The Hundred Soldiers Killed Fight
The Fetterman Fight:December 21 1866

Originally inaccurately called The Fetterman Massacre by the US army this was not a massacre
as the dictionary defines the word. The killing was neither indiscriminate
nor of innocent people, as the Lakota name for the engagement better suggests.

Captain William J Fetterman

Captain William J Fetterman

The Hundred Soldiers Killed Fight (The Fetterman Fight):December 21 1866

Early in November a young officer had arrived at Fort Phil Kearny as part of a trained cavalry force led by Lieutenant Horatio Bingham which was sent to reinforce the existing troops who, although capable of riding a horse, had actually been trained as infantry. This cavalry officer was Captain William J. Fetterman. Having given outstanding service in the Civil War this young man felt that warfare was merely a matter of bravery in the attack, something he appears to have in common with another Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer, a trait others less foolish would refer to as reckless. Fetterman became friends with two likeminded advocates of a more aggressive approach, Captain Frederick Brown and Lieutenant George Grummond. They encouraged each other to severely underrate their opponents and considered their commanding officer,Colonel Henry B. Carrington, to be far too cautious. Until the arrival of the cavalry, Carrington had been restricted to defensive tactics, and had drawn up an extensive system of signals and routines of how the post would react if the wood cutting parties were attacked. Fetterman thought that a direct approach would pay dividends and begged Carrington to allow him to lead a charge on the ‘Indians’. “With eighty men I could ride through the Sioux nation,” he arrogantly claimed.

The need for wood as a building material took the soldiers ever further away from Fort Phil Kearny. The native Americans took advantage of the vulnerability of the troops in these circumstances and further attempted to draw them into even more exposed positions. On one such occasion in early December two men, one a young lieutenant, had been killed and five wounded. Later, on December 19 an experienced officer, Captain James W Powell, had managed to rescue a wood cutting party without losses. Colonel Carrington decided that one more foray would be enough to secure enough wood to finish building the hospital. However the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne had been practicing their tactics for some time, and on the 20 December they even rehearsed what would transpire the following day, to ensure that each warrior played their part.

On December 21 the woodcutters left with a heavy guard just after 10.00am. One hour later look outs on Pilot Hill signaled that the party was under attack. A relief force was hastily assembled and Carrington selected Captain Powell to lead it. But Fetterman interceded, his field or brevet rank was higher than Powell’s, he had been awarded it for his bravery in the Civil War. Since he outranked Powell Fetterman demanded to lead the command, and, under army rules, a flustered Carrington was forced to accept. Fetterman was given 48 enlisted infantry, together with 27 cavalry under his equally headstrong friend Lieutenant George Grummond. They were joined by the post’s armourer, Private Maddeon, and two civilian volunteers, James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher, presumably seduced by the opportunity of taking part in an heroic victory. One more volunteer, Captain Frederick Brown, by a strange quirk of fate, gave Fetterman exactly the number of troops he had boasted he needed to “ride through the Sioux nation”.

Unfortunately for him he was wrong. Unfortunately for the eighty men who accompanied him the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors had other ideas. Carrington’s orders, given to Fetterman and Grummond separately, and repeated to Fetterman via an adjutant, were quite clear: “Under no circumstances pursue over Long Tail Ridge”.

But Fetterman could not resist, after all these ‘Indians’ were inferior and should be given a good ‘hiding’ or some such prattle. The decoys were successful in tempting Fetterman on, much further than his orders should have taken him, not that he would have taken much tempting.

Carrington mustered as large a force as he could, even leaving the fort undermanned to try to effect a rescue. But Captain Ten Eyck could not get through, so numerous were the native Americans, hundreds of them, and was left to ponder why his equally insufficient force was not subjected to a similar treatment. Surprisingly the woodcutters had also managed to escape as the warriors had concentrated on defeating those in uniform. The only possible answer is that the Lakota and northern Cheyenne were satisfied with what they had done. Their warfare was not about annihilating the opposition but defeating it, and that was what they done. When they withdrew, as darkness began to fall, Ten Eyck’s troops moved in to recover the dead. Only six of the bodies showed evidence of gunshot wounds, indicating that most of the warriors were armed with bows and arrows. Fetterman’s and Brown’s bravado had hidden another side to their character, they were found in positions and with wounds to the head consistent with them having shot one another to avoid capture. This was not typical, however, for a number of the bodies which were recovered had crosses slashed on the front or back, which was a sign of respect for bravery of opponents killed in battle. Only one body was not mutilated in any way. Adolph Metzger, a bugler, had no weapon, but his bugle was so misshapen it appears that he had desperately used it to defend himself. His unmarked corpse had been covered by a buffalo robe.

Whether or not the victory would have been followed by a full scale attack on Fort Phil Kearny is a matter of conjecture, for the weather, already harsh, turned for the worst. The temperature dropped alarmingly, and the frantic contingency plans thrown together to mitigate the effects of the anticipated onslaught were not needed. At a reported 30° below zero keeping warm was far more important than fighting. Given the native American approach to warfare it is unlikely that they would have followed up their victory anyway, despite the fears of the occupants of the fort. One might just as well ask why Reno's equally vulnerable troops were not finished off after Custer's at the Battle of the Little Big Horn ten years later. The Lakota and Northern Cheyenne continued to keep the fort under surveillance but withdrew their forces from the vicinity.

A civilian, Portugee Phillips, volunteered to ride to Fort Laramie for help. He stopped briefly at Fort Reno and later at the Horseshoe Station but neither could send reinforcements, since the first was at full stretch itself and the second was merely a stopover on the Oregon Trail, forty miles west of Fort Laramie. A telegraph sent from the Horseshoe Station never got through, but Portugee did, and his entrance was written for Hollywood. Having ridden for four days, 236 miles in sub zero temperatures Portugee Phillips arrived at 11pm when the fort’s gala Christmas ball was in full swing. He staggered into the dance in his frontier buffalo hide clothes, covered in snow and ice, barely able to stand, worn out both mentally and physically from his ordeal. He took a long time to recover from exhaustion and exposure, but his horse, Colonel Carrington’s own, and the finest at Fort Phil Kearny had been driven beyond its limits and failed to recover from its exertions.

Carrington, for his part, was summarily replaced as commander, implying that he had been responsible for the Fetterman debacle. The unfairness of this was recognized by General Sherman who dismissed General Cooke who made this knee jerk decision without waiting for a full report. Cooke had sent orders for Carrington’s replacement by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wessels, commander of Fort Reno, with the relieving forces which were dispatched as a result of Portugee Phillips’s epic ride.

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1866-8 War over the Bozeman Trail

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© Chris Smallbone March2006