Ridge. Fetterman’s disobedience is not in question. No historian has ever said he did not disobey Carrington’s orders. The suggestion Carrington might have permitted Fetterman some kind of discretionary latitude originated in print with J.W. Vaughn’s 1966 book Indian Fights: New Facts on Seven Encounters. Vaughn is mistaken.

What, then, prompted the captain to disobey orders and cross Lodge Trail Ridge? After all, in just a few short weeks the Army Reorganization Act would take effect, and Fetterman would become a member of the 27th Infantry, thus ridding himself of Carrington. Why risk a stain on his record? Did he flout the odds for the remote possibility of glory or simply to gain some small and fleeting gratification by antagonizing a commanding officer for whom he had little respect?

During the Civil War, certain officers sparked lasting controversy by disobeying orders when it became obvious, at least to them, that it was necessary in order to save a larger command or to seize upon a rapidly changing battle scenario. The classic case is cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart’s delayed arrival at Gettysburg. And, of course, there remains the crowning controversy: Did Custer disobey Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry’s orders by attacking the Indian Village on the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, without waiting for reinforcements, or did he seize what he considered the proper initiative Terry had given him? It is the latter scenario that likely sent Fetterman zigzagging away from Fort Phil Kearny over Lodge Trail Ridge. The Army’s unwritten rule was that if you won, fine, but if you didn’t, you were charged with disobedience.

What often goes unnoticed in a perusal of the official records and legal hearings regarding the Fetterman Fight is how the Indians’ activities radically changed after Fetterman had received his orders, mustered his soldiers and exited the sally port of Fort Phil Kearny (probably marching around the west end of the fort to avoid crossing two frozen creek beds). Two factors came into play that are not immediately obvious in official records and that have been largely ignored over the years by historians convinced that Fetterman’s disobedience stemmed from his vainglorious disrespect of his superior officer, Carrington.

First, within minutes of Fetter-man’s egress from the fort (about 11:15), the tactical situation abruptly changed. Lookouts on Pilot Hill, who had a clear view of the woodcutters west of the fort, signaled the wood train was no longer under attack and was proceeding unimpeded toward the pineries. The lookouts also signaled the Indians were retreating eastward behind Sullivant Hills and Lodge Trail Ridge. Thus, the train was no longer in danger and did not need to be “brought in” to the safety of the pinery blockhouses.

Fetterman, judging from his next actions, saw this signal, and so did Carrington, who wrote in his report that he “entertained no further thought of danger.” At this point, Fetterman apparently decided to seize the initiative, march his command eastward, ascend Lodge Trail and try to cut off the 40 retreating warriors that had attacked the wood train. This tactical shift certainly seemed proper to the colonel in the heat of the moment, for he later wrote in his initial report that Fetterman was “moving wisely [italics added] up the creek and along the southern slope of Lodge Trail Ridge with good promise of cutting off the Indians as they should withdraw.” In 1868 Margaret Carrington also wrote that Fetterman had maneuvered to cut off the Indian retreat.

Lieutenant W.F. Arnold, observing from the fort, later testified that after the command had crossed Lodge Trail Ridge and the sound of firing broke out, “It did not alarm anybody, as it was the largest force that had ever been sent out from the garrison.” Arnold’s testimony is key, as it suggests officers at the fort were fully aware the tactical situation had changed, thus rendering Carrington’s original orders inexpedient. It also demonstrates the belief Fetterman was taking the proper initiative. From the moment Fetterman’s command turned eastward and then north up the Bozeman Trail to the summit of Lodge Trail Ridge, Carrington had plenty of time to dispatch a courier and recall Fetterman. But he didn’t, thus tacitly sanctioning Fetterman’s initiative. Arnold’s testimony and Carrington’s inaction at this juncture also suggests the officers believed a force of 81 men was large enough to handle the situation.

Second, the soldiers were unaware of the Plains Indians’ vastly superior numbers. Fetterman wouldn’t have taken his 80 men out of sight of the fort had he known 1,500–2,000 warriors awaited him on the other side of Lodge Trail Ridge. Once again Arnold’s testimony and Carrington’s initial inaction reveal much. No one at Fort Phil Kearny on December 21, 1866, realized so many warriors lay in ambush along the ridges above Peno Creek. Although Jim Bridger and other Army scouts had earlier reported 500 lodges along the Tongue River, the majority of the Minneconjou Sioux and Northern Cheyennes had not arrived at the camps until a day or so before the fight. Moreover, 500 lodges would not account for some 2,000 warriors, even if all of them had been waiting in ambush. Never previously had the garrison at Fort Phil Kearny encountered more than 100 or so Indians, a number that fewer than 80 soldiers had clashed with just 15 days earlier.

Certainly Fetterman and Brown were familiar with Indian decoy maneuvers. Fetterman had demonstrated caution and discretion when twice tempted by decoy parties around the pineries in November. But the impetuous Grummond, who could seemingly never resist the temptation to chase decoys, had very nearly forfeited his life doing so in the fight of December 6. That said, none of the officers present on the 21st expected to meet Indians in the hundreds when they pursued the decoys. Perhaps 50 or so would cover the retreat, in turn luring the soldiers farther over the ridge, where they expected to encounter the 100-strong main force—similar to the December 6 clash and certainly a manageable number for 81 men. Given such expected enemy numbers, Fetterman’s decision to cut off the Indian retreat over Lodge Trail Ridge was not at all irrational. The massive ambush that ensued was simply unprecedented in conflict with Plains Indians to date.

Only in retrospect, when the actual number of Indians became known, did Carrington make Fetterman out to be a hotheaded fool. Coming under fire for the massacre, the colonel hid behind the technicality of the captain’s disobedience to clear his own reputation. Disobedience warped into suicidal negligence when rumor suggested it stemmed from Fetterman’s uncontrollable arrogance in the face of enormous odds—odds in truth unknown at the time.

Such recklessness doesn’t fit Fetterman’s combat record at Fort Phil Kearny or during the Civil War. Nor did Fetterman and Brown, as has been alleged, commit joint suicide. (Brown may have shot himself, but Fetterman most likely fell to the war club and knife of the Oglala Sioux American Horse.) But Carrington, forever sensitive about his own legacy, continued to present this archetypal image of the arrogant captain throughout his own long life, largely without challenge. Thus generations of Americans have dismissed Fetterman as not just a fool but a maniac—a victim of his own dysfunctional degree of boastful chauvinism. But his “bluster” was no more or less extreme than that of any other junior officer on the frontier of the 1860s and 1870s. Fate just caught up to William Fetterman.

John H. Monnett teaches Western and native American history at Metropolitan State College in Denver and writes often about the Indian wars. Recommended for further reading is his book Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed: The Struggle for the Powder River Country in 1866 and the Making of the Fetterman Myth (2008).