The True Story of the Great Fort Phil Kearney Disaster of 1866
By E. A. Brininstool
"A Trooper With Custer," "Fighting Red Cloud's Warrior's" "Trail Dust of a Maverick." Co-author "The Bozeman Trail."
"But, Colonel, those Indians should be punished for the depredations they have been committing, and we'll never be able to give them the sound thrashing they deserve as long as we remain cooped up behind these stockaded walls. If you'll just give me eighty men, I'll guarantee to ride through the Sioux nation."
The speaker was Capt. William J. Fetterman; the place, Fort Phil Kearney, Wyoming; the year, 1866.
Col. Henry B. Carrington, post commander and builder of Fort Phil Kearney, wheeled in his chair, looked up at Fetterman and smiled sarcastically.
"Capt. Fetterman," he said, speaking slowly and with great emphasis, "such talk is all folly. You have had no experience in Indian warfare, or you would have a more wholesome respect for these Sioux warriors hereabout. Red Cloud is nobody's fool. If I were to allow you to take eighty men and start out to ride 'through the Sioux nation,' as you express it, it would be nothing short of suicide on your part and the needless sacrifice of that many men. You simply don't know what you are talking about."
"But I don't believe the Indians would dare attack an armed force of that proportion, Colonel," Fetterman exclaimed impassionately.
"Neither do I," chimed in Capt. Frederick Brown, who was standing at Fetterman's side during the conversation. "I've got to join my command in the East very shortly, and I haven't had a single crack at the Indians yet. I want old Red Cloud's scalp, and if I have to leave here without it, I am going to be most awfully disappointed."
"You be, eh?" broke in a tall, grizzled, gaunt old plainsman who had just entered the room. "Wal, all I hev got to say is that you young bloods are a passel of fools. Lemme tell you somethin' right hyar' an' see that you remember it. Whar' thar ain't no Injuns, thar you'll find 'em thicest. Don't furgit that it's ol' Jim Bridger what's a-telling ye that."
"You hear what Major Bridger says, gentlemen," quietly observed Col Carrington. "And what he tells you, you can absolutely rely upon. I reiterate, it is foolishness to discredit the fighting capacity of Chief Red Cloud and his Sioux warriors."
"Right you are, Colonel," nodded Bridger, knocking the ashes from his pipe. "Red Cloud knows what he's about, an' my opinyin is that he's a-gittin' things in shape to give us a dose we ain't a-goin' to furgit. You mark my words," and Bridger scowled fiercely at Fetterman and Brown as he left the room.
"But, Colonel -"
"Capt. Fetterman," sharply interposed Col. Carrington, "there need be no further discussion about this foolish proposition of yours. I positively forbid your carrying out any such plans as you and Capt. Brown have in mind. We have no men here to sacrifice."
Disappointment showed itself on the faces of both officers as they saluted and left the room. They glared fiercely at Bridger outside, who regarded them with an amused smile.
"I reck'n they mean all right," he mused, "but they jest don't know what they're talkin' about. Ride through the Sioux nation with eighty men? Huh! They're plum crazy!"
He paused, then turned and again entered the Colonel's office.
"I'm right glad you turned 'em down, Colonel," he said. "What do they know about Injin fightin'? Huh!"
"Well, I shall not allow my judgement and common sense to lead me into such foolishness as they proposed. I may be cautious, possibly over-cautious, but I know these Sioux, and we have no men here to be sacrificed needlessly."
Carrington and Bridger were right. Bridger saw and knew the wisdom of the commander's words. His entire life had been spent on the frontier, fighting Indians and matching wits with the various savage tribes, and he had a wholesome respect for them.
"Them fellers may yit git a dose of Injin fightin' they'll remember for many a long day," he chuckled.
Colonel Carrington smiled and again turned to the post plans on the table before him, while Bridger sauntered outside, leaving a trail of smoke behind.
Fort Phil Kearney had been under almost constant siege since building operations started, five short months before, and already many of Carrington's force had fallen victims to Indian cunning and strategy.
Red Cloud, the great Sioux fighting chief, had warned the government officials, at the Laramie Peace Council the previous June, that any attempt to build forts or maintain soldiers north of Fort Reno and along the Bozeman Trail, would be followed by immediate war.
"I'll kill every white man who goes beyond Crazy Woman's Fork of Powder River," the wrathful chieftain had shouted, as he stalked haughtily out of the council, refusing to accept any of the presents which the Peace Commissioners had brought for him.
And Red Cloud was keeping his word!
He was succeeding even beyond his most sanguine expectatations. Not a day passed without its sharp skirmishing in the vicinity of Fort Phil Kearney, while every wagon-train bound for the upper country felt the weight of Red Cloud's merciless band,.
But at the Laramie Peace Council the government representatives had treated his war declarations with contempt. What! Allow this insolent redskin to dictate what should be done about travel up the Bozeman Trail? Was HE to prescribe the policy for Uncle Sam to follow? Suppose it did mean the invasion of the last and best hunting grounds of the Sioux nation? What if the game was frightened away and the entire Sioux tribe cut off from its only means of sustenance? Who cared, anyhow?
Red Cloud cared! Keen and sagacious in war; wise in council, and with an eye for the future good of his people, this mighty warrior intuitively recognized that if the country was opened up for white settlement, the hated palefaces would come streaming into his country in hordes, and the Sioux - well, the Sioux might starve so far as the government cared, or else learn the white man's way of living - and the Sioux were not prepared for any sudden change. Further Red Cloud declared it could not, and should not be.
But the white man wanted the country, and that was enough!
To Build Two More Forts
Col. Henry B. Carrington, of the Eighteenth United States Infantry, had been sent into the forbidden territory with an armed force, under instructions to build at least two more forts along the Bozeman Trail, north of Fort Reno. His orders were to restock and better equip old Fort Reno, and then erect the other posts about one hundred miles apart, and further to the northwest, up the trail. It was thus calculated by the government that with this array of soldiery, Red Cloud's warriors could offer but little resistance to the long trains of white-topped prairie schooners which would soon begin rumbling and creaking in from the East, loaded with "pilgrims" bound for the Montana gold fields or the further agricultural sections of Oregon and Northern California. Surely the soldiers at the proposed forts could easily protect the passage of the emigrants through the Indian Country.
No Ordinary Indian
But it was no ordinary Indian with whom Uncle Sam was dealing. Red Cloud gathered together a mighty army of the flower of the fighting strength of the Sioux nation, and hardly had the ringing axes and buzzing saws of Carrington's command begun transforming the pine logs from the adjacent timber into lumber for the necessary buildings at Fort Phil Kearney, before Red Cloud's warriors began taking their toll of death, and making good the threat to "kill every white man in the country."
Loggers Attacked Every Day
Scarcely a day passed without its depredations by the Sioux. None of the logging parties sent from the post into the timber were safe a single foot of the seven miles of Indian-infested country, without a heavy escort of armed troops. Often these logging trains would be attacked and forced to go into corral when within a mile of the fort. Relief parties would then have to be sent out from the post to drive the savages away, and the result would inevitably be "Private Haggerty dangerously wounded or Sergt. Bowers killed in action." Generally, however, a few shots from a mountain howitzer (of which the Indians were mortally afraid) would stampede them.
But at that, there were many casualties. Depredations and raids became more frequent, and it was plain that Red Cloud was being heavily reinforced. The Indians made heavy inroads upon Col. Carrington's little force. Guards were picked off; men out hunting were waylaid and killed. It was taking one's life in one's hand to venture alone a hundred yards from the stockaded walls of Fort Phil Kearney.
Col. Carrington Scoffed At
Col. Carrington's prudent policy of refusing to go out and engage the savages, meeting them in open battle, was scoffed at by many of the younger officers at the post, who were loud in their declarations that "something ought to be done."
Frank Leslie's Artist Killed
"Glover's killed!" shouted Jack Stead, one of Carrington's scouts, as he dashed into the post one afternoon in mid-September. Glover was an artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, who had come up the trail a short time before, with an escort, for the purpose of making sketches of the Indian country for the magazine.
"I tol' that 'ere artist feller he'd lose his ha'r some day." exclaimed old Jim Bridger. "I warned him time an' agin to stay in clus' to the post - the keerless feller. Whar' was he, Jack?"
"I found his body over there by the edge of that ravine not three minutes' walk from here. He'd been tomahawked, scalped, and stripped. I'll tell the Colonel. He'll want to send out a detachment to bring in the body."
Not two hours later, heavy firing was heard out toward Piney Creek, where several pickets were stationed. Soon the news was passed around that a band of Sioux had crept up and fired several volleys. Fortunately, no damage was inflicted.
Early in November a new face had appeared among the officers at the post. This was Capt. William J. Fetterman, an officer unused to Indian warfare, but possessed of a most pleasing personality. He at once became a general favorite.
"It's All Foolishness"
With great interest, but deep contempt, Fetterman listened to the accounts of the activities of Red Cloud's warriors.
"Why, it's all foolishness to let those Indians run things as you say they're doing," he scornfully declared to several of the officers at mess, shortly after his arrival. "I'll guarantee that I can take a detachment and run old Red Cloud and his painted devils out of the country. It seems to me that Col. Carrington is altogether too cautious. He needs some young blood here to stir things up. You just wait til I get a chance to go out and show old Red Cloud a thing or two."
At which his brother officers looked at each other and smiled knowingly; but they kept their own counsel. It would be far better to let Capt. Fetterman learn by experience what he refused to believe in story.
And then, a few weeks later, came Capt. Frederick Brown, who had been ordered from the East to join his company at Fort Phil Kearney. He had but a short time longer to serve. Brown and Fetterman took a great liking to each other, and both freely expressed their opinions regarding Col. Carrington's prudent Indian-fighting policy. Like Fetterman, Brown was anxious to demonstrate his fighting capacity.
"Fetterman, We Must Start Something"
"Fetterman, we've got to start something to wake up this bunch of sleepy-heads," he declared. "I believe you and I are just the ones to do it. I don't want to go back to civilization and say I lived in the Indian country and never had a brush with the redskins. If I can only get the sights of my rifle lined up on old Red Cloud's topknot, he's my meat. I want his scalp to take back East as a souvenir. Now then, how can we arrange it?"
And so these two young officers had gotten their heads together and concocted a scheme to "drive all the Sioux out of the country." If Col. Carrington would just give them eighty men, Fetterman declared, he and Brown could ride through the Sioux nation!
But Col. Carrington, after listening to their suggestions, had sternly forbade any such operations.
Meanwhile, logging trains were bringing in timber from the pineries, both for lumber and the winter's fuel supply. On December 21st it was estimated by Col. Carrington that only one more trainload of logs would be necessary. There was yet a little work to be done on the post hospital, after which the fort would be officially declared completed.
Feels Like Something In The Air
The morning of December 21st dawned bright and beautiful, although old Jim Bridger, after a careful glance at the sky, predicted, "Somethin' in the air sort o' feels like a blizzard was due."
With Christmas but four days away, everyone at the post was looking forward with joyous expectancy to the happy holiday season. Although the lower country about the post was bare of snow, the hillsides were covered, and the air was keenly sharp and crisp.
An unusually long wood-train had left the post early, for what was expected to be the last trip for the winter. An extra force of armed guards had accompanied it.
Wood Train Attacked
"Picket on Pilot Hill signals the wood-train attacked!" came the not-unexpected announcement to Col. Carrington, just as he had the hospital plans and specifications before him to lay out the unfinished work.
As the colonel hastened outside, Capt. James Powell came running forward. He saluted and exclaimed, "The wood-train has been attacked, sir!"
"Take command of a detachment, Capt. Powell," ordered the colonel "and drive those Indians away. You will simply relieve the wood-train. Do not follow the Indians and invite any unnecessary engagement."
"Yes, sir," and Powell saluted and ran towards the stables.
Sputtering shots could be heard in the direction of Sullivant Hills, about a mile from the post, and through his field glasses Col. Carrington could see many Indians gathering to obstruct the advance of the logging train.
Capt. Fetterman had been nervously walking up and down in front of his quarters, in close conversation with Capt. Brown who seemed to be urging him about some matter. At length Fetterman exclaimed, "All right; I'll ask him," and followed closely by Brown, he hurried toward Col. Carrington, still intently watching the Indians through his field glasses.
Demands Right to Command
"Colonel," he exclaimed excitedly, as he hurriedly saluted, "my seniority allows me the right to command this relief detachment. Have you any objections to my going, sir?"
Col. Carrington hesitated. Capt. Fetterman's request was in proper form,
as he was the ranking captain of the post; but he had had no experience
in Indian fighting. Moreover, Col. Carrington had not forgotten his request
of a few days' previous. But would Fetterman use tact and caution if sent
(To be continued)