It was one of only a few battles in U.S. history in which an entire command was wiped out. The Fetterman Fight, and its loss of the lives of 76 enlisted men, three officers and two civilians, shocked the nation, and influenced government policy and attitudes towards the Plains Indians for years to come. Like the Battle of the Little Bighorn a decade later, there will always be mysteries. Military records, even with their official reports, present puzzling questions, as do interviews with individual soldiers and civilians. Indian accounts, all coming down through oral traditions, and some through extensive interviews with Judge Eli Ricker of Nebraska and others, vary. Significantly, there were no soldiers left alive to tell the story.
But what we do know to be true, and what we believe to be true, is fascinating and tragic. Previously, partly due to pressure from the younger and more aggressive officers at the fort, on December 6, 1866 Col. Carrington went over to the offensive. On that day in response to an attack on the wood train, Carrington led 50 mounted infantry while Fetterman and Bingham led 50 cavalry over Lodge Trail Ridge with the intent to trap the enemy between the two commands. The troops became very strung out to some extent because of the poor condition of the horses. Lt. Bingham and Sergeant Bowers (the primary leadership of the cavalry) were both killed. From this battle the warriors learned that if they could lure a large military command over the ridge they could be wiped out. Carrington learned he could not support a unit north of Lodge Trail Ridge.
On December 19th, the Indians again attacked the wood train, and Carrington, by now very cautious, sent Captain James Powell, a veteran and capable commander, out to rescue the wood train and ordered him not, under any circumstances, to follow the Indians over Lodge Trail Ridge. Capt. Powell followed orders exactly and chased the enemy off with no lives lost.
In the meantime, members of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and some Arapaho were gathering along the Tongue River near present day Decker, Montana. Reports of lodges which took a half-day to ride by came from friendly Crows and were reported to Jim Bridger, then at Fort C.F. Smith. Major James Van Voast, commander at Fort Laramie, discounted a report from Bridger that the Lakota were organizing for war and trying to form alliances with other tribes in the north: "I do not believe much of what Mr. Bridger says. He exaggerates about Indians," Van Voast wrote.
Carrington now had a number of young officers anxious to attack the enemy in their camps. Brevet Lt. Col. Fetterman, with his friends Lt. Grummond and Captain Brown, had little respect for Carrington's cautious ways, and except for Brown, little knowledge of Indian fighting. Their Civil War experience could have been a detriment. The Fetterman Fight was thought to be one of only a few Indian battles which were highly planned, even rehearsed in advance, by the Indians.
Lakota and Cheyenne camps comprised many lodges along the Tongue River. Bands of the Northern Cheyenne had joined the Lakota, primarily Oglala and Minnicoujou bands. Some Arapaho under Medicine Man and Black Bear, whose camp had been attacked by General Connor in the fall of 1865, joined them. Minnecoujou/ Lakota Chief High Backbone (Hump) was one of the major tribal leaders, and as the young warrior Crazy Horse was a favorite of his, he was given a position along with nine others, two from each band or tribe, to form the decoy party. Some of the Indian oral history identifies Crazy Horse as leader of the decoy, and even describe his actions in that role, but there are conflicting accounts.
Other major Native leaders at the Fetterman Fight were Little Wolf of the Cheyenne, Black Shield and Black Leg of the Lakota. There is some disagreement as to whether Red Cloud was at the battle. Although a number of accounts say he was not, some place him there, and Red Cloud himself talked in later years about being at the Fetterman Fight. Had he been there, he would most likely not have fought due to his age. The huge main Indian encampment was on the Tongue River near today’s Decker MT. At some time in the days before the Fetterman Fight the warriors rode up Prairie Dog Creek within 5 miles of the battlefield.
On Dec. 20, the Lakota leaders consulted the fates. Crazy Mule, a Medicine Man and thus thought to possess special powers, rode out and back in with dead soldiers in his hands. He had not enough. On his 4th try, he rode out and came back, he and his horse staggering from the weight, with 100 in the hand, meaning 100 dead soldiers. Everyone cheered and retired contented to their camp. Thus what the whites call the ˜Fetterman Fight” is known among the Indians as the ˜Battle of 100-in- the-Hands”.
Telling of events at the fort in those times, Margaret Carrington in her book Absaraka defined Indian fighting thus: "These Indians are everywhere, where you suppose they are not; and are certain to be nowhere, where you suppose them to be. In ambush and decoy, splendid; in horsemanship, perfect; in strategy, cunning; in battle, wary and careful of life; in victory, jubilant; and in vengeance, fiendish and terrible."
That Fateful Day, Dec. 21, 1866
In the morning of December 21, pickets on Pilot Hill south of the Fort, signaled an attack on the last wood train of the winter traveling along Sullivant Hills, and Carrington again ordered Capt. James Powell to relieve it. Capt. Fetterman asked to go instead, basing his request on seniority. Carrington let him go, after warning him to relieve the wood train and to not pursue Indians over Lodge Trail Ridge.
Capt. Fetterman was in overall command with the 49 infantry, who Grummond followed with 27 cavalry. Capt. Brown, who was being transferred but wanted during his last days at the fort to "get Red Cloud's scalp," joined Fetterman unknown to Colonel Carrington. Civilians Wheatley and Fisher went along to test their new Henry repeater rifles.
Shortly after the cavalry and infantry left the fort, the signal came through that the wood train had broken free and was on its way to the pinery. Now the decoys, a group of about 10 with representatives from Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes took over. Indian accounts from Judge Eli Ricker's early interviews mention Lakota warriors Crazy Horse, American Horse and others, as participants in the decoy. They goaded the troops, shouting insults, and staying just out of firing range. It was a temptation which Fetterman seemingly did not resist, and he followed the decoy, crossing the ridge. The troops had no idea of the ambush awaiting them.
When the trap was set, with no chance of the troops escaping, mounted warriors crossed paths down on the flats across Peno creek at the north end of the ridge. This was the signal for large numbers of warriors to break out of ambush from the gullies to the north, east and west of Massacre Hill. By now the infantry and cavalry detachments were separated, the riders nearly to the creek and the foot soldiers on the ridge. The cavalry began to fall back up the hill.
It is known that Wheatley and Fisher, and possibly with popular bugler Adolph Metzger and a few NCOs, held a position among some rocks about 300 yards to the north end of the hill. The infantry retreated initially to a position near the current lone tree at the center of the ridge and were soon joined by the cavalry who protected the western flank. After 5 to 10 minutes in this position, the infantry protecting the command’s eastern flank withdrew towards today’s monument. It is believed this movement was planned as part of an effort to withdraw to Lodge Trail Ridge. However, many Minnicoujou/Lakota warriors overran the infantry, including Fetterman and Brown, within minutes of their arrival in the area where the monument stands today. The infantry was able to fire two volleys in their last efforts which were heard at the fort. Their bodies were found within 40 feet of the present monument enclosure. Two large six-foot diameter rocks were probably removed during the monument construction years later. Wheatley and Fisher with the accompanying NCOs were found at their northern most position surrounded by about sixty blood spots and many arrows in each of the two bodies. Twenty some cavalry were located near the lone tree but Lt. Grummond and a couple of his men made it to the large hill north of the monument where tribal oral history says he made a ferocious stand on horseback.
The story of Adolph Metzger is one of the battle's most intriguing. The accounts of 2 soldiers who were among those sent out to the site of the battle to gather the bodies of the Fetterman dead, along with accounts in Indian battle participant's interviews with Judge Eli Ricker seem to confirm that Metzger fought hard with his bugle as a weapon. American Horse testified that Metzger's bravery was honored by the Indians by sparing his body the mutilations which befell others and by placing a buffalo bag, or robe, over his head to honor him. It is not clear as to whether he fell with Wheatley and Fisher, or near Fetterman and Brown, or whether a bugle found in later years in the area, was Metzger's.
When shots were first heard at the fort, about 12:45, Carrington sent out a relief column under Capt. Tenodor Ten Eyck with orders to join Fetterman. Ten Eyck, and his troops and a number of wagons came into view on a high hill to the south of the present day monument. Ten Eyck could see no one but Indians swarming around below, motioning him to come down. He sent an orderly back to the fort with a request for ammunition and a cannon which was not sent. The Indians retreated.
As Ten Eyck descended in the vicinity of the rocky knoll, one of the skirmishers sent in advance came back saying that what they had supposed to be heaps of cottonwood logs were the bodies of Fetterman's men. Stripped, mutilated bodies were loaded on wagons and taken back to the fort. Ten Eyck reported that he had personally handled most of the bodies, as his troops were too horrified to even obey orders. They had only 49 bodies.
That night, Carrington made plans to lead a troop back to find and pick up the rest of the bodies the next day. If Indians should attack while they were gone, and over-run the fort, Carrington directed his subordinates to put the women and children in the magazine and blow it up before allowing them to be captured alive. It has been questioned whether the order was actually given as it wasn't mentioned in Margaret Carrington's journals. However, Frances Grummond Carrington, many years later, wrote that the women were not told of the order. Grummond's body was among those found that second day by Carrington and Ten Eyck.
The infantry was armed with Springfield single shot rifled muskets while the cavalry carried 7 shot Spencer carbines. About ten percent of the warriors fired a variety of weapons, but mostly spear, bow and arrow, tomahawk or war club. Some Indian sources say that about a dozen of their men lost their lives on Fetterman Ridge, and many more were wounded. The mutilations at the Fetterman Fight were among the worst on record. They were, however, rooted in the Indian tradition and religion, and were also performed in retribution for the horrors visited upon a peaceful tribe of Cheyenne and Arapaho, men, women and children at the Sand Creek Massacre two years earlier, under the command of Colonel John Chivington, commander of the Colorado militia, not a part of the regular army.
John "Portugee" Phillips' Ride
That grim night of December 21, with bitter cold setting in, John "Portugee" Phillips volunteered to ride for help. Though many accounts say that Phillips rode alone, army records at both Fort Phil Kearny and Fort Reno, as well as witnesses at Fort Reno, record that a Daniel Dixon was also sent as a courier on the night of Dec. 21; that both rode in to Fort Reno; and that both were paid $300. They had left the night of the battle under cover of dark through the fort gate near Little Piney. Sleeping and hiding during the day and riding at night, they made their way to Fort Reno. Several others joined them at Fort Reno and they then rode on to Horseshoe Station, where Phillips sent Carrington's message of the Fetterman disaster to Omaha and to Fort Laramie. Phillips then rode on alone to Fort Laramie, about 40 miles, and arrived in a blizzard on Christmas night.
Brigadier General David Gordon, at the time a young Lieutenant, remembered Phillips interrupting a Christmas ball about 11 p.m. He wrote: "A huge form dressed in buffalo overcoat, pants, gauntlets and cap desired to see the Commanding Officer. As we were about to select partners....word was passed that General Palmer desired to see me...the commanding officer handed me a dispatch dated Dec. 21, Fort Phil Kearny, signed by Colonel Carrington, that Brevet-Colonel Fetterman and detachment had been massacred outside of the post and not one had escaped." Portugee Phillips' ride, 234 miles in all, whether alone or with companions, by any measure must be counted among the heroic deeds of history.
The bodies of the Fetterman dead were cleaned up and buried at the cemetery located south of the fort below Pilot Hill. In later years they were moved to Fort McKinney, and except for those which were taken elsewhere, are today buried in the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery.
As you leave the monument and return towards the fort following the turnoff towards Story and the Wagon Box Fight, you will be traveling along Big Piney Creek and paralleling the wood road located on Sullivant Hills to your left.
Aftermath of the Fetterman Fight
A grandson of one of the Cheyenne warriors who fought, historian and teacher, Bill Tallbull, would become an advisory board member for the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association. His grandfather lived to be over 100 and often told Bill of the battle. Bill, in the company of another FPK/BTA advisor, Dr. Sterling Fenn, of Redding, California, gave joint tours of the fight site for years. The Association also published Bill's account: "We Are the Ancestors of Those Yet To Be Born: the Northern Cheyenne history of the Battle of 100-In-The-Hands."
Bill wrote: "For the Indians, the return to the camp after the battle was an arduous one as most of the horses were tired from the battle. The horses were led on foot by the men taking turns breaking trail. The wounded were moved slowly as they had been placed on travois, and some of the wounded died on the way back to their camp. Many arrows, ammunition and weapons were retrieved from the battlefield.
Many days of celebration were carried out in camp following the battle. Victorious warriors were honored for individual feats and deeds. The women prepared feasts that would bring the old warriors and relatives together. Brave deeds were told over and over and would become part of the tribal history. Women attended the victory dances and displayed captured items of war. Hides were tanned and made into decorated clothing for the warriors. Fine quilled moccasins were placed on his feet and fine robes were brought to him by relatives upon his safe return. A war bonnet was usually given by an older warrior at this time along with a name.”
The Fetterman Fight disaster marked the beginning of the end for the Carrington command. His orders to move headquarters of the 18th regiment to Fort Caspar had been established before the battle.
The Fetterman Fight was one of a number of events which came together to damage Carrington's reputation, so that although he was cleared of responsibility at a hearing at Fort McPherson the next spring, his reputation suffered greatly until he succeeded in having the records of that hearing opened to the public 20 years later. In the meantime, historians vary greatly on whether or not, and to what degree, blame should fall on Carrington, Fetterman, or perhaps Grummond. These are issues unlikely to ever be fully resolved.
Captain George Dandy, who replaced Fred Brown as Quartermaster, arrived on Dec. 27 and reported: "I found the garrison shut up in the stockade in a demoralized condition from fear, and half frozen for want of proper fuel." Later he wrote of that hard winter: "The sufferings of the garrison of Phil Kearny from scurvy and cold were very great...supply of hay had been exhausted as early as the middle of January, and the animals were reduced to such extremity that they ate their harness and the tongues and bodies of the wagons...I have heard of no parallel since my service in the army to the sufferings endured by the garrison of this post last winter."
THE FETTERMAN FIGHT
From the Self-Guided Tour by Mary Ellen McWilliams and Robert C. Wilson
Years later, Colonel Carrington said, "When our wives and our children were in peril, so that no one knew what the next hour would bring of toil and travail, I could not but feel that if I had been a red man I would have fought as bitterly, if not as cruelly, for my rights and my home as the red man fought."
Visitors can park in front of the large rock monument built in later years at the site of one of the stands of Fetterman's troops. Inside the wall are the rocks where the bodies of Brevet Lt. Col. Fetterman and Capt. Brown were found on that cold and bitter day of December 21, 1866.