Lakota and Cheyenne Triumph: Fetterman Massacre
During the 400-year armed conflict between whites and Native Americans, only one Indian chief ever won a major war against the United States: Lakota Chief Red Cloud, whose two-year fight (1866-1868) in Wyoming and Montana Territories is known as “Red Cloud’s War.” He and his people—along with the Northern Cheyenne and some Arapaho—were defending their lands in the Powder River Country, where soldiers had erected forts and pioneers were travelling on the Bozeman Trail. In 1868 the U.S. conceded defeat and signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Three of the soldiers’ hated forts, Fort C. F. Smith, Fort Phil Kearney and Fort Reno, were abandoned. The Powder River Country was closed to all whites, and the Lakota’s ownership of their sacred Black Hills was formally recognized. The treaty lasted eight years until it was broken by the U.S. government’s failure to keep gold prospectors out of the Black Hills, causing the renewed fighting that led to Custer’s infamous “Last Stand.”
Before the defeat of Custer in 1876, the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota achieved another total victory against the U.S. Army, this one during Red Cloud’s War, when an 81-man detachment led by Captain William J. Fetterman was destroyed near Fort Kearney on Dec. 21, 1866. Called the “Battle of the Hundred Slain” by the victorious Indians, whites labeled the clash the “Fetterman Massacre.”
The nation’s newspapers shocked the public with gory details of the battle. Enraged at the mutilation of Arapaho and Cheyenne women and children two years before by Colorado militia during the Sand Creek Massacre, the victorious Indians in 1866 mutilated the bodies of Fetterman and his men. The public was also shocked that a large force of U.S. troops could be defeated by “savages.”
The following description of the battle is contained in a letter written by a trooper stationed at Fort Kearney in December 1866. It was originally published by the Janesville Gazette and reprinted by the Georgia Weekly Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Feb. 15, 1867:
The Indian War
Full Details of the Fort Kearney Massacre—A Whole Detachment of Troops Slaughtered—Horrible Atrocities
From the Janesville (Wis.) Gazette, Jan. 30.
From a private letter to Mr. David Vankirk, of this city, written by his son, Horace D. Vankirk, Company C, Twenty-seventh United States Infantry, now stationed at Fort Phil Kearney, we are permitted to make some abstracts in relation to the Indian massacre which occurred on the 21st of last December. He says:
On the morning of December 21, about 8 ½ o’clock, firing in the direction of our wood train, en route to the pinery for timber, was heard, and the picket on the lookout hill immediately signaled Indians in that direction. Company C, Second United States Cavalry, and about 45 infantry, under command of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman, accompanied by Lieutenant G. W. Grummond and Captain F. H. Brown, with orders to go to the aid of the wood train, and if they thought they could take it to the pinery and return in safety, to do so, were immediately got ready. Meanwhile, Indians appeared on the hills across the Piney Fork, about a mile distant, although scattered and in small quantities. The 12-pounder was got into position to give them a shell or two, and Colonel Fetterman’s party started out the northwest gate.
The Indians had begun to “light out” from among the bushes along the banks of Piney Fork, as a shell or two went over their heads in the direction of their comrades on the hills. The firing by this time had ceased in the direction of the wood train, and Col. Fetterman had gone down into the valley of the Piney Fork (which runs only about four hundred yards from the north corner of the stockade), to where the Indians were getting out of the bushes, and who had not been seen till one or two shells from the 12-pounder had begun to make them think it was not exactly safe around there; they had evidently been lying in ambush there since sometime before daylight. There were, I should judge, about one hundred and fifty in number, and they were running up ravines and from one place to another to keep out of sight. When Col. Fetterman got down into the valley, he threw out a skirmish line as he advanced toward the creek. The Indians were retreating in a northerly direction toward Peno Creek Valley, where Lieutenant Bingham and Sergeant Bowers were killed on the 6th. A small party of men joined Colonel Fetterman’s party, in the Piney Fork bottom, consisting of about three soldiers and three or four citizens, who went out on their own hook.
Col. Fetterman’s party kept on, and finally disappeared over the hill toward the Peno Creek Valley, and shortly after heavy firing was heard in that direction. It was by this time, [al]most eleven o’clock A.M., and everything in the garrison pursued its regular routine of garrison duty. About half past eleven A.M. a messenger arrived from the scene of action and requested more assistance, and men were soon gathered to the number of about forty-five, under charge of Captain T. Ten Eyck, to go to their assistance. The messenger reported the Indians charging on our men in great numbers. I was anxious to go and I could not get a gun handy without going down to the company after my own, and I knew I would not have time enough for that, so I concluded not to go, but an intimate friend of mine went, and I got the following statement from him, and he is, I think, a very good judge.
He says they proceeded in haste to the field, and upon arriving at the edge of Peno Creek Valley, they discovered further down, and in the valley, what appeared to be old cottonwood limbs stripped of their bark. The valley was one moving body of Indians, yelling, riding around and cutting capers, as far down the valley as the eye could reach. My friend estimated them at from three to five thousand, and he has seen armies in every position, and I think he has made a careful estimate. They proceeded along the edge of the valley to see if they could find any trace of Colonel Fetterman’s party, but not daring to go down into the bottom of the valley, for they knew it would be folly, for they would be immediately surrounded by the Indians if they should. They continued along the edge of the valley until they got to a point opposite to where the apparent cottonwood trees were lying, and Captain Ten Eyck sent twenty men to go down and examine the scattered rubbish, and lo! and behold, they were the dead bodies of Colonel Fetterman and party, and not one was found to have the least particle of life left.
When Captain Ten Eyck left the post an ambulance and three army wagons, with hay in the bottom to bring in the wounded and take out three thousand rounds of ammunition, was sent out directly after Captain Ten Eyck’s party had left. After it had been discovered that none of Colonel Fetterman’s party were left to tell the tale, the wagons and ambulance were driven down and all of the men, except a very few that [were] left on a high point to keep a lookout, went down to load up the bodies. The Indians had retreated down the valley and did not seem over anxious to renew the combat, but very slowly kept falling back. [The wagons departed] leaving about thirty-five dead on the field being unable to bring them in, but returned the next day, 22d inst., and brought in the remainder.
The [soldiers’] bodies were stripped perfectly naked and horribly mutilated; some had the top of their skulls cut off and their brains taken out, others with their arms cut out of their sockets, and were mutilated in every shape and way imaginable, and had arrows in considerable quantities stabbed in their bodies. One man, a soldier in Company E, Second Battalion, Eighteenth Infantry, had one hundred and sixty-five in his body, another sixty-five, and some had only five or six, more or less.
From all appearances the best evidence is that the party, Colonel Fetterman’s, went down into the valley on a charge, and only one hundred and fifty or two hundred Indians were visible, and when they had got fairly in the bottom, Indians sprang out from among the ravines and behind the little hills in immense numbers, and immediately surrounded them, for they had evidently fought to the last man, and, by all appearances, fought well. Their bodies all were in the space of forty feet square, although they were not piled on top of one another. The Indians could not have finished their work of torture many minutes before the arrival of Captain Ten Eyck’s party, for heavy firing was heard, after he had crossed the Piney Fork, in that direction.
I have given you the particulars, as far as I can, as far as the fight is concerned, and I will try and relate the feelings of the garrison on the foundation of such a fact. Our total loss is three officers, seventy-six enlisted men, three citizens I know of, and perhaps more. Col. Carrington, in his dispatch, reported ninety-four killed, but I think it is less than that number. I know, on the night of the 22d inst., Capt. Arnold came into the office and told the Sergeant-major that he wanted every company to account for every man, as there were ninety dead bodies at this post, and there were only seventy-six enlisted men and three officers, making a total of seventy-nine accounted for, making a deficiency of eleven men.
The garrison were in a high state of excitement after the dead [were] brought in, and no doubt the Indians could have taken the fort if they had followed up their success, as they were in overpowering numbers. The general assembly was sounded and the troops formed in line of battle about 4 o’clock P.M., on the 21st. Colonel Carrington made a speech, and said some encouraging words. Our whole armed force at that time only mustered one hundred and eleven men in fighting trim. Think of that. Immediately after dark, platforms were built to every loophole, and wagons were hauled in a circle around the magazine to make an effectual stockade, determined to fight to the last man.
At eight o’clock P.M., same day, the general assembly was sounded again, and the troops again formed in line. The Colonel said a few words and the troops deployed around the stockade at the loopholes, so that every company would know which side to take and every man what loophole to take in case of an attack. Our determination, and that of our officers, was to fight at the loopholes around the stockade as long as possible, and then fall back in the stockade around the magazine with the women of the garrison and there fight to the last man, if necessary, and then blow up the magazine; but I think that we could stand against a large force at the loopholes, as we have the advantage of good size logs to stand behind. We were called in as soon as we had our places assigned to us.
A running guard or night watch has been kept in the company’s quarters every night since, and I think it will continue in the future. There was not much sleep that night, everything quiet, men talking in squads in low voices, guessing if some wounded man had not made his escape and one man left to tell the tale; but none has yet appeared, and all hope is given up.
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