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Remembering the Role of the Spencer Rifle at the Fetterman Fight

By: Randy Tucker

“Eoseetoneto” (eh-say-do-nee-toe, English translation, “It’s really cold”) rang through the Cheyenne camp early that morning. It was cold, bitterly cold. The report at nearby Fort Phil Kearney measured the temperature at 21 below zero just a few minutes after dawn. To the Oglala, it was simply Waniyetu (winter), and to the Arapaho, it was tooyo3iisiini' (a cold day).

It was December 21, 1866 – a day the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Oglala people and the U.S. Army would remember forever.

For months, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse and their scouts observed the soldiers at Ft. Phil Kearney from a distance as they went about their daily activities.

The Arapaho joined the Cheyenne and Sioux in late 1864; among them were the men whose families were butchered by Colorado Militia at Sand Creek almost exactly two years before, in late November of 1864.

The killing of defenseless women, children, and old men by John Chivington and his drunken band of terrorists burned into the memory of the men who were away hunting game when the attack came on Black Kettle’s camp.

The presence of Fort Phil Kearny was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for the indigenous people who held the area along Story Creek near present-day Buffalo and Sheridan, Wyoming sacred.

As early as 1853, reports of gold two-hundred miles northwest began to bring white gold seekers into the lands of the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Oglala Sioux. In 1863, a major strike was discovered at Alder Gulch. The trickle turned into a torrent of immigrant miners.

In the summer of 1863, John Bozeman plotted the Bozeman Trail smack through the middle of Native lands guaranteed by the Laramie River Treaty of 1851.

The notion that “as long as the grass shall grow this land will belong to the people of the plains” rang hollow as armies of white men rode through the promised tribal lands, killing game, letting their horses and cattle eat all the grass, and taking the time to fire a few shots at any Native who approached them.

The groups of miners grew into heavily armed parties of 50 or more men traveling in groups and more than eager to shoot.

Around the gold fields, gangs of murderous criminals began killing and robbing miners who had struck it rich and were careful to try to disguise their crimes to make it look like Indians were committing them.

Tensions rose, and the territorial senators from the newly formed Montana and Dakota Territories called for a military presence on the Powder River. A string of forts was constructed from Ft. Laramie all the way to the Montana gold fields, and Fort Phil Kearney was set right in the middle of the lands that Oglala leaders Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, along with Northern Arapahos Sorrel Horse and Little Chief, and their people held sacred.

General William T. Sherman of Civil War fame took command of the entire region and assigned Col. Henry B Carrington, a lawyer by trade who had never seen action in the Civil War, as commander of Fort Phil Kearny.

Sheridan urged the officers to take their wives and families with them to the new fort, and in his words, to enjoy, “A pleasant life in the newly opened country, where all would be healthful, with pleasant service and absolute peace.”

As the fort construction began, Red Cloud and 2,000 men along with their families set up camp a few miles south.

Skirmishes between warriors, troops, and government contractors began almost immediately. In the first four months, 70 soldiers and civilians were killed in 50 separate incidents, but these were largely harassing tactics designed by Red Cloud to test the fortitude and resolve of his enemy and to discover weaknesses.

By September 1866, the Denver Post and eastern newspapers were calling this Red Cloud’s War.

A bad situation grew exponentially worse with the arrival of Captain William J. Fetterman at the post on November 3, 1866. The cocky, impetuous Fetterman had risen to the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel during the Civil war and had little respect for Carrington.

Fetterman bragged loud and often at how, with 80 men, he could whip Red Cloud and every Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota riding with him.

Fetterman’s words reached Red Cloud, and the wise war chief waited for an opportunity, knowing the young officer’s brashness was his ultimate weakness.

During the skirmishes of the summer and fall, Red Cloud discovered that the soldiers were easy to trick into following them.

Legend has it that Red Cloud thought of the tiny killdeer and how it mimics a broken wing to lead predators away from its nesting young.

The killdeer would prove to be an effective tactic for the venerable Oglala warrior.

After the fort was constructed, the primary work of the enlisted men was to work with civilian contractors cutting and storing grass hay for the horses at the fort and cutting firewood from the nearby foothills of the Big Horn Mountains.
Small groups of workers had to be escorted by armed cavalry squads, and still the warriors looked for weakness and attacked.

It became evident that if a man fell off his horse or ran on foot away from the soldiers, they would be eager to follow and equally easy to ambush. Dozens of soldiers fell to this tactic through the summer and autumn.

This war of attrition angered the impetuous Fetterman, and he openly criticized Carrington for inaction and lack of leadership.

Before their relationship deteriorated to open hostility, Carrington allowed Fetterman to try some of his tactics in a half-dozen offensive attacks against the tribes. The engagements ended disastrously for the army, and Fetterman himself said, “This Indian war has become a hand-to-hand fight, requiring the utmost caution.”

Caution was the last thing on Fetterman’s mind.

Red Cloud laid out his plan to the men in the combined camp. A small group of men would entice Fetterman to ride into an ambush. If the plan played out as designed, they might be able to destroy the entire contingent at the fort.

Meanwhile, Fetterman was under orders from Carrington not to pursue small bands attacking a larger force, since the ambush tactic was common knowledge. Fetterman knew better than to trust Carrington’s weak leadership and was determined to teach the Indians a lesson.

Before dawn on a crisp December morning, when the crunch of the crusted snow under the feet of men and horses echoed through the mountains like a cannon blast, Red Cloud put his plan into action.

Crazy Horse rode out with a half-dozen men and headed toward the fort. The rest of the force, under Red Cloud, estimated at a combined strength of 1,500 men, moved to the ambush site to the northeast of the fort.

Accounts vary as to the orders Fetterman was under that morning. When the day was over, blame was quick to come among the survivors inside the fort.

Carrington insisted he gave Fetterman orders not to engage any decoying groups, but evidence doesn’t support his claim.

Whatever the orders were, they didn’t include battling a group of well mounted, well armed, angry men waiting for Fetterman to arrive.

Crazy Horse taunted Fetterman just out of rifle range.

Fetterman’s soldiers were largely on foot, since inconsistent delivery of oats and loss of horses in combat had reduced the number of mounts at the fort to just three dozen healthy animals.
Carrington sent Lt. George Drummond and 27 cavalry to join Fetterman’s infantry. Drummond had a terrible reputation as a drunk and an inefficient officer, but found his way west after a court martial earlier in his career.

Crazy Horse and the other Oglala kept taunting Fetterman, and foolishly he followed them as they led the 80 men on foot and horseback towards Lodge Trail Ridge.

The cavalry quickly left the infantry behind as they approached Lodge Trail Ridge. As the cavalry descended down the far side of the ridge the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho lightly engaged them. Fetterman’s infantry followed at a quick pace to support the cavalry, and the entire group disappeared from the sight of the fort as they dropped down the ridge.

At the bottom of the ridge, Crazy Horse and his small force dismounted and ran up the hillside.

As the last of Fetterman’s men descended into the sloping canyon at the base of the ridge, Red Cloud closed the trap.

It is estimated that 15,000 arrows flew into the troops in just 10 minutes.

The Arapaho and relatives of the Cheyenne who also had family at Sand Creek were given the first shots.

Among Fetterman’s troops were two civilian scouts, James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher. They were both armed with the newly invented Henry 16-shot lever action rifle. As the battle began, Wheatley and Fisher, along with six soldiers armed with seven-shot Spencer rifles, holed up among some rocks and killed or severely wounded 60 men. They ran out of ammunition quickly and were killed in hand-to-hand combat.

Most of the soldiers were mutilated with fingers cut off, eyes gouged out, and dozens of arrows fired into their crotch. But not the company bugler. He was spared.

The Oglala have a tradition of honoring a brave enemy as a fellow warrior, and Adolph Metzger, a German immigrant, was surely as brave as they come. He was one of the men firing a Spencer rifle. When he ran out of ammunition, he swung his bugle as a club until it was a mass of twisted brass. He fell to a hail of arrows as he fought with just his fists in his final moments.

The Oglala were impressed, and instead of mutilating his body, they carved a simple cross in his chest and wrapped him in a buffalo robe, crossing his arms across his chest as if he were sleeping. His heroism was greatly admired by the Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne, and many nights the tale was retold around the campfire to future generations.

In less than 10 minutes the battle was over. The arrow riddled corpses of 81 soldiers covered the base of the canyon.

The noise of the battle reached Fort Kearny, and a relief detachment under Capt. Tenodor Ten Eyck arrived at the top of the ridge a few minutes later. The assembled warriors were mutilating the corpses of the fallen soldiers and taunted Ten Eyck to come down and join the fight.

Instead, he turned back to the fort. Carrington ordered all civilians into the camp blockhouse and prepared his men for a final attack, but the attack never came.

Red Cloud knew of the power of the mountain howitzers inside the fort and knew the women and children of his camp were at risk if Carrington were able to get his artillery in range.

As a blizzard rolled in from the northwest, the rock-hard frozen bodies of Fetterman’s force were covered with heavy drifting snow.

The Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, and Oglala disbanded into small groups and headed back to their traditional winter settlements.

The Fetterman Fight, as it widely known, is often referred to as the Fetterman Massacre, but is also known as “Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands” by the Oglala.

The results of the battle were swift. The string of forts was disbanded, and 18 months later at Ft. Laramie, the treaty of 1868 was signed by the U.S. government and many of the men who fought against them that frozen morning in northern Wyoming.

At the time, it was the greatest victory native forces had won against the U.S. Army, but was later eclipsed in the same geographic area when Sitting Bull led many of the same men in the defeat of George Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Greasy Grass 10 years later.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

Photo Credit: By Beyer, Walter F;Keydel, Oscar F. (Oscar Frederick), b. 1871 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14584707519/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/deedsofvalorhowa02beye/deedsofvalorhowa02beye#page/n151/mode/1up, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43786454

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