by Cyrus Townsend Brady.
Taking at random two average months in the two different years during which the post was maintained, one in the summer, another in the fall, I find that there were fifteen separate and distinct attacks in one and twenty in the other. In many of these, in most, in fact, one or more men were killed and a greater number wounded. Not a wagon train bound for Montana could pass up the Bozeman trail, which ran under the walls of the fort, and for the protection of which it had been established, without being attacked again and again. Only the most watchful prudence, the most skillful management, and the most determined valor, prevented the annihilation of successive parties of emigrants seeking the new and inviting land.
from Indian Fights And Indian Fighters, 1904.
Since the United States began to be there never was such a post as Fort Philip Kearney, commonly called Fort Phil Kearney From its establishment, in 1866, to its abandonment, some two years later, it was practically in a state of siege. I do not mean that it was beleaguered by the Indians in any formal, persistent investment, but it was so constantly and so closely observed by war parties, hidden in the adjacent woods and the mountain passes, that there was little safety outside its stockade for anything less than a company of infantry or a troop of cavalry; and not always, as we shall see, for those.
Rarely in the history of the Indian wars of the United States have the Indians, no matter how preponderant in force, conducted a regular siege, Pontiac's investment of Detroit being almost unique in that particular. But they literally surrounded Fort Phil Kearney at all times. Nothing escaped their observation, and no opportunity to harass and to cut off detached parties of the garrison, to stampede the herds, or to attack the wagon trains, was allowed to pass by. Not a stick of timber could be cut, not an acre of grass mowed, except under heavy guard. Herds of beef cattle, the horses for the cavalry and mounted infantry, the mules for the supply wagons, could not graze, even under the walls of the fort, without protection. The country teemed with game. Hunting parties were absolutely forbidden. To take a stroll outside the stockade on a summer evening was to invite death or worse if the stroller happened to be a woman. There was no certainty about the attacks, except an assurance that one was always due at any given moment. As old James Bridger, a veteran plainsman and fur trader, a scout whose fame is scarcely less than that of Kit Carson, and the confidential companion adviser of Carrington in 1866, was wont to say to him: "Whar you don't see no Injuns thar they're sartin to be thickest."
The war with the Indians was about the ownership of territory, as most of our Indian wars have been. Indeed, that statement is true of most of the wars of the world. The strong have ever sought to take from the weak. The westward-moving tide of civilization had at last pressed back from the Missouri and the Mississippi the Sioux and their allies, the Cheyennes, the largest and most famous of the several great groups of Indians who have disputed the advance of the white man since the days of Columbus, saving perhaps the Creeks and the Iroquois.
The vast expanse of territory west of the hundredth meridian, extending from the Red River to the British Columbia boundary line, was at the time practically devoid of white settlements, except at Denver and Salt Lake, until the Montana towns were reached in the northwest. It is a great sweep of land which comprises every variety of climate and soil. The huge Big Horn Mountains severed that immense domain. The Sweet Water Country and all east of the Wind River Range, including South Pass and the region west of the great bend of the North Platte, had its prairies and fertile valleys. Just north of the Big Horn Mountain Range, which took in the territory which formed the most direct route to Central Montana, and the occupation of which was the real objective of Carrington's expedition in the spring of 1866, was the most precious section, controlled by tribes jealous of any intrusion by the whites.
All along the Yellowstone and its tributaries, in spite of the frequent "Mauvaises Terres," or "bad lands," of apparent volcanic origin, the whole country was threaded with clear streams from the Big Horn Range. The valleys of these were luxuriant in their natural products and their promise. Enormous herds of buffalo roamed the plains, affording the Indian nearly everything required for his support. The mountains abounded with bear, deer and other game in great variety. The many rivers which traversed the territory teemed with fish the valleys which they watered were abundantly fertile for the growing of the few crops which the Indian found necessary for his support. The land was desirable naturally and attracted the attention of the settlers.
It cannot be gainsaid that the Indians enjoyed a quasi-legal title to this land. But if a comparatively small group of nomadic and savage tribes insists upon reserving a great body of land for a mere hunting ground, using as a game preserve that which, in a civilized region, would easily support a great agricultural and urban population of industrious citizens seeking relief from the crowded and confined conditions of older communities, what are you going to do about it? Experience has shown that in spite of treaties, purchases and other peaceful means of obtaining it, there is always bound to be a contest about that land. The rights of savagery have been compelled to yield to the demands of civilization, ethics to the contrary notwithstanding. And it will always be so, sad though it may seem to many.
The close of the Civil War threw many soldiers out of employment. After four years of active campaigning they could not settle down to the humdrum life of village and country again. With a natural spirit of restlessness they gathered their families, loaded their few household belongings into wagons, and in parties of varying sizes made their way westward. Railroads began to push iron feelers across the territory. Engineers and road builders, as well as emigrants, demanded the protection of the government. At first most of the settlers merely wished to pass through the country and settle in the fair lands upon the other side, but the fertility and beauty that met their eyes on every hand irresistibly invited settlement on the journey.
At that time there were four great routes of transcontinental travel in use: southward over the famous Santa Fe Trail; westward over the Kansas trail to Denver; westward on the Oregon Trail through Nebraska and Salt Lake City to California and Oregon; northwestward on the Bozeman trail through Wyoming to Montana. The Union Pacific road was building along the Oregon Trail, the Kansas Pacific along the Kansas trail to Denver, while the great Santa Fe system was not yet dreamed of.
The railroads being in operation for short distances, the only method of transportation was in the huge Conestoga wagon, or prairie schooner which, with its canvas top raking upward fore and aft over a capacious wagon box, looked not unlike the hull of the boat from which it took its name. These wagons were drawn by four or six mules - sometimes by oxen, known as "bull teams"— and, stores there being none, carried everything that a settler was apt to need in the new land, including the indispensable wife and children.
I am concerned in this article only with the Bozeman or Montana trail.
Early in 1866 Government Commissioners at Fort Laramie, Nebraska, were negotiating a treaty with the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes to secure the right of way for emigrants through that territory which, by the Harney-Sanborne treaty, had been conceded to them in 1865. Red Cloud, an Oglala Sioux, the foremost of the young warriors, led the objectors to the treaty, even to the point of fighting, and opposed the more conservative chiefs who deprecated war as eventually fatal to all their territorial claims. During this council, to anticipate later events, Carrington, then approaching with troops, arrived in advance, dismounted, and was introduced to the members of the council. Red Cloud, noticing his shoulder straps, hotly denounced him as the "White Eagle" who had come to steal the road before the Indian said yes or no. In full view of the mass of Indians who occupied the parade ground he sprang from the platform under the shelter of pine boughs, struck his tepees and went on the warpath. A telegram by Carrington advising suspension of his march until the council came to some agreement was negatived, and although Sunday he pushed forward nine miles beyond the fort before sunset.
One stipulation upon which the United States insisted was the establishment of military posts to guard the trail, without which it was felt the treaty would amount to nothing. The Brule Sioux, under the lead of Spotted Tail, Standing Elk and others, favored the concession, and ever after remained faithful to the whites. The older chiefs of other Sioux bands, in spite of Red Cloud's defection and departure, remained in council for some days and, although sullen in manner and noisy in protests, finally accepted valuable gifts and indemnities and so far satisfied the Commission that they dispatched special messengers to notify the District Commander that "satisfactory treaties had been made with the tribes represented at Laramie and that its route was safe." Emigrant trains were also pushed forward with their assurance that an ample force of regulars had gone up the country to ensure their safety. The sequel will appear later.
Pursuant to the plan, Brigadier-General Henry B. Carrington, Colonel of the Eighteenth Regular Infantry, was ordered with the second battalion of his regiment, about to become the Twenty-seventh Regular Infantry, to establish, organize and take command of what was known as the Mountain District. The Mountain District at that time had but one post in it, Fort Reno, one hundred and sixty miles from Fort Laramie. Carrington was directed to march to Fort Reno, move it forty miles westward, garrison it, and then, with the balance of his command, establish another post on the Bozeman trail, between the Big Horn Mountains and the Powder River, so as to command that valley much frequented by Indians; and, lastly, to establish two other posts, one on the Big Horn, the other on the Yellowstone, for the further protection of the trail.
General Carrington was a graduate of Yale College. He had been a teacher, an engineer and scientist, a lawyer and man of affairs, a student of military matters as well as Adjutant-General of Ohio for several years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. At the beginning of that struggle he promptly moved one battery and several regiments of Ohio Militia into West Virginia to take part in the Battle of Phillipi before the State Volunteers could be mustered into the United States service. Without his solicitation, on May 14th, 1861, he had been appointed Colonel of the Eighteenth United States Infantry, promoted Brigadier-General November 29th, 1863, and had rendered valuable and important services during the war. He was a high-minded Christian gentleman, a soldier of large experience and proven courage, an administrator of vigor and capacity, and, as his subsequent career has shown, a man of fine literary talents. No better choice could have been made for the expedition.
After many delays, due principally to difficulties in securing transportation, a little army of seven hundred men, accompanied by four pieces of artillery, two hundred and twenty-six wagons, and a few ambulances containing the wives and children of several of the officers, set forth from old Fort Kearney, Nebraska, on the 19th of May, 1866. About two hundred of the men were veterans, the rest raw recruits. They were armed with old-fashioned Springfield, muzzle-loading muskets, save a few who had the new Spencer breech-loading carbine, a weapon of rather short trajectory, but a great improvement on the old army musket from the rapidity of fire which it permitted. A portion of the command was mounted from the discarded horses of a cavalry regiment going east to be mustered out. They were not trained horsemen, however, and at first were rather indifferent mounted infantrymen.
It seems incredible to think that women should accompany such an expedition, but no grave anticipations of trouble with the Indians were felt by any persons in authority at that time. The Sioux and Cheyennes had consented to the opening of the road, and though they demurred to the forts, they had not absolutely refused the treaty when the government insisted upon it. The expedition was not conceived or planned for war. It was supposed to be a peaceable expedition. In fact, General Sherman, who visited Fort Kearney before the troops began to march, personally advised the ladies to accompany the expedition as very attractive in its object and wholly peaceful. Had the authorities known what was to happen, a force three times as great would scarcely have been thought adequate for the purpose. But even had there been a full knowledge of the dangers incurred, the army women would have gone with their husbands.
History records no greater instances of romantic devotion than those exhibited by the army wife. She stands peculiar among American women to-day in that particular. The army woman in a hostile country risked much more than the men. Her fate when captured was terrible beyond description — one long agony of horror and shame until death put an end to it. I have talked with army officers of large experience and have read what others have said, and the universal testimony is that no woman who was ever captured by the plains Indians west of the Missouri was spared. It was commonly agreed among the officers and men of regiments accompanied by women — and fully understood by the women as well — that in the last extremity the women were to be shot by their own friends, rather than to be allowed to fall into the hands of the savages; but no such apprehension attended this march.
The army woman's knowledge of the peril in the usual border warfare was not an imaginary one, either. As we may read in letters and books written by army wives, it was brought home to them directly again and again. After every campaign poor, wretched women of stranded and robbed emigrant trains or devastated settlements were brought into the various camps, to whom these army women ministered with loving care, and from whom they heard frightful and sickening details that froze the blood; yet the army wife herself never faltered in her devotion, never failed in her willingness to follow wherever her husband was sent. And, save for the actual campaigning in the field, the army wife was everywhere — sometimes there, too.
In this particular expedition there were several little children, from some of whom I have gleaned details and happenings. One of these lads, while at Fort Kearney before the march, became so expert with the bow and arrow in target shooting with young Pawnee Indians near the fort, that he challenged General Sherman to shoot over the flagstaff. The youngster accomplished it by lying upon his back with feet braced against the bow, and the general squarely withdrew from the contest, declining to follow the boy's ingenious artifice.
The march was necessarily a slow one and the distance great — some six hundred miles — so that it was not until the twenty-eighth of June they reached Fort Reno. There they were menaced by the Indians for the first time and every endeavor was made to stampede their herds. The officers and men were fast becoming undeceived as to the character of their expedition. To abandon Fort Reno, or to remove it, was not practicable. Carrington ordered it re-stockaded and put in thorough repair, garrisoned it from his command, and with the balance, something over five hundred. advanced farther into the unknown land on the 9th of July. On the 13th of July, 1866, he established his camp on the banks of the Big Piney Creek, an affluent of the Powder River, about four miles from the superb Big Horn Range, with snow-capped Cloud Peak towering nine thousand feet into the heavens, close at hand. A few days later, on a little, flower-decked, grass-covered plateau, bare of trees, which fortunately happened to be just the size to contain the fort he proposed to erect, and which sloped abruptly away in every direction, forming a natural glacis, he began building the stockade.
The plateau lay between two branches of the Piney. To the eastward of the smaller branch rose a high hill called Pilot Hill. West of it was another ridge which they named Sullivant Hills. Southwest of Sullivant Hills was a high ridge called Lodge Trail Ridge, the main branch of the Piney Creek flowing between them, so that the water supply was at the eastern or "Water Gate" of the fort. The Bozeman trail passed westward, under Pilot Hill in front of the fort, crossing the Big Piney as it neared Sullivant Hills, and then, circling around Lodge Trail Ridge for easier ascent, advanced northward, twice crossing Peno Creek and its branches, before that stream joined Goose Creek, a tributary to Tongue River, one of the chief forks of the Yellowstone. The first branch of the Peno was five miles from the fort, and the second twelve miles farther, where the garrison had to cut hay, but the branch nearer the fort was especially associated with the events of December list, as well as with the fight of the sixth of the same month.
The spot was delightful. Adjacent to the fort were broad stretches of fertile, brilliantly flowered, grassy, river and mountain creek valleys. The mountains and hills were covered with pines. Game there was in plenty; water was clear and abundant. Wood, while not immediately at hand, else the place would not have been practicable of defense without tremendous labor in clearing it, was conveniently adjacent.
General Carrington marked out the walls of the fort, after a survey of the surrounding country as far as Tongue River, set up his sawmills, one of them of forty horse-power, capable of cutting logs thirty inches in diameter, established a logging camp on Piney Island, seven miles distant, with no intervening hills to surmount, which made transportation easy, and began the erection of the fort. Picket posts were established upon Pilot and Sullivant Hills, which overlooked approaches both from the east and the road to the mountains. Three times Indians attempted to dislodge these pickets, once at night; but case-shot exploding over them, and each time causing loss of men or ponies, ended similar visitations.
The most careful watchfulness was necessary at all hours of the day and night. The wood trains to fetch logs to the sawmills went out heavily guarded. There was fighting all the time. Casualties among the men were by no means rare. At first it was difficult to keep men within the limits of the camp; but stragglers who failed to return, and some who had been cut off, scalped and left for dead, but who had crawled back to die, convinced every one of the wisdom of the commanding officer's repeated orders and cautions.
To chronicle the constant succession of petty skirmishes would be wearisome; yet they often resulted in torture and loss of life on the part of the soldiers, although the Indians in most instances suffered the more severely. One single incident may be taken as illustrative of the life of the garrison.
One afternoon, early in October, the picket reported that the wood train was attacked to the west, and shortly after signaled the approach of a small party of soldiers from the east. Detachments were sent from the post in both directions. It proved to be not a reinforcement of troops or ammunition supplies, but two ambulances with two contract surgeons and an escort of eight men, besides Bailey, the guide, and Lieutenant Grummond, who had just been appointed to the Eighteenth Infantry, and his young bride. As they approached the main gate, accompanied by the mounted men who had been sent out to meet them, they were halted to give passage to an army wagon from the opposite direction. It was escorted by a guard from a wood train, and brought in the scalped, naked, dead body of one of their comrades, a strange welcome, indeed, to the young wife, who, upon leaving Laramie, had been assured of a beautiful ride through fertile valleys without danger, and sadder yet in its sequel two months later.
Meanwhile the work of erecting the fort was continued. It was a rectangle, six hundred by eight hundred feet, enclosed by a formidable stockade of heavy pine logs standing eight feet high, with a continuous banquette, and flaring loopholes at every fourth log. There were enfilading blockhouses on the diagonal corners, with portholes for the cannon, and quarters for officers and men, with other necessary buildings. The commanding officer's quarters was a two-story building of framed lumber, surmounted by a watch-tower. The officers' and men's quarters were built of logs. The warehouses, four in number, eighty feet by twenty-four, were framed.
East of the fort proper was a corral of slightly less area, surrounded by a rough palisade of cottonwood logs, which enclosed the wood train, hay, and miscellaneous supplies. Everything — stockade, houses, stables, in all their details, blacksmith shops, teamsters' quarters, and so on — was planned by Carrington himself.
The main fort enclosed a handsome parade ground, in the center of which arose the tall flagstaff planned and erected by a ship carpenter in the regiment. From it, on the 31st of October, with great ceremony and much rejoicing, the first garrison flag that ever floated over the land was unfurled. The work was by no means completed as it appears on the map, but it was enclosed, and there were enough buildings ready to house the actual garrison present, although the fort was planned for a thousand men, repeatedly promised but not furnished, while all the time both cavalry and the First Battalion of the Eighteenth were held within the peaceful limits of Fort Laramie's control.
Early in August Captain Kinney, with two companions, had been sent ninety miles to the northward to establish the second post on the Big Horn, which was called Fort C. F. Smith, and was very much smaller and less important than Fort Phil Kearney. The third projected post was not established. There were not enough men to garrison the three already in the field, much less to build a fourth.
TO summarize the first six months of fighting, from the first of August to the close of the year, the Indians killed one hundred and fifty-four persons, including soldiers and citizens, wounded twenty more, and captured nearly seven hundred animals—cattle, mules, and horses. There were fifty-one demonstrations in force in front of the fort, and they attacked every train that passed over the trail.
As the fort was still far from completion, the logging operations were continued until mid-winter. On every day the weather permitted, a heavily guarded train of wood-cutters was sent down to Piney Island, or to the heavier timber beyond, where a blockhouse protected the choppers. This train was frequently attacked. Eternal vigilance was the price of life. Scarcely a day passed without the lookout on Pilot Hill signaling Indians approaching, or the lookout on Sullivant Hills reporting that the wood train was corralled and attacked. On such occasions a strong detachment would be mounted and sent out to drive away the Indians and bring in the wood train — an operation which was invariably successful, although sometimes attended with loss.
Hostile demonstrations were met by prompt forays or pursuits, as circumstances permitted; and on one occasion the general pursued a band that ran off a herd nearly to Tongue River; but flashing mirrors betrayed Indian attempts to gain his rear, and a return was ordered, abandoning the stolen stock.
One expedition is characteristic of many. On the afternoon of December 6th the lookout on Sullivant Hills signaled that the wood train was attacked, and Captain (Brevet-Lieutenant-Colonel) Fetterman, the senior captain present, was detailed with a squad of forty mounted men, including fifteen cavalrymen under Lieutenants Bingham and Grummond, with Sergeant Bowers of the infantry, a veteran of the Civil War, to relieve the wood train and drive the Indians toward the Peno Valley, while Carrington himself, with about a score of mounted infantrymen, would sweep around the north side of Lodge Trail Ridge and intercept them.
The Indians gave way before Fetterman's advance, hoping to lure the troops into an ambush, but at a favorable spot they made a stand. The fighting there was so fierce that the cavalry, which by a singular circumstance was without its officers, gave way and retreated headlong across the valley toward the ridge. The mounted infantry stood its ground, and under Fetter-man's intrepid leadership was making a brave fight against overwhelming odds, the number of Indians present being estimated at more than three hundred. It would have gone hard with them, however, had not Carrington and the first six of his detachment suddenly swept around a small hill or divide and taken the Indians in reverse. The general had been forced to advance under fire, and meeting the fugitive cavalry, ordered them to fall in behind his own detachment.
He was filled with anxiety as to the course of the fight on the other side of the ridge.
Carrington, in his official report, says: "But six men turned the point with me, one a young bugler of the Second Cavalry, who told me that Lieutenant Bingham had gone down the road around the hill to my right. This seemed impossible, as he belonged to Fetterman's command. I sounded the recall on his report, but in vain. One of my men fell and his horse on him. The principal chief operating during the day attempted to secure his scalp, but dismounting, with one man to hold the horses and reserving fire, I succeeded in saving the man and holding the position until joined by Fetterman twenty minutes later. The cavalry that had abandoned him had not followed me, though the distance was short; but the Indians, circling round and yelling, nearly one hundred in number, with one saddle emptied by a single shot fired by myself, did not venture to close in."
The rear detachment and Fetterman soon joined, and by the efforts of the combined parties the Indians were compelled to flight. It was a close call for all, but Lieutenants Grummond and Bingham were yet unaccounted for. Search was instantly made for these two officers and the infantry sergeant, who had become separated from their command while chasing some scattered Indians. One of the officers, Lieutenant Bingham, was dead. Lieutenant Grummond, after a hand-to-hand fight, was closely pressed by mounted Indians and was barely rescued. Sergeant Bowers had been fearfully wounded and scalped, although he was still alive, but died immediately. He had killed three Indians before he had been overborne. The cavalrymen, mostly recruits, were deeply ashamed of their defection, which was partly due to the incaution of their officers in leaving them to pursue a few Indians, and they were burning with a desire to retrieve their reputation, which they bravely did with their lives some two weeks later.
The casualties in the little command were two killed, five wounded. A messenger was sent to the fort for an ambulance, and the command retired in good order without further sight of the Indians. Lieutenant Bingham was not the first officer killed; for, five months before, Lieutenant Daniels, riding ahead of a small party of soldiers escorting several officers and the wife of Lieutenant Wands from Fort Laramie, had been killed in full view of the party. He had been horribly tortured with a stake before he died, and the savages put on his clothing and danced on the prairie just out of range, in front of the party, which was too small to do more than stand on the defensive. Lieutenant Grummond's wife was in the fort during the fighting on the sixth of December, and her joy at her husband's safe return can be imagined.
On the eighth of December President Andrew Johnson congratulated Congress that treaties had been made at Fort Laramie, and that all was peace in the Northwest!
On the 19th of December, in this peaceful territory, the wood train was again attacked in force. Carrington promptly sent out a detachment under Captain Powell with instructions to relieve the wood train, give it his support, and return with it, but not to pursue threatening Indians, for experience had shown that the Indians were constantly increasing in numbers and growing bolder with every attack. Powell efficiently performed his task. The Indians were driven off, and, although he was tempted to pursue them, he was too good a soldier to disobey orders, so he led his men back in safety to the fort.
By this time all warehouses were finished, and it was estimated that one large wood train would supply logs enough for the completion of the hospital, which alone needed attention.
Impressed by Powell's report, Carrington himself accompanied the augmented train on the 20th, built a bridge across to Piney Island to facilitate quick hauling, and returned to the fort to make ready for one more trip only. No Indians appeared in sight on that date. Already several hundred large logs had been collected for winter's firewood, besides the slabs saved at the sawmill.
It cannot be denied that there was much dissatisfaction among some of the officers at Carrington's prudent policy. They had the popular idea that one white man, especially if he were a soldier, was good for a dozen Indians; and although fifteen hundred lodges of Indians were known to be encamped on the Powder River, and there were probably between five and six thousand braves in the vicinity, they were- constantly suggesting expeditions of all sorts with their scanty force. Some of them, including Fetterman and Brown, "offered with eighty men to ride through the whole Sioux Nation!" While the mettle of the Sioux Nation had not yet been fairly tried by these men, Carrington was wise enough to perceive that such folly meant inevitable destruction, and his consent was sternly refused.
The total force available at the fort, including prisoners, teamsters, citizens and employees, was about three hundred and fifty — barely enough to hold the fort, should the Indians make an attack upon it. Besides which, details were constantly needed to carry dispatches, to deliver the mail, to get supplies, to succor emigrant trains, and so on. The force was woefully inadequate, and the number of officers had been depleted by detachment and other causes until there were but six left.
Ammunition was running low. There were at one time only forty rounds per man available. Repeated requests and appeals, both by letter and telegram, for reinforcements and supplies, and especially for modern and serviceable weapons, had met with little consideration. The officials in the Far East hugged their treaty, and refused to believe that a state of war existed; and, if it did exist, were disposed to censure the commanding officer for provoking it. In several instances presents given in the treaty at Fort Laramie were found on the persons of visiting Indians, and one captured Indian pony was heavily loaded with original packages of those presents.
Carrington had done nothing to provoke war, but had simply carried out General Sherman's written instructions, sent him as late as August, to "avoid a general war, until the army could be reorganized and increased; but he defended himself and command stoutly when attacked. Some of the officers, therefore, covertly sneering at the caution of the commander, were burning for an opportunity to distinguish themselves on this account, and had practically determined to make or take one at the first chance. Fetterman and Brown, unfortunately were the chief of these malcontents.
On the 21st of December, the ground being free from snow, the air clear and cold, the lookout on Sullivant Hills signaled about eleven o'clock in the morning that the wood train had been corralled, and was again at tacked in force about a mile and a half from the fort. A relief party of forty-nine men from the Eighteenth Infantry, with twenty-seven troopers from the Second Cavalry, a detachment from which, nearly all recruits and chiefly armed with muskets as their carbines had not reached Laramie, had joined the post some months before, was at once ordered out.
The command was first given to Captain Powell, with Lieutenant Grummond in charge of the cavalry. Grummond had a wife in delicate health at the post, and he was cautioned by the officers to take care not to be led into a trap, although his experience on the 6th, when he had so narrowly escaped death, was, it would seem, the best warning he could have had. This body of men was the best armed party at the post a few of those designated carrying the Spencer repeating carbines. Each company had been directed to keep forty rounds per man on hand for immediate use in any emergency, besides extra boxes always kept in company quarters. The men had been exercised in firing recently and some of the ammunition had been expended, although they still had an abundant supply for the purposes of the expedition. Carrington personally inspected the men before they left, and rejected those who were not amply provided.
The situation of the wood train was critical, and the party was assembled with the greatest dispatch. Just as they were about to start, Captain Fetterman, who had had less experience in the country and in Indian fighting than the other officers, for he had joined the regiment sometime after the fort had been built and expected assignment to command Fort C. F. Smith, begged for the command of the expedition, pleading his senior captaincy as justification for his request. Carrington reluctantly acceded to his plea, which indeed he could scarcely have refused, and placed him in charge, giving him strict and positive instructions to "relieve the wood train, drive back the Indians, but on no account to pursue the Indians beyond Lodge Trail Ridge," and that so soon as he had performed this duty he was to return immediately to the fort.
Captain Fetterman, as has been said, had frequently expressed his contempt for the Indians, although his fight on December 6th had slightly modified his opinions. Carrington, knowing his views, was particular and specific in his orders. So necessary did he think the caution that he repeated it to Lieutenant Grummond, who, with the cavalry, followed the infantry out of the gate, the infantry, having less preparation to make, getting away first. These orders were delivered in a loud voice and were audible to many persons — women, officers, and men in the fort. The general went so far as to hasten to the gate after the cavalry had left the fort, and from the sentry platform or banquette overlooking it, called out after them again, emphatically directing them "on no account to pursue the Indians across Lodge Trail Ridge."
The duty devolved upon Captain Fetterman was exactly that which Captain Powell had performed so satisfactorily a few days before. With Captain Fetterman went Captain Brown, with two citizens, frontiersmen and hunters, as volunteers. These two civilians, Wheatley and Fisher, were both armed with the new breech-loading rapid-fire Henry rifle, with which they were anxious to experiment on the hostiles. Wheatley left a wife and children in the fort.
Captain Frederick Brown, a veteran of the Civil War, had just been promoted, had received orders detaching him from the command, and was simply waiting a favorable opportunity to leave. He was a man of the most undaunted courage. His position as quartermaster had kept him on the watch for Indians all the time, and he announced on the day before the battle that he "must have one chance at the Indians before he left." It is believed, however, that his impetuous counsel, due to his good luck in many a brush with assailing parties, which he had several times pursued almost alone, largely precipitated the final disaster.
The total force, therefore, including officers and citizens, under Fetterman's command, was eighty-one—just the number with which he had agreed to ride through the whole Sioux Nation. No one in the command seems to have had the least idea that any force of Indians, however great, could overcome it.
Captain Fetterman, instead of leading his men direct to the wood train on the south side of Sullivant Hills, double-quicked toward the Peno Valley on to the north side. Perhaps he hoped that he could take the Indians in reverse and exterminate them between his own troops and the guard of the wood train —which all told comprised some ninety men —when he rounded the western end of the hills. This movement was noticed from the fort; but, as it involved no disobedience of orders, and as it might be considered a good tactical manoeuver, no apprehension was felt on account of it.
The Indians surrounding the wood train were well served by their scouts, and when they found that Fetterman's force was advancing on the other side of the hill, they immediately withdrew from the wood train, which presently broke corral and made its way to the Piney, some seven miles northwest of the fort, unmolested. As Fetterman's troops disappeared down the valley, a number of Indians were observed along the Piney in front of the fort. A spherical case-shot from a howitzer in the fort exploded in their midst, and they vanished. The Indians were much afraid of the "gun that shoots twice," as they called it.
At that time it was discovered that no doctor had gone with the relieving party, so Acting-Assistant Surgeon Hines, with an escort of four men, was sent out with orders to join Fetterman. The doctor hastened away, but returned soon after with the information that the wood train had gone on, and that when he attempted to cross the valley of the Peno to join Fetterman's men he found it full of Indians, who were swarming about Lodge Trail Ridge, and that no sign of Fetterman was observed. Despite his orders, he must have gone over the ridge.
The alarm caused in the fort by this news was deepened by the sound of firing at twelve o'clock. Six shots in rapid succession were counted, and immediately after heavy firing was heard from over Lodge Trail Ridge, five miles away, which continued with such fierceness as to indicate a pitched battle. Carrington instantly despatched Captain Ten Eyck with the rest of the infantry, in all about fifty-four men, directing him to join Fetterman's command then return with them to the fort. The men went forward on the run. A little later forty additional men were sent after Ten Eyck. Carrington at once surmised that Fetterman had disobeyed orders, either wittingly or carried away by the ardor of the pursuit, and was now heavily engaged with the Indians on the far side of the ridge.
Counting Fetterman's detachment, the guards of the wood train, and Ten Eyck's detachments, the garrison of the fort was now reduced to a very small number.
The place, with its considerable extent, might now be attacked at any time. Carrington at once released all prisoners from the guard-house, armed the quartermaster's employees, the citizens, and mustered altogether a force of only one hundred and nineteen men to defend the post. Although every preparation for a desperate defense had been made, there were not enough men to man the walls.
The general and his remaining officers then repaired to the observatory tower, field glasses in hand, and in apprehension of what fearful catastrophe they scarcely allowed themselves to imagine. The women and children, especially those who had husbands and fathers with the first detachment, were almost crazed with terror.
Presently Sample, the general's own orderly, who had been sent with Ten Eyck, was seen galloping furiously down the opposite hill. He had the best horse in the command (one of the general's), and he covered the distance between Lodge Trail Ridge and the fort with amazing swiftness. He dashed up to headquarters with a message from Ten Eyck, stating that "the valley on the other side of the ridge is filled with Indians, who are threatening him. The firing has stopped. He sees no sign of Captain Fetterman's command. He wants a howitzer sent out to him."
The following note was sent to Captain Ten Eyck:
"Forty well-armed men, with three thousand rounds, ambulances, stores, etc., left before your courier came in. You must unite with Fetterman. Fire slowly, and keep men in hand. You would have saved two miles toward the scene of action if you had taken Lodge Trail Ridge. I order the wood train in, which will give fifty men to spare."
No gun could be sent him. Since all the horses were already in the field, it would have required men to haul it. No more could be spared, and not a man with him could cut a fuse or handle the piece anyway. The guns were especially needed at the fort to protect women and children.
Late in the afternoon Ten Eyck's party returned to the fort with terrible tidings of appalling disaster. In the wagons with his command were the bodies of forty-nine of Fetterman's men; the remaining thirty-two were not at that time accounted for. Ten Eyck very properly stood upon the defensive on the hill and refused to go down into the valley in spite of the insults and shouts of the Indians, who numbered upward of two thousand warriors, until they finally withdrew. After waiting a sufficient time, he marched carefully and cautiously toward Peno Valley and to the bare lower ridge over which the road ran.
There he came across evidences of a great battle. On the end of the ridge, nearest the fort, in a space about six feet square, enclosed by some huge rocks, making a sort of a rough shelter, he found the bodies of the forty-nine men whom he had brought back. After their ammunition had been spent, they had been stripped, shot full of arrows, hacked to pieces, scalped, and mutilated in a horrible manner. There were no evidences of a very severe struggle right there. Few cartridge shells lay on the ground. Of these men, only four besides the two officers had been killed by bullets. The rest had been killed by arrows, hatchets, or spears. They had evidently been tortured to death.
Brown and Fetterman were found lying side by side, each with a bullet wound in the left temple. Their heads were burned and filled with powder around the wounds. Seeing that all was lost, they had evidently stood face to face, and each had shot the other dead with his revolver. They had both sworn to die rather than be taken alive by the Indians, and in the last extremity they had carried out their vows. Lieutenant Grummond, who had so narrowly escaped on the 6th of December, was not yet accounted for, but there was little hope that he had escaped again.
The night was one of wild anxiety. Nearly one-fourth of the efficient force of the fort had been wiped out. Mirror signals were flashed from the hills during the day, and fires here and there in the night indicated that the savages had not left the vicinity. The guards were doubled, every man slept with his clothing on, his weapons close at hand. In every barrack a non-commissioned officer and two men kept watch throughout the night. Carrington and the remaining officers did not sleep at all. They fully expected the fort to be attacked. The state of the women and children can be imagined, although all gossip and rumor were expressly prohibited by the commander.
The next day was bitterly cold. The sky was overcast and lowering, with indications of a tremendous storm. The Indians were not accustomed to active operations under such conditions, and there was no sign of them about. Carrington determined to go out to ascertain the fate of his missing men. Although all the remaining officers assembled at his quarters advised him not to undertake it, lest the savages, flushed with victory, should attempt another attack, Carrington quietly excused his officers, told the adjutant to remain with him, and the bugle instantly disclosed his purpose in spite of dissenting protests. He rightly judged that the moral effect of the battle would be greatly enhanced, in the eyes of the Indians, if the bodies were not recovered. Besides, to set at rest all doubts it was necessary to determine the fate of the balance of his command. His own wife, as appears from her narrative, approved his action and nerved herself to meet the possible fate involved, while Mrs. Grummond was the chief protestant that, as her husband was undoubtedly dead, there should be no similar disaster invited by another expedition.
In the afternoon, with a heavily armed force of eighty men, Carrington went in person to the scene of battle. The following order was left with the officer of the day: "Fire the usual sunset gun, running a white lamp to masthead. If the Indians appear fire three guns from the twelve-pounder at minute intervals, and, later, substitute a red lantern for the white." Pickets were left on two commanding ridges, as signal observers, as the command moved forward. The women and children were placed in the magazine, a building well adapted for defense, which had been stocked with water, crackers, etc., for an emergency, with an officer pledged not to allow the women to be taken alive, if the General did not return and the Indians overcame the stockade.
Passing the place where the greatest slaughter had occurred, the men marched cautiously along the trail. Bodies were strung along the road clear to the western end farthest from the fort. Here they found Lieutenant Grummond. There were evidences of a desperate struggle about his body. Behind a little pile of rock, making a natural fortification, were the two civilians who had been armed with the modern Henry rifle. By the side of one fifty shells were counted, and nearly as many by the side of the other brave frontiersman. Behind such cover as they could obtain nearby lay the bodies of the oldest and most experienced soldiers in Fetterman's command.
In front of them they found no less than sixty great gouts of blood on the ground and grass, and a number of dead ponies, showing where the bullets of the defenders had reached their marks, and in every direction were signs of the fiercest kind of hand-to-hand fighting. Ghastly and mutilated remains stripped naked, shot full of arrows—Wheatley with no less than one hundred and five in him, scalped, lay before them.
Brown rode to the death of both a little Indian "calico" pony which he had given to the general's boys when they started from Fort Leavenworth, in November, 1865, and the body of the horse was found in the low ground at the west slope of the ridge, showing that the fight began there, before they could reach high ground. At ten o'clock at night, on the return, the white lamp at masthead told its welcome story of a garrison still intact.
Fetterman had disobeyed orders. Whether deliberately or not, cannot be told. He had relieved the wood train, and instead of returning to the post, had pursued the Indians over the ridge into Peno Valley, then along the trail, and into a cunningly contrived ambush. His men had evidently fought on the road until their ammunition gave out, and then had either been ordered to retreat to the fort, or had retreated of their own motion probably the latter. All the dead cavalry horses' heads were turned toward the fort, by the way. Fetterman and Brown, men of unquestioned courage, must have been swept along with their flying men. There may have been a little reserve on the rocks on which they hoped to rally their disorganized, panic-stricken troops, fleeing before a horde of yelling, blood-intoxicated warriors. I imagine them vainly protesting, imploring, begging their men to make a stand. I feel sure they fought until the last. But these are only surmises; what really happened, God alone knows.
The judgment of the veteran soldiers and the frontiersmen, who knew that to retreat was to be annihilated, had caused a few to hold their ground and fight until they were without ammunition; then with gun-stocks, swords, bayonets, whatever came to hand, they battled until they were cut down. Grummond had stayed with them, perhaps honorably sacrificing himself in a vain endeavor to cover the retreat of the rest of his command. The Indian loss was very heavy, but could not exactly be determined.
Such was the melancholy fate of Fetterman and his men. The post was isolated, the weather frightful. A courier was at once dispatched to Fort Laramie, but such means of communication was necessarily slow, and it was not until Christmas morning that the world was apprised of the fatal story. In spite of the reports that had been made and fatuously believed, that peace had obtained in that land, it was now known that war was everywhere prevalent. The shock of horror with which the terrible news was received was greater even than that attendant upon the story of the disastrous battle of the Little Big Horn, ten years later. People had got used to such things then; this news came like a bolt from the blue.
Although Carrington had conducted himself in every way as a brave, prudent, skillful, capable soldier, although his services merited reward, not censure, and demanded praise, not blame, the people and the authorities required a scapegoat. He was instantly relieved from command by General Cooke, upon a private telegram from Laramie, never published, before the receipt of his own official report, and was ordered to change his regimental headquarters to the little frontier post at Fort Caspar, where two companies of his first battalion, just become the new Eighteenth, were stationed, while four companies of the same battalion, under his lieutenant-colonel, were ordered to the relief of Fort Phil Kearney.
The weather had become severe and the snow was banked to the top of the stockade. The mercury was in the bulb. Guards were changed half-hourly. Men and women dressed in furs made from wolf skins taken from the hundreds of wolves which infested the outside butcher-field at night, and which were poisoned by the men for their fur. Upon the day fixed precisely for the march, as the new arrivals needed every roof during a snow-storm which soon became a blizzard, Carrington, his wife and children, his staff and their families, including Mrs. Grummond, escorting the remains of her husband to Tennessee, and the regimental band, with its women and children, began that February "change of headquarters." They narrowly escaped freezing to death. More than one-half of the sixty-five in the party were frosted, and three amputations, with one death, were the immediate result of the foolish and cruel order.
It was not until sometime after that a mixed commission of soldiers and civilians, which thoroughly investigated Carrington's conduct, having before them all his books and records from the inception of the expedition until its tragic close, acquitted him of all blame of any sort, and awarded him due praise for his successful conduct of the whole campaign. His course was also the subject of inquiry before a purely military court, all of them his juniors in rank, which also reported favorably. General Sherman expressly stated that "Colonel Carrington's report, to his personal knowledge, was fully sustained," but by some unaccountable oversight or intent, the report was suppressed and never published, thereby doing lasting injustice to a brave and faithful soldier.
At the same time the government established the sub-post between Laramie and Fort Reno, so earnestly recommended by Carrington, in October, calling it Fort Fetterman, in honor of the unfortunate officer who fell in battle on the list of December.
Perhaps it ill becomes us to censure the dead, but the whole unfortunate affair arose from a direct disobedience of orders on the part of Fetterman and his men. They paid the penalty for their lapse with their lives; and so far, at least, they made what atonement they could. A year later opportunity was given the soldiers at Phil Kearney to exact a dreadful revenge from Red Cloud and his Sioux for the slaughter of their brave comrades.
from Indian Fights And Indian Fighters, 1904.