On 21 December 1866, the US Army suffered its worst defeat in the western Indian Wars up to that time (Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn ten years later would surpass it). Captain William Fetterman (often referred to by his highest Civil War rank of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel), an officer at Fort Phil Kearney, was given the mission to relieve a wood cutting party who had been attacked by Indians led by Crazy Horse and Red Cloud.
Even during the USA Civil War, American settlers continued to pour into the American west. The settlers went wherever the latest information told them was a “boom” area. In 1864-65, the boom area was in present day western Montana where gold had been found, mainly around Virginia City. The Bozeman Trail was a widened American Indian hunting trail that cut through the heart of Sioux hunting grounds. The area had been confirmed as Sioux tribal land by the Laramie Treaty of 1848. However, immigrants to the west were not known for putting much stock in Indian treaties when gold was in their eyes. A large train of 2,000 settlers had made the trek along the Bozemen in 1864 which electrified the immigrant news network. Soon many more would follow. Unsurprisingly, the Sioux began to attack the parties. News of the dangerousness of the trail spread, settler numbers dropped, which led to calls for protection by USA forces. Construction on Fort Phil Kearny began the summer of 1866, but without enough numbers to truly protect the settlers on the trail. In fact, there were barely enough troops to protect the fort and its activities itself.
The Fetterman Massacre of 1866
Sioux leaders, most prominently Red Cloud and Crazy Horse (also involved in Custer’s Defeat), began attacking hay and wood cutting parties out of the fort almost from its inception. The fort had established a communications procedure for reporting an attack, so that these provisioning parties could call for help. The Sioux learned that they could attack these parties and create havoc at will. As the frustration built with the soldiers of the fort, the command began to talk of taking the initiative to teach the Sioux a lesson. Enter William J. Fetterman. Traditional history states that Fetterman was out to make a name for himself and had bragged, “With 80 men, I could ride through the entire Sioux nation.” This seems a little suspect given that his upcoming impromptu command had exactly 80 men. However, the general demeanor would not have been unheard of with an officer that had attained senior rank in the Civil War and wanted to improve his chances of regaining that rank in a much smaller Regular Army. George Armstrong Custer and Nelson Miles were two other examples of this phenomena.
December 1866 in northern Wyoming was bitterly cold and wood cutting parties had had a hard time keeping up with the demand for firewood, so Sioux raiding parties had ample opportunities. The Sioux had attacked several of these parties and began to learn that the frustration was building and that enlarged parties were eager to give chase. On 21 December, Crazy Horse used this tactic to lure Fetterman’s relief party of 80 men (53 infantry and civilian on foot and 27 mounted cavalry) out of the fort with an attack on a wood cutting detail. In fact, the attack on the wood-cutters was a diversion. As Fetterman maneuvered his 80 man unit with the cavalry in the vanguard to attack the Sioux from the flank, the Indians were seemingly fleeing the area into a valley. Contrary to orders from his commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington, Fetterman gave chase. What happened exactly is not known to the white man’s history, but what was clear from the battle scene was that Fetterman’s unit was led into an ambush. All 81 were killed. The Fetterman Massacre of 1866 entered into lore.
Or at least, that is the traditional story. A more recent analysis has developed a competing theory that it was not Fetterman who was impetuous, but a junior leader of the party, Lieutenant George W. Drummond. Drummond led a party of 27 cavalrymen from the U.S. 2d Cavalry Regiment (Battlefield Biker’s old regiment). It is quite possible that Drummond’s unit, being on horseback, got too far in front of Fetterman and was ambushed. As Fetterman eclipsed the ridge and found the cavalry decisively engaged, he had little choice, but to ignore Carrington’s orders and try to relieve Drummond’s force. The Sioux had set the perfect trap and destroyed both detachments in order which would explain the battlefield scene found by another relief force that resisted the temptation to enter the valley immediately. The stories are complicated by Drummond’s widow, who later married Carrington, who wrote about the disaster to absolve her husband and Carrington of blame. Captain William J. Fetterman might have been the fall guy for Drummond.
Whatever, the facts of the actual battle, the Fetterman Massacre of 1866, also known as the Fetterman Fight, would prove to put the nail in the coffin of the Army’s attempt to protect the Bozeman Trail. A new Laramie Treaty of 1868 would re-affirm the Sioux ownership of the area and Fort Phil Kearny was abandoned two years after being estblished. The Fetterman Fight was part of what was called Red Cloud’s War and ended up being one of the Plains Indians few unmitigated wins, although the area would become engulfed in war again a decade later.
Fetterman Massacre of 1866 Motorcycle Ride
The Bozeman Trail avoided the mountains, but that is no fun on a motorcycle. My ride recommendation is to go see Fort Phil Kearny, the Fettman Fight site, and the Wagon Box Fight site, then take the Cloud Peak Skyway from Buffalo to Ten Sleep through the Bighorn National Forest and onwards through the Bighorn and Greybull River valleys to Cody, Wyoming. Wonderful country.
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