Fetterman Massacre


Painting of the Fetterman fight.

"The Fetterman Fight"

by J.K. Ralston

December 21, 1866 around 12 noon. Captain William Fetterman and the remnants of his 81 man patrol fight to the last man on Infantry Hill against over 1,000 Lakota warriors led by Crazy Horse. The entire battle lasted about 30 minutes. The Fetterman Monument pictured below now stands at this spot.

Itching for a Fight

December 21, 1866. Fort Phil Kearney is right in the middle of Red Cloud's War. Though the mission of the fort is to secure the Bozeman Trail for civilian traffic, it hasn't gone well. In fact, civilian commerce trickled to a halt on the two year old trail by the end of the previous summer. It's just too dangerous. Led by Chief Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, the Indians are  conducting a textbook guerrilla war. Rather than stage large attacks on the fortified post, their hit-and-run attacks and ambushes make life difficult and dangerous for anyone outside of it.

The commander of the post, Colonel Henry Carrington, is a cautious man whose greatest fear is a mass attack on the fort, which he expects at any time. Already short of men, horses and ammo and equipped mostly with muzzle loading rifles from the Civil War, Carrington keeps his troops and officers on a short leash - just in case. As a result, Red Cloud has complete freedom of movement.  He chooses when, where and how to fight, putting Carrington completely in the reactive mode.

This has many of the garrison officers grumbling about the tactics, since they believe they should be aggressively seeking out the enemy instead of riding shotgun on logging wagons and getting picked off one or two at a time.  Since arriving in July, the troopers have already fought over 50 skirmishes and have lost 150 men with little if anything to show for it.

In November, a brash Civil War veteran named Captain William Fetterman arrives at Fort Phil Kearney. Fetterman, who has no experience Indian fighting, openly expresses his contempt for the Indians' fighting ability and Carrington's tactics. He starts banging heads with his commander almost immediately, bragging that he could ride through the entire Sioux nation with 80 men.

Also in November, Red Cloud's forces ratchet up the intensity. They start using decoys to lure larger groups of soldiers into ambushes. These decoys employ various tactics to tempt, provoke or enrage the troops into doing something stupid. They dismount and run away on foot or ride off on horseback like they are getting away. Taunts and gestures are also used as well as mocking by women. The first couple of attempts fail. 

Drawing shows relative location of Fort Phil Kearney and the Fetterman site.
Drawing shows
                              relative location of Fort Phil Kearney and
                              the Fetterman site.

The Massacre

On a snowy and bitterly cold December 21, a wood gathering party comes under attack about three miles northwest of the fort. Hearing the commotion, Carrington sends a relief force led by Captain Fetterman. He heads out of the fort on foot with 49 infantry soldiers. Most of them are raw recruits and all are armed with Civil War era muzzle loading rifles. His second-in-command is Captain Brown, the fort quartermaster who is looking for some action. Lieutenant Grummond leads a cavalry detachment of 27 troopers.  They leave two hours after Fetterman because they have to round up their mounts first. They are armed with  seven-shot Spencer carbines. Rounding out the force are two civilian scouts armed  with Henry 16-shot lever action rifles.  Before he leaves, Fetterman is given explicit orders by Colonel Carrington personally to relieve the wood party and bring it back. He is not to pursue or engage hostiles. When Grummond leaves, Carrington tells him to remind Fetterman of his orders.

Fetterman reaches the wood train about noon. The attackers break off and run, taunting as they go. The wood train heads home and eventually makes it back safely. Fetterman should have too, but he's itching for a fight and takes the bait. As Grummond's cavalry charges along the ridgeline of what is now called Ambush Hill, Fetterman deploys his infantry in a skirmish line and begins to advance along the ridge in support of them. 

The decoys disappear over the ridge with Grummond in hot pursuit. He gets to the high ground now called Cavalry Hill at the end of the ridge and pulls up.  Down below, 1,000 Lakota braves are waiting for him. The trap springs. Fetterman, Brown and Grummond have found the action they were looking for.

The Fetterman battlefield

The entire battlefield from Infantry Hill.  Cavalry Hill is the high ground in the distance. The braves swarmed up and over the ridge from the left.  The scouts were in one of the folds out in front. The black walking path follows the track of the Bozeman Trail.

The braves race up the entire long side of the ridge as Fetterman groups his foot soldiers in some rocks known today as Infantry Hill. At the same time, Grummond's cavalry gallops along the top, trying to get back to the infantry before they get cut off. A few make it.  Most don't.  Surrounded and overwhelmed, the horse soldiers are quickly killed.

The civilian scouts are next. They have taken cover in a fold on the ridge top and are trying to cover the retreating cavalry with their Henry rifles. They are dead shortly after.

The Indians turn their attention to the infantry.  The soldiers certainly must know  what fate is about to befall them. The men in the fort know too. The cavalry troopers who make it to Infantry Hill cut loose their mounts, which run full speed back to the fort. The sight of panicked riderless horses flying down the hill and heavy gunfire in the distance tell the whole story. We don't know exactly how it was in the end and never will. With the bitter cold conditions and muzzle loading rifles, it probably went hand-to-hand almost immediately and was over quickly. The only witnesses who survive are the Indian warriors and over the years, they give wildly different accounts. There are reports that Fetterman killed himself. Another version says he and Captain Brown put their pistols to each other's head and fired to avoid capture. However, according to the Bozeman Trail Association web site, post-mortems on Fetterman and Brown showed they died in combat. Years later, a Sioux warrior named American Horse would claim he killed Fetterman. 

What we do know is that the battle started around noon and was over in about 30 minutes. All 81 men were killed. Historians and archaeologists estimate that thousands of arrows were fired. The battle noise is heard from the fort and Carrington dispatches another relief force led by Captain Ten Eyck. They arrive at the site to find mutilated bodies freezing into grotesque positions. The frozen stiff bodies are retrieved the next day and buried on the grounds of the fort. In 1930, they are re-interred at the new Custer National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn.

Alpha6 finds a cache near Infantry Hill (after checking for snakes.)  The slope behind me was swarming with hostiles during the battle and it's quite likely that the rock was used for cover.
                            finds a cache near Infantry Hill.

The Aftermath

The Fetterman Massacre, as it comes to be called, is the largest loss of life suffered by the army in the Plains Indian War to that time and would only be exceeded by the Little Bighorn 10 years later. The shock waves go all the way back to Washington D.C. Initially blamed for the debacle, Colonel Carrington is relieved of command but subsequently exonerated by a board of inquiry. Never a career soldier to begin with, he leaves the army and returns to civilian life in 1870 and becomes a professor at Wabash College.

Also in 1870, he marries Frances Grummond, the widow of Lieutenant Grummond. Frances is 20 years younger than the Colonel and they have three children.  He spends the rest of his life trying to clear himself, dying in 1912.

The government starts to evaluate the mission to protect the Bozeman Trail. The mission has been perpetually under-manned and under-equipped while experiencing unexpected resistance and high casualties. In addition, the Transcontinental Railroad  is under construction and will render the trail useless.  Nevertheless, it will be another 18 months before Fort Phil Kearney is abandoned. In the meantime, reinforcements with modern weapons are sent to the fort and will play a key role in subsequent engagements.

History has not been kind to either Colonel Carrington or Captain Fetterman. Carrington is not respected by his officers, who feel he was a paper pusher while they were fighting the Civil War.  When the Fetterman Massacre hits the news, Carrington is left to defend himself.  He does so by painting Fetterman as a reckless and insubordinate officer who defied a direct order to not engage hostiles. Other officers in the garrison disagree and say so under oath.  They contend that no such order was ever given to Fetterman. In fact, they had been directed by the Army to conduct an aggressive winter campaign against the Indians. They further contend that Carrington sent Fetterman with orders to engage, then had second thoughts and sent Grummond with a "reminder"  not to engage. They point out that Fetterman's march route took him along a covered path that would bring him up behind the attacking Indians instead of moving directly to the besieged train. Most of this route was in full view of the fort and would have been directly contrary to an order to not engage.  They report that Colonel Carrington watched Fetterman's force.  If he suspected that Fetterman was disobeying orders, he didn't show it.  Could it be that the order was not given? We'll never know. Colonel Carrington was the only survivor with direct knowledge of what Fetterman and Grummond were told, so history has pretty much recorded his version of events leading up to the battle. 

Fetterman Monument on the massacre site

The Fetterman Monument, dedicated in 1901. This marks the spot where Fetterman and his troopers made their last stand. He got his force of 80 men to take on the entire Sioux nation, but it didn't turn out like he planned.

The massacre has profound implications for Red Cloud, too. The Lakota call it "Battle of the Hundred Slain". If there was ever a time when the fort is most vulnerable to attack, this is it. The 81 men lost comprise almost 1/3 of Carrington's force.  He's just lost most of his cavalry and their Spencer carbines. Not only that, Red Cloud's braves now have the two scouts'  Henry rifles - the assault weapons of their day. With  Spencers and  Henrys, Red Cloud can put more lead down range than the entire garrison of muzzle loaders. With the enhanced firepower and over 1,000 braves, he could take the fort in a walk, but he doesn't press his advantage. As it turns out, with the benefit of historical hindsight, he didn't need to.

Although he couldn't have known it at that point, Red Cloud had just won the war. The U.S. government starts thinking about an exit strategy from what is rapidly becoming a lost cause. Although there are battles to follow with casualties on both sides, the mission to protect the Bozeman Trail is effectively abandoned. When Red Cloud's War ends with the Treaty of Laramie in 1868, it is a decisive victory for the Lakota but does little to bring peace to the West. The fighting continues, reaching a peak at the Little Bighorn eight years later. In the decades-long struggle, this is the only war they will win. 

Visiting the Site

The Fetterman Massacre site is a historical site maintained by the state of Wyoming. The terrain and cover are as they were during the fight. You can walk the length of the battlefield and there are 30 historical markers which give detailed accounts of the actions there. The terrain down the slopes on both sides is private property, so no wandering around those areas. Binoculars are very helpful for taking in everything. Make sure you latch gates behind you. Watch out for snakes!

There is a monument on Infantry Hill and the Fetterman Massacre geocache  is close by. There are many other caches throughout the area amid the spectacular scenery of the Bighorn Forest and Cloud Peak Wilderness. We easily filled an entire day exploring and geocaching and could have spent several more. We'll be back.

This one is definitely Off The Beaten Path. The GPS coordinates of the Fetterman Massacre Monument are N44.5711º, W106.8410º.  Click on the coordinates to bring up an interactive Google map.

Semper Fi....Out here....Alpha6 aka Boris