Fort Phil Kearny
Wagon Box Fight
Original text by Mary Ellen McWilliams and Robert C. Wilson
Historical Consultants: John D. McDermott, Col. Alan Bourne(Ret.), Charles Luxmoore,
Sterling Fenn, D.V.M., Robert A. Murray, Carl Oslund, Bill Tallbull, Elmer “Sonny” Reisch,
and George Mathews.
Published and copyrighted © in 1990 by Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association.
Revised in 2021 by Mary Ellen McWilliams with review and revisions from Robert C. Wilson, Sonny Reisch, Donovin Sprague, JoAnne Puckett, and Dave McKee.
Content approved by the Wyoming State Parks and Historic Sites; Published and copyrighted by Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association.
FORT PHIL KEARNY
Welcome. You will begin this tour in the parking area by the large plaque overlooking the site where Fort Phil Kearny once stood. As you view the historic ground before you, and the mountains and hills in the distance, we ask you to imagine, to let your mind roll back over 150 years.
You are in that vast territory between the Black Hills and the Big Horns, the Yellowstone and the Platte, then known as "Dakota Territory". Cool breezes move down the mountains at night, the grasses are lush, and large herds of buffalo may well graze just out of sight. The streams are full of fish, and the land abounds with game. There are no houses or towns, no fences or roads, except the Bozeman Trail. You've arrived by wagon, horse, or on foot, slow, uncomfortable, tedious. With no communications, you are cut off from “civilization”.
If you are white, you live at best on beef, bacon, salt pork, bread, hardtack, canned fruit and dried vegetables. At the worst, just on salt pork and hardtack. If you are Indian, the buffalo provides not only your main food source, but your shelter, clothing, weapons, and over 100 other needs.
Perhaps you are an emigrant woman, or the wife of an Army officer, enduring unexpected hardships and dangers, or an Indian woman, suffering the adversity of her nation at war. You may be from a band of Lakota (Sioux), Northern Cheyenne, or Arapaho watching those who would intrude upon your last great hunting grounds, threatening your traditional lifestyle, freedom, and very existence. Or you may be a Crow, resigned to the coming of the white man and driven by the Lakota and Cheyenne from what had been considered for many years to be your land.
Perhaps you are a cowboy with the 1866 Nelson Story cattle drive of Texas longhorns, the first to come through, on its way to the gold fields of Montana; one of the last of the Mountain Men; or a miner, camping nearby for protection. Or perhaps you are a soldier with Colonel Henry B. Carrington's 18th Infantry, assigned to build a fort along this northward trail to the Montana gold fields. Though the route has gone down in history as the Bozeman Trail, named for the man who first blazed it, John Bozeman, it overlaid a route the Indian Tribes and buffalo had used for centuries. Whoever you are, and wherever you come from, your lives during that short two-year history when Fort Phil Kearny was built, abandoned, and burned to the ground, will be caught up forever in that interlude between the Civil War and the Battle of the Little Bighorn a decade later.
The Army Moves West
The land today looks much like it did when Colonel Carrington first saw it. A desk soldier during the Civil War, having never served on the field of battle, Colonel Carrington was nevertheless given an assignment in the very heart of Indian country. For some reason, probably because of treaties signed with a small number of Indians, the lack of understanding of the tribal cultures, and the Army's tendency to underestimate the fighting ability of the Plains Indians, even General Sherman apparently considered the area safe, and approved and encouraged the inclusion of Mrs. Carrington and other women and children with the party. And so it was that Colonel Henry B. Carrington and his party left Fort (Stephen) Kearney, Nebraska on May 19, 1866, with orders to move and rebuild Fort Reno (formerly named Fort Connor) and construct two new forts along the Bozeman Trail.
In that group traveling westward were more than a thousand men, (about 700 were soldiers, many raw recruits, and the rest were mostly civilian freighters), 226 mule-drawn wagons, and a cattle herd of over 1000 animals. There were guns and ammunition, four cannons, mowing machines, shingle machines, doors, window sash, nails, rocking chairs, and churns. There were tools of all kinds, two sawmills and grain for the animals. "Turkeys and chickens, and one race of swine," Mrs. Margaret Carrington recorded, "added a domestic cast to some of the establishments preparing for the journey.”
This contingent left on what was a sunny spring day in May, to the stirring music of Carrington's 35-piece regimental band. Leaving Fort (Stephen) Kearney where they were organized and trained, unmounted infantry men marched in advance, with wagon trains next. Women and children rode in ambulances, followed by the cattle herd with mounted cavalry serving as rear guard.
Captains Tenodor Ten Eyck and Fred H. Brown accompanied that first contingent as did the famous Mountain Man, "Old Gabe" Jim Bridger, then 62 years old and as Chief Interpreter for the Mountain District one of the highest paid civilians in the West. Bridger's pay was $300 a month, almost double that of the officers and certainly much more than the soldiers who drew $16 per month. But after 40 years of trapping, exploring and scouting in the area, he was considered by Carrington to be the "least expendable member of the expedition.”
As the days rolled on, young Jimmy Carrington later wrote: "There was never a day without a sight of leaping antelopes, an occasional sneaking coyote, big jack-rabbits, often herds of buffalo in the distance, and ever the monotonous expanse of sage-covered plains, blinding dust, the big skies stretching to the blue horizon, distant mountains, gorgeous sunsets, and in the heat of some days a shimmering mirage that looked like a great sea.”
Carrington looked forward anxiously to his arrival at Fort Laramie where negotiations were in process over a pending peace treaty between the U.S. Army and the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. He had earlier written his commander, General Philip St. George Cooke in Omaha Nebraska, "It would be of value to my future operations if I reach Laramie in time for the meeting with the Indian tribes in council and thereby form acquaintance of many with whom I will have subsequent relations.”
The Stage is Set for War
Arriving at Fort Laramie, Carrington found peace negotiations underway. There are many stories about the events there, but it is unlikely that Carrington ever stood face to face with the man who would become his most bitter enemy, Red Cloud. It IS likely, however, that in hearing of Carrington's plan to build the forts and protect the road Red Cloud angrily said, "Great Father sends us presents and wants new road. But White Chief goes with soldiers, to steal road before Indian says yes or no." Red Cloud and his group left in anger and vowed to fight the white intruders of the Powder River Country.
So the stage was set for war. Most white people think of all the Indian wars as being quite simple to understand; a case of all Indians fighting for their last and best hunting grounds against an army attempting to further the cause of westward expansion. The truth is more complex. With the end of the Civil War, General Grant viewed the opening of the West, and the building of the transcontinental railroad through it, as the nation's greatest challenge. And the "rightness" of the cause was justified by the concept of "Manifest Destiny”. But it was also true there was a great difference of opinion within the populace, and in the government, especially between the "hawks" and the "doves" of the day, about what should be done, and how to accomplish it.
From the Indian perspective, tribes and families were divided. Some Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne tribes, bitter from the brutal white attacks on family encampments at the Connor Battle and at Sand Creek, Colorado, joined the Lakota of Red Cloud, Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses and High-Backbone (Hump) in opposition. Some Lakota bands, such as the Brule, were generally peaceful. And among them was conflict and differing opinions. Two great Cheyenne Leaders, Little Wolf and Morning Star (Dull Knife) went their separate ways. Little Wolf was at the Fetterman Battle, while it is thought that Dull Knife, who had signed the 1866 peace treaty, would not fight.
Part of the difficulty in understanding the Indian position is inherent in the general lack of understanding in the white view of the American Indians and the structure of their societies. Here, in Dakota Territory in 1866, each warrior was basically independent and able to choose whether to fight or not. He chose the leaders he would follow, and often these were not the same as the ones who signed the peace treaties. Many so-called Indian leaders were only the creation of the government, particularly of those Peace Commissioners looking for someone to sign a treaty.
As historian Robert Utley wrote about the Army fighting these Indians: "They were a conventional military force trying to control by conventional military methods, a people that did not behave like a conventional enemy, and indeed, quite often was not an enemy at all...It was the most difficult of all military assignments.”
Carrington Presses on and Establishes Fort Phil Kearny
The Carrington command moved on, leaving Fort Laramie on the 17th of June. They arrived at Fort Reno, the first of the Bozeman Trail forts, on June 28. Here they stayed for 10 days, reloading wagons, and arranging to distribute the battalion. They left Reno on July 9th for the last lap of their journey. On Friday the 13th of July, the command arrived at this location overlooking the area where Carrington decided to build Fort Phil Kearny, named for a distinguished Civil War general who died at the Battle of Chantilly. In August two companies of infantrymen were sent 90 miles north to build Fort C.F. Smith on the Big Horn River, the last of the original Bozeman Trail forts.
Though Fort Phil Kearny was in almost a continual state of construction, and though much was done after Carrington left, he was responsible for the design and most buildings at the fort. Carrington’s men built over 60 structures of one kind or another: barracks, officer's quarters, a hospital, guard house, mule barns, a magazine and numerous other buildings. Initially they were temporary quarters made of tenting, then replaced with log and sod roofs or board and batten covered with shingles. Today most are marked with signs and building corner markers and the parade ground walkway has been replaced around the interior of the fort.
Soldiers built the huge upper stockade of 600 by 800 feet. Corners are now marked, after present day archaeology, with reconstructed stockade walls. The stockade was built of pine logs cut and hauled from about 6 miles north-west. A train of up to 90 wagons was employed to haul logs. Blockhouses were constructed on Piney Island for protection. The stockade was of heavy logs, 11 ft. long, side-hewn, placed 3 ft. into the ground and standing 8 ft. high. The shingling machines were put to use along with two sawmills operating on the banks of Little Piney Creek near a brick factory located across the creek at a lime discovery south-west of the fort. Including the hay corral area, the stockade extended almost to the creek. Some civilian houses, including those of Wheatley and Fisher, were outside the stockade and at various times a number of people, including friendly natives, lived or camped outside the stockade.
To the southeast there is a kiosk with a map and pole fence outlining the band platform, protecting the archaeological dig at the site of the first full garrison flag to fly between the North Platte river and Montana. The magnificent flag with its 36-foot fly was first raised on its towering 124-foot flagpole to the sound of the full band playing "The Star Spangled Banner”. The crack of arms was presented in salute and the big guns opened fire. The ceremony signaled the completion of the fort's construction on October 31, 1866. The map shows the flagpole with the bandstand and the parade ground clearly marked, as well as the location of all the buildings in the upper and lower stockades in the summer of 1867.
Practically from the beginning, under virtual siege from Red Cloud's warriors, those at the fort were barely able to protect themselves and their civilian contractors, let alone the emigrants along the trail. Frances Grummond, coming in later in the year with her husband, Lt. George Grummond, tells of riding into sight of Pilot Hill to see the picket guard waving a warning. The Grummond wagons stopped to make way for a wagon from the wood train, in which she saw the scalped and naked body of one of the civilian woodcutters.
Life at the fort was primitive. Frances Grummond (shortly to lose her husband at the Fetterman Fight, and later to marry the widowed Colonel Carrington) described her temporary quarters as two tents drawn together and containing two trunks, two camp stools, a mess chest, two hospital bunks, a small heating stove, and a cook stove. "A deep snow fell during the night", she wrote, "and drifted in, covered my face, and there melting, trickled down my cheeks until if I had shed tears, they would have been indistinguishable."
Later the winter would become bitter, as though in response to the terrible battle to be fought there. But some never lost their sense of humor. Soldier Sam Gibson told of his stop at the sutler's store to get tobacco during that winter. "A man's ears would get frost bitten just walking across the parade ground. I stomped my feet as I entered John Kinney's store and told him I wanted a handful of twists. I grouched about the 75 cent price....his reply was the tobacco was free; the 75 cents was for the stimulating climate."
By late fall the stockade was pretty well complete, and on Nov. 4, an aggressive young officer, battle seasoned in the Civil War and ready to fight Indians, rode in along with C Company of the 2nd Cavalry under Lt. Bingham. Captain William Judd Fetterman was quoted by Frances Grummond as saying that "a company of regulars could whip a thousand and a regiment could whip the whole array of hostile tribes." It was a thought shared by many officers. In a little more than a month he would have his chance to prove it.
Visitors should take the opportunity to visit the Interpretive Center, and also read the interpretive signage on the fort site. Then you will want to drive out, turn east, and follow your map and signs to the Fetterman Fight site, about three miles away. Please notice the "Portugee" Phillips monument on the way.
THE FETTERMAN FIGHT
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.
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 Arapaho tribes were gathering along the Tongue River near present day Decker, Montana. Reports of lodges which took a half-day to ride by came from 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. 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 non-commissioned officers, 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 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 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, and are today buried in the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, except for those few which were taken elsewhere.
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, Arthur Brady-Blue Feather 1834-1938, 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 defeat 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."
Commenting on the condition of the records when he arrived, he wrote, "There are no records and the business has been managed without a system. I find it very difficult to get any accurate information of the affairs of the Department as they have been conducted since the post was established." About the buildings, he said: "Some of the quarters will hardly handle the troops during the coming winter. They cannot be advantageously repaired." As a result, a number of new buildings were constructed, and many others were rebuilt and reinforced. During Dandy's tenure at Fort Phil Kearny, soldiers and contractors produced 606,000 ft. of lumber, 260,000 shingles, 130,000 brick and 4,000 lath.
Lt. Colonel Henry W. Wessells arrived at Fort Phil Kearny on Jan. 16 and relieved Carrington of command. The relief column from Fort Laramie joined Wessells at Fort Reno and traveled on to Fort Phil Kearny. They had a difficult time, moving in temperatures registering 25 below zero and through snow now badly drifted. The ride that had taken Portugee Phillips four days, took Gordon and Wessells sixteen. In the meantime, Indian accounts tell of a hunkering down and
struggling to keep themselves and their families fed, in one of the worst winters any had ever experienced.
When Gordon and Wessells arrived at Phil Kearny and found the fort in dire circumstances, they tried to return the fort’s animals to Fort Laramie, but most of the cavalry horses and over 40 mules perished on the way. Their bones littered the trail for years after. The fate of Fort C.F. Smith was not known, because there had been no communication with the post since before the Fetterman Fight. It was discovered later that the men at C.F. Smith had done pretty well, subsisting on a good supply of potatoes and onions from the Bozeman, Montana area that fall.
Colonel Carrington's trip in January from Fort Phil Kearny with sixty men, his wife and children, the widowed and pregnant Frances Grummond, and the body of Lt. Grummond, was a story of great heartache and hardship. Most of the time the temperature hovered around 13 below zero. With snow and heavy winds, more than half of the men were frost-bitten, two of them requiring amputations when they finally arrived at Fort Reno. When they reached Fort Caspar, they found the headquarters of the 18th Regiment had been again changed, this time to Fort McPherson, Nebraska. At Fort Phil Kearny, the command of Colonel Wessells and later Colonel Jonathan Smith (who relieved Wessells in early July 1867) was a new era. While Carrington's efforts had gone into building the fort, Wessells began almost immediately to train the troops for combat.
On July 3, 1867, a civilian, J.R. Porter, arrived and was awarded a contract to supply logs and fuel for Fort Phil Kearny. Quartermaster Dandy would supply wagons and protection, while the contractor would supply civilian wood cutters and herders. With Porter and the new post commander, Colonel Johnathan E. Smith of the 27th Infantry, were over 80 new issue Allin-converted 1866 breech-loading Springfield rifles, the gun that would soon affect the course of history.
THE WAGON BOX FIGHT
After their summer Sun Dance Ceremonies, Lakota and Cheyenne determined to attack again near Fort Phil Kearny, and also at Fort C. F. Smith. On August 1st, a large number of the Lakota Tribe moved from Goose Creek in the Sheridan area about five miles north of Phil Kearny, preparing to attack the logging camp the next day. The Cheyenne and most of the Arapaho went north to Fort C.F. Smith and attacked at the hay field on August 1, 1867 with nearly the same results as at the Wagon Box a day later.
The location of the Wagon Box fight of August 2nd, 1867, has been argued through the years, but archaeological findings point to it encompassing a large area including where the monument sits today. Shells found at an alternative site featured the Benet-cup primer, which was not produced until 1868, a year after the fight. Civilian contractors hauled logs from the pineries to the fort on wagon running gears, and in early July they built a corral of the wagon boxes to protect stock from being run off by the Indians. Fourteen boxes were placed end to end in an oval about 70' wide x 100' long, with space between wide enough for a man. Supplies were stored in three of the wagons, and soldiers and civilians slept in tents outside the enclosure.
The monument is located a bit to the west of the wagon box corral which became central to the fight, with warriors attacking from all directions. The plain pine boxes, placed flat on the ground, were not reinforced. The 'Wagon Box Corral' was placed in view of both pineries and in a good defensive position.
According to Capt. James Powell's official report, "I had the train divided; one part encamped on a plateau (this is close to the current public parking area). The other part encamped about one mile distant in a south-westerly direction, on a commanding point across the Little Piney, at the foot of the mountains. My details consisted in sending 12 men to protect the working parties of both trains and 13 men as escort to the trains when coming into the post. On the morning in question I had made the usual details, which left the 26 men, 4 citizens and 1 officer at my disposal. About 9 0'clock two hundred Indians attacked the herders....driving them off, at the same time some 500 attacked the train at the foot of the mountains driving off the members there and burning it. Some fifteen minutes afterwards I was surrounded by about 800 mounted Indians, but owing to the very effective fire of my small party they were driven back with considerable loss. Finding they could not enter the corral they retired to a hill about 600 yards distant and there stripped for more determined fighting; then with additional reinforcements continued to charge us on foot for 3 consecutive hours."
Later, Sgt. Sam Gibson described the first Indian attack thus: "All at once yelling redskins, with waving feathers and faces painted hideously, came from over the hills, and seemed to rise out of the ground as they emerged from the ravines in every direction....Upon reporting to Capt. Powell I shall never forget the look of determination in his eyes...not desperation, but resolution as if to say, we are doomed...death is certain...like Fetterman, but the Indians will pay a terrible price." Many of the soldiers, not expecting to survive, fastened their shoestring to the triggers of their weapons (which were too long to turn upon themselves) in order to reserve the final shot for themselves.
Capt. Powell's report continued. "The hills were covered with Indians who merely acted as spectators, until they saw how fruitless were the efforts of their comrades near my corral when they also moved up, and determined to carry my position at all hazards and massacre my command, which they would undoubtedly have done but that Bvt. Lt. Col. Benjamin F. Smith was seen approaching with reinforcements from Fort Phil Kearny. They retired, leaving some of their dead and wounded near the corral, thus closing the fight about half past twelve o'clock. In my opinion there were not less than 60 Indians killed on the spot; and one hundred and twenty severely wounded." Captain Powell credited the fact that the army escaped with such a small loss to the rapid firing breech-loading arms and the gallantry and coolness of his men. He had lost three men, including the popular Lt. Jenness; and several civilians had been killed at wood cutting areas. Several men were badly wounded.
Brevet Lt. Col. Benjamin Smith in his official report said, "On nearing the corral...and about a mile and a half from it, I discovered that a high hill near the road and overlooking the corral was occupied by a large party of Indians...5 or 6 hundred in sight. The grass was burning in every direction. The Indians appearing disposed to make a stand...before turning from the road, I fired a shot from the mountain howitzer as a signal to inform Major Powell's command that assistance was near; the shell fired in the direction of the Indians....seemed to disconcert them as a number turned and fled. Upon ascending to the crest of the hill all disappeared from it and ran across the creek."
Sgt. Sam Gibson wrote: "Major Smith had brought in the relief and, cheering hoarsely, the gallant soldiers, defending from the wagon boxes, leaped to welcome their comrades...the welcome only became greater when it was discovered that the Post Surgeon, Dr. Horton, had thoughtfully brought along a keg of medicinal whisky."
After the battle, fourteen wood cutters and soldiers came into the corral, having abandoned their wagons in the woods. Several others, having hid in the mountains, returned to the post later.
The Wagon Box Fight proved that a few well-positioned defenders, armed with breech-loading weapons, could enjoy tactical superiority over a much larger Indian force. The battle also restored a measure of prestige and instilled confidence in a frontier army badly in need of a victory.
(NOTE, from author);
The book "Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life" by Kingsley Bray footnotes a large number of accounts available. He lists other sources including Fire Thunder in Raymond DeMallie's Sixth Grandfather; White Bull in Vestal's Warpath; Cheyenne statements in Father Peter Powell's People of the Sacred Mountain", and many more. These sources will be further explored.
In the meantime, as this is written, we are lucky to have a visiting history professor and author, Donovin Sprague, in Sheridan this year and next teaching at Sheridan College. Sprague is a direct descendant of the High Backbone (Hump) family of the Minnecoujou band of the Lakota Tribe. Crazy Horse was also a part of that family on his mother's side. According to Sprague, Hump 1, a leader at Wagon Box, along with his son Hump 2 and Crazy Horse participated in both the Fetterman and Wagon Box battles. Also, two of Hump 1's wives joined the women spectators on the hillside observing the fight nearby. His stories come down by way of family history and await publication in Sprague’s newest book at a publishers now for review. These accounts will provide a unique and personal picture of his ancestors up to the present day, not available elsewhere.
The Days of Bozeman Trail Forts are Numbered
Regardless of the Wagon Box Fight or its outcome, the days of the Bozeman Trail Forts were clearly numbered. With Indian harassment continuing, the Trail was closed to all civilian travel after the Fetterman Fight. With massive logistical problems of servicing an army so far from supply bases, it was estimated, according to Capt. Alexander Wishart, "to be costing the government about a million dollars a week to fight Indians." Also, some settlers in the West were becoming highly critical of the government's Indian policy. Citizen John B. Wolff's petition to the 40th Congress of the U.S. on behalf of white settlers in Colorado and Dakota Territories, asked for the abolition of military posts and for other reforms in the Indian policy of the U.S.
But even more significant was the fact that the transcontinental railroad was nearing completion, soon to render the Bozeman Trail obsolete. As Union Pacific construction crews had been frequently attacked, railroad officials had brought great pressures to bear for protection. General Sherman telegrammed Gen. Augur on May 27, 1867, however, that he believed more effective protection would be provided by attacking the Lakota in the Powder River country "than by attempting to defend the line in its whole length."
The military had planned immediate retaliation after the Fetterman disaster, but were unable to get supplies ready early enough in 1867 for a campaign, due in part to several boxcars being lost in transit. As Indian harassment continued, civilian traffic was reduced to a trickle in 1867, while most wagon trains on the Trail carried supplies for the forts. In the meantime, Congress created a Peace Commission. The priority was to finish the Union Pacific Railroad, and the troops were needed first to do this.
So by 1868, everything added up to the need for peace, a peace which Red Cloud would not agree to without the total abandonment of the three forts, the retreat of the soldiers, and the abandonment of the Bozeman Trail/Powder River area back to Fort Laramie. The last contingent pulled out of Fort Phil Kearny during the final days of August. Red Cloud signed the peace treaty at Fort Laramie in November of 1868 only after Reno, Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith were abandoned and the Bozeman Trail was closed. Fort Phil Kearny was later burned almost to the ground, probably by the Cheyenne under Little Wolf.
The Lakota and Cheyenne and others had been aware for years, however, that with the steadily diminishing buffalo herds on which they depended, their nomadic life would at some point become unsustainable. The question for them was when. Many of the victorious Lakota and Cheyenne continued living nomadic lives for eight more years until pressure from white settlers, advancing railroad construction and gold strikes in the Black Hills brought on a new war in 1876. Even after the tribes' historic win at the battle of the Little Bighorn, within one year, the tribes came into the reservations, ending forever their supremacy on the Northern Plains.
The Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association (FPK/BTA) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, dedicated to the preservation, development, education, and promotion of the historic sites at Fort Phil Kearny and along the Bozeman Trail.
Your membership and donations allow us to continue with our mission.
The FPK/BTA helps to support Wyoming State Historic Site Fort Phil Kearny,
and the Fetterman and Wagon Box Battle Sites.
Fort Phil Kearny and related sites are National Historic Landmarks.
Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association
528 Wagon Box Road
Banner, WY 82832
Photos courtesy of FPK/BTA with thanks to JoAnne Puckett