Maybe it was the hat. Or maybe I bore the unmistakable stamp of a man riding an intense history high. When I walked through the door of the Fort Phil Kearny museum and visitors center, the lady on duty locked her radar on me.
“So who would you say is most responsible for the Fetterman Disaster?” she queried as soon as I dropped my $5 donation in the box.
“Well, ummm… the Sioux,” said I.
Smart ass answer, which she took in good spirit — but it’s true. And the question reflects a common and persistent foible of military historians and buffs: When a civilized western army suffers a catastrophic defeat at the hands of a barbarian force — from the Teutoburg Forest to the Little Big Horn, from the Monongahela to Isandlwana — we seek to find a reason for an apparent anomaly, and we look for someone in the western command structure to blame.
Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!
The simple fact is that the Powder River Country insurgents led by Red Cloud planned and executed a successful battle strategy. They harassed and besieged the garrison at Fort Phil Kearny; discovered the tactical propensities of their enemy and exploited them; concentrated an overwhelming force — and annihilated a well-armed enemy contingent.
They were victors.
The blame game started almost immediately. Col. Henry Carrington was relieved of his command in January 1867. He would spend the rest of his life trying to redeem his reputation — mostly by sullying Fetterman’s. In this endeavor he was ably assisted by his wives — first Margaret, who would die of consumption in 1870, then Frances Grummond (yep, Carrington eventually married Lt. Grummond’s widow). In separate memoirs that would become a primary source for future popular narratives of the “Fetterman Massacre,” they painted a portrait of Fetterman as an arrogant, rash, vainglorious soldier determined on a death-or-glory ride through the Sioux nation.
That portrait would be further embellished.
“Give me 80 men and I will ride through the entire Sioux nation!”
Those are supposedly Fetterman’s words, though the first time they appeared was in Cyrus Townsend Brady’s popular Indian Fights & Fighters, published in 1904. The captain doubtless indulged in some bravado, but the “Give me 80 men quote” is a little too on-the-nose.
Historian John H. Monnett notes in an article for HistoryNet that the statement:
“…first appeared in print in 1904 in Cyrus Townsend Brady’s book Indian Fights and Fighters and in serial version by Brady that same year in Pearson’s Magazine. Brady had interviewed Henry Carrington extensively in 1903 for the story. Never before had Carrington or his wives broached Fetterman’s offer “with 80 men to ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” Thus, the statement is surely a literary contrivance of Brady’s with Carrington’s approval. Carrington read over the manuscript prior to publication. But it was Brady who penned the legacy, setting up a historical irony that has been profusely repeated since 1904.”
If anyone was the hothead in the command, it was Lt. George Grummond. There is a strong case to be made that he plunged down Lodge Trail Ridge at the head of his 27-man cavalry unit in pursuit of the decoys, and that Fetterman moved to support him. Grummond had impetuously charged ahead into danger with disastrous results several times — during the Civil War and as recently as the deadly skirmish two weeks before along Piney Creek.
Separated by a quarter to a half mile, the two contingents could be cut up in detail.
It is worth noting that in no previous encounter had the American forces run up against more than 100 or so warriors. The pursuit of the decoys looks a lot less rash in that context — the 81-man contingent was plenty strong enough to handle the kind of force the Indians had mustered thus far. Though scout Jim Bridger had earlier reported that thousands of lodges were assembling in the Powder River country, the soldiers had no inkling that they were about to run into 1,000 to 2,000 warriors, especially at a time when Indians traditionally dispersed into winter camps. Again, the indigenous insurgents should be credited for masterfully masking their actual strength and concentrating such a massive force in an unprecedented winter campaign.
As Monnett asserts:
“In essence, the Indians’ plan to create a feint, and then lure troops into a well-staged ambush out of sight of the fort with a large fighting force — which they reasoned, correctly, would be unanticipated — worked.”
The decoys. Virtually every popular account of the Fetterman Fight features Crazy Horse leading the decoys. The accounts are detailed, even down to his “mooning” the soldiers to provoke them. You will notice that my post on the battle didn’t mention Crazy Horse at all. That’s because I am persuaded by historian John H. Monnett’s analysis of Indian eyewitness accounts — none of which mention Crazy Horse. The great Oglala warrior would have been about 26 years old at the time of the Fetterman Fight, and already well-known for his prowess in battle against the Crows, Pawnees, Shoshone and other enemies of his people. He was almost certainly a participant in the fight, because virtually all the Oglala warriors were on hand.
He could have been among the decoys, but there is nothing in the eyewitness accounts to substantiate that he was. All of the detailed accounts of Crazy Horse’s actions luring Fetterman’s soldiers into the trap along Massacre Ridge are embellishments on a legend.
Indian casualties in the fight are impossible to pin down with any precision. American Horse said that the ambushed soldiers were bunched up, demoralized and shot poorly, killing only seven or eight men and wounding others. Carrington reported 65 pools of blood on the snow in the area where Wheately and Fisher plied their rapid-fire Henry Repeaters. Fire Thunder noted that many wounded died enroute to or after arrival at winter camps, as brutally cold weather set in. Some of the casualties were friendly fire, as the storm of arrows was indiscriminate in skewering targets. The Indian eyewitnesses tended to report the casualties they personally were aware of, and the narrow perspective tends toward undercounting. Taking the eyewitness accounts and the battlefield assessments as a whole, it seems that the Indians paid a pretty stiff price for their triumph.
Much of the killing of the soldiers was done with melee weapons. Only a half-dozen fatalities were caused by gunshot, according to the report of the post surgeon.
The Battle of One Hundred in the Hands was a great victory for the Lakota/Cheynne/Arapaho insurgency. But the war was not over. There would be another summer of blood before the Americans would finally seek peace — on the Indians’ terms.