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The Fetterman Fight, fought on a December morning 131 years ago, was the worst military blunder of the Western Indian wars prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. That William Judd Fetterman, the Army officer who led his men into the shocking fiasco of 1866, is not particularly well-known today may be attributed, in part, to his being overshadowed by George Armstrong Custer and the romanticized ‘Last Stand. Like Custer, Fetterman was a Civil War hero who went West and acted a bit too brashly against the Plains Indians, resulting in a military defeat that a good many people preferred to think of as a massacre. But just as the Battle of the Little Bighorn is not only Custer’s story, the Fetterman Fight is not only Fetterman’s story. A trail named Bozeman, a fort named Kearny, a defensive-minded Army officer named Carrington, a saber-wielding lieutenant named Grummond, a determined Oglala Sioux leader named Red Cloud and a clever Oglala Sioux warrior named Crazy Horse all have roles in the intriguing Fetterman story.

The Fetterman Fight occurred in Powder River country, on the lonely, monotonous plains of what would become northern Wyoming (at the time, it was part of Dakota Territory). Today, the grasses, tall and dry but still supple enough to bend, genuflect in waves moving from west to east across the prairie. Overhead, a blue bowl of sky holds only a distant sun. Certainly, there are landscapes more desolate–deep deserts, steep mountains or abrupt canyons. But few places seem more empty.

The emptiness is a misconception. The Indians knew better. The area around the Powder River and the other southern tributaries of the Yellowstone River contained desirable lands. Game abounded–deer, rabbits, buffalo, birds. Down by the creeks, berries and greens grew. Nature had opened her bountiful hand and strewed a multitude of blessings. The Crows, or Absarokas (children of the big-beaked bird), called this area their homeland. But it had been the home of the Snake (Shoshone) Indians until they were driven out by the Crows in the early 1800s, and since about midcentury, the Crows had been struggling with the Teton Sioux, who had moved in to escape encroaching white civilization. By 1866, the Teton Sioux–mostly Oglala, Minneconjou and Sans Arc–had taken the Powder River country away from the Crows and were the dominant force in the area.

For the white men, this land was not considered valuable in 1866, but not far to the west lay highly desirable land–the gold fields of Montana Territory. A federal government nearly bankrupt from the Civil War urgently needed gold to liquidate the interest accruing on the national debt. Men desperate to escape poverty were willing to risk all. To travel from the East to the gold fields, the shortest route was to take the Platte Road (the old Oregon Trail) to Fort Laramie (in present-day southeastern Wyoming) and then pick up the Bozeman Trail, which had been pioneered by John Bozeman in the spring of 1863. The Bozeman Trail, or Road, ran northwest on the east side of the Big Horn Mountains into Montana Territory and then mostly west to Virginia City. When gold seekers used the trail in 1864, Sioux leaders such as Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse and Red Cloud became upset, because the route passed right through their buffalo ranges. To a lesser degree, the trail also annoyed the Northern Cheyennes and the Arapahos, who were friends of the Sioux. And soon, these Indians had even more reason to be angry. In late August 1865, Brig. Gen. Patrick E. Connor began to build Camp Connor (later renamed Fort Reno, the site is 30 miles east of present-day Kaycee, Wyo.) on the Powder River to protect travelers on the Bozeman Trail. That outpost, however, would not be garrisoned until the next year. Indian attacks made travel on the trail extremely risky. Treaties were signed by various friendly northern Plains chiefs in the fall of 1865, but other chiefs were determined to keep the Bozeman Trail closed.

Into this sensitive situation marched American soldiers in 1866, with orders to guard the Bozeman Trail. They were the 700 men of the 2nd Battalion, 18th U.S. Infantry Regiment. The troops left Fort Kearny (near present-day Kearney, Neb.) on May 13, along with the 3rd Battalion, which would be manning posts along the Platte Road. The regimental commander was Connecticut-born Colonel Henry Bebee Carrington, and he would be sticking with the 2nd Battalion. Major General John Pope, commander of the Department of the Missouri, had ordered the 42-year-old colonel to staff Fort Reno and to build two additional forts farther north. The 25-piece regimental band provided some musical entertainment on the march west, and a dozen officers’ wives and 11 children provided some good company. One of the wives was Margaret Irvin Carrington, an educated woman passionately dedicated to life, justice and her husband, Henry. She kept a journal of her travels and travails in the West. She recorded that the 2nd Battalion’s baggage included mowing machines, and shingle and brick machines, doors, sash, glass, nails, locks, rocking chairs and sewing machines, churns and washing machines, with a bountiful supply of canned goods. Hardly the stuff of a simple military maneuver. Although they would be far from civilization, the officers’ wives were set on creating homes.

A stop at Fort Laramie in mid-June brought the ladies an opportunity to shop but carried ominous portents for the future. A government commission was conducting peace negotiations with the Indians, including some of the chiefs who had foiled General Connor’s three-pronged campaign on the northern Plains the previous year; the negotiators were hoping to secure an agreement to a right of way through the Powder River country. The whites, as usual, brought food and other presents. Brulé Sioux Chief Spotted Tail, whose people didn’t even venture into the region, was one of the Indians who agreed to terms. Red Cloud–not actually a chief, but a head warrior who was highly influential in matters of war–and others did not. The arrival of Carrington and company did not sit well with Red Cloud. The white men were asking for permission to use a road but had already brought soldiers to build forts along that road. Red Cloud and his Sioux delegation stormed off from the Fort Laramie negotiations; they vowed to fight any white man who used the Bozeman Trail. Still, the commission returned to Washington, D.C., and declared the Bozeman Trail safe for travel. The government negotiators had grossly underestimated the determination of certain Sioux to save their hunting grounds.

At Fort Laramie, some friendly Indians alerted Carrington to the possibility of trouble from hostile Indians in the Powder River country. And the colonel soon learned of other problems. The ammunition, horses and wagon drivers that were supposed to be made available to him at Fort Laramie were missing. But Carrington remained cautiously optimistic. On June 16, he wrote to Brevet Major H.G. Litchfield, the acting assistant adjutant general of the Department of the Platte, that he anticipated no serious difficulty: Patience, forbearing, and common sense in dealing with the Sioux and Cheyennes will do much with all who really desire peace, but it is indispensable that ample supplies of ammunition come promptly. The next day, Carrington and the 2nd Battalion marched out of Fort Laramie with 226 wagons. First, he stopped off 176 miles to the northwest at Fort Reno, leaving behind one of his eight companies to garrison it; he then proceeded to a spot that appealed to him some 60 miles farther up the Bozeman Trail. In mid-July, work began there on what would become Fort Phil Kearny, named for Civil War Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, who died in 1862 at the Battle of Chantilly (Virginia).

The fort would be stockaded and would sit on a natural plateau between Big and Little Piney creeks. The soldiers required only one morning to plot out the parade ground and building sites. Almost immediately, various Cheyennes began to visit; they said that Red Cloud was insisting they join forces with his Sioux to drive the white men away. Openly hostile Indians, no doubt inspired by Red Cloud, also began to visit, with unpleasant consequences. Two men died in the first raid on July 16. Attacks upon military and civilian targets in the region became commonplace. Stock was lost. Timber parties, sent out in wagons to secure lumber for building the fort and wood for fuel and cooking, had to travel five or six miles to reach the pine trees in the Big Horn Mountains. These wood trains were often harassed by Indians. From Pilot Hill, a lookout post Carrington established just south of the fort site, men could watch the wagons move and signal when there was danger. Alarms were constant; attacks upon the trains were frequent, and this kind of visitation continued during the whole season, Margaret Carrington wrote. The ladies all came to the conclusion, no less than the officers affirmed it, that the Laramie treaty was Wau-nee-chee, no good!

Nevertheless, work on the fort progressed steadily, because there was no full-scale Indian attack. The fort, 600 feet by 800 feet, would eventually contain everything needed for independent existence–warehouses, hospital, sutler’s store, officers’ quarters, barracks, stables, laundry, battery park for the howitzers, guardhouse and bandstand. The daily routine for the women confined within its high walls differed radically from their lives in the East. Only a few servants had come along, and many of them left for the more lucrative professions of baker and washerwoman for the troops. So the wives baked, cooked, cleaned, scrubbed and sewed clothing. Sometimes they found time during the day for croquet. Evening entertainment included readings, games, quadrilles and music. Chapel came on Sunday. But there was never a sense of real peace. Every day brought its probabilities of some Indian adventures–every night had its special dangers which unanticipated might involve great loss, Margaret Carrington wrote. Her husband kept looking for the promised support. On July 30, he sent a long report to his boss, Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke, who headed the Department of the Platte: My ammunition has not arrived; neither has my Leavenworth supply train–I am equal to any attack they may make, but have to build quarters and prepare for winter, escort trains, and guaranty the whole road.

Carrington was gaining a reputation as an alarmist, if not a coward. He had been a lawyer with business clients in Columbus, Ohio, before raising the 18th Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. A skilled administrator, he had held a series of staff jobs but had never fought with the regiment. After the war, he had continued to pursue a military career. His strengths were design and engineering, ideal for constructing Fort Phil Kearny but not for training soldiers or commanding them in battle. To the dismay of some of his officer corps, Carrington took a defensive position at Fort Phil Kearny, justified in his eyes by the shortage of troops and equipment. Still, his orders were to build two forts along the Bozeman Trail, and that’s just what he did. On August 12, 1866, construction began on Fort C.F. Smith, some 90 miles northwest of Fort Phil Kearny, near the Bighorn River in Montana Territory.

Carrington’s headquarters remained at Fort Phil Kearny, where Indian warriors continued to disrupt the military’s daily business outside the stockaded fort. Into this uneasy scene in early November came reinforcements, including Lieutenant Horatio S. Bingham’s Company C of the 2nd Cavalry and infantry Captains James Powell and William J. Fetterman. Unlike Carrington, the 31-year-old Fetterman was a born fighter. During the Civil War, in fact, he had proved himself a leader in the 18th Infantry, the regiment raised by Carrington. For his wartime exploits in Georgia, Fetterman had been breveted lieutenant colonel. He believed in himself and in traditional military strategy. The enemy who ran away was a coward, and the commander who took a defensive position was weak.

Fort Phil Kearny newcomers Fetterman and Powell, along with Lieutenant George Washington Grummond, pushed for Carrington to seize the offensive. Fetterman advised the colonel to break the Indians’ virtual siege and exterminate them. Fetterman had little respect for the fighting ability of Indians, openly arguing that a company of regulars could whip a thousand, and a regiment could whip the whole array of hostile tribes. Carrington felt pressure from his own officers and also from his commanding officer. General Cooke not only wanted Carrington to strike the Indians in their camps but also threatened a general court-martial over reports missing due to delayed mail delivery. That there was a strong faction against Carrington is evident in a letter Fetterman wrote to a Dr. Charles Terry on November 26, 1866 (and which was published in 1991 in The Annals of Wyoming, edited by historian John D. McDermott): We are afflicted with an incompetent commanding officer viz. Carrington, but shall be relieved of him in the re-organization, he going to the 18th and we becoming the 27th Infantry.

With most of Fort Phil Kearny completed by early December, Carrington was at last ready to do something besides build. On the morning of December 6, the wood train was attacked, and the lookouts on Pilot Hill signaled the fort. Carrington sent Captain Fetterman, Lieutenant Bingham and about 30 cavalrymen to relieve the train and drive the Indians north across Big Piney Creek. Carrington, Lieutenant Grummond and about 25 mounted infantrymen also rode out from the fort. They intended to circle around Lodge Trail Ridge and cut off the retreating Indians in the Peno Valley.

Things went well at first. Fetterman took the cavalrymen straight to the wood train, forced the attacking Indians to withdraw, and drove the attackers toward Carrington and the mounted infantrymen. But Carrington and Grummond had not yet arrived at Peno Creek. Bingham’s cavalrymen became strung out during the pursuit, and then many of them panicked when the Indians turned on them. Bingham galloped off for some reason–either to rally his troops or to chase a few warriors who were actually being used as decoys. In any case, the senior cavalry officer was soon cut off from the other cavalrymen and Fetterman and was then felled by arrows. Carrington became engaged in a separate skirmish north of Lodge Trail Ridge before finally meeting Fetterman on the Bozeman Trail in the Peno Valley. Grummond, like Bingham, had apparently gone his own way during the skirmishing, but he was able to return in one piece after slashing his way through the Indians with his saber. Only Bingham and a sergeant died in the December 6 action; five soldiers were wounded.

The Indians, however, were no doubt encouraged by what happened that day. Years later, some of them indicated that the December 6 skirmish had convinced them that they could overpower and destroy any force sent out from the fort. It may also have convinced them that the decoy tactic–nothing new and not usually effective against experienced soldiers–just might work at Fort Phil Kearny. Colonel Carrington had also learned something from the narrow escape. He sensed that the original foray against the wood train had been a decoy, and to avoid ambushes in the future, he gave orders that his men were not to chase after Indian raiders.

The Indians tried the old decoy trick again on December 19. They attacked the wood train, and when a relief force headed by Captain Powell rode out from the fort, they withdrew, hoping to lure the soldiers into an ambush on the other side of Lodge Trail Ridge. Powell, however, followed orders and did not pursue the attackers beyond the ridge. The warriors shrugged off the failure and tried once more just two days later. A medicine man had made them especially confident. Called upon to foretell the results of the upcoming battle, he had had four visions of increasing numbers of dead soldiers. The fourth vision had satisfied the warriors–100 soldiers would die.

On December 21, 1866, a wood train left the fort at 10 a.m. and was attacked by a decoy party less than an hour later. At first, Carrington again gave Captain Powell command of the relief detail, but when Captain Fetterman claimed seniority (based on his brevet rank), Carrington allowed Fetterman to assume leadership. Fetterman supposedly had once boasted that if given 80 men he could ride through the Sioux Nation. Well, on this day, the brash captain got his 80 men–49 infantrymen on foot, Lieutenant Grummond and 27 cavalrymen, post quartermaster Captain Frederick H. Brown and two civilians. Two days earlier, Powell had shown restraint and had avoided casualties. But on the 21st, Fetterman was in command and eager to fight, which played right into the hands of the Indians. Grummond still wanted to fight, too, even though he had almost been killed on the 6th and had a bride of a few months in the fort. And nobody wanted to fight more than Brown, who had delayed a transfer East because he wanted to take care of Red Cloud personally.

As many as 2,000 Indians (mostly Sioux, but some Cheyennes and Arapahos as well) were waiting in ambush on the far side of Lodge Trail Ridge, not far from where Fetterman and friends had skirmished with warriors back on December 6. Red Cloud was most likely among the ambush force, but the man behind the plan was said to be High-Back-Bone of the Minneconjou Sioux. Crazy Horse, a young warrior who 10 years later would participate in the Battles of the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn, led a second decoy party. Crazy Horse and his men rode close enough to the fort to draw artillery fire after Fetterman had left with the infantrymen to rescue the wood train. A short time later, Grummond and the cavalrymen rode out to join Fetterman.

Numerous witnesses verified that Carrington had commanded Fetterman not to pursue the Indians across the ridge. His orders were to support the wood train. Relieve it and report to me. Do not engage or pursue Indians at its expense. Under no circumstances pursue over Lodge Trail Ridge. He apparently had repeated the orders three times. Instead of advancing directly along the wood road to relieve the train, Fetterman led his force behind the Sullivant Hills, perhaps intending to cross over the hills and attack the raiders from the rear. Whether or not that was his intent, it never happened. Indian scouts observed his movements and notified the decoy party that was attacking the train. The raiders then withdrew from the wood train (which would make it back to the fort safely) and went up to Lodge Trail Ridge. Decoys standing along the crest yelled and gestured to the soldiers. Fetterman and the infantrymen headed for the ridge.

Grummond and the cavalrymen caught up with Fetterman, and the whole command followed the Bozeman Trail up Lodge Trail Ridge. Once on the ridge top, the soldiers saw only a handful of Indians below, near Peno Creek. One of them may have been Crazy Horse, on foot and pretending to have a lame horse in an attempt to entice the soldiers down a long, narrow slope (this northern spur of Lodge Trail Ridge would become known as Massacre Ridge) and into the Indians’ trap. It was about noon, and the command was some four miles from the fort. Whether Fetterman gave the order or Grummond was acting on his own will never be known, but the cavalrymen charged down the slope ahead of the foot soldiers, who then followed. Carrington’s order had been disobeyed, and a heavy price would be paid.

Just as the troopers reached the Peno Valley, an enormous force of Indians rose from the high grass. Arrows flew, along with some bullets, as the ambushers unleashed their wrath. Grummond was probably one of the first to die. He reportedly went down swinging his saber and may have even severed the head of one Indian. The two civilians, James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher, and a few of the troopers dismounted and formed an effective rear-guard action–for a while. Most of the cavalrymen retreated partway back toward the infantry, then dismounted and made a stand. Fetterman and the foot soldiers, unable to advance or retreat to the fort (there were also Indians behind them), formed a defensive circle farther up the slope. That meant there were three small, separate groups of soldiers trying to hold off a vastly superior force that shot an estimated 40,000 arrows during the fight. Wheatley and Fisher had 16-shot Henry repeating rifles and thus were better armed than the soldiers. The cavalrymen had seven-shot Spencer repeating carbines, but the foot soldiers had to make their last stand with obsolete Springfield muzzleloaders.

The soldiers below probably all died first. Most likely in the last stage of the fight, Fetterman and the infantrymen fired from their tight little circle near the top of the slope, where rocks provided some cover, until their ammunition ran out. Indian participants said later that they had moved in so close that some of the arrows they unleashed struck their fellow warriors on the other side of the circle. In the end, the Indians rushed right up to the last soldiers and slashed at them with war clubs, lances and knives. Before that final assault, Fetterman and Brown apparently shot each other in the temple to avoid capture and slower, more painful deaths. Their bodies, according to most accounts, were found lying next to each other with powder burns on their heads. In The Annals of Wyoming, however, John McDermott argues that Fetterman died another way: The Assistant Surgeon Samuel M. Horton, who examined the bodies before burial, told a special commission that Fetterman’s throat had been cut crosswise with a knife….American Horse (a cousin of Red Cloud) later confirmed it, saying he had knocked the officer from his horse with a war club and finished him with a knife. In any case, Fetterman and all 80 men in his command were dead. The Fetterman Fight had lasted about 40 minutes.

The victorious Indians removed their dead from the battlefield, and it is not known exactly how many casualties they suffered, but at least 60 warriors probably died on the battlefield and many others may have died later from their wounds. Fetterman’s men killed more Indians on December 21, 1866, according to one Cheyenne warrior’s estimate, than Custer’s men did a decade later at the Little Bighorn. After the Fetterman Fight, the Indians stuck around for a victory celebration, during which they scalped and mutilated the dead soldiers. Ears, noses, fingers, hands and other body parts were severed. Eyes were gouged out, brains bashed out and entrails torn from the bodies and placed on rocks. The Indians made sure that these enemy soldiers would remain helpless in the spirit world.

After hearing the gunfire coming from behind Lodge Trail Ridge, Carrington had sent a relief party, headed by Captain Tenodor Ten Eyck, from the fort to assist Fetterman. But by the time Ten Eyck was on the crest of Lodge Trail Ridge, some three miles from the fort, the shooting was over. He saw the Indians in the valley below, and they saw his soldiers. Some of the Indians jeered at the troopers, daring them to come down and fight. But Ten Eyck knew better than to leave his position. He waited until the Indians had gone and then ventured down toward the Peno Valley. The relief party took 49 of the mutilated bodies back to the fort that night.

At Fort Phil Kearny the situation became more tense than ever before. The fighting force had been reduced by one-third, and the Indians would surely strike again. As soon as he heard the news about Fetterman, Carrington sent word to Fort Laramie, some 240 miles away, with civilian John Portugee Phillips, who had volunteered to carry the colonel’s message. The next day, Carrington wanted to send a detail out to recover the rest of the bodies. Some officers complained. They felt that sending out a small party would not be safe for the men who went, while sending out a large party would leave the fort too vulnerable. If we cannot rescue our dead, as the Indians always do at whatever risk, Carrington said, how can you send details out for any purpose? Carrington led the detail himself. Nothing went wrong, but after the bodies were brought back to the fort, a blizzard struck, and the garrison’s fear of attack grew with the snowfall, which piled nearly as high as the stockade.

Despite the blizzard and sub-zero temperatures, Phillips made it to Fort Laramie in four days. He arrived, looking like a huge apparition in layers of clothing and a buffalo overcoat, at 11 o’clock Christmas night during a full-dress garrison ball. The next day, General Cooke got the word in Omaha, Neb., and Cooke put the blame for the military disaster squarely on Carrington’s shoulders. He replaced Carrington as commander of Fort Phil Kearny with Fort Reno’s Lt. Col. Henry W. Wessels, who headed the relief column. Fort Phil Kearny now received more men, ammunition and other supplies–things Carrington had been asking for all along. General Ulysses S. Grant did see to it that Cooke himself was replaced on January 9, 1867.

Still, Carrington received the bulk of the initial blame. Reassigned to Fort Caspar (present-day site of Casper, Wyo.), he departed Fort Phil Kearny–with the women and children and a 60-soldier escort–on January 25, during another major blizzard. Several people in his party lost fingers and toes from frostbite. The newspapers mainly blamed Carrington for the Fetterman Massacre while portraying Fetterman as a victim, and that view helped shape public opinion on the disaster. (Fort Fetterman, built in eastern Wyoming near the intersection of the Bozeman Trail and the Platte Road, was named for the late captain in 1867.) One writer asserted that the fight took place at the gates of the fort, with victims knocking and screaming for help while those inside looked on, afraid to fire or to open the gates. Margaret Carrington complained about newspaper articles written by actual observers or special correspondents who could not possibly have been on the scene. As there was no one to contradict, and no one who knew the truth, a large margin was left for the play of the fancy…, she wrote. The people were of course greatly shocked by the tragedy, and were certain that somebody was terribly to blame. The Indians were supposed to be so quiet and peaceful that nobody asked whether the massacre was one of a series.

Within the War Department, Carrington made a handy scapegoat, while over at Indian Affairs, Commissioner Lewis V. Bogy issued statements absolving the friendly Indians; the Indians were rendered desperate by starvation, he insisted. Carrington came out considerably better when a presidentially appointed commission under the direction of the Interior Department made its report on July 8, 1867. The commission confirmed that several times Carrington had repeated his order that Fetterman’s relief party not give chase over Lodge Trail Ridge. The report concluded that the commanding officer of the district was furnished no more troopers or supplies for this state of war than had been provided and furnished him for a state of profound peace. After retiring from the service on December 15, 1870, not quite four years after the Fetterman Fight, Carrington devoted at least some of his time to clearing his tarnished reputation. And he had a lot of time left; he did not die until 1912. Margaret Carrington wrote Absaraka, Home of the Crows in 1868 but died just a few years later. Henry Carrington remarried on April 3, 1871; his second wife was Frances Grummond, the widow of Lieutenant George Washington Grummond.

After the Fetterman Fight, the Sioux and other Indians in the Powder River country continued their harassment and attacks, both at Fort Phil Kearny and at Fort C.F. Smith. The Indians were driven off by soldiers at both the Wagon Box Fight (near Fort Phil Kearny) and the Hayfield Fight (near Fort C.F. Smith) in August 1867, but they were accomplishing their goal–only heavily armed military trains could move on the Bozeman Trail. The next year, Washington officials ordered the three forts guarding the Bozeman Trail to be abandoned. By early August 1868, the last soldiers had left Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.F. Smith and the Indians had burned them both to the ground. Red Cloud finally signed a peace treaty on November 6 at Fort Laramie.

Thus ended the Red Cloud War (or Bozeman Trail War), and Red Cloud would never take to the warpath again (he lived until 1909). In the Fort Laramie Treaty, the government conceded that the Powder River country was an unceded Indian territory and that whites could not pass through it without the Indians’ consent. Not that such a concession could stem the tide of white men seeking riches in the gold fields or emigrant families desiring to own their own homesteads. Still, for Red Cloud and other defiant chiefs, it was one small victory–one that could be attributed at least in part to their much bloodier victory in the military engagement known to whites as the Fetterman Fight or the Fetterman Massacre but known to the Sioux as the Battle of the Hundred Slain.

This article was written by B.F. McCune and Louis Hart and originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!