December 21, 1866: Fetterman Fight

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 “They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they kept but one–They promised to take our land…and they took it.”

Red Cloud, Lakota Chief

Next to the battle of the Little Big Horn, the worst defeat of the US Army in the wars against the Plains Indians was the Fetterman Fight of December 21, 1866.  Fort Phil Kearney was built by the Army in the summer of 1866 to safeguard passage for settlers in Wyoming and Montana over the Bozeman Trail. This touched off what the Army called  Red Clouds War with an alliance of Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho fighting to maintain the last hunting ground of the northern plains largely untouched by white settlement.   Skirmishing was constant between the Indians and the garrison at Fort Phil Kearney.

Captain William J. Fetterman arrived at the Fort in November.  He had an extensive combat record in the Civil War, rising to the brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel of volunteers, but no experience fighting Indians.

On December 21, 1866 Red Cloud, leading a force of Indians, perhaps 1,000 in total, decided to stage an ambush.  Attacking a wagon train sent out from the Fort to cut timber, Red Cloud successfully ambushed a relief force, infantry and cavalry, of 81 men set out from the Fort under Captain Fetterman, completely wiping them out.  The Indians stripped and mutilated the corpses of the soldiers.  Here is the report of Colonel Henry Carrington who commanded the Fort:

Head Quarters Post.
Fort Philip Kearney D.T.
January 3rd 1867.

Asst. Adjutant General
Department of the Platte
Omaha N.T.


I respectfully state the facts of fight with Indians on the 21st ultimo. This disaster had the effect to confirm my judgment as to the hostility of Indians, solemnly declares by its roll of dead and the number engaged, that my declarations from my arrival at Laramie in June, were not idle conjecture, but true.

It also declares that in Indian warfare there must be perfect coolness, steadiness and judgment. This contest is in their best and almost their last hunting grounds. They cannot be whipped or punished by some dash after a handful, nor by mere resistance of offensive movements. They must be subjected, and made to respect and fear the whites.

It also declares with equal plainness that my letter from Fort Laramie, as to the absolute failure of the treaty, so far as relates to my command, was true.

It also vindicates every report from my pen, and every measure I have taken to secure defensive and tenable posts on this line.

It vindicates my administration of the Mountain District, Department of the Platte, and asserts that the confidence reposed in me by Lieutenant General Sherman, has been fully met.

It vindicates my application, so often made, for reinforcements and demonstrates the fact if I had received those assured to me by telegram and letter, I could have kept up communications and opened a safe route for emigrants next Spring.

It proves correct my report of fifteen hundred lodges of hostile Indians on Tongue river, not many hours ride from this post.

It no less declares that while there has been partial success in impromptu dashes, the Indian, now desperate and bitter, looks upon the rash white man as a sure victim, no less than he does a coward, and that the United States must soon come to the deliberate resolve to send an army equal to a fight with the Indians of the Northwest.

Better to have the expense at once, than to have a lingering provoking war for years. It must be met, and the time is just now. I respectfully refer to my official reports and correspondence from Department Head Quarters for verification of the foregoing propositions, and proceed to the details of Fetterman’s massacre.

On the morning of the 21st ultimo at about 11 o’clock A.M. my picket on Pilot hill reported the wood train corralled, and threatened by Indians on Sullivant Hills, a mile and a half from the fort. A few shots were heard. Indians also appeared in the brush at the crossing of Piney, by the Virginia City road. Upon tendering to Brevet Major Powell the command of Company “C”, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, then without an Officer, but which he had been drilling, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman claimed, by rank, to go out. I acquiesed [sic], giving him the men of his own company, that were for duty, and a portion of “C” company, 2nd Battn. 18th U.S. Infantry.

Lieutenant G.W. Grummond, who had commanded the mounted Infantry, requested to take out the cavalry. He did so. In the previous skirmish Lieutenant Grummond was barely saved from the disaster that befell Lieutenant Bingham, by timely aid.

Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman also was well admonished, as well as myself, that we were fighting brave and desperate enemies who sought to make up by cunning and deceit, all the advantages which the white man gains by intelligence and better arms.

My instructions were therefore peremtory [sic] and explicit. I knew the ambition of each to win honor, but being unprepared for large aggressive action, through want of adequate force (now fully demonstrated) I looked to continuance of timber supplies to prepare for more troops, as the one practical duty. Hence two days before Major Powell, sent out to cover the train under similar circumstances, simply did that duty, when he could have had a fight to any extent.

The day before, viz: – the 20th ultimo, I went to the Pinery and built a bridge of forty five feet span to expedite the passage of wagons from the woods into open ground.

Hence my instructions to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman, viz: – “Support the wood train, relieve it and report to me. Do not engage or pursue Indians at its expense. Under no circumstances pursue over the ridge viz; Lodge Trail Ridge, as per map in your possession.”

To Lieutenant Grummond, I gave orders to report to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman, implicitly obey orders and not leave him.

Before the command left, I instructed Lieutenant A.H. Wands, Regimental Quarter Master, and Acting Adjutant, to repeat these orders. He did so. Fearing still that the spirit of ambition might override prudence, (as my refusal to permit sixty mounted men and forty citizens to go for several days down Tongue river valley after villages, had been unfavorably regarded to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman and Captain Brown,) I crossed the parade and from a sentry platform, halted the cavalry and again repeated my precise orders.

I knew that the Indians had, for several days, returned each time with increased numbers, to feel our strength and decoy detachments to their sacrifice, and believed to foil their purpose was actual victory until reinforcements should arrive and my preparations were complete.

I was right. Just as the command left, five Indians reappeared at the crossing. The glass revealed others in the thicket, having the apparent object of determining the watchfulness of the garrison, or cutting off any small party that should move out. A case shot dismounted one and developed nearly thirty more who broke for the hills and ravines to the north.

In half an hour the picket reported that the wood train had broken corral and moved on to the Pinery. Nor report came from the detachment. It was composed of eighty one Officers and me including two citizens, all well armed, the cavalry having new carbines, while the detachment of infantry was of choice men, the pride of their companies.

At 12 o’clock firing was heard towards Peno Creek, beyond Lodge Trail Ridge. A few shots were followed by constant shots, not to be counted. Captain Ten Eyck was immediately dispatched with infantry and the remaining cavalry and two wagons, and ordered to join Colonel Fetterman at all hazards.

The men moved promptly and on the run, but within little more than half an hour from the first shot, and just as the supporting party reached the hill overlooking the scene of action, all firing ceased.

Captain Ten Eyck sent a mounted orderly back with the report that he could see and hear nothing of Fetterman, but that a body of Indians, on the road below him, were challenging him to come down, while larger bodies were in all the valleys for several miles around.

Moving cautiously forward with the wagons, evidently supposed by the enemy to be guns, as mounted men were in advance, he rescued from the spot where the enemy had been nearest, forty nine bodies, including those of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman and Captain F.H. Brown. The latter went out without my consent or knowledge, fearless to fight Indians with any adverse odds, and determined to kill one at least before joining his company.

Captain Ten Eyck fell back slowly, but not pressed by the enemy, reaching the fort without loss.

The following morning, finding genuine doubt as to the success of an attempt to recover other bodies, but believing that failure to rescue them would dishearten the command and encourage the Indians who are so particular in this regard, I took eighty men and went to the scene of action, leaving a picket to advise me of any movement in the rear and to keep signal communication with the garrison.

The scene of action told its story. The road on the little ridge where the final stand took place was strewn with arrow heads, scalps, poles and broken shafts of spears. The arrows that were spent harmlessly from all directions, showed that the command was suddenly overwhelmed, surrounded and cut off while in retreat. Not officer or man survived. A few bodies were found at the north end of the divide over which the road runs just below Lodge Trail Ridge.

Nearly all were heaped near four rocks at the point nearest the Fort, these rocks enclosing a space about six feet square, having been the last refuge for defence. Here were also a few unexpended rounds of Spencer cartridge [sic].
Fetterman and Brown had each a revolver shot in the left temple. As Brown always declared he would reserve a shot for himself as a last resort, so I am convinced that these two brave men fell, each by the other’s hand, rather than undergo the slow torture inflicted upon others.

Lieutenant Grummond’s body was on the road between the two extremes, with a few others. This was not far from five miles from the Fort, and nearly as far from the wood train. Neither its own guard nor the detachment could by any possibility have helped each other, and the train was incidentally saved by the fierceness of the fight in the brave but rash impulse of pursuit.

The officers who fell believed that no Indian force could overwhelm that number of troops well held in hand.

Their terrible massacre bore marks of great valor and has demonstrated the force and character of the foe, but no valor could have saved them.

Pools of blood on the road and sloping sides of the narrow divide showed where Indians bled fatally, but their bodies were carried off. I counted sixty five such pools in the space of an acre, and three within ten feet of Lieut. Grummond’s body.

Eleven American horses and nine Indian ponies were on the road, or near the line of bodies, others, crippled, were in the valley.

At the northwest or further point, between two rocks, and apparently where the command first fell back from the valley, realizing their danger, I found citizen James S. Wheatly and Isaac Fisher of Blue Springs Nebraska, who, with “Henry rifles”, felt invincible, but fell, one having one hundred and five arrows in his naked body.

The widow and family of Wheatly are here. The cartridge shells about him, told how well they fought.

Before closing this report, I wish to say that every man, officer, soldier, or citizen, received burial with such record as to identify each. Fetterman, Brown and Grummond lie in one grave. The remainder also share one tomb, buried, as they fought, together, but the cases in which they were laid, are clearly placed and numbered.

I ask the General Commanding to give my report, in absence of Division Commander, an access to the eye and ear of the General in Chief.

The Department Commander must have more troops and I declare this my judgement, solemnly and for the general public good, without one spark of personal ambition other than to do my duty daily, as it comes, and whether I seem to speak too plainly or not, ever with the purpose to declare the whole truth, and with proper respect to my superior officers who are entitled to the facts, as to scenes remote from their own immediate notice.

I was asked to “send all the bad news”. I do it as far as I can. I give some of the facts as to my men whose bodies I found just at dark, resolved to bring all in viz: –


Eyes torn out and laid on the rocks.
Noses cut off.
Ears cut off.
Chins hewn off.
Teeth chopped out.
Joints of fingers. [sic]
Brains taken out and placed on rocks with other members of the body.
Entrails taken out and exposed.
Hands cut off.
Feet cut off.
Arms taken out from socket.
Private parts severed and indecently placed on the person.
Eyes, ears, mouth, and arms penetrated with spear heads, sticks and arrows.
Ribs slashed to separation with knifes.
Sculls [sic] severed in every form from chin to crown.
Muscles of calves, thighs, stomach, breast, back, arms and cheek, taken out.
Punctures upon every sensitive part of the body, even to the soles of the feet and palms of the hand.

All this only approximates to the whole truth.

Every medical officer was faithful, aided by a large force of men, and all were not buried until Wednesday after the fight.

The great real fact is that these Indians take alive when possible and slowly torture. It is the opinion of Dr. S.M. Horton, Post Surgeon, that not more than six were killed by balls. Of course the “whole arrows”, hundreds of which were removed from naked bodies, were all used after removal of the clothing.

I have said enough. It is a hard but absolute duty. In the establishment of this post I designed to put it where it fell the heaviest upon the Indian, and therefore the better for the emigrant. My duty will be done when I leave, as ordered to my new Regimental Head Quarters, Fort Casper.

I submit herewith list of casualties marked “A”. I shall also, as soon as practicable, make full report for the year 1866, of operations in the establishment of this new line.

I am
Very respectfully
Your Obedient Servant

Henry B. Carrington
Col. 18th Infantry

Incredibly, Chief Red Cloud in effect won this war with the treaty of 1868 and the establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation which encompassed most of western South Dakota, and which remained intact for about 13 years.  However, ultimately he and his people were victims of the insatiable thirst for land of the white settlers and federal governments unwilling to live up to treaties.  Red Cloud remained a tireless advocate for the rights of his people.  In 1884 he and his family were converted to Catholicism, but that is a post for another time.

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  1. Red Cloud was the only War Chief the US Army never defeated in battle or forced to capitulate and he lived to old age. He was renowned warrior and a military and political genius. Only he successfully united into effective military forces that carried out winning operations over a vast area and over several years.
    I recommend a recent book: “The Heart of All That Is, The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.
    Two things: Plains Indian males were among the finest natural light cavalry that ever existed(Mongols also come to mind). From early youth, they were one (think centaurs of Greek mythology) with their mounts. Hunting and raiding were their constant passions. Two, in some cases various tribes/bands would leave their particular “marks” (mutilate) their KIA’s similar to some (purportedly) US troops dropping death cards on KIA. Alternately, the white soldier fought in a different manner and mutilations may have been motivated both by disrespect and hatred.

  2. Pithy description without compromise of the bitter grimness of war in all its savagery.

    And a powerful reminder and check to any egotistical vaingloriousness.

    However, it had no noticeable effect on a very ambitious now-Lt. Colonel Custer (he had been a brevet major general during the Civil War, but busted back down in peacetime), so that he was assigned to the Indian Wars in early 1867, partly (it seems) as a result of the Fetterman debacle.

    No wonder the Greeks believed in Fate. It sure seems “fateful”.

  3. A quick observation, if you please :
    I served with a Military Police Unit, in Germany for three years, during the Cold War. I have seen pictures of Custer and he was the spitting image of a Lieutenant General named Richardson. Lt. Gen. Richardson was the Vice Commander of the USAF in Europe (USAFE).
    Anyway, the Lt. Gen. suffered from “short man’s syndrome ( he was about 5’2) and had the attitude to match. His Flight Chief told me once that his staff had to bring him his hat on a silk pillow.
    And then, one evening, Richardson had a nasty argument with his persevering wife. She left him. In a rage, the Lt. Gen. sent a flight of fighter jets to intercept his wife’s commercial aircraft and escort it back to Germany. The President fired him !
    Does that sound like something Custer would have done ?

  4. I don’t know Timothy R: Custer was reputedly about 6′ tall, quite tall for the day (as you know estimated avg height of a soldier in the Civil War was about 5′ 7″), so no “little-big-man” issues, but also a notorious gambler and womanizer (quite proud of his long golden locks of course). HIs last gamble definitely didn’t pay off. The parallels to the decision-making of Fetterman are interesting: the quest for glory.

    But you know those USAF guys are SO over the top…

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