It has been a popular misconception that Native Americans’ sole victory was against George Custer and his 7th Cavalry, otherwise the tribes suffered an endless string of defeats. The truth is, although they ultimately lost their lands and way of life, Indians won significant battles along the way. In this and other entries to my blog, I cover some of the battles that highlight Native military triumphs in the long and costly American Indian Wars (1609 – 1924).
Here is the second installment of one such confrontation commonly known as the Fetterman Fight.
Summary of Part 1
(NOTE: In Part 1, I wrongly stated that the Fetterman Fight was the worst calamity the U.S. Army suffered at the hands of Native American warriors. As readers have pointed out, the Fetterman Fight was in fact the worst defeat of the U.S. Army west of the Mississippi up to that time. I apologize for the error.)
From 1864 to 1866, 3,500 miners, settlers and others traversed the Bozeman Trail (initially navigated by mountain man Jim Bridger) that connected Montana gold rush territory to the Oregon Trail through Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho hunting grounds. The trespassing persisted despite warnings by the tribes to turn back. Native allies reacted with violence.
Raids and skirmishes by the Lakota continued until June 1866 when the U. S. Interior Department called on Lakota leaders, including Chief Red Cloud, to meet at Fort Laramie for a treaty that would ensure security of passage on the Bozeman Trail.
Incursions into Lakota territory continued during the negotiations. Enraged, Red Cloud accused the U.S. of bad faith, refused to sign the treaty, and developed plans to eject all intruders by force.
See Part 1 for greater detail. And now…
Enter Crazy Horse
On December 21, 1866, Lakota forces and their allies faced Colonel Henry B. Carrington at Fort Phil Kearny (in northeast Wyoming near present-day Banner) in the opening round of what became known as Red Cloud’s War (1866 – 1868).
The fight was on, and the success of the upcoming battle depended on Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witco) was born into the Oglala band of Lakota around 1840. By the time Crazy Horse was in his mid-teens he had become a full-fledged warrior. In time, he became the most renowned Oglala warrior and earned acclaim as a brilliant tactician.
Crazy Horse, of slight build and light brown hair, was known to be shy, modest, and generous. He was personally aloof, but in battle, his leadership, innovative tactics, and courage were without equal. Crazy Horse always rode into battle dressed as he had seen in a vision: a single hawk feather in his hair and a small brown stone behind his ear. A lightning symbol on his face and white hail spots painted on his limbs completed a battle uniform that provided spiritual power and protection.
Crazy Horse’s warrior spirit is best described by his cousin Black Elk, “When I was a man, my father told me Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world. He was on his horse in that world, and the horse and himself on it and the trees and the grass and the stones and everything were made of spirit, and nothing was hard, and everything seemed to float. His horse was standing still there, and yet it danced around like a horse made only of shadow, and that is how he got his name, which does not mean that his horse was crazy or wild, but in his vision it danced around in that queer way. It was this vision that gave him his great power, for when he went into a fight, he had only to think of that world to be in it again, so that he could go through anything and not be hurt. Until he was killed at the Soldiers’ Town on White River, he was wounded only twice, once by accident and both times by one of his own people when he was not expecting trouble and was not thinking; never by an enemy.”
The non-accidental wounding of Crazy Horse by his own people is worthy of an aside: In the fall of 1870, Crazy Horse invited the married Black Buffalo Woman to accompany him on a buffalo hunt. She was the wife of No Water, who had a reputation for drinking too much and, by Lakota custom, moving in with another man was equivalent to divorce.
No Water tracked down Crazy Horse at the hunting camp. When he found them in a teepee, he called Crazy Horse’s name from outside. When Crazy Horse answered, No Water aimed in. Touch the Clouds (Maȟpíya Íyapat’o), Crazy Horse’s cousin, knocked the pistol upward, deflecting the bullet to Crazy Horse’s upper jaw. Crazy Horse’s relatives chased No Water, but cooler heads convinced Crazy Horse and No Water that no more blood should be shed. As compensation, No Water paid Crazy Horse three horses. Because Crazy Horse was with a married woman, however, he was stripped of his title as Shirt Wearer (a small group of distinguished community leaders who made decisions about hunting grounds, campsites, and war) for the moral indiscretion.
“These soldiers don’t know anything about fighting Indians.” Jim Bridger’s forewarning proved to be foretelling.
Struck by the foolish impulsiveness of soldiers, Crazy Horse devised a ruse to draw soldiers out of the fort by dismounting from his horse and fleeing as if he were defenseless. Then, troops would be drawn into an ambush where nearly every well-known chief of the seven Lakota bands waited.
On a cold and snow-covered December day, Crazy Horse, protected by his enchanted stone and warpaint, charged into view of the fort with ten mounted Lakota and Cheyenne warriors and attacked the wood cutters. When Carrington fired artillery at them, the decoys ran away as if frightened.
Carrington ordered a relief detachment, composed of forty-nine infantrymen, twenty-seven mounted troopers, three officers, and two civilians under Captain William J. Fetterman. Carrington was so concerned about Fetterman’s zeal for combat that he gave explicit, detailed orders, twice, that under no circumstance was Fetterman to cross Lodge Trail Ridge in pursuit of Indians.
Fetterman went northeast directly toward the southern end of Lodge Trail Ridge. Carrington wrote in his official report that Fetterman was “evidently moving wisely up the creek and along the southern slope on Lodge Trail Ridge, with good promise of cutting off the Indians.”
Trailing Fetterman, Lt. George W. Grummond led a small cavalry detail in support of the infantry. Carrington very publicly ordered Grummond to report to Fetterman, obey his orders, and not leave him. Carrington had good reason to be concerned about Grummond whose military record included a court-martial for violent drunkenness and a history of failing to follow orders.
Grummond and twenty-seven cavalrymen caught up to the infantry about a half-mile out. Fetterman was soon joined by the post quartermaster, Captain Fred Brown, and two armed civilian employees, bringing his force to eighty men. When Fetterman reached the crest of Lodge Trail Ridge, he stopped.
The decoys’ taunting continued. Big Nose, a Cheyenne brave, rode back and forth in front of the infantry and mounted troops, as they bunched on Lodge Trail Ridge. The soldiers fired, but Big Nose continued his taunt before riding down trail toward Piney (Peno) Creek. Grummond and the mounted troops pursued Big Nose, leaving the marching men behind.
Fire Thunder, a sixteen-year-old Lakota warrior reported later, “The decoys came running down the road between us, and the soldiers on horseback followed shooting.”
Fetterman had lost control of his command. What went through his mind as he stood at the crest of Lodge Trail Ridge watching Grummond race downhill after the decoys? Would he face professional embarrassment, or worse, by his lack of leadership? Should he disobey orders and salvage the situation by following, then killing ten Indians in the glory of battle? Did he, a Civil War veteran, consider the unthinkable: leave Grummond and his men to fend for themselves and risk accusations of cowardice? We will never know, but it is likely he marched beyond the ridge following his ethical duty to support the men on horseback.
Once Fetterman and the infantry were beyond the ridge, the Native decoys, now a mile north at Piney Creek, signaled the hidden forces by dividing into two parties, separating, riding a short distance in opposite directions, then turning back and crossing each other.
At just past noon, the door slammed shut.
Lakota warrior White Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Ská) saw the decoy signal and cried out, “We must start!” Twelve hundred Indians lining both sides of the trail leaped on their horses yelling war cries and followed a plan they had developed and practiced for weeks.
Back at the Fort
When the shooting started, Carrington heard the shots coming from Piney Creek, but could see nothing. When the firing increased, Carrington feared the worst. Carrington directed Captain Tenedor Ten Eyck to move immediately with some infantry, then began organizing his own relief detail.
The Fetterman Fight consisted of three concurrent but separate actions on a battlefield stretching one mile from Lodge Trail Ridge in the south to Piney Creek in the north.
The mass attack fragmented Grummond’s detachment at Piney Creek. Fighting started nearby and ended at large boulders, now called the Wheatley-Fisher Rocks. A second skirmish developed four hundred yards uphill where a group of Army riders rallied under Grummond. Simultaneously, the fight with Fetterman’s infantry, the third conflict, began one mile uphill near Lodge Trail Ridge. There, another group of large boulders, now engraved as Fetterman Rocks, sit where the infantry had gathered to defend themselves.
Fight at the Wheatley-Fisher Rocks (Piney Creek)
Shocked by the sudden appearance of hundreds of warriors, fifteen mounted men retreated to the sparse cover of the Wheatley-Fisher Rocks under a hail of arrows. In this group were the civilian employees of the fort, John Wheatley and John Fisher, armed with new breech loading, rifles.
Eats Meat, a Lakota brave, rode his horse through the soldiers at the rocks and was the first killed. Mounted braves circled the rocks in numbers so great that, despite the accurate shooting of the two civilians and veteran soldiers, the fight at Wheatley-Fisher Rocks did not last long. Ten soldiers and two civilians died.
Three survivors escaped uphill to join Grummond. The last trooper to die at the rocks may have been Adolph Metzger, an unarmed teenage bugler who used his instrument as a weapon until it was battered shapeless. As was the custom, the Natives honored Metzger by not mutilating his body. Instead, they protected him with a buffalo robe over his corpse as a tribute to his bravery.
The next day, a burial party discovered sixty-five pools of clotted blood, presumed Native, in the snow. Ten Indian ponies lay dead within a few hundred yards of the rocks. Congressional Investigator John B. Sanborn reported the next spring that fifty expended cartridges were next to one of the dead civilians who had been using 16-shot Henry repeating rifles.
In the second conflict, while the Natives were annihilating the men at the Wheatley-Fisher position, Lieutenant Grummond and his remaining mounted troops (his command had been split by the mass attack), including Captain Brown, took position on the slope four hundred yards above the Wheatley-Fisher position. Stationary at first, Grummond understood he could not save his soldiers at the rocks and the only chance of survival was to join Fetterman three-quarters of a mile up an icy slope.
Grummond led his survivors pulling their stumbling horses up the icy hill while firing at the Indians surrounding them. Some troopers scrambled without mounts; they had killed them earlier to provide cover from the unrelenting arrows and rifle fire. At first, the steepness of the hill and a layer of ice and snow offered hope of escape because the slippery footing slowed Native attempts to follow the unmounted troops. That sliver of advantage was lost when the warriors approached close enough to stab and slice with razor-edged knives, or break limps and bash skulls with war clubs. Five soldiers died. Grummond was killed after he decapitated at least one warrior with his saber.
Captain Brown and a dozen surviving mounted soldiers were finally able to escape and gallop uphill to reinforce Fetterman who, by then, was cut off, surrounded, outnumbered, and fighting for his life.
For more, see Part 3, coming soon…