Reenactors register HERE. For more info see below.
Wagon Box 150th Anniversary EVENT UPDATE:
Aug. 4 Dinner: SOLD OUT
Aug. 5 reenactment: Tickets available online until Thursday night. After that, tickets available at Fort Phil Kearny. Bring a chair and a hat! LUNCH AND DRINKS AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE
Aug. 6 Bus Tour: Tickets available online until Thursday night, then available by calling (307) 684 7629. Limited seats available – it’s filling up!
The Wagon Box Fight occurred on August 2, 1867, Plains Tribes including the Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho and the Minniconjou and Ogalala bands of the Lakota (Sioux). The two previous battles were the Fetterman Fight, December 21, 1866 and the Hay Field Fight on August 1, 1867. These battles were the result of the Natives efforts to close the Bozeman Trail and eliminate its three protective forts.
The Wagon Box Fight began around 9 a.m. August 2, 1867 some 5 miles north-west of Fort Phil Kearny. Captain James Powell in command of Company C, 27th Infantry began the morning with 53 men however 27 had been sent to either escort the two wood-trains or protect wood cutters during their work. By the time of the fight Powell had himself, Lt. John Jenness, 24 enlisted men, and six civilians positioned inside the corral.
The corral consisted of 14 standard U.S. Army M-1861 6-mule Quartermaster 10’X4.5’X2.5’ wagon boxes placed end-to-end forming and oval 60-70’ long and 25-30’ wide. Near the east end of the corral one box with its bows still in place was covered with canvas protecting rations for the civilians while a second wagon containing military supplies was located at the south end. A complete wagon with the box attached to the running gears and canvas on bows covering the box containing spare rations and bedding was 10’ outside the west end of the corral. Tents for both the civilians and military were located outside the enclosure along the south side with fire-pits for cooking outside the west end.
The Native force consisted of approximately 800 Minniconjou and Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Warriors with a number of dependents along to provide moral, medical, and commissary support. While all arrived on horseback at least two of the attacks were conducted on foot. It is believed that Red Cloud the primary political leader who brought the different tribes together to fight the Bozeman Trail and its protective forts was in attendance watching from a small knob to the east. Crazy Horse may have lead those warriors who attacked the side camp which some historians feel was an effort to draw Powell’s command away from the protection of the wagon boxes and into the flats where they could be over-run as Fetterman’s troops were 8 months previously.
As just mentioned the attack on the corral began with an attack on the side camp several hundred yards due south of the corral location. Here, a small group of civilians with military support, a total of 8 men, had been cutting wood. The attack resulted in three men killed. The others retreated into the mountains, finally coming into the fort late that night. Besides the killing of three men the natives burned three wagons and destroyed other camp and wood cutting material. They then set their sights on a mule herd grazing between the corral and the camp under the watch of a civilian teamster. And two pickets originally located overlooking Little Piney Creek. These men retreated towards the corral.
The initial attack came on both horseback and foot from a number of directions at different times slowly closing the distance to the corral. But the new Springfield 2nd Allin Conversion with the four boxes of ammunition which Powell distributed about the corral presented the Indians with an impossible wall of lead. The warriors soon withdrew to rethink the assault.
In interviews with the survivors and because of their many viewpoints fully understanding the pattern and direction of the attacks on the corral become very confusing and disorderly. Some of the confusion is due to the Natives way of fighting and their freedom to follow and fight with whomever the feel most successful at that particular moment. After the battle soldiers spoke of attacks on foot or horse back from one direction and then another following one leader and then possibly someone else. In their effort to describe how the battle took place the soldiers ended up providing a number of different scenarios based on their position and viewpoint. Each writer can provide and support a number of possibilities as to how the battle took place.
Generally speaking, up to four major assaults or maneuvers took place in the direction of the corral. The first as mentioned above may have come from all directions both on horseback and foot shocking the natives with the mass of fire they received. The second came from the Northwest on foot from behind the drop-off and advanced to within about 100 feet of the corral. The third charge came from the northeast being stopped at a close 50 feet from the corral. This attack was led by a tall strong warrior with both shield and spear but firing arrows with a bow at the apex of each jump he made high into the air during this assault. He is eventually shot by a soldier named Max Littman.
During the different assaults a number of other activities occurred. When Sam Gibson and the other picket retreated toward the corral Littman ran out and provide cover fire against the closely pursuing natives. During the early battle the tents block the firing line so several men went beyond the wagon line and knocked the tents down. During the many attacks it is unlikely that all 800 warriors took part. Some did while others tried different avenues of attack. The last assault and at other times during the fight warriors were retrieving the dead and wounded and not actually attacking.
Relief for the soldiers came as a result of warriors making demonstrations at the fort earlier in the morning and possibly the discovery of smoke made by the lookouts on Pilot Knob. Major Benjamin Smith was order to take a column of 100 soldiers with a mountain howitzer ten wagons with civilians to the relief of the wood party and its guard.
Casualties for the military were relatively light. Six men were killed three in the side camp and three in the corral with two wounded. Native casualties are much harder to determine. Powell estimated 60 killed and 120 wounded. Other accounts range from 2 to 1500, but because the military had not had an opportunity to even fire their new breech loaders, their fear of dying and nervousness suggest that in reality are probably less than Powell’s lowest estimate of 60.