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 dispatched.
 
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 mutilated.
 
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.