The Fetterman Massacre

Learn about the Fetterman massacre, the slaughter of Captain Fetterman and 79 of his men by Sioux warriors in 1866

Fort Phil Kearney was a military post set up in the northern Rockies to guard a wagon road called the Bozeman Trail. This Trail branched northwest from the Oregon Trail and passed through Wyoming, crossing the Powder and Tongue Rivers and the Big Horn Mountains. It wended its way all the way to the gold diggings in Virginia City, Montana. Overlooked by the soldiers was the fact that this trail made its way through traditional Sioux hunting grounds and that Sioux war chief Red Cloud had vowed to defend the territory and shut down the trail. The Army brass in Washington, however, ordered the road kept open at all costs.

Put in charge of Fort Kearney was Colonel Henry Carrington. In 1866 he was sent in command of the 18th Infantry Regiment to build and garrison a series of posts along the trail. Carrington had no Indian fighting experience. Neither was he experienced at handling men. In November of 1866, Captain William Fetterman joined the regiment. Unlike Carrington, Fetterman had served with the 18th Regiment during the Civil War and was an experienced fighter. He was well respected and had a keen dislike for Indians. He was of the firm belief that no Indians, no matter how numerous, could match it with a regiment of well disciplined U.S. soldiers.

Fetterman soon noticed that the Indians were free to attack the wood train which went out from the fort without guard. He was soon arguing with Carrington that an escort was needed for the wood train and, furthermore, a preemptive strike on the Indians would keep them at arms length. Before long Fetterman was at the head of a rebellion against Carrington, with his talk of teaching the Indians a lesson. He had in fact, convinced the man that with just 80 men he could cut through the entire Sioux nation. Soon he was openly accusing Carrington of cowardice and timidity.

Meanwhile, outside the Fort Red Cloud and Roman Nose of the Cheyenne were assembling several thousand fighting men. On December 6th, the wood train, which had no escort, was attacked by a large party of warriors. When Carrington came out to retaliate he was met by an imposing force of warriors. He rushed back to the fort, losing two dead and five wounded. Shaken by this he forbade any of his men to pursue fleeing Indians in the future.

Two weeks later, Red Cloud staged another decoy strike on the wood train. But this time, Carrington was not sucked in. There was just one day of wood cutting left for the winter. By coincidence, Red Cloud chose this day, December 21, 1866 as the day for a major strike. At 11 am the wood train was attacked by the Indians. Carrington prepared to send out a Captain Powell to reinforce the wood train, but Fetterman demanded the right to lead the rescue. Weak as ever, Carrington yielded.

Fettreman rounded up 79 men and - with the exact number he had bragged that he could wipe out the whole Sioux nation - set off to meet the foe. Carrington's orders to him were clear: "Relieve the wood train. Under no circumstances pursue the enemy beyond Lodge Trail Ridge!"

As Fetterman's men approached the Indians who were attacking the wood train, the warriors began to break off from the assault and flee from Fetterman's approach. Unknown to Fetterman, however, these were just decoys. As the soldiers chased them, these Indians appeared to be toying with their pursuers. They led their unwary chasers up the side of Lodge Trail Ridge. As they reached the crest of the ridge, the soldiers now became aware of a second party of warriors, who swung around on Fetterman's rear. The rash young captain found himself surrounded. It was 80 against 2000. Then the attack was on. Fetterman tried to ascend the ridge he had just come over and hide behind the cover of some rocks. But Indians were massing up that side of the ridge to join the fray too. The soldiers fought valiantly with everything they had - knives, bayonets, guns and, when the bullets ran out, their gunstocks - but it was a hopeless task. Within twenty minutes all 80 men were dead.

As the Indians swarmed in for their final assault, Fetterman and his second in command ,Captain Fred Brown, stood up, and placed their pistols at the side of each other's head. They fired simultaneously. So ended William Fetterman's proud boast to be able to ride through the entire Sioux nation.

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