Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed: The Struggle for the Powder River Country in 1866 and the Making of the Fetterman Myth

by John H. Monnett, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2008, $29.95.

As with Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s debacle at the Little Bighorn, Montana Territory, on June 25, 1876, the annihilation of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel William Judd Fetterman’s mixed command of cavalry and infantry outside Fort Phil Kearny, Dakota Territory, on December 21, 1866, has raised questions among white Americans, along with a lot of mythical answers. “Who was to blame for the defeat?” posits John Monnett, professor of Native American history at Denver’s Metropolitan State College, in his 316-page book Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed. (See interview with author in this issue.) “For the Indians engaged in both actions, the debate is moot. The Indians won. They were to ‘blame.’”

Much of the notoriety that surrounds the Fetterman Fight comes of its being one of few major tactical victories ever won by Indians, and the only one of its magnitude during Red Cloud’s War of 1866–68. The latter is another of those paradoxical conflicts (like the Vietnam War) in which the side that lost most of the battles ended up winning the war— in this case, Lakota Chief Red Cloud’s fleeting victory in forcing the abandonment of Fort Phil Kearny and other Bozeman Trail forts. Monnett seeks to put the fight within the context of the overall war, including its causes and aftermath. As for reconstructing the battle itself—one whose living white eyewitnesses ceased to exist the moment Fetterman’s command crested Lodge Trail Ridge—Monnett takes a serious but judiciously critical look at the testimonies of Indian participants and derives a wealth of useful information. He also uses his sources—white and Indian— to assess the myths, such as how reckless Fetterman really was (or wasn’t), other factors that may have contributed to his fatal undoing and, on the victors’ side, just how much of a role Crazy Horse actually played in the battle. The result should at least give readers food for thought regarding yet another frontier event that has acquired a patina of legend, simplification and misconception.

 

Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here