Fort Phil Kearny

I visited Fort Phil Kearny (the location of the 1866 Fetterman Fight) in August of 2013. Fort Phil Kearny is about ten miles north of Buffalo, WY. It had been several decades since I had stopped there before. Improvements have been made in the Visitor Center and the fort site. On the other hand very little has changed at the site of the Fetterman Fight itself.

It is often called the Fetterman Massacre, but “fight” is a better characterization than “massacre”.  Captain William Fetterman and his 80 men were fully armed and in pursuit of the Indians. But the Indians executed a well-planned ambush and all the soldiers were killed. It was the worst disaster for the U.S. Army in the plains until Custer met his match along the Little Big Horn River ten years later.

In 1863 John Bozeman blazed a new trail to the Montana goldfields from southern Wyoming. The trail ran north along the eastern foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, right through the hunting grounds of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Indians. After the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 Indians attacked parties all along the Bozeman Trail. In 1866 the U.S. Army established three forts along the trail. The middle one, the headquarters fort, was Fort Phil Kearny.

In this picture I took you can see Pilot Hill in the background, south of the fort. Pickets were posted on the summit to watch work parties sent out from the fort north to pine woods for wood and water. These parties were regularly attacked by Indians. When that happened the fort would send out a rescue party.

 

On December 21, 1866 Indians attacked another work party, and the fort Commander, Col. Henry Carrington, sent out Captain William Fetterman and 80 men to the rescue. This was composed of 60% infantry, a few civilians, a couple of other officers, and the rest cavalry. What happened next is the subject of much controversy. Did Fetterman follow orders or didn’t he? Was he a foolish, arrogant, reckless, glory seeker who took an enormous risk or was he a disciplined professional obeying his superior’s orders to aggressively cut off and punish the Indians attacking the work party. We’ll never know for sure.

What we do know for sure is that Fetterman took his command not directly north toward the pine woods but to the northeast along the Lodge Ridge Trail, in pursuit of a small band of mounted warriors (including Crazy Horse). And then – most importantly – he went over the ridge and out of sight of the fort. And he continued along a ridge heading to the northeast

In this picture I was looking to the northwest from the ridge that was the site of the battle. This is Piney Creek Valley. You can see the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains to the left. This is beautiful western country. And you can also see that the site has been little touched by encroaching civilization. This is still the heart of cattle country. What Fetterman and his men discovered on that day – to their surprise and horror - was that this valley and the one to the right of the ridge contained more Indians than they had ever seen in their lives.

 

This is a picture of Massacre Hill looking south from the north end of the ridge. The fort is about four miles south, several miles on the other side of that ridge in the background.

The cavalry got ahead of the infantry. By this time Fetterman and his men must have realized a) that they had fallen into a clever trap, b) that those ten mounted warriors had been the decoy, c) that hundreds of Indians were cutting off their line of retreat, and d) that they were all going to die that day. The Indians on the other hand must have felt a great sense of triumph; their ambush had succeeded beautifully.

At first it might seem that the soldiers were in a good position. They had the high ground. And they had guns, whereas the Indians had mostly bows and arrows, clubs, spears, and knives. But many of the soldiers were ill-trained recruits. And the infantry still had Civil War era single-shot rifle-muskets. The cavalry did have repeating Sharps carbines and the two civilians even had 16-shot Henry rifles. But even repeating rifles had to be reloaded. And there were probably over 1,000 Indians. And as you can see, there was little in the way of cover.

Tens of thousands of arrows poured into the soldiers’ positions. Fighting quickly became hand-to-hand. The cavalry troopers were wiped out first and then the infantry. It probably took only 15-20 minutes.

This battle was part of Red Cloud’s War. The Indians kept up attacks on the forts until in 1868 the U.S. Army abandoned all three of them and gave up trying to protect the Bozeman Trail. Red Cloud won his war.

This battle is also well known as one of only a few examples of Indians in the West mounting  a well-planned, large-scale, beautifully-executed attack. A classic ambush.

 

This is a picture of Massacre Hill from the south end of the ridge. It probably looks about the way it did back on that winter day in late December of 1866.

I like this picture because of the inherent irony. At about the 3:00 position you can see vehicles zooming along on I-90, maybe two miles to the east.