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Chapter 1: The Real Field
December 21, 1866, Dakota Territory
The hillside on which the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho were about to make such a grisly fool of Lieutenant Colonel William J. Fetterman was dun–colored and bare, with no cover save for some broken rocks that looked as if they had been thrown down by a short–tempered God. There was just one other visible thing on the expanse, the faint double track of the Bozeman Trail, heading off into the immensity that would become Wyoming. The trail sketched westward along a ridge, ragged but decipherable, its ruts worn into the ground by a succession of iron–rimmed wheels bearing the weight of American ambition.
Fetterman and his command of eighty men pushed over the hill and fanned out, barely holding their formation as they chased a handful of Lakota warriors mounted on ponies just ahead, baiting them. The impatient cavalrymen surged forward on their chesty Army horses. Infantrymen grabbed at their stirrups and ran along, trying to keep up.
The braves drawing the soldiers on had been chosen to lead the attack for their exceptional bravery and fighting skills. One of them was Crazy Horse, not yet famous. Another was a patrician twentysix–year–old Oglala–Lakota named American Horse, a burgeoning leader who was participating in one of the many conflicts with whites that would engage him for the rest of his life. (1)
American Horse and his fellow decoys beckoned the soldiers with a variety of ruses. They galloped back and forth on ponies, screeching insults and firing occasional shots. They waved blankets at the cavalry horses, hoping to frighten them into bolting. Every now and then, one of the Indians would appear to tire. He would slow and walk his pony, seeming fatigued. This was another feint, perhaps the most tempting of all. The bluecoats hurried after them, down the Bozeman Trail.
Below, hidden in hollows and gullies on either side of the trail, fully two thousand Oglala, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors awaited the soldiers. They crouched in long grasses, wallows, and swales, holding the lariats of their ponies. Strapped to their bodies were a variety of knives, hatchets, bows, and brilliantly painted shields. They clenched war clubs made of rough triangular rocks bound to heavy wood handles. A few of them had rifles, but mainly they carried bows and arrows, thousands of arrows. (2)
The isolation and the unfamiliarity of the ground should have made Fetterman pause. The geography of the Dakota Territory alone was forbidding. It was just that–territory, not a state or a county, but an indistinct region where the Gilded Age stopped. It was a sunburned and epic American Serengeti, a series of rolling mounds and weather–tortured prairie ridges that stretched as far as the eye could see, covered by scorched hay–colored grasses, only occasionally interrupted by weird rock outcroppings and misshapen trees. Out here, the world was still large and mysterious; not everything had been discovered, surveyed, charted, explained, and blueprinted.
It was a magnificent setting, but an austere one, and it provoked deep apprehension in one Army wife. The country was pervaded by “an almost overpowering sense of stillness,” wrote Frances Grummond, whose husband, George, was a cavalry lieutenant riding with Fetterman, “especially at night when conversation could be heard and understood at a long distance.” Frances had felt a deep sense of dread since her arrival just a few months earlier. Every cloud seemed to dim the entire landscape; every crack of a rifle in the night seemed to explode right by her bed. “Every sound exacted attention.” (3)
The post that Fetterman and his men had ridden out from, Fort Phil Kearny, was hardly a stronghold. Rather, it was an unfinished, frighteningly remote stockade of newly hewn logs, just six months old, and it sat squarely alone in the middle of a six–hundred–mile tract of Lakota country. It was undermanned and underarmed, with just 640 troops, most of them inexperienced recruits. The nearest reinforcements could be summoned only with a four–day, death–defying gallop to Fort Laramie.
Fort Phil Kearny had been built in this forsaken locale to protect the Bozeman Trail, the hazardous new shortcut to the gold fields of Montana, forged by prospector John M. Bozeman in 1864 right through the heart of the Powder River country and Lakota hunting grounds. In just two years, the trail had become an enormously popular route west, with thousands of emigrants trekking along it, homesteaders bound for Oregon, gold seekers, fortune hunters, ranchers, farmers, and trappers. They all clamored for protection, and that spring the U.S. government acceded and sent a force under Colonel Henry B. Carrington to construct a series of garrisons to defend the route, one of them Fort Phil Kearny.
But in the brief life of the fort, there had already been terrible casualties. Men and livestock were lost almost daily to Lakota raiders, livid over the intrusion of the road and the new fortifications–in a sixmonth stretch of 1866 they would kill 154 settlers and soldiers. (4)
The post commander, Carrington, was increasingly anxious about his vulnerable position. When a woodcutting party was attacked that morning, Carrington issued cautious instructions: Fetterman and his men were to relieve the woodcutters but were not to pursue the Indians beyond the farthest visible ridge, called Lodge Trail.
Fetterman, however, was not inclined to obey anybody or anything except his own impulse toward bravery. Bristling with whiskers and decorations, he was a hugely confident officer who had been twice brevetted for gallantry in some of the worst fighting of the Civil War. He was the son and nephew of military careerists, with an eye on advancement, and it’s likely he chafed at taking orders from Carrington, a painstaking administrative sort who had never been in a major battle. Carrington had been sent west for his efficiency in building the real field 11 forts, not for his fighting abilities. He was fine–bearded, sad–eyed, and hyperarticulate, and in Fetterman’s view weak. “We are afflicted with an incompetent commanding officer, viz. Carrington,” Fetterman complained in a letter to a friend. (5)
The mounted men chased the decoys down the slope and along a lengthy shoulder of parched yellow ground. The troops became strung out, their boots and their horses’ hooves kicking up dust. Occasionally a cavalryman paused and fired a burst from his light carbine rifle.
Ahead, as the Indians raced across the prairie mounds, they did something curious. Two parties suddenly cut across each other’s paths, riding toward each other, and then swerving away again.
This was the signal for attack.
On either side of the trail, the warriors rose from the golden brown prairie. It was as if the whole crust of the earth suddenly burst upward. Waves of arrows arced up from the gullies and draws. Pony hooves thrummed over rock and soil.
Months of preparation and pent-up aggression went into the attack. The battle plan was the work of Red Cloud, leader of the Oglala–Lakota. (6) For years, the Lakota had watched whites encroach on their hunting grounds, and they were furiously determined to shut down the new Bozeman passage. In 1840, the first small wagon train of settlers had crossed through to the Pacific. By 1848, huge lines of prairie schooners snaked westward, including Brigham Young’s parade of 397 wagons. With them came a variety of pestilences, including Asiatic cholera, measles, and smallpox. (7)
Most important, they rousted the wildlife, particularly the allproviding buffalo, which gave the Lakota every element of their livelihoods. The Lakota, highly attuned naturalists, had a practical understanding of the famine that could result from the smallest disruption of their hunting patterns, one drought that came across the prairie as if blown from an eagle–bone whistle.
While American Horse couldn’t have known the precise facts of white emigration, his own eyes told him that it was becoming a real threat to Lakota sustenance. He understood that, “unless the white people could be kept out of the buffalo country, they were doomed, so far as being a free and independent people was concerned. They would have a strange master to look to for existence,” according to a white friend, the famed scout, cattleman, and sharpshooter James Cook. (8)
The Lakota in their dominant years were many things: hunters, natural philosophers, tireless orators, and seekers who felt that the ephemeral was graspable with deep concentration. But they were something else, too, when threatened: absolutely lethal combatants.
There was no better example than American Horse, the picture of flourishing Lakota male splendor. He was born in 1840, the son of a tribal leader named Sitting Bear, and he was of ancient stock, with a family winter count, the equivalent of a calendar, that went back five generations. His lineage showed in his handsome features, which exuded entitlement, vanity, and resolve. He was tall and deepchested, with a face that looked as though it had been stroked with a knife out of wood. His mouth bowed downward, grim with purpose, and elongating his features were thick plaits falling over his shoulders, wrapped in cloth.
As a boy, he learned to hunt buffalo through the snow, on foot, with a bow and arrow. From the age of five or six years on, he played the Lakota war games that prepared braves for their adult responsibilities— games not unlike football. One of them was a harrowing contest called Throwing Them off Their Horses, a form of mock battle in which mounted boys lined up and charged at each other. As the ponies collided and floundered in a dust cloud, the riders seized each other, wrestling. They played until all of the men on one side were unhorsed. (9)
By the age of about fourteen, American Horse had fought victoriously against half a dozen enemy tribes. At eighteen, he earned his adult name of American Horse (Wasicu Tasunke) when he captured a large Army horse and rode it into battle and slew an enemy. In 1864, he was appointed a “shirt wearer,” or leader, in the same ceremony with Crazy Horse. “The following are the names of the Indians I scalped and stole horses from: the Shoshonies, Arapahoes, Bannocks, Nez Perces, Blackfeet, Piegans, Assinaboines, Arikarees, Omahas, and white men,” he said later in his life. “I defeated every tribe of the above named Indians that I came in contact with. That is what made me chief.” (10)
By the time of the Fetterman battle in 1866, American Horse was a canny and commanding warrior, fully engaged in the campaign to drive out the whites. Just a few weeks earlier, in a similar ambush, American Horse had served as a deputy to Red Cloud in an attack on a train of forty wagons that killed fourteen emigrants. But they wanted larger prey: soldiers.
American Horse joined the frenzied battle. The air filled with the whine of arrows, black gunpowder, and dust. Horses wheeled, crazed, with arrows in their flanks. Infantrymen struggled clumsily to reload their outdated, single–shot, muzzle–loading Springfield rifles, pawing at the cartridge boxes at their waists as cold bit into their fingers. To a Lakota named Fire Thunder, the arrows slinging overhead from the gullies seemed “like a cloud of grasshoppers all above and around the soldiers.” (11) Men staggered around with arrows in them. Others wobbled and fell down insensible, their heads crushed by blows from war clubs.
Fetterman and his men alternately fought and clambered back up the trail toward the split rocks that offered the only possible cover. Their belted greatcoats encumbered them, and their heavy Jefferson boots slipped on the icy ground, which became stained with sheets of red ice, blood freezing in rivulets down the hillside. For a few minutes, Fetterman held together a band of soldiers among the rocks. But the boulders were only knee high, and the Indians steadily encircled, crawling toward them over the ground or galloping their ponies up the hill. The besieged soldiers fought with increasing terror and hopelessness. Combat became a horror, with men swinging gunstocks to fend off the hatchets, stone clubs, and thrusting knives.
There are conflicting accounts about what happened next. Carrington, who was not there and may have wished to perpetuate a noble story for the sake of the families, claimed Fetterman and Captain Fred Brown placed revolvers to each other’s temples and pulled the triggers before the Indians could kill them. However, the report of the post surgeon who examined the bodies contradicted him. “Col. Fetterman’s body showed his thorax to have been cut crosswise with a knife, deep into the viscera; his throat and entire neck were cut to the cervical spine, all around. I believe that mutilation to have caused his death.” (12)
Years later, American Horse gave his own account of Fetterman’s death. According to this version, American Horse and Fetterman, each the manful pride of his people, met on the hillside. The Lakota warrior galloped his mount toward the rocks, hurtled into the midst of the bluecoats, and ran his horse full speed at Fetterman, knocking him down. He then leaped from his horse, seized Fetterman around the neck, and slashed a knife across his throat–apparently with so much force that he almost beheaded him. (13)
It took only about ninety minutes from the time the first volley was fired until the last soldier died. Victorious, the Indians began to ritually mutilate the bodies, which they believed incapacitated their enemies in the afterlife. They stripped off overcoats and trousers, shook money and trinkets out of pockets, and kept what they liked. Then they sliced open arms, legs, and abdomens, pulled out muscles and organs, gouged out eyes, cut out tongues, and removed genitals. They cut the tops off skulls and removed the brains, and pulled arms out of sockets.
A soldier’s dog darted from the rocks. One brave suggested that they let the dog run to the fort and carry the news of the battle. Another thought he was too sweet to shoot. Yet another said, “No, do not let even a dog get away.” (14) They shot the animal full of arrows. The dog fell to the ground, one more dead thing on a field strewn for a mile with the corpses of Fetterman’s command, as well as those of horses, shattered weapons, and an almost incredible number of arrows. One soldier’s body had 165 arrows in it. (15)
A relief party of soldiers appeared on a high ridge to the east. The sharp, rapid volleys of fire had been clearly audible at the fort. As Captain Tenedor Ten Eyck stared down from the summit of the ridge at the valley below flooded with Indians, he could see no trace of the bluecoats.
But as the throngs of warriors began to recede from the valley, the battlefield gradually became visible. The soldiers spotted what at first looked like cottonwood limbs, stripped of bark. An infantryman suddenly called out.
“There are the men down there, they are all dead!” he said.
Chillingly, the Indians began to taunt this second group of soldiers to come down the hill. They catcalled, shrieked, showed their naked buttocks to the soldiers and slapped them. The soldiers did not dare move from the high ground.