Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman Impatient for a Fight

Among those at the fort who were impatient for a fight was Brevet Lieutenant colonel William J. Fetterman, a soldier by birth, instinct, and profession, who joined the command at the fort in November. He had his first opportunity on December 6. The wood train was attacked two miles from the fort, and forced to corral for defense. Fetterman was sent, with thirty-five cavalry and a few of the mounted infantry, to relieve the wood party, and drive the Indians across Lodge Trail Ridge, in which direction they usually withdrew, while Carrington, with twenty-five mounted infantry, crossed the Big Piney, to intercept the Indians on Peno Creek. Fetterman’s party put the Indians to fight and chased them for about five miles, when they faced about and attacked the troops. Nearly all the cavalry fled, leaving Fetterman, assisted by Captain Brown and Lieutenant Wands, with a dozen men, to face over a hundred warriors. They stood at bay until Carrington’s force came in sight, when the Indians retired. In the mean while Lieutenant Bingham, joined by Lieutenant Grummond, with two or three men from Carrington’s command, pursued a single dismounted Indian into an ambuscade, two miles from the remainder of the troops, where Bingham and Sergeant Bowers were killed. In this affair Red Cloud commanded in person. He had lookouts on all the neighboring hills, signaling the progress of affairs, and it is probable that he had planned a more extensive ambuscade, but that his plans miscarried.

The Indians made their arrangements better the next time. It was Friday, December 21, 1866. The morning was bright and pleasant, though there was snow on the hills. There was still little of the humdrum of army post life about Fort Phil Kearney. The office building and one of the company quarters were not yet finished, and there were touches to be added at many points, before this chief architectural feature of the Powder River country was in condition to admit of Indian fighting. A force of some ninety men started to the pine woods for more material, little dreaming that the pine woods, the ravines, and the brush coverts all around were full of bloodthirsty warriors. About eleven o’clock an alarm was given, and the lookout signaled: “Many Indians on wood road; train corralled and fighting.” A detachment was at once organized for their relief. At the same time Indian pickets were seen on the neighboring hills, and a score or more appeared at the crossing of the Big Piney, but these were quickly dispersed by a few shells. Colonel Fetterman asked permission to take command of the relief party, which was granted. Lieutenant Grummond volunteered, and was put in charge of the cavalry. Captain Fred H. Brown joined of his own motion. He had been at the post all summer, as regimental quartermaster, and was then engaged in closing up his business before going to Fort Laramie, whither he had been ordered. He was an enthusiastic Indian fighter, and was particularly ambitious to get Red Cloud’s scalp. Wheatley and Fisher, two frontiersmen who were at the post, went with Brown, making the entire party eighty-four men. The soldiers were of different companies; fifty of them had Spencer carbines and revolvers; the remainder carried Springfield muskets, except the two civilians and one of the officers, who had Henry rifles.

The corralled train, at which the fighting was going on, was south of the Sullivant Hills. Instead of proceeding directly to it, the command took a course back of these hills, across Big Piney Creek, on the southwestern slope of Lodge Trail Ridge, to cut off the Indians who were attacking the train. As they moved along, Indians appeared on their front and on their flanks, retiring before them, out of range, across Lodge Trail Ridge, whose crest Fetterman reached fifteen or twenty minutes before noon, and occupied, with his men deployed in skirmish line. At the same time the lookout signaled that the Indians had left the train, which had broken corral and moved on towards Piney Island. The train returned to the fort after dark without having been subjected to any further annoyance. Fetterman’s halt on the crest of Lodge Trail Ridge was of very brief duration. His men disappeared over the summit and firing began soon after, which grew more and more rapid until, at noon, there was an almost continuous rattle of musketry. This was heard plainly at the fort, and conveyed the intelligence that a hard fight was in progress in Peno Creek Valley. The people at the fort grew anxious. Surgeon Hines, with one man, was sent to the wood train, with instructions, if it were safe, to join Fetterman. He found the wood train undisturbed, and started across the country to Peno Creek, but found many Indians on Lodge Trail Ridge, preventing him from further progress. He went back fur reinforcements, and Captain Ten Eyck, with seventy-six men, all that were considered available, was sent out. The anxiety of all who were on the fort side of the ridge was intense. The relief party galloped on, but they seemed to crawl. Instead of taking the road they went straight to the ridge and ascended it. The firing was becoming less and less in volume. Who was giving way? What was silencing the guns? They knew at the fort which side had a small supply of ammunition. Just before Ten Eyck reached the summit of the ridge, at a quarter before one o’clock, two or three straggling shots were fired in the valley beyond; after that came silence. The struggle was evidently ended.

The relief party looked from the summit over the valley of Peno Creek. No soldiers were to be seen. The whole valley was filled with frenzied savages, who shook their weapons at the new arrivals, and challenged them to come down. A sergeant was despatched to the fort to report the situation and ask for a howitzer, which was not sent. For some cause, probably their losses, the Indians then began to withdraw from the valley of their own accord, and the relief party descended to the battlefield. The fight had taken place on a little ridge, three quarters of a mile in length, five to six miles from the fort, on the east side of Peno Creek, running parallel to it and to Lodge Trail Ridge, but beyond the latter. The road runs along its summit, rising to it opposite the northwestern extremity of Lodge Trail Ridge. Just beyond this point, on the road, a large number of Indians had been closely grouped when Ten Eyck’s party first came in view, and here was the first intelligence of the ill fated command which rode so gallantly from the fort but two hours before. Clustered on a space less than forty feet square were the bodies of Captain Brown, Colonel Fetterman, and sixty-five of the men. A more horrible sight could not be imagined. They were stripped naked, scalped, and so terribly gashed and mangled as to be almost unrecognizable. Years afterwards the Sioux showed a rough, knotty war club of burr oak, driven full of nails and spikes, which had been used to beat their brains out. It was still covered with brains and hair, glued to it in clotted blood. But with all the mutilation there were no signs of a struggle here. No empty cartridge shells were found around the bodies, though there were a few full cartridges. A few yards away the bodies of several of their horses were found, all heading towards the fort. All the appearances indicated that they had been suddenly overwhelmed by a rush of greatly superior number. Bullet holes through the left temples of Colonel Fetterman and Captain Brown, from weapons held so close that the powder had burned into their faces, showed that these officers had saved a shot for themselves,” as they had often said they would do, rather than fall into the hands of the Indians.

A messenger was sent to the fort for wagons, and his report, though meager and indefinite, caused the hearts of the garrison to sink. After dark Ten Eyck’s party returned, bringing forty-nine of the bodies, and the announcement that all were killed. No advance had been made, however, beyond the point where the bodies lay grouped, so that, while reasonably certain of the death of the others, there was no absolute assurance. The painfulness of the uncertainty was increased by the fact that among the bodies still unaccounted for was that of Lieutenant Grummond, the only married man of the detachment, whose wife was at the fort and in delicate health. The night of mourning and suspense passed away, and morning came. A party went out to learn the fate of the remaining members of Fetterman’s command. They advanced cautiously to the point gained on the day before, and then on down the ridge. On the road, a quarter of a mile or more beyond the first pile of bodies, was found the corpse of Lieutenant Grummond. Still beyond, where the road made its abrupt descent to Peno Creek, were found the remains of half a dozen of the oldest and most experienced soldiers, with many empty cartridge shells scattered about them; and a little to one side, behind a pile of rocks, were the bodies of Wheatley and Fisher, with more than fifty empty shells by their sides, telling that they had not died tamely. Within a few hundred feet in front of this position were found ten dead ponies and sixty-five great gouts of blood, which had flowed from the death wounds of as many Indians. No ponies and no bloodspots were found elsewhere. The bodies here were scalped and mutilated as the others, the mutilations being shocking that they have never been made public, further than the general announcement that the bodies were gashed with knives, chopped with hatchets, and shot full of arrows; the rest is covered up in the statement that, “No such mutilation is on record. The bodies were brought in, and lay in ghastly array until the next Wednesday. The weather turned so intensely cold, on the night after the massacre, that the men who were digging the great grave for this heap of slain had to be relieved every half hour, and the work went but slowly. On Wednesday they were laid away in their common resting place, fifty feet long and seven feet deep, in the little cemetery at the foot of Pilot Hill.

Just what happened after Fetterman’s command passed the top of Lodge Trail Ridge no one can say, for no man lived to tell it. The movement was in disobedience of orders, as directions were given, at least twice, not to pass the ridge. No one is left to tell why those orders were disobeyed, or how the snare was closed about the gallant band, or who attempted to fly, or who fought doggedly to the death. As read in the position of corpses, the record of cartridge shells, and the register of blood  stains, and confirmed by the Indians, it would seem that Fetterman moved down to the road with little resistance; that he advanced up the ridge beyond Peno Creek, leaving a part of his force at the crest to guard his rear, and followed down the road with the remainder; that at the farther end of the ridge the battle raged for almost an hour; that meantime a large force of the Indians, who numbered about two thousand, gathered in his rear at the other end of the ridge; that the ammunition of the majority of the soldiers became exhausted; that a retreat was determined on; that Wheatley, Fisher, and five or six of the older soldiers decided to remain where they were, either from the knowledge that retreat under such circumstances was certain death, or from a voluntary determination to stay behind and “stand off” the Indians until the others escaped; that the remainder, as they rode back, found themselves suddenly confronted by a force that made escape impossible; that Brown and Fetterman shot each other, and the rest were cut down by the savages. Only six of the entire command appeared to have been killed by bullets, a fact which indicates that their ammunition had been expended, and that the Indians could not be kept from coming to close quarters.

The Indians say that this massacre was accomplished by a special expedition, organized among the Minneconjous, under the direction of their head chief. High Back Bone. It was their intention to kill all of the garrison and destroy the fort, their hope being to decoy nearly all of the soldiers out, and, having massacred them, to attack the great stockade on all sides, as a small force would be unable to defend it. In addition to the Minneconjous, nearly all the warriors of the Upper Brulé, Ogallallas, Sans Arcs, Oncpapas, Two Kettles, Blackfoot Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, and Arapahoes, and stragglers from several other tribes, were on the warpath at the time, but only a part of them engaged in this affair. The party, as stated by the Indians, was composed of 350 lodges of Minneconjous, 100 lodges of Cheyennes, 100 of Arapahoes, 3 of Crows, and a part of the Ogallallas and Brulés, numbering in all about 2000 warriors. It will be observed that the percentage of warriors to a lodge, in a war party, is much greater than under ordinary circumstances. When out for war the old men and women are left at home with the younger children. Only active squaws, and children old enough to be of service, accompany a war party at any time, and very frequently only warriors go. The Indians say that Red Cloud was not in the attack, but had gone towards Fort Buford with his own band, the Oncpapas, and the others. They concede a loss of four Minneconjous, three Brulé, three Ogallallas, one Cheyenne, and one Arapaho, killed, and about sixty wounded, of whom several died and many were permanently maimed. They lost twelve horses killed, and fifty-six so severely wounded that they died within twenty-four hours. This estimate is unquestionably below the reality. There is scarcely a doubt that each of the sixty-five bloodspots on the field meant a dead Indian. Wounded Indians leave a battlefield with wonderful celerity, and one who cannot move, until he has bled freely, may safely be counted as dead or mortally wounded.

The tragedy was over, but who was to be blamed for it. There was a murmur from all the land, partly of rage against the Indians, and partly of disapproval of the military mismanagement that had made such a slaughter possible. A thorough investigation was ordered by General Grant. The offhand impression was that the officer commanding at the post was in fault. He was at once superseded by Brevet Brigadier general Wessels, then commanding at Fort Reno, who had orders to investigate. There was much said about Carrington at the time that was unjust and absurd so much that it enabled him to pose as a martyr later on. The most remarkable statement was made by Indian Commissioner Bogy, who hastened to explain the affair without waiting to learn the facts. He demonstrated that the Indian force must have been small; that the only hostiles in that part of the country were a part of the Ogallallas, under Red Cloud, with a few individuals from other tribes; that the idea of the wood train being attacked by three hundred warriors, on December 6, was preposterous; that the statement that they challenged the troops to fight was a wild absurdity; that the only things that made the report credible at all were the corpses of the soldiers, which seemed to be in conflict with his theory. He accounted for them thus: “These Indians, being in absolute want of guns and ammunition to make their winter hunt, were on a friendly visit to the fort, desiring to communicate with the commanding officer, to get the order refusing them guns and ammunition rescinded, so that they might be enabled to procure their winter supply of buffalo.  I regret the unfortunate death of so many brave soldiers, yet there can be no doubt that it is owing to the foolish and rash management of the officer in command at that post.”

The matter of guns and ammunition was referred to because, in the preceding autumn, General Sherman had ordered Indian traders to discontinue the sale of weapons and ammunition to the Indians. This procedure raised the wrath of the Indian ring, for the greatest profit in the Indian trade is from this source. Commissioner Bogy explained how cruel and unnecessary the order was, as follows:

“No Indian will buy two guns. One he absolutely needs; and as he has no means of taking care of powder, he necessarily will take, when offered to him, but a very limited quantity. It is true that formerly they hunted with bows and arrows, killing buffalo, antelope, and deer with the same; but to hunt successfully with bows and arrows requires horses, and as the valleys of that [the Powder River] country are now more or less filled with white men prospecting for gold and silver, their means of subsisting their horses have passed away, and they now have but few horses. I mention these facts so as to place before the country, as briefly as possible, the condition as well as the wants of the Indians.” This statement, made so positively by Mr. Bogy, needs some correction. At that time, and for years before and afterwards, every plains Indian would buy as many guns and revolvers as possible, and would take all the ammunition he could get. Bows and arrows were still their favorite weapons for hunting buffalo, and were always carried, no matter how well armed they were otherwise. There were no white men prospecting in either the valleys or hills of the Powder River country, and the Indians had as many horses as ever, besides what they had stolen from the whites. Otherwise Mr. Bogy’s statement appears proper enough. His theories about the Fetterman massacre are equally correct. His proposed remedy for any evil that might exist was to send out “a commission of judicious men.”

The press, as usual, gave circulation to numerous wild stories concerning the affair, and made impossible pictures of the massacre. One even went so far as to report that the massacred men fell at the gates of the fort, begging for assistance, while the people on the inside dared not open the gates for fear the Indians would rush in. The commission which investigated the matter exonerated Carrington altogether, and the responsibility drifted over to his superior officer. General Cooke, commanding in the Department of the Platte; at least, the latter was relieved by General Augur soon afterwards. Carrington was a good enough civil engineer, but he was a dress parade style of officer, who would have been more in place as a teacher in a military school. He built a very nice fort, but every attack made on him and his men, during the building, was a surprise. There is nothing to indicate that he ever knew whether there were a thousand or only a hundred Indians within a mile of the fort. He seems to have disapproved of Indians. Perhaps he would have ostracized them socially, if he could have had his way. It is no excuse for this want of watchfulness to say that he had asked for reinforcements and not received them. He might have spared men enough from some of the ornamental work about the fort to have attended to that. Besides, he had been authorized, on August 11, to enlist fifty Indian scouts, on cavalry pay and allowances. The fact is that reinforcements were not asked for the purpose of defending the fort and the work about it, but for an expedition of offence that had been instructed by General Cooke. There is nothing to show that Carrington apprehended any danger near the post. On December 19 he telegraphed Fort Laramie:

” No special news since last report. Indians appeared today and fired on wood train, but were repulsed. They are accomplishing nothing, while I am perfecting all details of the post and preparing for active movements.”

That was all he said no call for reinforcements; no worry about arms; all complacency and promise. Two days later he telegraphed: “Do send me reinforcements forthwith. Expedition now with my force impossible I hear nothing of my arms that left Leavenworth September 15. The additional cavalry ordered to join me has not reported.  I need prompt reinforcements and repeating arms. I am sure to have, as before reported, an active winter, and must have men and arms. Every officer of this battalion should join it.  Give me officers and men; only the new Spencer’s arms should be sent; the Indians are desperate; I spare none (I) and they spare none.” No more complacency; no more promise; only a recollection that he had asked for arms, ammunition, and reinforcements long before. It is but fair to say that no one fully realized and understood the feelings and intentions of the Indians; the news of the massacre came like a thunderbolt in the night, waking the whole nation from a sleep. But Carrington should have known more about the Indians in his immediate vicinity, and probably would, if he had paid more attention to them than firing shells into the woods to scare them away. There was fault everywhere. The Indian agents were wrong in misrepresenting the feeling of the Indians; so were the treaty commissioners. Carrington and Cooke were wrong in permitting the troops to go into a hostile country equipped as they were. Cooke, and officers higher up, were wrong in not seeing that arms, ammunition, and reinforcements were furnished when regularly called for.

After General Wessels took command at Phil Kearney, he undertook a winter campaign against the hostiles, but the weather was so intensely cold that it had to be abandoned. Neither side was able to make any movements of importance for several months. It was known that the Indians had attacked Fort Buford, at the mouth of the Yellowstone, five days after the massacre at Phil Kearney, and for two months it was commonly believed that the garrison had all been killed. Then messengers came through with the glad news that the one company of soldiers stationed there had beaten Red Cloud’s army off, and held them back, until the cold drove them to their winter camps. In the spring a peace commission was sent out. It met Man Afraid of his Horses and others on June 12. They all said they had reformed, and were going to join Spotted Tail’s Brulés; they wanted ammunition for hunting. They got no powder, and they fell from grace, if they had ever attained it. Hostilities were kept up all summer, with such vigor that the frontier was in continual alarm. The troops on the line of the Montana road had actually to fight for their wood and water, but they had one day of bloody revenge. On August 2 Major Powell, of Fort Phil Kearney, was guarding a wood train, on the road to the pinery, around the south side of the Sullivant Hills. He had divided his force, keeping thirty men in reserve in a little fortress, made of fourteen iron wagon beds placed in a circle; the remainder were to retreat to this if attacked. Suddenly 800 Indian warriors swept down from the hills. The forces of the soldiers were separated; all fled to the fort except the reserve, in the corral of wagon beds. At this the Indians rode, but the errors of 1866 had been remedied. The soldiers had breech loading arms and plenty of ammunition. The Indians broke under their rapid and deadly fire, and drew off. Back in the hills were 1200 more of Red Cloud’s warriors, who joined with the first attacking party and charged again, led by the great chief in person. The corral was a blaze of fire from the moment they came within five hundred yards, and the fire was far more effective than the Indians were used to, because they were massed together and hard to miss. Closer and closer they came, but there was no sign of giving way at the corral, and no cessation of that awful fire. The nerve of the Indians gave way, and they fled again. For three hours they kept at it, their courage always failing at the critical moment. Then they withdrew, and soon the little garrison was relieved by a party from the fort. They had lost but three killed and two wounded. The loss of the Indians was very heavy. A chief told Colonel Dodge that they had 1,137 killed and wounded but this is incredible. The Indians called it the “medicine fight,” suspecting that their white friends had worked in some supernatural assistance.

In the fall the commission made up its report, and decided that the government had no right to put a road through the Powder River country. It cited Supreme Court decisions that have no bearing on the case, and made of importance ancient treaties that never existed. Nevertheless, their ideas prevailed. The country, and particularly the army, was anxious to have the Pacific Railroad completed, and the Indians would agree not to interfere with it, in consideration for our surrendering the Powder River country. With the railroad built, Montana would be more accessible from the south than from any other direction, and the Bozeman road would be of comparatively little use. Accordingly a treaty was made, at Fort Laramie, on April 29, 1868, relinquishing all claims to the country east of the Big Horn Mountains, in which all the chiefs joined; though the wary Red Cloud did not affix his name until November 6, when he had satisfactory assurance that the white man would keep his promises. In the summer of 1868 the troops abandoned the Montana road, whose opening had cost so much money and life, and the Sioux burned down the forts which had been planned with such mathematical nicety, and constructed in such architectural perfection. We gave up an unquestionable right, though perhaps not then worth asserting. A few years later we broke our faith and reasserted it. Then the work had to be done again.

Dunn, Jacob Piatt. Massacres of the mountains: a history of the Indian wars of the far West. Harper & brothers, 1886.

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