The Fetterman Fight ranks among the most crushing defeats suffered by the U.S. Army in the nineteenth-century West. On December 21, 1866—during Red Cloud’s War (1866–1868)—a well-organized force of 1,500 to 2,000 Oglala Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors annihilated a detachment of seventy-nine infantry and cavalry soldiers—among them Captain William Judd Fetterman—and two civilian contractors. With no survivors on the U.S. side, the only eyewitness accounts of the battle came from Lakota and Cheyenne participants. In Eyewitness to the Fetterman Fight, award-winning historian John H. Monnett presents these Native views, drawn from previously published sources as well as newly discovered interviews with Oglala and Cheyenne warriors and leaders. Supplemented with archaeological evidence, these narratives flesh out historical understanding of Red Cloud’s War. Climate change in the mid-nineteenth century made the resource-rich Powder River Country in today’s Wyoming increasingly important to Plains Indians. At the same time, the discovery of gold in Montana encouraged prospectors to pass through the Powder River region on their way north, and so the U.S. Army began to construct new forts along the Bozeman Trail. In the resulting conflict, the Lakotas and Cheyennes defended their hunting ranges and trade routes. Traditional histories have laid the blame for Fetterman’s 1866 defeat and death on his incompetent leadership—and thus implied that the Indian alliance succeeded only because of Fetterman’s personal failings. Monnett’s sources paint another picture. Narratives like those of Miniconjou Lakota warrior White Bull suggest that Fetterman’s actions were not seen as rash or reprehensible until after the fact. Nor did his men flee the field in panic. Rather, they fought bravely to the end. The Indians, for their part, used their knowledge of the terrain to carefully plan and execute an ambush, ensuring them victory. Critical to understanding the nuances of Plains Indian strategy and tactics, the firsthand narratives in Eyewitness to the Fetterman Fight reveal the true nature of this Native victory against regular army forces.
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About the Author
John H. Monnett is Professor Emeritus of History at Metropolitan State University, Denver, and the author of several books, including Massacre at Cheyenne Hole: Lieutenant Austin Henely and the Sappa Creek Controversy and Tell Them We Are Going Home: The Odyssey of the Northern Cheyennes.
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Eyewitness to the Fetterman Fight
By John H. Monnett
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
Joseph White Bull
Pte San Hunka, 1849–1947
The account of the Fetterman Fight that follows in its entirety is from Warpath, Chapter 6, "One-Hundred-White-Men-Killed." Campbell chose to write the biography in the third person so that he could interject military events he garnered from the Records of the Special Commission to Investigate the Fetterman Massacre and the State of Indian Affairs, 1867, in the National Archives, between statements made by White Bull. The account is the best known of the Indian testimonies of the Fetterman Fight to be found in this study. Readers will easily discern Campbell's inclusions around White Bull's words in his account of the action in the Fetterman Fight. The first four paragraphs of the account are Campbell's words, as well as the ending paragraphs and a few paragraphs in between. His narrative filler is obvious but contextually necessary in places throughout the account.
Campbell's unpublished rough interview notes in the Western History Collections of the University of Oklahoma Libraries reveal a few minor but significant facts, which are not found in Warpath, regarding the chronology and circumstances of the battle. White Bull reveals that Oglalas, Miniconjous, and Cheyennes, with the few Arapahos present, not only camped separately once reaching the Peno Valley but moved separately from their Tongue River camps as well. The notes reveal that White Bull believed the Indians deployed for the ambush in the ravines about 8:00 a.m. on December 21. Although in the published work Campbell names important chiefs present, White Bull stated, as revealed in the interview notes, that there was no central organizational leader over all the Indians, which attests to the ability of all chiefs and headmen to agree and organize as a democratic group. Many secondary works infer that the last remnants of Fetterman's command assembled on Monument Hill behind the boulders found there. White Bull reveals that a majority fought and died among the boulders while lying down in prone positions. As with other accounts White Bull states, in both his initial interviews and in Warpath, that Fetterman's command all fought and died bravely, fighting to the end rather than aborting tactical cohesion and trying to escape their fate in a flight of panic at the conclusion of the battle.
White Bull was only seventeen in 1866 and this was his first major engagement. As such the recollections of the aging chief remembering his impetuous teenage years are passionate. White Bull paints himself as a somewhat reckless daredevil, and perhaps a little fortunate. White Bull's account is not without some problems. On occasion, as will be examined in the analysis below, White Bull's and Campbell's placement of Fetterman's troops north-south dispositions is confusing, transposing the infantry and cavalry positions at one point, something that is not evident in Campbell's original field notes. Still, White Bull's account is one of the most extensive and best-known eyewitness Indian testimonies of the Fetterman Fight, and the only Miniconjou reckoning from their southeastern position on the field. Thus it provides a benchmark from which other Indian accounts are compared.
* * *
Since the founding of the United States, American arms have suffered two great disasters, which no soldier survived. The first of these was the so-called Fetterman Fight, or Fort Phil Kearny "Massacre," when the Sioux and Cheyennes destroyed the entire force of Captain W. J. Fetterman, December 21, 1866. The second was the fight on the Little Big Horn River, in which General George Armstrong Custer and five troops of the Seventh Cavalry were wiped out by the same Indians, June 25, 1876. Only the celebrated affair at the Alamo can compare with these disasters. On the monument that commemorates the heroic combat of the Texans against the Mexicans under Santa Anna is this inscription: "Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none." This inscription might serve equally well on the monuments on Massacre Hill, Wyoming, and on the Custer Battlefield.
Few Indians now survive who can tell of even the more recent of these two battles, and naturally the white men's histories have little to relate concerning them. But there is one man living who has the distinction of having taken part in both the Fetterman and Custer fights. Not only that. He took a leading part in both. That man is Chief Joseph White Bull. Here we have his account of the first one, known to the Indians as One-Hundred-White-Men-Killed.
The Sioux fought for glory. To strike an enemy [count coup], to capture a weapon or a horse, or to be hit in battle were all rated as war honors, and in each of these battles White Bull won them all. The Miniconjou Sioux were governed by six hereditary chiefs or Scalp-Shirt Men. In 1866 these were Brave Bear, Makes-Room, White-Hollow-Horn, Black Shield, One Horn, and White Swan. Lame Deer and Fire Thunder were then vice-chiefs. Of these, White Swan in particular hated the whites, and thought he had good reason to. He had fought them often. It is said that some drunken soldiers once looted his home in his absence, and before they left, defiled it. This insult he could not forget nor forgive. When his time had come to die, White Swan had himself dressed up in his war-clothes, had his face painted ready for burial, and then summoned his head men and comrades-in-arms to the bedside. When they had assembled, he uttered his last request. "Friends," he said, "you must look out for yourselves and protect your people. Try to kill white men, for the white men have come here to kill you. I am about to die. I can kill no more. Therefore I look to you. Carry on." White Swan died, but the Miniconjou did not forget his last words.
The headmen decided to organize a great war party to carry out his wish. Accordingly they summoned the Oglala under Crazy Horse to join them. Early in December 1866, the Miniconjou, a large number of Oglala, and some Cheyennes were in camp on Tongue River near the White (Big Horn) Mountains. The Cheyennes were about to go against the Shoshoni Indians, as they considered themselves at peace with the white men. But when the Sioux asked them to join the expedition, they could not refuse. The Sioux and Cheyennes had always been allies. Moreover, recently the troops had fired at some Cheyenne young men passing a fort.
The chiefs decided to organize a great party and attack the troops at Fort Phil Kearny. War parties were organized in different ways. Sometimes an individual would call in his friends and ask them to join. Again a large party might be organized by some Warrior Society, which would hold a feast to elect officers on understanding that next morning the officers-elect would lead the Society in battle. In this camp, however, the warriors were so numerous that two Societies held elections the same day. First the Mandan (Miwatani) Society elected officers, and afterward the Fox Soldiers.
White Bull had so distinguished himself on the warpath that the herald of the Fox Soldiers called out his name first of all and invited him to come and feast with the members of the Society. After him, the herald summoned Little Soldier, Thunder Hoop, Bear-Grabs, Thunder Hawk, Bear-Loves, Lazy Ghost, these seven. White Bull led the way into the lodge of the Society and was shown a seat at the right end of the place of honor opposite the door.
Each of the seven men was then given the insignia of his new office. Two were given whips; these acted as dance leaders. Two were given war bonnets covered with crow feathers; two were given lances, and White Bull, as the first one summoned, was given a big drum painted red, with four ornamented sticks on which to hang it when in use, and six drumsticks. The man who owned the drum was always head chief of this Society. Each of the new officers was given an eagle- bone whistle. They were expected to distinguish themselves and lead the way in the fight, but not, of course, to direct the movements of the war party. That was the duty of the regular chiefs.
Seeing their son so honored, Makes-Room and Good Feather came to the lodge leading two horses. At that time the Sioux were — for a wonder — at peace with the Crow Indians, and as several Crows stood there looking on, White Bull's parents gave the horses to these visitors. Before the meeting broke up, the former leader of the Fox Society made a speech. Said he: "I have been the leader of this Society. The members appointed me to this post. Now these young men here are to be the leaders and we must all stand together with them. We are all supposed to look after each other on the warpath and to consider the wishes of our people. It is not likely that these new leaders just appointed will be living long. Probably they will soon be killed. We all live but once. Friends, love each other. If you do this, I will love you. Help the poor and the old folks with donations. Of all things between heaven and earth, food is the most important. If you are eating, and someone comes into your lodge, share with him. If you wish to amuse yourselves, bring in some food, and two or three couples, and dance. If you see someone about to do something wrong, bring him into our Society lodge, get him to smoke the peace pipe, and quiet him down. That is my advice." Next day the whole camp moved up Tongue River toward the fort. The Miniconjou and the Cheyennes were more than a thousand men, and besides these there were numerous Oglala. They moved along by stages. Black Shield was the principal chief leading the Miniconjou. They rode first, followed by the Oglala and Cheyennes.
It was cold weather and there was snow in places. White Bull had put on a pair of buffalo-fur moccasins with high tops, which his mother had made for him. He was wearing plain leggings of dark woolen cloth and a red flannel gee-string, but no shirt. Some of his comrades wore buckskin shirts with the hair outside. But White Bull preferred to wear his buffalo robe with the hair turned in, belted around him. He wore no mittens and no cloth on his head; he left such protections to old men.
Like the others, he was riding his laden packhorse and leading his warhorse by the lariat. His saddle he had made himself; it had only one cinch. On his saddle he carried some pemmican and a wooden cup, and a war-bag containing his dress clothes. He had a four-point Nor'west blanket, red as blood, strapped to the cantle. In his belt on the left side he carried his knife in a sheath, but had no whetstone. His weapons consisted of a quiver containing his bow and forty arrows, and a lance. His father had made the iron points of those arrows from a frying pan.
As he moved along with his comrades, he sometimes joined a group, which turned aside to kill buffalo or deer, and would take as much meat as he could carry on the saddle. Early each day eight scouts were sent out with instructions to return if they saw nothing, but if they saw enemies to signal back with hand-mirrors from the highest hilltop. They all started about sunup every day and halted for an hour about noon to rest their horses. They always chose a trail through the coulees and gulches, avoiding the hilltops. At sundown they would make camp. Each of the three tribes camped separately in a circle in the creek bottom, the three circles in the brush extending more than a quarter of a mile.
When making camp, White Bull and his comrades planted poles or willow shoots in the ground in a circle, covering them part way up with saddle blankets all around and building a fire in the center of this windbreak. Ten men slept with White Bull in his shelter. He used his buffalo robe and his red blanket for bedding. At night, guards were used. These guards did not walk a post, but generally sat in a group and kept their ears open. It was the custom for anyone who waked during the night to get up and walk around the camp to see that everything was all right. Indian warriors could determine in advance their hour of rising by regulating the amount of water drunk before going to bed. Of course every warrior had his weapons ready, and in enemy country the men never undressed. White Bull kept his face painted red as a protection against the weather.
This large party was full of patriotic spirit. White Bull's relatives were very proud because of the honor done him by the Fox Soldiers. Uncle Flying-Hawk accordingly called these relatives to council — Long Ghost, Crazy Thunder, Fast Horse, Runs-Against, and Powerful. He told them they ought to make a donation and confer another title upon their brave nephew. They agreed, and each man present contributed two arrows, making twelve in all. They decided upon the name of a distinguished ancestor for the young man. Then Flying Hawk called over two singers, men with good voices, Two Herd and Wrinkled Leg. Flying Hawk explained what he wished announced and gave each of them six arrows. They walked out into the camp and called aloud: "Hear ye, hear ye, Bull-Standing-With- Cow is going to leave that name here. From this day you will call him Big-In-The- Center."
This announcement was a complete surprise to White Bull, who was still commonly known as Bull-Standing-With-Cow. Even his father had said nothing of any change. No sooner had his name been changed than he heard someone calling from another camp. It was Long Forelock, who belonged to the Don't-Eat-Dog Band. He was calling: "Big in the Center, my friend, you have a good name. So I am inviting you to come and feast with me." White Bull was pleased to go, for Long Forelock was one of the best fighters in the whole tribe.
When that great war party reached a point some ten miles northwest of the fort, the Indians halted and made camp. There the chiefs held council. They knew that Indians armed only with bows and lances could not hope to capture the fort by assault. They therefore decided to lure the troops out of the fort and along the Trail into the rough country to the north. In the forks of Peno Creek, five miles from the fort, was a long narrow ridge [Massacre Ridge], high and steep. The Trail passed along the top of this ridge. The plan was to lie in wait on each side of this ridge and send a few young men on fast horses to tempt the troops out of the fort and lead them into the trap. By means of this ambush the chiefs hoped to kill all the soldiers and afterward burn the fort. Six young Sioux [two Arapahos] and several Cheyennes were chosen to act as decoys.
At daybreak next morning these young men rode off to the fort to make an attack, and at sunrise all the warriors saddled up, mounted, and followed Peno Creek up to the forks. There they halted to conceal themselves. As the Cheyennes were guests of the Sioux, they were given their choice of positions. They and the Oglala chose the west side of the ridge. Some who were on foot stopped near the lower (north) end of the ridge, close to the stream. Those on horseback went on higher and took position almost a mile distant from the Trail. The Miniconjou hid themselves behind a ridge to the east of the road within half a mile. White Bull was with them.
Young White Bull stood with the others behind the ridge, armed with a lance, a bow, and forty arrows, holding his gray war-horse and eagerly waiting for a chance to show his valor. He had his four-point Nor'west blanket, red as blood, and because of the cold he folded this blanket and fastened it around him like a short coat. He had two eagle feathers in his hair. Beside him stood Fine Weather, Long Forelock, Little Bear, Thunder-with-Horns, and Runs-Against.
When White Bull peeped out of his covert he could see no one; all the Indians were hidden. Straight ahead of him to the west were the grassy flats and the shallow stream from which the road climbed up the ridge to his left and disappeared in the direction of the fort five miles away. The Indians stood quiet, waiting to spring their trap.
At Fort Phil Kearny that morning there were less than four hundred soldiers. The commanding officer, Colonel Henry B. Carrington, well knew the dangers which surrounded the little post, and felt a heavy responsibility for the women and children there. He knew how brave the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors were. Some of his officers, however, knew nothing of Indian warfare and were eager, overconfident, and impatient of Colonel Carrington's cautious methods. Captain F. H. Brown was so anxious for a fight that he slept in his uniform with his spurs fastened in the buttonholes of his coat and side arms handy, ready day and night. He had orders to go to Fort Laramie and said he "must have one scalp" before leaving the post. Captain (Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel) W. J. Fetterman, who had never fought Indians, talked of "taking Red Cloud's scalp," [this was Captain Brown, not Fetterman] and boasted that "with eighty men I can ride through the whole Sioux Nation." He led just that number of men into the ambush, and none of them ever came out of it.
Excerpted from Eyewitness to the Fetterman Fight by John H. Monnett. Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations xi
Note on American Indian Testimony 9
Part 1 A Miniconjou Account 17
1 Joseph White Bull 19
Part 2 Oglala Accounts 39
2 Black Elk 45
3 Fire Thunder 50
4 American Horse 54
5 Addison E. Sheldon Short Interviews, 1903 61
White Face 61
Eagle Hawk 63
Red Fly 63
Rocky Bear 64
6 The Question of Red Cloud 65
7 The Enigma of Crazy Horse 78
Part 3 Northern Cheyenne Accounts 91
8 Wooden Leg 97
9 Two Moons 100
10 White Elk 108
11 Black Bear 119
Part 4 Memory and Legacy of the Fetterman Fight: Connecting the Past to the Present 123
12 Storytelling 125
13 Legacy and the Treaty of 1868 143
Afterword Captain William J. Fetterman 151
A Claimed Indian Warriors Killed or Mortally Wounded on December 21, 1866, near Fort Phil Kearny 161
B Wasicu/Vehoé Casualties 163
C Margaret Carrington's Views of Indians 167
D Indian Speeches Made Regarding the 1868 Fort Laramie Peace Treaty 171
E Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 176
F Red Cloud's Speech at Cooper Union, New York, July 16, 1870 184
For Further Reading 213