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Fetterman Battle

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By William Price

Webmaster's Note: William Price, an editor for a consulting firm in New York,  is  the  author  of  The  Potlatch  Run, a novel (Dutton, 1971) and  articles  in  True West and Frontier Times.  In his short story, "A Secret for  the  Centennial,"  published  in The Saturday Evening Post in 1976 and this website, a young boy meets a man who might be Isaiah Dorman. Bill also contributes as co-editor  for  the  Friends  of  the  Bear  Paw,  Big Hole & Canyon Creek Battlefields' website.     


 "The Fetterman Fight", by J. K. Ralston

Almost immediately after the Treaty of 1865, which granted the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe nearly all the Powder River country, the U.S. government realized it had given away too much. The following summer, while trying to rewrite the treaty, the government sent Colonel Henry B. Carrington with a small army to establish three forts along the Bozeman Trail, a wagon road that cut through the same country promised to the Sioux the year before.   Emigrants and miners needed a safe route north to the new goldfields in western Montana Territory, and the army intended to provide it and keep it open.

Despite objections from Red Cloud and other Sioux and Cheyenne leaders, Carrington moved into the Powder River country the summer of 1866.  He garrisoned Fort Reno, which already existed, and by July was hard at work building Fort Phil Kearny, in what would become eastern Wyoming, and Fort C.F. Smith, further north in Montana. Once completed and garrisoned with soldiers, the three posts would be permanent government stations in Indian country.

Trouble From The Beginning

Holding most of his army on Big Piney Creek in Wyoming, Carrington began cutting wood and building the new Fort Kearny.  What followed became known as “Red Cloud’s War.”  Red Cloud let Carrington know right away that the army was going to have a rough time of it.  First, he drove off most of the army horses.  Supply trains came under attack, and most of the wagons sent on wood cutting details were fired on.

By December, the Sioux and Cheyenne had gathered large war parties, and Carrington felt besieged.  The army had to be supplied over many miles of rough country in worsening weather.  With winter already blanketing the Powder River country in snow, Carrington needed all the wood he could get.  It was going to be a long and cold winter.

On December 21, the wood train came under attack again.  Captain William J. Fetterman, with 78 cavalry and infantry and two civilians, rode to the rescue.  Carrington’s last orders to Fetterman:  “Whatever you do, do not go beyond Lodge Trail Ridge.”

Like most of Carrington’s officers, Fetterman, a veteran of the Civil War, believed that Indians were no match for an army that had beaten Robert E. Lee.  Soon after he had arrived at Fort Kearny, Fetterman had boasted, “With 80 men I could ride through the whole Sioux nation.” 

A Victory For The Indians

The story is an old one.  Fetterman set out boldly to rescue the wood train.  The Indians sent decoy riders who easily pulled him further from the fort.   On the far side of Lodge Trail Ridge as many as 2,000 warriors waited. Fetterman paused at the top of the ridge, with an anxious Carrington watching through field glasses from the fort wall.  Then Fetterman went down the other side and out of sight, chasing the decoys.

His cavalry, being in the lead, were attacked first.  According to Indian testimony, the fighting was fierce from the beginning, continuing as the cavalry retreated back up the slopes, past the now engaged infantry.

Firing single-shot carbines that had to be reloaded after every shot, the soldiers were no match for warriors with thousands of arrows. The 40-man infantry didn’t last long.  The two civilians were killed here, defending themselves with up-to-date Henry repeating rifles.  With their horses unable to maneuver on steep ground covered with snow and ice, the cavalry had to turn them loose.  For those waiting at the fort, the sight of those riderless horses running toward home and the sounds of the firing must have been heart-rending.

The soldiers, taking cover behind a rough circle of boulders, defended themselves well.  At the end, it was hand-to-hand, with the bugler, young John Metzger, swinging his bugle against the Indians that came up to kill him.  Many years later, an Indian gave the battered bugle to Jim Gatchell of Buffalo, Wyoming, and it can be seen today in the fine Gatchell Museum in Buffalo, Wyoming.

The next day, the Indians allowed Carrington to send wagons for the dead.  The Indians lost about 14 warriors.  Red Cloud’s War was effectively over.  Although the army remained in their two forts along the Bozeman Trail, fighting two tough battles with the Sioux at the Wagon Box fight and the Hayfield fight near Fort Smith, the Indians won the war.

In the summer of 1868, the army pulled out of the Powder River country, abandoning all three forts and handing the country back to the Sioux.  Carrington’s retreating army could see the smoke from the burning Fort Kearny as they rode away.  The Bozeman Trail stayed closed for a long time.

The Aftermath

Many of the Indians who fought Fetterman – including Crazy Horse – were on the Rosebud in 1876 to whip Crook and that same month helped wipe out Custer.  They won those battles, like they had against Fetterman, but they lost that war.   But after Fetterman they had the glory – for almost nine years – of having won a war against the whites.


ca 1891 – 7th Cavalry Monument and the Fetterman soldiers


Buried in the frozen ground at Kearny and left there when Kearny was abandoned, Fetterman and his 80 soldiers were not forgotten.  In 1888, with the Plains Wars almost finished, the army went back, exhumed the bodies, and carried them in wagons all the way into Montana to the top of Custer Hill, behind the big monument.  When remains from other isolated frontier forts and battlefields began to be brought to the new Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, Fetterman’s soldiers were moved again, in 1930, down Custer Hill to join them.  All of them, that is, except for the arm bones and other small fragments found in 2003 during the construction of the Indian memorial.  This June 25, at 4:00 p.m., those bones will re-join the rest of Fetterman’s men in a military ceremony sponsored by the Friends.  The last soldier will return to the regiment.


Fetterman & Brown gravesites, Custer Battlefield National Cemetery -- Photo by Chris Dolby

Further Reading On This Subject

Bill Markland's Website -- many of the official reports from Col. Carrington, Ten Eyck, and Surgeon Horton.

Book Review of Promise: Bozeman's Trail To Destiny

John Doerner's report on the discovery of the Fetterman soldier's remains

Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield Projects 2004

Changing Faces of Last Stand Hill

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