Some tales are complicated and one can’t do justice to them unless one takes time. This is just such a tale and it will appear in three parts.
This story encompasses the years 1866-1868 and describes the armed conflict for control of the Powder River Country, in what is now north central Wyoming. This key hunting ground and territory of the Cheyenne and Lakota tribes, was being encroached upon by miners (heading to the Montana gold fields) as well as emigrant settlers and others heading west. Red Cloud was a prominent Oglala Lakota (Sioux) chief whose band formed an alliance with Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho bands to oppose the U.S. military presence in the area.
In 1866, the U.S. government convened a council with the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne at Fort Laramie. The government’s purpose in calling the council was to discuss a treaty to establish a right-of-way (the Bozeman Trail) through the area and to build military posts for protection of the emigrants.
In an unfortunate case of getting the cart before the horse, Col. Henry Carrington arrived while the conference was in session with approximately 1,300 men and construction supplies. He had been ordered to establish and garrison the proposed series of forts. While the so-called “peace commission” had offered annuities to help alleviate near-starvation, they had NOT disclosed their intention to build the forts. (oops)
Red Cloud was incensed by the arrival of troops before the agreement to build the road had been signed. (oops, again) He not only left without signing the agreement, he promised resistance to any whites using the trail or occupying the territory.
Carrington continued to follow his orders and restored old Fort Reno. Proceeding north, he established Fort Phil Kearny on Piney Creek. He then established a third post, Fort C.F. Smith, 91 miles to the northwest of that on the Big Horn River.
Under the leadership of Red Cloud, allied bands attacked troops at Forts Phil Kearney and C.F. Smith, effectively closing travel on the Bozeman Trail. Carrington’s men were largely untrained and only sufficient in number to protect his posts and supply trains, not to escort emigrants or engage in aggressive action.
Carrington was an engineer and political appointee with little or no combat experience. He’d arrived in mid-July and set his manpower and resources to work at building fortifications rather than fighting. Considering the severe Wyoming winters, this was a reasonable thing to do however junior officers, eager for battle, interpreted this as an unwillingness to fight. Carrington also recognized his limitations, the capability of the enemy, their knowledge of the terrain and their vastly superior numbers.
Captain William J. Fetterman arrived at Fort Kearny in 1866. Although Fetterman had seen action during the Civil War, he had no previous experience fighting American Indians. He criticized Carrington’s strategy as “passive,” and boasted that he could do battle and defeat the Indians if he were in command. This created additional unrest among the troops and only a match was needed to set fire to the situation.
In early December, Lt. Horace Bingham was killed while driving off a band of Indians that had attacked the wood train. Attackers led him and his troops over nearby Lodge Trail Ridge where they were overwhelmed by Indian forces and defeated. Carrington recognized the strategy and cautioned his troops about being lead into such decoy activities again. Fetterman ‘s reaction was pure outrage.
Late in the month, the wood train was again attacked. Carrington ordered Capt. James Powell to command a relief party of 49 infantrymen and 27 mounted troops. (Capt. James Powell had, just two days earlier, declined to pursue Indians over a ridge.) Fetterman, however, claimed seniority, received and took command of the relief party and Capt. Powell was left behind. Carrington ordered Fetterman not to cross Lodge Trail Ridge, where relief from the fort would be difficult. Fetterman, however, instead of going to the relief of the wood train, headed quickly toward Lodge Trail Ridge. (While I’ve never been schooled in military tactics, even I know this meant trouble.)
Stay tuned for our next thrilling installment……….