The saga of Red Cloud’s war continues. We last left the feisty Fetterman defying his orders and heading off to the Lodge Trail Ridge. Oglala warrior, Crazy Horse, anticipated his arrival and appeared on the ridge. One colorful narrative of the occasion said that some warriors “stood on their ponies and insultingly waggled their bare buttocks at the troopers.” If this is true, it would be one more thing to make pursuit irresistible to Fetterman. Toot-do-doo, off he headed over the ridge in pursuit. Do we even need to say that there were an estimated 1,000-3,000 Indians waiting for him?
Men could hear the gunshots from Fort Phil Kearny and, while there were no white observers left alive, evidence indicated that the cavalry had probably charged the Indians. By the time the trap was sprung there was no opportunity for escape and the entire troop was wiped out.
Upon hearing the gunfire, Carrington immediately sent out Tenedor Ten Eyck with a support force of 40 men. Shortly afterward he sent out an additional 70 men, leaving only 119 men inside the fort and manning the wood train detail. The fort itself prepared for attack but it never came. Another epic tale ensues when John “Portuguese” Phillips volunteered to ride to the telegraph office at Fort Laramie with Carrington’s dispatches regarding the massacre. Phillips was accompanied for various segments of the 190 mile trip (in subzero weather) by Daniel Dixon (to Fort Reno) and Robert Bailey. He became a folk hero for that ride and his story will follow separately.
Meanwhile back at the ridge, Ten Eyck arrived at the ridge top shortly after the firing had ceased. He reported back that he could not see Fetterman’s force but the valley was still filled with Indians taunting him to come down after them. Ten Eyck, however, resisted further engagement.
The cavalry had penetrated the valley further than the rest of the men and it was two days before they were able to recover the bodies of all the soldiers. Eyewitnesses from the army’s burial detail reported that most of the dead soldiers had been scalped, beheaded, dismembered, disemboweled and/or castrated. They reported that the only body unmutilated was that of Adolph Metzler who was a teenaged bugler. It appeared that he’d fought two Indians, using his bugle as a bludgeon. While he received fatal head and chest injuries, his body was found unmolested and had been covered with a buffalo robe by the Indians. While the real reason is unknown, there was speculation that it was a sign of respect for his bravery. Body parts were collected and taken back to Fort Phil Kearny for a somber ceremony and burial in the cemetery outside the fort’s stockade.
The battle was called The Battle of the Hundred Slain by the Indians, while whites called it the Fetterman Massacre. It was the army’s worst defeat on the Great Plains until Custer’s battle at Little Big Horn ten years later.
Many historians believe Red Cloud himself did not take part in the Fetterman battle. They have speculated that he may have been present for the Wagon Box Fight near Fort Phil Kearny on August 2, 1867. It’s said that on that date a small army detachment, using new breech-loading rifles, held off approximately 1,000 Cheyenne and Lakota for about five hours. The previous day the Army had a similar success in the Hayfield Fight.
Several investigations were made into the affair and Carrington was replaced by General Wessels who never launched offensive action against the Indians. By late summer of 1867, the government changed its policy by abandoning efforts to maintain the trail in Powder River country. By that time, the transcontinental railroad was a far more viable alternative for emigration.
Once the Army abandoned its Powder River forts, Red Cloud and Northern Cheyenne representatives signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. This treaty created the Great Sioux Reservation covering what is now western South Dakota. The treaty also designated the Powder River country as a hunting reserve for Cheyenne and Lakota, that could also be used by those Cheyenne and Lakota who chose not to live on the new reservation.
While Red Cloud was the only Indian leader to win a major war against the U.S., he was much more than a warrior. After 1868 he lived on the reservation and, anticipating that white emigrants would overwhelm the Sioux, Red Cloud became a tireless negotiator and an important advocate for fair treatment of his people. He outlived all of the major Lakota leaders of the Indian wars…living until 1909 when he died on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he is buried.
The bodies of the U.S. soldiers killed in the 1866 Fetterman battle were reinterred at the U.S. National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, near Crow Agency, Montana. The Fetterman Monument is located near Sheridan, Wyoming.