The winkte rode his sorrel horse about frantically, zig-zagging among the hills near Peno Creek a few miles north of Fort Phil Kearny. The effeminate man — a “two-souled person” — blew on an eagle bone whistle, his head covered in a black cloth. The man/woman was seeking a vision that would guide the war leaders of a vast Lakota/Cheyenne/Arapaho insurgency.
Four times s/he rode out. Each time s/he came back to the leaders with a message — s/he had dead white soldiers in his hands. The first time, s/he said, “I have ten in my hands. Do you want them?” The leaders demurred. They had not assembled the biggest native army ever seen on the high plains to take a mere ten scalps. A second time, a third time he rode out and back. The fourth time, s/he tumbled from the sorrel horse and cried, “Answer me quickly! I have a hundred or more.”
That was what the insurgent leaders wanted to hear. The warriors yelled in exultation and many dismounted and began striking the ground around the queer clairvoyant with their bows and coup sticks.
It was December 20, 1866, and the Lakota and their allies were ready for a slaughter. The next day, they would execute a nearly perfect decoy-and-ambush operation and inflict upon the U.S. Army the worst disaster the force had yet experienced on the Great Plains.
The morning of December 21, 1866 dawned chill and grey, with a light covering of snow on the ground. As was the case on most days, the first command decision Col. Henry Carrington had to make was whether or not to send out the wood train. There were two factors to consider: Would the wood-cutters get caught in a winter storm? Would the Sioux attack them? One was an increasing seasonal risk; the other had been a constant hazard for months. Between the requirements of post construction and the demand for firewood as temperatures plunged, Fort Phil Kearny had an insatiable appetite for the wood that could only come from the Big Horn foothills to the east. By mid-morning, it looked like the weather would hold for a bit, so Carrington gave his permission for the wagons of the wood train to head off to the pineries.
Within an hour, the lookout stationed on Pilot Knob directly behind the fort threw up his signal flag. The wood train was under attack. The fort’s garrison could hear the gunfire. Col. Carrington ordered up a relief column of infantry, and Captain William Judd Fetterman asserted the right to command it.
In later years, Col. Carrington would insist that he ordered Fetterman only to relieve the wood train and that under no circumstances should he cross Lodge Trail Ridge. He reiterated those orders to Lt. George Washington Grummond, who sallied forth with 27 cavalrymen and two civilians minutes after Fetterman’s men marched through the gates. The colonel also remembered Lt. Grummond’s actions in the deadly skirmish on December 6 and insisted that the cavalryman stay with Fetterman. Quartermaster Captain Fred Brown was not going to miss out on his chance at grabbing a scalp, and he, too, rode out to join his friend Fetterman.
Almost as soon as Fetterman left the fort, the troopers on Pilot Knob signaled that the attack on the woodtrain had ceased. The Indians had disengaged and were moving away, across Piney Creek and up the ridge. Carrington watched, apparently unperturbed, as Fetterman, with Grummond’s cavalry, advanced in a manner calculated to cut off the apparently retreating Indians. In his initial report on the action, Carrington wrote that Fetterman was:
“…moving wisely up the creek and along the southern slope of Lodge Trail Ridge with good promise of cutting off the Indians as they should withdraw.”
Carrington seems to have at least tacitly approved of Fetterman taking the tactical initiative. The force, 81 strong, was the largest and strongest unit that had yet been deployed out of Fort Phil Kearney in pursuit of Indians, and it could reasonably expect to handle any force arrayed against it. Carrington returned to his quarters and Fetterman and Grummond continued up — and over — Lodge Trail Ridge.
Everything was going according to plan — the plan that Red Cloud, the Minneconjou Hump and the Cheyenne Little Wolf had carefully laid out and tested over a span of weeks. A party of ten young warriors — two Cheyenne, two Arapaho and two from each of the Lakota bands who had assembled to fight the soldiers — lured the soldiers up Lodge Trail Ridge. Years later, the Cheyenne warrior White Elk recalled watching the performance of one of the decoys, a fellow Cheyenne named Big Nose, as he rode his black war pony back and forth across the ridge in front of the soldiers…
“…seeming to fight them, and they were shooting at him as hard as they could. It looked as if Big Nose was trying to fight and hold back the soldiers in order to help someone ahead of him to get away.”
The decoys led the Army unit up and over Lodge Trail Ridge and out onto the spine of land that ran off to the north. The horse soldiers pulled ahead and left the foot soldiers slogging along behind, the eager troopers chasing, chasing, chasing the young warriors out along the ridge then down toward Peno Creek. The decoys splashed across the creek, then turned and rode back toward the oncoming soldiers, weaving in and out amongst themselves in a figure 8. It was a signal. And with it hell burst upon Lt. Grummond and his men.
Something around 1,500 — maybe as many as 2,000 — warriors had been lying in wait in the wooded and brush choked ravines below Massacre Ridge, watching and listening as the white soldiers moved further and further into their trap. There must have been a terrifying moment of realization for Grummond’s troopers as the horde of screaming warriors burst forth, arrows flying in swarms across the leaden December sky.
The troopers turned and fled back south along Massacre Ridge.
The Lakota warrior Fire Thunder, 16 years old at the time of the fight, recalled:
“I had a six-shooter that I had traded for, and also a bow and arrow. When the soldiers started back, I held the sorrel with one hand and began killing them with the six-shooter, for they came close to me. There were many bullets, but there were more arrows — so many that it was like a cloud of grasshoppers all above and around the soldiers; and our people, shooting across, hit each other.”
Two civilians, James Wheatley and Issac Fisher, dismounted and, with a handful of cavalrymen, made a stand among a low pile of rocks at the northern terminus of the ridge. The frontier partisan fighters worked the levers of their Henry Rifles furiously, pumping rounds into the seething mass of warriors all around them. Their intense fire must have staved off attack for a few precious moments of life — but the 16-shot tubular magazine had to be reloaded, leaving the riflemen vulnerable. The Cheyenne and Lakota warriors overwhelmed them at last, and vented their rage at the losses inflicted by the fast, accurate rifle fire. The frontiersmen’s faces were smashed into unrecognizable pulp, and the warriors shot 100 arrows into Wheatley’s body.
The Indians were taking casualties — among them the brave Cheyenne decoy Big Nose. A placard at the battle site commemorates his death.
Grummond’s men maintained tactical cohesion — or perhaps simply “hedgehogged” — as they moved north to try to link back up with Fetterman and his infantry. The Indians, fighting mostly on foot in the snowy, icy terrain closed with them and killed them in bunches. The troopers released their horses, perhaps hoping to divert their horse-crazy foe.
“The soldiers were falling all the while they were fighting back up the hill and their horses got loose. Many of our people chased the horses, but I was not after horses; I was after Wasicus (white men).”
Grummond probably died on the rise known as Massacre Hill. A handful of cavalrymen broke through the encircling warriors and made it to where Fetterman was attempting to rally his infantry among a pile of boulders.
A contingent of mostly Minneconjou Lakota swept up the east slope of the ridge to assail the position, while the warriors who had dispatched the cavalry also moved in for the kill.
The troopers fought hard, but they simply did not have the firepower to stave off the overwhelming numbers of their foe. Single-shot muzzleloading muskets were turned into clubs in savage hand-to-hand fighting. Cartridges found on the rocky rise indicate that the remnant of the Spencer repeater-armed cavalry got off some fire before they were overrun.
Battle mythology has it that Fetterman and his friend Captain Brown committed mutual suicide at the last. Brown did have a pistol-caliber hole in his head when the Fort Phil Kearney post surgeon examined the bodies — but Fetterman died of a deep wound across the throat. Lakota oral history has it that the badass warrior American Horse — who may have been one of the decoys that led Fetterman’s command to disaster — rode into Fetterman and knocked him down with a vicious swing of his war club. Then he jumped down from his horse and slashed the captain’s throat open with his knife.
In no more than 40 minutes, the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho had rubbed out 81 men.
Heavy firing had been heard from the fort — and then the firing died away. Col. Carrington dispatched Captain Tenadore Ten Eyk with a relief party, but when they crested lodge Trail Ridge and looked down to the north, it quickly became apparent that there was no command to relieve. The Massacre Ridge and Peno Creek Valley were crawling with an astonishing number of Indians, stripping and mutilating the American dead and loading their own dead and wounded onto makeshift sleds. The warriors taunted the soldiers, bidding them to come on down and fight.
Ten Eyk was having none of that, and the warriors, their blood lust cooled in the plunging temperatures of an oncoming winter storm, dispersed and disappeared up Peno Creek.
Ten Eyk’s soldiers slowly and cautiously descended Lodge Trail Ridge into a slaughterhouse scene of almost indescribable horror. Their comrades lay strewn dead along the ridge for almost a mile. The snow was churned into a red slush — and the troopers quickly came to realize that they were walking through the strewn entrails of men whom they had broken bread with just that morning.
The mutilation of the troopers and civilians was grotesque — catalogued in excruciating detail in Carrington’s report on the battle. Such mutilation has often been assumed to be a means of crippling the spirit of an enemy in the afterlife. Historian John Monnett, citing deep anthropological study on the subject, dismisses this notion. The mutilation of Fetterman’s command was an expression of rage and insult — designed to terrorize. And it did.
The remnants of the garrison of Fort Phil Kearney huddled behind their log palisades, stunned with grief and shock — and deathly afraid that Red Cloud’s warriors would soon storm the fort and slaughter them all, man woman and child.
Maps from Atlas of the Sioux Wars, Charles D. Collins, Jr., Combat Studies Institute.