The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands (Fetterman Fight) Part 3

Fetterman Fight: The Last Minutes

Summary of Parts 1 and 2

From 1864 to 1866, 3,500 miners, settlers and others traversed the Bozeman Trail 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.

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).

Struck by the foolish impulsiveness of soldiers, Crazy Horse devised a ruse to draw them 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 hid and waited with two thousand fighters.

On a cold and snow-covered December day, Crazy Horse 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. Per Crazy Horse’s plan, Captain Fetterman followed with infantry and Captain Grummond followed with mounted troops.

Grummond raced downhill after Crazy Horse’s decoys one mile north to Piney Creek and straight into an ambush. Shocked by the sudden appearance of hundreds of warriors, Fetterman’s command was splintered into three separate positions, each cut off, surrounded, outnumbered, and under a hail of arrows. Grummond died in a desperate attempt to rejoin Fetterman uphill on Lodge Trail Ridge. Only twelve of Grummond’s men under Captain Fred Brown made it.

See Parts 1 and 2 for greater detail.

Fight at Fetterman Rocks

Fetterman’s Rock Fight

With the springing of the trap, Cheyenne and Arapaho forces under Little Horse, a Cheyenne brave, pushed Fetterman’s troops to the only natural protection on the bare ridge. As arrows rained down, a dozen mounted survivors under Captain Brown joined Fetterman after scrambling up the hill from Grummond’s skirmish, bringing the total to forty-nine soldiers.

The Indians moved so close to the grouped troopers they killed them by pistol fire, club, and knife. Weapons fire at the soldiers was so intense that several Native horsemen were wounded by their own friendly fire. Warriors swept in and out of the troops ranks at will, until the braves finally moved in and ended the soldiers’ lives in hand-to-hand combat. Not a single soldier survived.

From ambush to the death of the last man, the fight had lasted forty minutes.

In retaliation for atrocities perpetrated upon Arapaho and Cheyenne families in the Sand Creek Massacre two years earlier, the dead soldiers were stripped and mutilated. Ears, noses, fingers, hands and other body parts were severed. Eyes were gouged out, brains bashed out and entrails torn from the bodies and placed on rocks. The Indians made sure that these enemy soldiers would remain helpless in the spirit world. One of the soldiers had brought his dog. As the pet ran howling toward Fort Phil Kearny, a warrior killed the animal with an arrow.

Forty thousand arrows had been discharged from both sides of the trap by as many as 2,000 warriors. In all, eighty-one soldiers died. Less than one hundred Native warriors were wounded and between thirteen and sixty died. Native forces did not spend a lot of time in the area because the relief force under Captain Ten Eyck had appeared. When taunts did not lure the soldiers to the battle site, the Indians returned to their encampment. Carrington’s relief party reinforced Ten Eyck in retrieving the dead soldiers.

Second Guessing

Analyst Richard J. Fox. Jr asserted that the destruction of the Fetterman infantry position was an example of tactical disintegration, the crowding and bunching of soldiers due to fear and stress. Support for this conclusion came from Congressional investigator John B. Sanborn’s report of July 1867 who described the bodies found at the Fetterman Rocks position as lying in a space thirty-five feet in diameter.

Fort Phil Kearny physician Dr. Hines suggests that Captain Fetterman held his men together in relatively good order at least for the first few minutes, but they were bunched too close together by the constraints of the narrow ridgeline they occupied. Eyewitness accounts like those of White Bull suggested that Fetterman’s actions were not rash. Soldiers did not flee the field in panic but fought bravely. In the end, tactics or individual actions didn’t matter, Army forces were outnumbered and overwhelmed.

The Aftermath

Captain Ten Eyck was able to bring back about half of the bodies of the fallen soldiers on the day of the battle. The next day, under dark clouds portending the blizzard that would isolate the fort for several weeks, Carrington and a small group of volunteers went to the field and brought back the remaining frozen corpses to prepare for burial.

Samuel M. Horton, chief surgeon at Fort Phil Kearny, examined the bodies. He concluded that no more than six soldiers died from gunshot wounds. All the rest were either killed by arrows or died from warclub or knife wounds during close combat. When Horton testified before the Sanborn Commission, he reported a bullet hole in Captain Brown’s left temple. He also reported that Captain Fetterman’s thorax had been cut crosswise with a knife and his throat cut to the cervical spine. In 1906, Lakota Chief American Horse told historian Eli S. Ricker that he ran his horse at full speed into Fetterman knocking him down, then finished him off with his knife.

The Army sought to diffuse blame for the debacle. Fingers pointed to Colonel Carrington who was accused of everything from cowardice to incompetence as the War Department sought to paint the fiasco as a problem of local, rather than national, command.

Carrington attributed the loss of life to Fetterman. General Phillip St. George Cooke, headquartered in Omaha, censured and relieved Carrington of his command five days after the battle. In turn, the head of the U.S. Army, General Ulysses S. Grant, held Cooke, territorial commander, responsible for the stunning defeat and removed him from his post.

The Army demanded revenge while Congress favored less draconian responses. Ordered to pacify the Natives, Major General Grenville Dodge asked General William Tecumseh Sherman for ten thousand troops. General Sherman, best known for his winter of 1864, scorched-earth March to the Sea during the Civil War, declined on the grounds he doubted the advisability of continued westward expansion, a radical departure from American decades-long policy. Contrarily, the historical record confirms that Americans were intent on moving westward by the millions and nothing would, or could, stop them.

President Andrew Johnson appointed high-powered special commissions to investigate and fix blame for the debacle. The Sanborn Commission’s findings were damning: the long litany of violence on the plains was traced in every instance to White hands, both military and civilian, and recommended military action against the Indians be terminated. A military commission attributed the continuing violence to provocative U. S. military deeds and found that Native Americans had due cause for their violent resistance to American expansion.

Indian attacks continued, and it became clear the Army was outnumbered and tactically outclassed. Under the federal leaderships’ political bickering and inaction, travel on the Bozeman Trail ceased and further attempts at peace talks failed. Hostilities persisted until the Army settled affairs the following year by signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie with Red Cloud in November of 1868.

Victory

The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands was a tactical masterpiece. Because of it, Red Cloud and his allies ultimately gained control of the western Powder River country (present day north-central Wyoming), including the Black Hills, demolished the forts, and permanently closed the Bozeman trail. The treaty specified what Red Cloud had sought: “no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the Powder River country or without the consent of the Indians, first, to pass through it.”

Aftershocks

Americans paid a price for the land grab. Casualties during Red cloud’s war totaled two hundred. Native American deaths were estimated at less than sixty warriors.

The battle was not immune to the tendency to sensationalize horrific events. Newspaper stories of the day blamed Carrington for the Fetterman disaster. Carrington held Fetterman responsible. Early accounts, some written by wives of those killed, defended their loved ones with arguments blaming Carrington. Many contemporary historical accounts failed to interview Indian survivors and were thusly colored by ethnic bias. And finally, the conflict was overshadowed by the Army’s most famous blunder, the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. Today, the Fetterman Fight still remains relatively unknown to the public:

An inquiry absolved Carrington of blame, but the report was not made public. Colonel Carrington would spend the rest of his life attempting to repair his tarnished reputation as a soldier. He briefly returned to the West in 1908 to speak at the Fetterman massacre site memorial. Carrington married his second wife, Lt. Grummond’s widow Francis, in 1871. He died in Boston in October 1912.

There are no accounts of Crazy Horse’s role in the Fetterman Fight after triggering the ambush, but he led warriors in the Battle of the Rosebud (June1876) and the Battle of the Little Big Horn (June 1876) but was never wounded in combat. He surrendered at the Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson, Nebraska, on May 5, 1877. For the next four months, Crazy Horse resided in his village near the Red Cloud agency, but rumors of his desire to slip away and return to the old ways of life started to spread. In August 1877, officers at Camp Robinson received word that the Nez Perce had broken out of their reservation in Idaho. When asked by Lieutenant Clark to join the Army against the Nez Perce, Crazy Horse objected at first, saying he had promised to remain at peace, but finally agreed, saying that he would fight “till all the Nez Perce were killed.” His interpreter misconstrued his words as “go north and fight until not a white man is left.”

With trouble growing at the Red Cloud Agency, General George Crook ordered a council of the Lakota leadership. The meeting was canceled when Crook was incorrectly informed that Crazy Horse had said the previous evening that he intended to kill the general during the proceedings. Crook ordered Crazy Horse arrested.

Crazy Horse resisted when shown to the camp jail and was stabbed by a guard’s bayonet on September 5, 1877. He died in the company of his cousin, Touch the Clouds.

Red Cloud’s victory endured until 1876 when the U.S. started to take Native territories again, including the sacred Black Hills. Red Cloud continued fighting for his people, even after being forced onto the reservation. Outliving all the other major Lakota leaders of the Indian Wars, Red Cloud died on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1909 at the age of eighty-seven and was buried in the cemetery that bears his name.

Today

Sections of the Bozeman Trail are still visible, and many monuments have been constructed to identify its historical alignment and location. A reproduction of Fort Phil Kearney still exists, along with a gift and information shop.

A stone monument stands on the site of Fetterman’s rocks.

Monument at Fetterman’s Rocks

Crazy Horse’s image (there are no authenticated photographs of the man) is being memorialized in the world’s largest sculpture at 563 feet high and 641 feet long. Begun in 1948 the monument is not finished after seventy-two years. The memory of his bravery and the injustice it signifies still lingers on the reservation today.

The Fort Laramie Treaty formed the basis of the 1980 Supreme Court case (United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371) in which the court ruled that tribal lands covered under the treaty had been taken illegally by the U.S. government, and the tribe was owed compensation plus interest.  The Sioux have declined to accept the money, because acceptance would legally terminate Sioux demands for return of the Black Hills. The money remains in a Bureau of Indian Affairs account accruing compound interest. The Sioux’s award plus interest was equivalent to $1.48 billion in 2019.

Assault on Sioux lands continues. In 2016, several tribes, including the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux, challenged the Dakota Access pipeline claiming the project would damage their environment and cultural sites. The $3.8 billion pipeline, which opened in 2017, carries half a million barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota’s Bakken shale basin 1,100 miles to Illinois. In July 2020, a federal judge ruled the Dakota Access pipeline must be shut down by August 5, saying federal officials failed to carry out a complete analysis of its environmental impacts. The closing of the pipeline is not certain and remains under litigation.

The Sioux are fighters and survivors. Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn, a spokeswoman for the Standing Rock Sioux, has said, “We will fight this pipeline to the end.”

Judging from their history, they will.

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