The Fetterman Massacre occurred on December 21, 1866, at Fort Phil Kearny, a small outpost in the foothills of the Big Horns. The second battle in American history from which came no survivors, it became a cause célèbre and was the subject of a congressional investigation.
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About the Author
Dee Brown is the author of several novels in addition to his nonfiction books, which include Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West, and The Galvanized Yankees.
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The Fetterman Massacre
By Dee Brown
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1962 Dee Brown
All rights reserved.
April: MOON WHEN THE GEESE LAY EGGS
My name is Henry B. Carrington: forty-three years of age, colonel Eighteenth U.S. Infantry, and now commanding post Fort McPherson, Nebraska, late commanding post Philip Kearny, Dakota Territory, and previously thereto commanding Mountain District, Department of the Platte, which command embraced the route from Fort Reno westward to Virginia City via the Big Horn and Yellowstone Rivers, and being the new route I occupied during the summer of 1866.
So began, on A spring day in 1867, Colonel Carrington's testimony before a commission convened at Fort McPherson to investigate the Fetterman Massacre of December 21, 1866. For several days Carrington defended his past actions, offering letters, records and reports relating to his command at Fort Phil Kearny, narrating a relentless procession of events which led to the violent deaths of three officers, seventy-six enlisted men and two civilians.
The Fetterman Massacre was the second battle in American history from which came no survivors, and was a nationally debated incident for ten years—until overshadowed by the Custer Massacre of 1876. Acting under orders from Colonel Carrington, Brevet-Colonel William Judd Fetterman led eighty men out of the gates of Fort Phil Kearny at 11:15 A.M. of that dark December day. Carrington's orders were explicit: relieve the wood train from Indian attack, but do not pursue the enemy beyond Lodge Trail Ridge.
At 11:45 A.M. Fetterman's command of forty-nine infantrymen and twenty-seven cavalrymen halted on the crest of Lodge Trail Ridge, with skirmishers out. The sky was bitter gray, thickening for snow, temperature dropping rapidly. A few minutes later Fetterman's rear guard disappeared from view of the fort, passing over the ridge, moving north. At 12 noon, almost as the bugler was sounding dinner call in the fort, sentinels at the gate heard firing from beyond Lodge Trail Ridge. Colonel Carrington was notified immediately. By the time the colonel had mounted the lookout tower above his headquarters, firing was continuous and rapid. Without further delay, Carrington ordered Captain Tenodor Ten Eyck to move out to Fetterman's relief. At 12:45 P.M., Ten Eyck and seventy-six men reached the summit of a ridge overlooking Peno Creek. The valley was swarming with Indians, at least two thousand of them, probably more. One or two scattered shots rang out from the hill beyond; then there was no more firing, only the jubilant cries of Indians racing their ponies, some shouting derisively at Ten Eyck's troops, beckoning them to come down into the valley.
For several minutes Captain Ten Eyck could see no sign of Fetterman's command, neither the mounted nor dismounted men. Then as the Indians began withdrawing from the valley, an enlisted man cried: "There're the men down there, all dead!"
Maintaining his position on high ground until the Indian forces had vanished northward, Ten Eyck then cautiously advanced toward the battlefield. Near the Bozeman Road, dead men lay naked and mutilated, blood frozen in their wounds, in a circle about forty feet in diameter. They were mostly infantrymen. After loading the dead into his two ammunition wagons, Ten Eyck began a slow withdrawal to the fort, not reaching the gates until darkness was falling. The following morning, against the advice of his staff, Carrington led a second party out to the scene of battle and recovered the remaining bodies, mostly cavalrymen.
The full story of what happened in that brief hour of bloody carnage at high noon under the wintry sky of December 21, 1866, will never be known. During the years which followed, various Indian participants—Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho—told conflicting accounts of the battle. Yet the mystery is not so much what happened as why it happened. Why did Fetterman disobey Carrington's orders? Why did the cavalrymen leave the infantrymen to meet the full force of attack, and retire to high ground only to die a few minutes later as they had watched the infantrymen die? Why did the Indians retire from the field instead of attempting to annihilate Captain Ten Eyck's seventy-six men, a move which if successful would have left the fort vulnerable to immediate capture?
In the first place, why were Fetterman and his men there in that lonely, uncharted wilderness, 236 miles north of Fort Laramie, in a country which only one year earlier had been ceded by treaty to the tribes as inviolable Indian territory?
The commission investigating the Fetterman Massacre examined some of these questions directly, dwelling upon the necessity for three forts along the Bozeman Trail, debating whether or not the strength of Carrington's military force was sufficient, yet never more than hinting at reasons for opening this road through the Plains Indians' last unspoiled hunting ground.
The motivating factor of course was gold, which had been discovered in Montana in 1862, creating a rush to Virginia City through 1863 and 1864. During the Civil War, thousands of miners traveled to the diggings by two routes—either up the Missouri River by way of Fort Benton, or overland along the Platte Trail to Fort Hall and then doubling back into Montana Territory. These were roundabout routes, requiring weeks for passage. Public demand for a more direct route led two explorers in 1864 to mark out trails northward from Fort Laramie. Jim Bridger, aware of the Indians' determination to keep the white man out of their sacred Powder River country, avoided that area and led his party of trail blazers west of the Big Horn Mountains. John Bozeman, seeking an even more direct route, ran his wagons east of the Big Horns, straight through the heart of the hunting grounds.
Except for Indian resistance, Bozeman's route was by far the easier to travel, and by 1865 several parties of brave or foolhardy gold seekers risked their lives to make the crossing of what soon became known as the Montana Road.
In 1865, the Federal Government also became vitally interested in a direct route to the gold fields. After four years of Civil War, the United States Treasury was virtually bankrupt; gold was urgently needed to liquidate the accruing interest of the national debt. In hopes of encouraging more prospectors to make the journey to Montana, the government financed a survey for a direct route from Sioux City by way of the Niobrara River. Leader of this expedition of about one hundred men and 250 wagons was Colonel James A. Sawyer. The party included engineers and gold prospectors, and was escorted by two companies of former Confederate soldiers, who had sworn oaths of allegiance in exchange for release from military prisons.
Although Sawyer met with such strong Indian resistance that he was forced to abandon his original course, he finally reached Virginia City by following Bozeman's route much of the way. His official report, ordered printed by Congress in March 1866, received wide publicity and increased pressure from civilians to make the Montana Road safe for travel. Recently discharged Civil War veterans were especially eager to journey west and seek their fortunes in the gold fields, but after surviving four years of war they were reluctant to fight their way there through tribes of hostile Indians.
In an effort to halt attacks upon travelers through the Powder River country, General Patrick E. Connor in the summer of 1865 led a three-pronged expedition northward into the Sioux country. Connor's orders to his officers were short and to the point: "You will not receive overtures of peace or submission from Indians, but will attack and kill every male Indian over twelve years of age." Two of Connor's three columns suffered severely from Indian attacks; they lost many of their horses in night raids, and ran out of rations. The commander's own column managed to destroy one Arapaho village, and established a fort on the Powder that was first known as Fort Connor, later as Fort Reno.
But soon after Connor withdrew from the field, reports from Montana indicated that Indian resistance was more determined than ever along the overland route. "We thought it an impossibility to get through, and had to fight our way through," one correspondent wrote. "There is no place between Fort Reno and Virginia City where news can be sent. There will be no more travel on that road until the government takes care of the Indians. There is plenty of firewood, water and game, but the Indians won't let you use them."
During the autumn of 1865, treaties were signed with several bands of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Government representatives guaranteed tribal rights to territory lying between the Black Hills, the Big Horns and the Yellowstone—in exchange for the Indians' conceding white travelers safe passage through this Powder River country. The commissioners, however, overlooked the fact that almost all the treaty signers were peaceable Indians, chiefs who had already abandoned the warpath and were content to camp around the white man's forts and live off his handouts. White soldiers and warrior Indians alike referred to them contemptuously as "Laramie Loafers."
Under leadership of belligerent warriors such as Red Cloud, raids against white invaders of the Powder River country continued as before, and in the spring of 1866 the government sent a second treaty commission to Fort Laramie to offer new terms.
At the same time, in its slow, ponderous way the War Department was responding to pressures to police the Montana Road. The commander of the Department of the Missouri—which included the Powder River country—was Major-General John Pope, one of President Lincoln's unsuccessful commanders in the East. After disastrous defeat in the second battle of Bull Run, Pope had been sent west, and for three years had been battling Indians with little more success than he had had against Confederates. On March 10, 1866, Pope issued the following order:
The 2nd Battalion, 18th U.S. Infantry, will constitute the garrison of Fort Reno on Powder River, and the two new posts on the route between that place and Virginia City in Montana.... At these posts the battalion will be distributed as follows: Four companies at Fort Reno and two companies at each of the other posts. The Colonel of the Regiment will take post at Fort Reno.
The "colonel of the regiment" was Henry Beebe Carrington, and this order sealed the doom of the eighty-one men who died nine months later on Peno Creek. No more unlikely commander could have been selected for so dangerous a mission at that time or place than Colonel Carrington. In the spring of 1866, the United States Army was overstaffed to the point of absurdity with both permanent and breveted colonels and generals (literally hundreds of senior officers with three and four years of battle experience), many of them young men with West Point training. Yet Carrington had never heard a shot fired in combat; he had never commanded upon the field of action.
An ardent antislavery man practicing law in Ohio, he had organized the 18th Regiment with smooth efficiency during the first days after Fort Sumter, and was appointed colonel on May 14, 1861. His ability as a recruiter and organizer kept him in Ohio while his regiment moved south, and as the war wore on he was called to Indiana to establish prisoner-of-war camps, to deal with Copperheads and prosecute the leaders of the Northwest Conspiracy. Meanwhile the 18th Regiment, with other men acting in command, was winning an enviable record as a fighting unit. The 2nd Battalion came out of the Battle of Stone's River with half its officers and men dead or wounded. The junior officers who would serve later under Colonel Carrington at Fort Phil Kearny may have understood the reasons for his absence from the Civil War battlefields, but they never forgot that fact during the Wyoming ordeal of 1866.
Not until late in 1865, after all the battles were ended, did Colonel Carrington at last join his command. Determined to remain in military service, he shrewdly foresaw that future opportunities lay on the Indian frontier beyond the Mississippi. It was no mere chance that the 18th Infantry was the first regular regiment to reach the frontier; Carrington had been in a position during the war to make friends with men of considerable political influence in Washington. During the winter of 1865–66, eight companies of the 18th moved across the plains to occupy Fort Kearney,* Nebraska Territory, on the old Oregon Trail. Henry Carrington had finally achieved his dearest ambition, a military command in the field.
He was a small man physically (the Indians called him Little White Chief) with a dark beard and hair worn long, sensitive eyes set deep under a high forehead. Sickly as a youth, he had been unable to enter West Point. He went to Yale instead, where he was in ill health much of the time. Graduating in 1845, he took a position as teacher at Irving Institute, Tarrytown, New York.
The next year Carrington would have liked more than anything else to become a soldier in the war with Mexico, but instead he stayed in Tarrytown, meeting Washington Irving and serving for a time as that author's secretary. His brief acquaintanceship with Irving no doubt influenced his later ambition to become a writer. In 1847 he was back at Yale, teaching part-time and studying for a law degree.
A year later he made his big move—to Columbus, Ohio, where he began a successful legal career. He was fortunate in the choice of a law partner, William Dennison, who became Ohio's governor at the time of the Civil War. It was in Columbus that Carrington also met and married Margaret Irvin Sullivant, who would share with him the ordeal of Fort Phil Kearny.
This was the man, then, who largely through his own calculated actions had placed himself in position in the spring of 1866 to be chosen to lead the 2nd Battalion of the 18th Infantry into the heart of the most hostile Indian country of North America. Unfortunately neither he nor scarcely any other man of authority in the United States Government knew the real temper of the Plains Indians at that time.
In the years before 1850 the tribes had permitted settlers and gold seekers to move across their lands with only an occasional raid. But when the invaders from the east built forts and chains of stations for overland stage routes, the Indians began to raid in earnest. To protect its westward-moving citizens, the government in 1851 invited leaders of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, and other tribes to Fort Laramie for a peace conference. Treaties were signed giving the United States rights to maintain roads and forts across the plains, and reserving vast hunting areas for exclusive use of the various tribes.
Pressures upon these Indian lands continued, however, from white buffalo hunters and trappers, from gold seekers and settlers. In 1862 the Sioux in western Minnesota went to war with the settlers; in 1864 conflict in Colorado resulted in the massacre of the Cheyennes at Sand Creek. General Connor's invasion of the Powder River country followed in 1865. For fifteen years treaties had been made and broken; from south and east the Indians were being pressed continually toward the Rockies. Their hunting grounds grew smaller after every treaty, and now the last and best of these reserved areas was being invaded by miners and soldiers. In 1866 many of the Plains Indians' leaders had finally reached the conclusion that the white man's treaties were worthless; they were convinced that their way of life could endure only if they made a stand and fought for their lands.
On March 28, in complete disregard of the belligerent temper of the Indians, the Army ordered Carrington "to move immediately" to occupy Fort Reno and open two new forts along the Bozeman Trail. He was promised a year's supply of tools, rations, quartermaster stores, "the best horses and equipments and transportation in the district," and a water-power sawmill. In late March, however, the 2nd Battalion at Fort Kearney carried only 220 men on its muster rolls, about one-fourth normal strength, and they were armed with obsolete muzzle-loading Springfields in poor condition. Carrington immediately queried his superiors concerning the whereabouts of promised recruits and arms, and asked for a departure delay until their arrival.
Excerpted from The Fetterman Massacre by Dee Brown. Copyright © 1962 Dee Brown. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI. April: MOON WHEN THE GEESE LAY EGGS,
II. May: PLANTING MOON,
III. June: MOON WHEN THE GREEN GRASS IS UP,
IV. July: MOON WHEN THE CHOKECHERRIES ARE RIPE,
V. August: MOON WHEN THE GEESE SHED THEIR FEATHERS,
VI. September: DRYING GRASS MOON,
VII. October: HARVEST MOON,
VIII. November: DEER RUTTING MOON,
IX. December: MOON WHEN THE DEER SHED THEIR HORNS,
X. January MOON OF STRONG COLD,
A Biography of Dee Brown,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A relatively quick read, but I remember wondering how accurate the author's imagination of the battles could be -- nonetheless, despite a bit of unnecessary skepticism, the descriptions are compelling. Probably a bit too focused a topic for the general reader.
Since I had never heard of this historical event and I love the old West, I was interested in learning what this was all about. Overall it's a good read, detailed and interesting, but I found there was far too much "foreshadowing" involved on the author's part. I get that it was an actual event and therefore the end isn't really a surprise, but it takes away from the flow of the story when you are constantly reading something like "Joe Schmoe successfully completed the raid but it was to be his last, as he had less than 24 hours to live." There's just too much of that, informing us ahead of time that someone was about to die.