On this day in 1866, just about 18 months after the Civil War, the U.S. military suffered its worst defeat in the West until 10 years later when LTC George Custer and the men of the 7th Cavalry would be wiped out at the Little Big Horn.
The defeat took place in Wyoming along the Bozeman Trail. Here, Crazy Horse, displaying classic guerrilla warfare tactics, with just 10 warriors, lured Captain William Fetterman and 80 of his troopers into a fatal ambush where 1000-2000 warriors were waiting and the army troops were wiped out to a man. This caused the United States to pull out of the area.
Tensions among the Indians had been deteriorating for three years after John Bozeman blazed a trail thru American Indian territory to help Americans rushing to the gold fields of Montana. The land was deeded to the Crow Indian tribe from the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. But due to dwindling herds of buffalo, the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux were all encroaching upon Crow land. By 1860, the tribes had taken the hunting grounds west of the Powder River.
With the discovery of gold in Montana, there was a massive influx of settlers pouring into the area, in clear violation of the treaty. Rather than dissuade the settlers from encroaching on Indian land, the government sent U.S. Army troops under the command of Colonel Henry Carrington from Fort Laramie to protect the settlers. He moved into the Powder River area with 1000 people (700 soldiers, 300 civilians) under his command.
Carrington and the army, exploiting legalese in the treaty that allowed them to “establish roads, military, and other posts” built three forts along the trail including his headquarters which was named Fort Phil Kearny, located near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming. He posted about 400 soldiers and almost all of the civilians there.
The Indians wasted no time in making their displeasure felt; in the few months it took to construct his forts, Carrington’s troops were attacked no less than 50 times and the army lost 20 troopers and civilians. While Carrington had the army in a defensive posture, that was soon about to change.
In November 1866, Carrington was reinforced with 63 additional cavalry troopers under the command of Lt. Horatio Bingham. Accompanying the troopers were two Captains from the 18th Infantry, William J. Fetterman and James W. Powell.
Both Fetterman and Bingham were Civil War veterans. Fetterman came from a military family both his father and his uncle (who he lived with for a time) were West Point graduates. When the Civil War began, Fetterman enlisted in May 1861 and was given a commission as a 1LT. He was assigned to the 18th Infantry and served thru the entire war, being twice breveted for gallant conduct. At the war’s end, his rank was that of an LTC of Volunteers. Fetterman was like many officers of his generation. They were all prone to self-promoting, bombastic remarks. Or as we’d say today, “they liked to talk S**T!”
Soon after arriving, Fetterman urged his commander to be more aggressive and reportedly made the remark “with 80 men, I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” Of course, no mention of his remark was made until about 40 years later. Carrington, in an effort to protect his own legacy, threw Fetterman under the bus, saying that the Captain was reckless and disobeyed orders. However, after nearly getting caught in an ambush earlier in December, Fetterman reportedly told Carrington that “learned a lesson, and that this Indian war has become a hand-to-hand fight, requiring the utmost caution.”
So then came the events of December 21, 1866. A large band of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors under the command of Red Cloud which included Crazy Horse numbering between 1000-2000 warriors were going to lay a trap for the troopers.
Crazy Horse had earlier ran a successful ambush where he had enticed troopers to follow a small band of warriors into a kill zone where a large number of their tribe would await. On December 6, they killed several troopers that way including Bingham, the cavalry commander. This one would be on a much grander scale.
The Indians who knew the land well picked out a perfect ambush site about 4-5 miles north of Fort Kearny and along the Bozeman trail north of Lodge Trail ridge. At 10 a.m. on the 21st, about 90 soldiers and a wagon train left the fort to go to what was described as a “pinery”, where there was ample supply of wood for the fort.
Only about an hour after they left, pickets reported that the wood detail was under attack. Carrington immediately ordered a quick reaction force composed of 49 infantrymen of the 18th Infantry and 27 mounted troopers of the 2nd Cavalry to be commanded by Captain James Powell. However, Fetterman asked for and was given command of the rescue party, claiming seniority. Lieutenant George Grummond, led the cavalry, which had been leaderless since Bingham’s death two weeks prior. Captain Frederick Brown, the post quartermaster and two civilians, James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher, joined Fetterman, bringing the relief force up to 81 officers and men. The infantry marched out first; the cavalry after mounting their horses would catch up on the march.
Carrington later testified to the inquiry after the battle that his orders were quite clear. “Under no circumstances” was the rescue to “pursue over the ridge, that is Lodge Trail Ridge”. Lieutenant Grummond’s wife, later wrote in a book that Carrington’s statement was true. She said these orders were given twice, the second time by Carrington from the sentry walk after ordering the soldiers to halt as they left the front gate of the fort, to drive home the point. Mrs. Grummond wrote that everyone present could hear the orders from Carrington.
But once he left the fort, Fetterman did, in fact, take the Lodge Trail north rather than the other trail northwest which ran to the “pinery” where the troops on the lumber detail had been attacked. At the time Carrington assumed that Fetterman was attempting to approach from the Indians’ rear area.
Around 11:30 a.m., 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 the decoys. As soon as they entered the kill zone, the large Indian contingent expertly caught them in the open, quickly wiping out the entire command.
So how did this happen? Grummond who was both reckless and unfamiliar with Indian tactics had ridden out ahead of Fetterman’s infantry. So while Fetterman did truly disobey his orders, the tactical situation had changed. The woodcutting detail was no longer under attack and was proceeding to the “pineries” unhindered. The Indians were retreating over the ridgeline toward Lodge Trail Ridge.
Fetterman was going to attempt to seize the initiative and was going to attempt to catch the Indians before they could get away. He had no way of knowing his men were about to enter a maelstrom with about 1000-2000 Indian warriors awaiting.
His men had followed the 10 Indian decoys until they reached a spot where the decoys signaled the Indians waiting on both sides of the trail. Fetterman’s troops were quickly overwhelmed and they were found in a tight circle where the Indians overwhelmed them. Few of the Indians had firearms, most fought with bow and arrow, war clubs and knives. Only six troopers were found killed by firearms. It took all of 20 minutes to kill all of the infantry. The cavalry under Grummond was a mile ahead and the same fate befell them as well. It took just another 20 minutes for the troopers to be overwhelmed.
The last man to die was the bugler Adolph Metzger. His bugle, likely his only weapon was found smashed. But the Indians, in a show of respect for a lone man fighting against huge odds, didn’t mutilate his body but covered it with buffalo hide.
About noon, Carrington assembled about 75 troopers under Captain Ten Eyck to investigate where Fetterman’s troops were. Shortly afterward, they were joined by 40 more. They reached the top of the Lodge Trail about 12:45 p.m. In the valley below, they observed a large group of Indian warriors. As the Indians dispersed, the troops moved down into the valley.
They found the remains of all 81 of Fetterman’s command. They’d all be stripped naked, mutilated in the ritual fashion. Hands, noses, and ears cut off, eyes gouged out. Private parts severed. Brains removed and laid on rocks. They dispatched wagons to bring back their dead.
Indian casualties ranged from between 14 -100 dead with about 150 wounded.
By 1868 Fort Kearny was abandoned.
This was a classic guerrilla operation, unfortunately, it was and still is a hard lesson for the U.S. Army to learn. The conventional “Big Army” still hasn’t mastered how to win a guerrilla war over 150 years later.
Illustration: Kim Douglas/Wyoming History