The Fetterman Massacre - Folly or Arrogance?
- Late in the morning of December 21, 1866, eighty men (cavalry,
infantry, and two civilians) were over-whelmed in an ambush by
some 1500 to 3000 hostile Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux warriors
under the general leadership of Red Cloud.
- The U.S. Army column was under the command of Captain (Brevet Lt.
Colonel) William J. Fetterman, his second-in-command was Captain
Fred H. Brown. Colonel Henry B. Carrington was the commanding
officer of Fort Phil Kearny, from where the detachment was
- The events that led up to the massacre on that cold December day
began in earnest several months before when Carrington's command
began the construction of the fort between Big and Little Piney
Creeks just to the east of present-day Story, Wyoming. The
Cheyenne and Sioux tribes deeply resented this new fort, which
was built to assist in protecting travelers on the Bozeman Trail.
Small war parties constantly harassed the fort, construction
crews, and wood gathering parties.
- An engagement, on December 6th, may have been a practice run for
the later ambush. Warriors attacked a wood gathering party about
four miles from the fort. Two columns, one led by Carrington, the
other by Fetterman, set out to rescue the party and to actively
engage the hostiles. Disaster, that day, was only narrowly
avoided through Fetterman's ability to maintain discipline under
fire - his small force of fourteen infantrymen and two other
officers (Brown and Lt. Wands) was able to repulse an attacking force
consisting of over 100 hostiles.
- Again, on December 21st, warriors attacked a wood gathering
party, this time only about 1-1/2 miles northwest of the fort.
Fetterman was given orders, by Carrington, to take his detachment
and ". . . support the wood train. Relieve it and report to me.
Do not engage or pursue Indians at its expense. Under no
circumstances pursue over the ridge, viz., Lodge Trail Ridge, as
per map in your possession." The entire column consisted of 27
cavalry, 49 infantry, two officers (Fetterman and Brown), and two
civilians (James S. Wheatley and Isaac Fisher), both employees of
the Quartermaster's Department.
- Whether Fetterman deliberately disobeyed those orders from
Carrington, or whether Carrington slightly amended the official
version of the orders, in his report, is still debated.
Regardless, Fetterman took his force in pursuit of a small number
of hostiles who were, undoubtedly, acting as decoys. From
contemporaneous accounts (U.S. Army and Indians), coupled with
modern-day battlefield forensics, it is clear that the cavalry
and infantry forces became separated. The cavalry advanced to a
position approximately four miles north of the fort, with the
infantry ending up about three miles from the fort. Both forces
came under heavy attack from Indians who had been secluded in the
many small gulches in the region. The cavalry detachment, after
some losses, rejoined the infantry for the final battle. It
appears that Wheatley and Fisher, both armed with Henry repeating
rifles, together with a few others, put up a valiant stand in a
rock redoubt near the northern-most end of the battlefield.
- The now re-combined cavalry and infantry forces came under
general attack of all the hostile forces in the area - estimates
run from 1500 to 3000 warriors - against a force that consisted
of, at most, sixty men. Dr. C.M. Hines later testified that he
found somewhere between fifty and sixty dead Army men within a
small area no more than "ten or fifteen yards in diameter." The
men had been shot with pistol balls and arrows, and had been
- It remains debated, to this day, as to whether Fetterman's
foolishness - or his arrogance - or both, led to the complete
annihilation of some 80 men on that cold, windy, snow-covered
ridge on the Bozeman Trail.
- Suggested Reading:
- Vaughn, J.W.
- Indian Fights: New Facts on Seven Encounters
- A re-examination of seven important engagements of the Indian Wars, including an
extensive section on the Fetterman disaster.
- Brown, Dee
- The Fetterman Massacre: An American Saga
- A documentary account of the incident.
- Johnston, Terry C.
- Sioux Dawn
- Historical fiction based on the Fetterman disaster and other events of the period.
- Longstreet, Stephen
- War Cries on Horseback: The Story of the Indian Wars of the Great Plains
- An examination of the battles, and the cultures, involved in the Indian Wars of the plains.