The garrison at Fort Phil Kearny was numbed with shock, grief-striken and terrified. When Col. Henry Carrington led a detail out to recover the 81 bodies from the December 21, 1886, destruction of Captain William Fetterman’s command, he ordered that the women and children be gathered in the powder magazine of the fort. If the Lakota stormed the fort, the magazine was to be blown up in order to save the military dependents from the dreaded fate worse than death.
On Christmas Day, the mournful remnant of Carrington’s troops, their dependents and the civilians wintering at the fort gathered to bury their dead. Preparation for the burial was gruesome. The bodies were so mutilated that some could only be buried in parts. Captain Fred Brown’s cock had been cut off and stuffed in his mouth. Given the deep-freezing temperatures, it could not be removed, and the scalp-lusting quartermaster had to be buried with this insult mocking him into eternity. The ground was so hard and the conditions so brutal that burial parties could only work in 15 minute shifts. Morale was pummeled into the frozen ground along with the soldiers’ graves.
Exposed and undermanned, Carrington had sent two civilian riders forth to carry the news of disaster to the outside world — and to carry his plea for reinforcement. These men were John “Portugee” Phillips and one Daniel Dixon. Dixon has faded from historical memory — and Portugee Phillips is a Wyoming legend.
Both men rode through intense winter cold and snow to Fort Reno and on to Horseshoe Station with additional companions, where word of the Fetterman disaster was telegraphed out into the civilized world. Then Phillips rode on alone to Fort Laramie, where he arrived nearly done in and interrupted a Christmas ball with the dreadful news. Phillips seems to have been feeling some acute survivors’ guilt. He was a friend and comrade of Isaac Fisher, one of the civilians killed with Fetterman’s command, and Phillips would have accompanied the column had he not been out hauling water on the fateful day. He was driven to take some action in response to the disaster. The ride deserves to be celebrated, even though the circumstances were not as dire as they appeared or as they have been presented in legend. The Lakota and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies contemplated no attack on Fort Phil Kearny. They had their own dead to mourn, their wounded to care for, and a great victory to celebrate. They were now satisfied to hunker down and weather out the brutal Northern Plains winter.
Regardless, Phillips and his comrades navigated through blizzard and blinding sun-on-snow, through bone-splintering cold — and they had no way of knowing that they would not be pursued. They were men of grit and courage, and Portugee Phillips’ monument at the Fort Phil Kearny site should stand for all of them.
Reinforcements arrived at Fort Phil Kearny on January 16. Carrington would not command them. He was relieved and replaced by Lt. Col. Henry Wessells, who had the dubious honor of nursing the garrison through one of the worst Powder River Country winters in history. The strategic position of the U.S. Army was even more tenuous in 1867 than it had been in 1866. The Bozeman Trail was effectively closed to civilian traffic, obviating the ostensible reason the forts were established. The federal government was still focused on Reconstruction in the South. What resources the Army had in the West were needed to protect the biggest construction project in U.S. history to this point — the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which was routed well to the south of the Powder River Country. As much as the Army might have wanted payback for Fetterman, there wasn’t much of a strategic objective left at stake in the Powder River Country. The troops were “here because we’re here because we’re here…” Just as the summer before, they were subject to constant harassing attacks, culminating in two sharp fights in August — one near Fort C.F. Smith at the northern end of the Bozeman Trail in what is now Montana, and one a few miles west of Fort Phil Kearny. And this time the soldiers gave more than they got.
Firepower, it turns out, matters. A lot. Getting a whole lot of lead downrange at an attacking force quickly in sustained fire can make all the tactical difference in the world — and saves the lives of soldiers. The troops stationed in the Powder River Country may have served no real strategic purpose, but they weren’t entirely neglected. In the spring of 1867, they received shipment of the Army’s new rifle — the prototype of the Springfield Trapdoor .45-70 that would serve as the primary longarm of the Army through the end of the century. The Springfield-Allin conversion converted the old Civil War .58-caliber muzzleloader into a breechloading, cartridge-firing rifle through the addition of a trapdoor loading mechanism and a bore liner. The 1866 Springfield-Allin rifle fired a .50 caliber centerfire cartridge; it could readily be reloaded from a prone or kneeling position and it increased a soldier’s rate of fire significantly.
The two August fights played out almost identically, with a hay-cutting party repelling an attack by about 500 warriors on August 1 near Fort C.F. Smith and a woodcutting party staving off an all-day assault by about 700 warriors in the legendary Wagon Box Fight near Fort Phil Kearny on August 2.
The wood cutting detail at Fort Phil Kearny was hazardous duty. It was an attack on the wood train that led directly to the ambush of Fetterman’s command. In the spring and summer of 1867, the newly constituted 27th Infantry that garrisoned the fort provided escort and protection for the wood cutting parties. They unbolted wagon boxes from their chassis and used the open chassis to haul logs from the pinery to the fort. They set up the 10′-x-4.5′-x-2.5′ (height) wagon boxes in a meadow six miles west of the fort.
A small party of young Lakota and Cheyenne warriors attacked wood cutters at their work, hoping to draw the escort out into the open and away from the improvised wagon box fort. Captain James Powell, cautious by nature and schooled well by Fetterman’s fate, instead forted up, with 26 soldiers and six civilians. The Lakota and Cheyenne, several hundred strong, attempted several times, mounted and on foot, to rush and overrun the wagon box fort. Each time, the small force staved them off.
The young Oglala Sioux warrior Fire Thunder, who was in on the kill at the Fetterman Fight, recalled:
“We came on after sunrise. There were many, many of us, and we meant to ride right over them and rub them out. There were not many Wasicus, but they were lying behind the boxes and they shot faster than they’d ever shot at us before. We thought it was some new medicine of great power that they had, for they shot so fast it was like tearing a blanket…
“Our ponies were afraid of the ring of guns the Wasicus made and would not go over… Then we left our horses in the gulch and charged on foot, but it was like grass withering in a fire… I do not know how many of our people were killed but there were very many. It was bad.”
The Indians got some snipers — likely armed with rifles taken from Fetterman’s dead — onto a rim of land from which they could get fire down into the wagon box corral. They inflicted some casualties, including killing Lt. John Jenness, who just wouldn’t keep his head down. He kept insisting that he knew how to fight Indians — right up to the moment he keeled over with his skull shattered by a bullet.
But the attackers made no headway, and when 103 solders finally sallied forth in relief from Fort Phil Kearny, lobbing long-range shots from a mountain howitzer, the warriors withdrew.
The Lakota had run afoul of a tactical problem of modern warfare that would confound Pancho Villa at Celaya, the British at Colenso in the Boer War, and create slaughter on an industrial scale in the First World War: Troops emplaced in a strong defensive position with good fields of fire, wielding significant firepower, were damned hard to overcome, regardless of numbers.
Despite a pair of solid tactical victories for the U.S. Army — a little of that payback for Fetterman — the government was looking for a negotiated peace. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie marked an insurgent victory over the forces of the United States of America. The federal government agreed to evacuate all the posts along the Bozeman Trail and the trail was closed to all traffic. The Treaty guaranteed the Black Hills to the Lakota as part of the Great Sioux Reservation and acknowledged Lakota and Cheyenne right of use of the Powder River Country, which was designated unceded territory.
Despite conceding everything that Red Cloud and the other insurgent leaders demanded the treaty was also a poison pill. While it was vast, the Great Sioux Reservation was still a reservation — and the government would, in the next decade, use its existence as a means of declaring those outside it — the people of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse — hostile. More men would march and more men would die on the High Plains.
The troops who had worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build Fort Phil Kearny were forced to dismantle what they could carry and trundle it back across the prairie to Fort Laramie. Before the retreating Wasicus were out of sight, the Cheyenne chief Little Wolf entered the stockade of Fort Phil Kearny and burned it to the ground.
John Bozeman, who blazed the now-infamous trail, met a violent end, probably at the hands of Blackfeet warriors, along the Yellowstone river in Montana. Or maybe he was killed by his partner or henchmen of a hard-as-nails cattleman named Nelson Story… Another tale for another time.
The great war leader Red Cloud hung up his Hawken rifle and warclub. After touching the pen on the Treaty of Fort Laramie, he made several trips to Washington, DC, where the incomprehensible power of the United States made a profound impression upon him. After 1868, Red Cloud was a reservation Indian.
Given my romantic nature, I’ve long held Red Cloud in a degree of contempt, seeing him as a slippery collaborationist politician, old and broken down — a lesser man than the ardent-hearted Crazy Horse or the stubborn Sitting Bull. That assessment is neither fair nor accurate. While Red Cloud would always seek prestige and political position, and he did become accommodationist or “progressive” in orientation, he always sought what he saw as the best interests of his people as they navigated unfathomable change.
American Horse, the slayer of Captain William Fetterman, would also become a “progressive” leader of his people — accommodating the tide of white civilization.
Who am I to judge?
This trek down the bloody Bozeman Trail has been most rewarding. This was one of the first frontier tales I imbibed as a youngster and it featured in some of my favorite Will Henry novels — No Survivors and Red Blizzard. In following the tracks of Frontier Partisan greats from Jim Bridger to Crazy Horse, some of my longstanding notions have been challenged — the myth of Fetterman as a hotheaded fool; the image of Crazy Horse leading the decoys. I have a greater appreciation for Red Cloud, and for the fundamental grit of the soldiers and civilians who served in this beautiful but cursed and ultimately futile outpost of empire.
A note on sources:
• The first non-fiction book I remember reading on the epic of Fort Phil Kearny was Dee Brown’s The Fetterman Massacre. I didn’t re-read it for this series because it has been overtaken by subsequent scholarship.
• My main source is John H. Monnett’s 2008 tome Where A Hundred Soldiers Were Killed: The Struggle For The Powder River Country In 1866 And The Making Of The Fetterman Myth. It’s meticulously researched and its points are well-supported and well-argued. The writing doesn’t sing, but you can’t have everything.
• Shannon D. Smith’s Give Me 80 Men also explodes the Fetterman myth, with an interesting examination of the manner in which Carrington’s wives spun the tale to redeem the colonel’s reputation. She shows how Victorian attitudes toward women made it difficult for soldiers who had a different view to counter the narrative created by the two women.
• Monnett also edited Eyewitness To The Fetterman Fight: Indian Views. The book features useful explorations of the roles of Crazy Horse and Red Cloud.
• There are several good articles to be found online, but most everything circles back to Smith and or Monnett.
• Both of them are featured in the previously cited doco from Wyoming Public Broadcasting on The Bozeman Trail.
• The bestselling Bob Drury/Tom Clavin The Heart Of Everything That Is: The Untold Story Of Red Cloud, an American Legend jump-started my changed perspective on Red Cloud and certainly gave me a greater appreciation for his qualities as a warrior. There’s some clunkers in it, and I don’t think they have a real feel for the West.
• The Legends of the Old West podcast Red Cloud’s War relies heavily on Heart but it’s actually more satisfying.
• Not actually a source, since I just got it, but Counting Coup and Cutting Horses: Intertribal Warfare on the Northern Plains by Anthony R. McGinnis offers a deeper look at the context of the type of warfare that gave the Lakota suzerainty in the Powder River Country.
• I am completely infatuated with this:
Concise, cogent descriptions of actions large and small, including The Bozeman Trail War. The maps are detailed and easy to understand and… oh, hell, it’s a treasure trove of Frontier Partisans lore. It’s available as a downloadable PDF through the University of Texas.
This series on The Bozeman Trail War has been the biggest undertaking yet for Frontier Partisans (other than Warriors of the Wildlands). Thanks for taking the trail with me.