Red Cloud’s War -or- the Fetterman Massacre

Red Cloud’s War -or- the Fetterman Massacre

Red Cloud’s War
The Fetterman Massacre

Gold was discovered in Adler Gulch, Montana in 1862, which turned out to be one of the biggest strikes in America. By the end of the Civil War in 1865 the U.S. Treasury was virtually bankrupt so time and thought had be given to the task of rebuilding the economy. Montana and the Adler Gulch strike seemed a good bet. All that stood in the way was the Northern Plains Indians who had been ceded the Powder River Valley by treaty to be their last hunting ground and was to be held by them in perpetuity.

John Bozeman opened what was called ‘The Bozeman Trail’ in 1863 to help bring the gold out – unfortunately the trail ran slap bang through the Powder River Valley. This did not go down very well with the Sioux and Cheyenne and especially Red Cloud but as the trail was not very heavily used at this time there was not much trouble. After the war the army was given the job of making the trail totally safe from Indian attack so Fort Connor was established in 1865 at the southern end of the trail.

In May 1866 the 2nd Battalion U.S. Infantry moved out from Fort Kearney (near present day Kearney, Nebraska) to take over Fort Conner and build a further two forts to protect the trail. With Col. Henry Beebe Carrington in command the 2nd U.S. Infantry Battalion arrived at Fort Laramie where a peace treaty was in the process of being negotiated with the Indians. Carrington and the 2nd arrived with flags flying and bands playing just in time to screw up the negotiations that led to Red Cloud’s famous speech. “White Father sends us presents and wants the road. White Chief goes with soldiers to steal road”. As this land had been given to the Indians in perpetuity this was a fair point but was completely lost on the white negotiators.

In late June Carrington took over Fort Conners and renamed it Fort Reno(1) then went on to build Fort Phil Kearny(2) in July and Fort C. F. Smith(3) in August. Red Cloud’s Oglala Sioux along with Arapaho and Cheyenne invested all three forts. It was quite a feat for an Indian chief to hold together such a large group of braves and to keep them fighting constantly right through the winter months. Most of the fighting was on a small scale but caused Carrington quite a headache.

In November 1865 Capt. William Judd Fetterman arrived at Fort Phil Kearny. Fetterman was a civil war hero who held the Indians in complete contempt and famously said, “I could ride through the whole Sioux nation with just 80 men”. Fetterman and Carrington never got on, Fetterman always referring to Carrington as an ‘old woman’. The main bone of contention was that Carrington had never held a fighting command during the Civil War, the other was problem being that Fetterman had held a brevet(4) rank in the Civil War which was higher than Carrington’s current rank . This also caused resentment among quite a few of the other officers who were also unhappy with Carrington’s leadership.

On the 21st December 1866 Fetterman was given the duty of relieving a wood cutting detail from attack by Indians and was told on no account was he to do more than that. The strange coincidence was that he had exactly 80 men under his command when he disobeyed orders and was drawn into the trap set by Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. The entire commands of eighty men was wiped out in what was to become know as the Fetterman Massacre.

After the massacre Carrington put fort Phil Kearney on high alert in the expectation of an attack. However after the fight Red Cloud and his men were celebrating and most of them just wanted to go home. The Indian thinking was that they had taught the white men a big enough lesson. In the fort things looked very different. Under the delusion they were in great danger Carrington went to the lengths of putting the women and children into the arsenal with intentions of blowing them up rather than let them letting fall into the hands of the Indians. There then followed the famous ride of “Portugee” Phillips in subzero weather to Fort Laramie, some 220 odd miles away to get help. He arrived at 11.00pm Christmas night when a full dress dance was in full swing at the officers’ mess. He collapsed into the dance hall and gasped out the story of the massacre and in consequence a relief column was sent the next day.

As always after an army disaster there has to be a scapegoat and the finger was pointed at Carrington who in January 1867 was relieved of command. He was ordered to return to Fort McPherson in Nebraska along with his wife and children accompanied by a small escort to face a court of enquiry into the events at the fort. The journey in such very cold weather was an ordeal for everyone and many of the soldiers ended up with frostbite and on arrival in Nebraska most of the small command had to be hospitalised. It took till 1900 for Carrington to clear his name. As usually happens in a case like this the one who disobeyed orders and made the mistake which cost eighty lives was lionised.  The man who gave the correct command spent almost the rest of his life defending himself.

There were two more battles and many minor skirmishes with the Indians in 1867. On the 1st of August the Hayfield Fight took place near Fort C. F. Smith and on the 2nd August the Wagon Box Fight took place, this time near Fort Phil Kearney. On both these occasions a large force of Indians was repulsed by a small number of soldiers. The reason for the Indian defeats was that in both these fights the troopers had breech-loading rifles giving them much greater firepower.

In April 1868 another peace treaty was signed back at Fort Laramie calling for the abandonment of Forts Reno, C. F. Smith and Phil Kearny. On, or about 18th/20th August the troop marched out of Fort Phil Kearny and Red Cloud and his Indians burnt the fort to the ground. This was the first, and also the last time the U.S. Government acceded to every demand the Indians made.

In 1869 the completion of the transcontinental railroad made the Bozeman trail redundant.


(1) Fort Reno was named after General Jess Reno killed at the battle of South Mountain, West Virginia 1862.

(2) Fort Phil Kearney was named after Major General Philip Kearny killed at the battle of Chantilly, Virginia in September 1862.

(3) Fort C. F. Smith was named after Maj. Gen. Charles Ferguson Smith who died of injuries just after the Battle of Shiloh in1862.

(4) A brevet authorized a commissioned officer to temporarily hold a higher rank with pay but only for the duration of the given assignment. Therefore Fetterman’s brevet had no authority after the Civil War ended and he reverted to his pre-war rank of Captain.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Left Menu IconMain Menu