Military Wiki
Fetterman Fight
Part of Red Cloud's War, Sioux Wars, American Indian Wars
Wpdms powder river country.jpg

The Powder River Country, northeast of the Bighorn Mountains and south of the Yellowstone River, is shown in red in the western United States.
DateDecember 21, 1866
Location4 miles north of Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming
Result Indian victory
 United States Lakota
Northern Cheyenne
Northern Arapaho
Commanders and leaders
Capt.William J. Fetterman
Capt. Frederick Brown
Lt. George W. Grummond
Hump (High Backbone)
Crazy Horse
Man Afraid Of His Horses
79 soldiers, 2 civilians ~1,000
Casualties and losses
81 killed Probably between 13 and 60 killed

The Fetterman Fight was a battle during Red Cloud's War on December 21, 1866, between the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians and soldiers of the United States army. All 81 men under the command of Captain William J. Fetterman were killed by the Indians. It was, at the time, the worst military disaster ever suffered by the U.S. on the Great Plains. The battle led to an Indian victory in the war and the withdrawal of the United States from the war.


In June 1866, Colonel Henry B. Carrington advanced from Fort Laramie into the Powder River country, the hunting grounds of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho. His objective was to protect emigrants traveling the Bozeman Trail. Carrington had 700 soldiers and 300 civilians under his command. He established three forts along the trail, including his headquarters at Fort Phil Kearny, near present day Buffalo, Wyoming. About 400 of the soldiers and most of the civilians were stationed at Fort Kearny.[1] In the next few months, while Fort Kearny was under construction, Carrington was plagued by 50 Indian attacks killing several dozen soldiers and civilians.[2] The Indians, almost always mounted, usually appeared in groups of 20 to 100.[3] Carrington was under pressure from several of his junior officers to take the offensive against the Indians. The pressure mounted when, on November 3, a cavalry company numbering 63 men arrived to reinforce the fort. The cavalrymen were commanded by Lieutenant Horatio S. Bingham. Accompanying the cavalry were Infantry Captains Fetterman and James W. Powell, assigned to Fort Kearney from the 18th Infantry's headquarters garrison at Fort Laramie. Bingham and Fetterman were Civil War veterans and Fetterman had a distinguished war record.[4]

The Bozeman trail and the location of the Fetterman Fight and Fort Phil Kearny.

Fetterman had no experience fighting Indians, but from the first day of his arrival he was critical of Carrington's defensive posture and contemptuous of the Indian foe. He is reputed to have boasted, "Give me 80 men and I can ride through the whole Sioux nation."[5] Many other officers were also critical of Carrington. Shortly after his arrival at Fort Kearny, Carrington gave Fetterman permission to attempt a night ambush, but the Indians didn't take the bait, stampeding instead a herd of cattle on the opposite bank of the Powder River from Fetterman's trap. On November 22, Fetterman was himself almost lured into an Indian ambush. He accompanied an escort of soldiers guarding a wagon train gathering firewood and construction timber for Fort Kearny. A lone Indian tried to entice the soldiers into chasing him into the woods. Lieutenant Bisbee, commanding the wagon train, wisely took cover rather than pursuing the Indian.[6]

Carrington takes the offensive

On November 25, 1866, Carrington was ordered by his superior, General Philip St. George Cooke at Fort Laramie to take the offensive against the Indians in response to their "murderous and insulting attacks".[7] Carrington's first opportunity to strike back at the Indians came on December 6. His pickets on Pilot Hill signaled that a wood train was under attack four miles west of the fort. Carrington told Fetterman to proceed west with a company of cavalry and a squad of mounted infantry to relieve the wood train. He, with a mounted squad, circled north to attempt to cut off the Indian's line of retreat. During the movement, Lts. Grummond and Bingham and several men became separated from Carrington, who found himself surrounded by 100 Indians. Fetterman arrived a few minutes later to rescue Carrington and the Indians retreated. Grummond eventually reappeared with seven Indians chasing him. He reached safety with Carrington and Fetterman. The body of Bingham and a sergeant were discovered several hours later. Four soldiers were wounded. They had been led into a trap by an Indian decoy supposedly fleeing from them. Carrington claimed that 10 Indians had been killed, but both he and Fetterman were sobered by the shortcomings in organization and discipline of their soldiers. Fetterman said, "This Indian war has become a hand-to-hand fight requiring the utmost caution." Carrington's guide, the old Mountain Man Jim Bridger, was blunter. He said the soldiers "don't know anything about fighting Indians".[8]

Red Cloud, the Oglala Lakota leader

Colonel Henry B. Carrington

Caution confirmed by this experience, Carrington intensified training for his soldiers and officers, forming them into six companies. He doubled the number of guards for the wood trains and kept the 50 serviceable horses the fort still possessed – having lost many in Indian raids – saddled and ready to sally from dawn to dark. On December 19, the Indians attacked another wood train. Carrington sent his most cautious officer, Captain Powell, out of the fort to relieve the wood train with a cavalry company and mounted infantry and explicit orders not to pursue the Indians beyond Lodge Trail Ridge, two miles north of Fort Kearny. Powell returned safely, having followed orders and accomplished his mission. Carrington reemphasized to his soldiers his policy of caution until reinforcements and additional horses and supplies arrived from Fort Laramie. On December 20, Carrington turned down Fetterman's and Captain Brown's proposal that they lead 50 civilian employees in a raid on the Lakota village on the Tongue River, about 50 miles distant.[9]

Indians set a trap

Red Cloud and other Indian leaders, encouraged by their successes, decided to undertake a large military operation against Fort Kearny before winter snows forced them to break up their large village on the Tongue River and disperse. The decoy trick had worked on December 6 and they decided to try it again, this time with a force adequate to destroy any group of soldiers sent to chase them. The warriors, possibly numbering more than 1,000, congregated about 10 miles north of Fort Kearny, reconnoitered, and decided the best place to lay the trap was along the Bozeman trail north of Lodge Trail ridge, out of sight but only about four miles from Fort Kearny. The Cheyenne and Arapaho took up positions on the west side of the trail and the Lakota on the east. The group of Indians chosen to decoy the soldiers included the young Oglala, Crazy Horse.[10] The morning of December 21, 1866, was clear and cold. About 10 a.m. Carrington dispatched a wagon train to the "pinery" – about five miles northwest and the nearest source of construction timber and firewood for Fort Kearny. Almost 90 soldiers were detailed to guard the wagon train. Less than an hour later, Carrington's pickets on Pilot Hill signalled by flag that the wagon train was under attack. Carrington ordered a relief party, composed of 49 infantrymen of the 18th Infantry and 27 mounted troopers of the 2nd Cavalry, under the command of Captain James Powell. By claiming seniority as a brevet lieutenant colonel, Fetterman asked for and was given command of the relief party. Powell remained behind. Another officer of the 18th, Lt. George W. Grummond, a vocal critic of Carrington, led the cavalry, which had been leaderless since Bingham's death in early December. Captain Frederick Brown, until recently the post quartermaster and another of Carrington's critics, and two civilians, James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher, joined Fetterman, bringing the relief force up to 81 officers and men. The infantry marched out first; the cavalry had to retrieve its mounts before it could follow and catch up.[11] According to Carrington, his orders were clear. "Under no circumstances" was the relief party to "pursue over the ridge, that is Lodge Trail Ridge". Lt. Grummond's wife, in her memoirs, confirmed Carrington's statement when she wrote that these instructions were given twice, the second time by Carrington from the sentry walk after ordering the soldiers to halt as they left the front gate of the fort. These orders, Francis Grummond wrote, were heard by everyone present.[12] On leaving the Fort, however, Fetterman took the Lodge Ridge Trail northward rather than the trail northwest toward the pinery where the wagon train was. Carrington assumed that Fetterman had in mind approaching the Indians attacking the wood train from their rear. Within a short time the signal came that the wood train was no longer under attack. About 50 Indians appeared near Fort Kearny, but Carrington dispersed them with a few cannon shots. Those Indians and others harassed Fetterman as he climbed Lodge Trail Ridge and disappeared out of sight of the fort.[13] About noon in the Fort, Carrington and his men heard heavy firing to their north. Carrington gathered together about 75 men under Captain Ten Eyck and sent them out on foot to search for Fetterman. Ten Eyck advanced carefully up Lodge Trail Ridge. Reaching the top, about 12:45 p.m. he and his men saw a very large force of Indians in the Peno Creek valley below. Indian warriors approached the soldiers and taunted them. Meanwhile, Carrington dispatched another group of 42 soldiers to join Ten Eyck. The Indians in the valley slowly dispersed and disappeared. Ten Eyck advanced carefully and the soldiers found the bodies of Fetterman and all of his men in the valley. The dead soldiers were stripped naked and multilated. That afternoon, wagons were sent to bring the bodies back to Fort Kearny.[14]


Fetterman's strategy and actions, and the progress of the brief battle, can only be surmised because there were no white survivors or witnesses. The few Indian accounts are brief and filtered through the lens of interpreters of varying competence. The battlefield was examined only briefly and the bodies of soldiers removed quickly.

Massacre Hill. Fetterman and his men were killed here. The Arapaho and Cheyenne were concealed to the left (west) of the foot trail in this photo; the Lakota to the right (east).

According to a Cheyenne informant named White Elk, who was interviewed as he walked the battlefield 48 years after the event, 10 warriors were chosen as the decoys to lead Fetterman into the ambush: two Arapaho, two Cheyenne, and two from each of the three Lakota bands present: the Oglala, Brulé, and Miniconjou. Approximately three times as many Lakota were in the battle as Cheyenne and Arapaho. White Elk said there were more Indians present than at the Battle of the Little Bighorn which would indicate an Indian force of considerably more than 1,000. Red Cloud was not present at the battle.[15] Although Indian armies rarely had a single leader or a command structure, the most prominent leader may have been Hump (High Backbone), a Miniconjou.[16] Fetterman, after leaving Fort Kearny with his infantry, fired volleys at the small group of Indians harassing his flanks and taunting his soldiers. Rather than turning east to where the wagon train was under attack, he advanced northward climbing Lodge Trail Ridge, perhaps planning to circle east toward the wagon train, perhaps drawn by the Indian decoys leading him onward. At the top of the ridge, in violation of his orders from Carrington, he made the fateful decision to follow the Indian decoys north rather than turn east to rescue the wagon train. He advanced along a narrow ridge leading to a flat area along Peno Creek. His cavalry under Grummond took the van, moving at a walk so the infantry could keep up. The decoys led him onward, the cavalry leaving the infantry behind.[17] About one-half mile after Fetterman had crossed the summit of Lodge Trail Ridge, the decoys gave a signal and the Indians on either side of the trail charged. Fetterman's infantry took up a position among some large rocks and, in hand-to-hand fighting, he and 49 men perished, their bodies facing outwards in a small circle, huddled together for defense. A few of the cavalry were with Fetterman, but Grummond and most of the cavalry were apparently one mile ahead of the infantry, possibly chasing the Indian decoys, and nearing the flat along Peno Creek. When attacked the cavalry retreated uphill and southward, toward Fetterman and Fort Kearny, although the two civilians, Wheatley and Fisher, and several cavalrymen, "knowing it was fatal to retreat from Indians" halted and took shelter among several large rocks. They were killed there. Grummond and the cavalry apparently remained in good order, leading their horses and presumably firing at the Indians all around them. Because of the steepness of the hill and ice and snow, the Indians were slowed in their attempt to grapple with the cavalry, but warriors, primarily on foot, approached within a few feet of the soldiers. Grummond was likely killed at this point after he personally decapitated at least one warrior with his saber before being overwhelmed by other hostiles. The cavalry continued its retreat, halting to fight in a flat area on the ridge 400 yards north of where the infantry lay dead. The Indians sniped at the soldiers while organizing a charge and then rushed in among the soldiers, killing all of them.[18] It had taken the Indians about 20 minutes to kill the infantry and another 20 to dispatch the cavalry.[19]

American Horse (left) and Red Cloud in 1891. American Horse may have killed Fetterman.

The Indians had few guns and fought mostly with bows and arrows, spears, and clubs. Only six of the 81 soldiers died of gunshot wounds. Captains Fetterman and Brown are reputed to have committed suicide by shooting each other in the head. However, Indian accounts also credit a Lakota warrior named American Horse with killing Fetterman by slashing his throat, and the official army report gives the throat wound as the cause of his death. It is possible that Fetterman shot himself just before American Horse cut his throat.[20] The Indians had scalped, stripped, and mutilated the bodies of the soldiers.[21] In his report to his superiors, Carrington listed some of the items he found on the battlefield the next day: eyes torn out and laid on rocks, noses and ears cut off, teeth chopped out, brains taken out and placed on rocks, hands and feet cut off, private parts severed. The Oglalas seemed particularly vindictive towards the two civilian volunteers Wheatley and Fisher, who carried brand-new sixteen-shot Henry repeating rifles which may have caused a disproportionate number of Native American casualties. The two had had their faces 'smashed into bloody pulp, and Wheatley had been pierced by more than a hundred arrows.[22] The last trooper to die in the battle may have been Adolph Metzger, an unarmed teenage bugler who used his instrument as a weapon until it was battered shapeless. Metzger was the only soldier whom the Indians did not mutilate his dead body for they instead covered it with a buffalo hide. It is thought that the warriors left his body untouched as a tribute to his bravery in standing alone against several enemies.[23]

Estimates of Indian casualties vary widely. Historian Stephen Ambrose said Indian dead totaled 10 Lakota, 2 Cheyenne, and one Arapaho, some of them killed by arrows fired by other Indians rather than soldier's bullets. Cheyenne-Anglo participant George Bent said 14 Indian warriors were killed.[24] White Elk said only two Cheyenne were killed, but that he saw 50 or 60 Lakota dead – more, he said, than were killed in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.[25] Years later, Red Cloud remembered the names of 11 Oglala killed in the battle. Some estimates range up to 160 Indian dead and an equal number wounded.[26] It is unlikely that Indian casualties approached the higher estimates. The Plains Indians rarely mounted a direct charge at a foe capable of defense. Rather, they struck at the rear and flanks of an opponent, utilizing their mobility on horseback to probe for weaknesses and attempt to cause disorganization and panic, backing off if they encountered a stout defense, and closing in for the kill only when they could do so with little risk of heavy casualties.[27]


Counting Fetterman and his men Carrington's casualties in less than six months at Fort Kearny were 96 soldiers and 58 civilians dead.[28] He still had more than 300 soldiers inside the walls of Fort Kearny. Carrington prepared for an attack on the fort that evening after the Fetterman fight, ordering all his men to stand watch, three to a porthole. All extra ammunition and explosives were deposited in a powder magazine ringed with wagons. If the Indians attacked, the ten women and children at the fort were ordered to get into the magazine. Soldiers were told that in the last extremity they were to retreat to the magazine. Carrington would then blow up the magazine to ensure that no whites remained alive to be captured by the Indians.[29]

That evening a civilian, John "Portugee" Philips," volunteered to carry a distress message to Fort Laramie. Carrington's message to General Cooke told of the Fetterman disaster and requested immediate reinforcements and repeating Spencer carbines. Carrington sent Phillips and another messenger, Philip Bailey, out that evening on the Fort's best remaining horses. Philips accomplished the 236 mile ride to Fort Laramie in four days. A blizzard began on December 22, and Philips rode through a foot of snow and below-zero temperatures. He never saw a single Indian during his ride. He arrived at Fort Laramie late in the evening on December 25 during a full-dress Christmas ball, and staggered, exhausted, into the party to deliver his message.[30]

Carrington and a detail of 80 men marched carefully out of Fort Kearny on December 22, as the blizzard was approaching, and gathered the remaining bodies of those killed with Fetterman. All were mutilated, except that of the bugler, Adolph Metzger, whose corpse was covered with a buffalo robe, a sign, the whites believed, of respect for his courage. Mutilating the bodies of their dead foes was an Indian custom, ensuring, according to their religion, that their enemies were unable to enjoy the physical pleasures of an afterlife. On December 26, the bodies of Fetterman, his officers, and his men were buried in a common trench. By January 1, Carrington's fears of an Indian attack on the fort had subsided as the snows were deep and Jim Bridger advised him that the Indians would all be holed up for the winter.[31]

General Cooke, on receipt of Carrington's distress message, immediately ordered that he be relieved of command by Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells. Wessells arrived safely at Fort Kearny on January 16 with two companies of cavalry and four of infantry. One man in his command froze to death during the journey. Carrington left Fort Kearny on January 23 with his wife and the other women and children, including the pregnant wife of the deceased Lt. Grummond, and braved temperatures as low as 38 below F (-39 C) during the journey to Fort Laramie. One half of his 60 soldier escort suffered frostbite.[32]

Lurid newspaper stories blamed Carrington for the Fetterman disaster. An investigation absolved him of blame, but the report was not made public. The investigation noted that at Fort Laramie, in a region at peace, 12 companies of soldiers were stationed while at Fort Kearny, in a region at war, Carrington had only five companies of soldiers. Carrington would spend the rest of his life attempting to recoup his tarnished reputation as a soldier.[33]

The Fetterman fight soured the mood of the nation and the government on defending the Bozeman Trail. In 1868, Fort Phil Kearny was abandoned and in November that year Red Cloud signed a peace agreement with the U.S. "For the first time in its history the United States Government had negotiated a peace which conceded everything demanded by the enemy and which extracted nothing in return."[34] Indian sovereignty over the Powder River country, however, would only endure for eight years.


Carrington was initially blamed for the Fetterman massacre but, after many years of effort, he and his author wife were able to deflect blame from himself to Fetterman. Carrington's case was that Fetterman was arrogant, insubordinate, and inexperienced in fighting Indians and that he gave Fetterman explicit orders not to venture beyond the summit of Lodge Trail Ridge.[citation needed] Fetterman's body and the bodies of his soldiers were found more than one-half mile beyond the summit of the ridge. There is conflicting evidence whether this order was actually given.[citation needed] Rather, it is hypothesized[by whom?] that Carrington and Fetterman planned to take the offensive against the Indians attacking the wood train, that Fetterman by climbing Lodge Trail Ridge would be in the rear of the Indians and in a position to attack them. Fetterman's character is also in dispute. Clearly he believed Carrington was incompetent, but, other than Carrington's accusations, "there is no evidence indicating that Fetterman was anything but a professional officer and a perfect gentleman" with a distinguished combat record.[35]

Second is the controversy about Lt. Grummond. On dispatching Grummond and the cavalry to join Fetterman, Carrington explicitly ordered Grummond to stay with Fetterman during the operation.[citation needed] Yet, at some point, Grummond led his cavalry far in advance of Fetterman chasing the Indian decoys[citation needed] in direct violation of his orders. Grummond had a distinguished Civil War record as a combat officer, but he had been court martialed for drunkenness and abuse of civilians, and he was a bigamist. He had been reckless and possibly disobeyed orders during the December 6 fight.[36] Third is the case of Captain Tenodor Ten Eyck. Sent by Carrington to support or rescue Fetterman when the sounds of battle were heard at Fort Kearny, the Captain was accused[by whom?] of having been slow to march to the aid of Fetterman, taking a longer route on top on the ridges rather than following the Bozeman trail which crossed Lodge Trail Ridge at a low point. Although Ten Eyck's delay by keeping to higher ground was justifiable on the grounds of military prudence, he was accused of cowardice and drunkenness, and permitted to retire from the army. It is highly unlikely that Ten Eyck, even had he taken the shortest route, would have arrived in time to assist Fetterman.[37]


  1. Brown, Dee. The Fetterman Massacre Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962, p. 158
  2. McDermott, John D. A Guide to Indians Wars of the West Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998, p.156
  3. Vaughn, J. W. Indian Fights: New Facts on Seven Encounters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, p. 26
  4. Brown, pp. 147–150
  5. Calitri, Shannon Smith. "'Give me Eighty Men': Shattering the Myth of the Fetterman Massacre" Montana: The Magazine of Western History Vol. 54, No. 3 (Autumn 2004), p. 46
  6. Brown, pp. 150–156
  7. Brown, Dee. The Fetterman Massacre Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962, p. 157
  8. Brown, pp. 160–165
  9. Brown, pp. 169–170
  10. Brown, pp. 171–173
  11. Brown, pp. 173–176
  12. Connell, Evan S. (1984). Son Of The Morning Star. San Francisco, California: North Point Press. ISBN 0-86547-160-6. , p. 128.
  13. Brown, pp. 174–177
  14. Brown, pp. 185–189
  15. Grinnell, George Bird. The Fighting Cheyennes Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955, p. 204
  16. Doyle, Susan Badger. "Indian Perspectives on the Bozeman Trail" Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Winter, 1990) p. 66
  17. Brown, pp. 177–178
  18. Vaughn, p. 72–80; Grinnell, pp. 206–209
  19. Ambrose, Staphen E. Crazy Horse and Custer New York: Anchor Books, 1996, pp. 240–241
  20. "The Fetterman Fight". Fort Phil Keary State Historic Site. Retrieved August 20, 2012. This is not the same American Horse who was killed at the later Battle of Slim Buttes
  21. Brown, p. 188
  22. Connell, Evan S. (1984). Son Of The Morning Star. San Francisco, California: North Point Press. ISBN 0-86547-160-6. , p. 129, 131-132.
  23. Perrett, Bryan (1995). Against All Odds!; More Dramatic 'Last Stand' Actions. Arms and Armour. ISBN 1-85409-249-9. , p. 59-73.
  24. Hyde, George E. Life of George Bent Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, p. 346; Ambrose, p. 241
  25. Grinnell, p. 209
  26. Brown, p. 183
  27. See, for example, discussions of Indian tactics in Ambrose, pp. 66–67 and Van de Logt, Mark, War Party in Blue Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010, pp. 42–43
  28. McDermott, p. 156
  29. Brown, pp. 191–192
  30. Brown, pp. 193–194, 198
  31. Brown, pp. 198, 205
  32. Brown, pp. 209–210
  33. Brown, pp. 217–218
  34. Brown, p. 225
  35. Calitri, pp. 46–48, 59
  36. Calitri, pp. 48–50
  37. Vaughn, pp. 63–64

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