Historian Bob Wilson with the Kearny Frontier Regulars
The Fetterman Fight, also known as the Battle of the Hundred Dead by the Sioux, took place on December 21, 1866. On December 21, 2021, Fort Phil Kearny and the Bozeman Trail Association hosted the annual battlefield tour with historian Bob Wilson and weapon demonstrations by Kearny’s Frontier Regulars.
The day was warm and sunny, and more than 20 people attended the three-hour tour, which included a mile-long hike to admire the battlefield. The group gathered at the Fort Phil Kearny Interpretive Center and Wilson presented the history of the fort and the events leading up to the battle. Wilson said the fort looked quite similar to the one depicted in the diorama at the time, although it had undergone many changes. At one time there were 350 soldiers. The buildings included infantry and cavalry barracks, officer quarters and a sutler store. There were about 200 civilian employees.
When Colonel Henry Carrington arrived at the fort, there was a shortage of officers. Carrington himself had never been in combat. William J. Fetterman had led troops in many battles during the Civil War. Fetterman disliked Carrington, saying he had failed to maintain army discipline and had never been in combat.
During the Civil War, there were many promotions on the battlefield. After the war, the original ranks were restored. Fetterman and Captain Frederick Brown both had higher ranks during the Civil War and they wanted to reclaim their ranks and wanted to kill Indians, whom they had little regard for.
Unfortunately, on December 21, this did not happen. He and the 80 men were slaughtered.
Fetterman had made several incursions and the Indians never attacked them. Throughout the fall they went to cut wood and on December 21 they sent out the last log train of the year. The cars were driven by unarmed civilians. The orders were to get out and retrieve 20 wagons of wood, complete a bridge near the current Story, and return.
The Sioux had a large camp five miles to the north, between what is now Prairie Dog Creek Road and US Highway 14. The Indians sent warriors to search for trouble. There were several skirmishes with the soldiers.
The Crow were camping around the fort, and the Cheyenne were also camping near the fort.
The main tribes fighting at Fort Phil Kearny were the Sioux, the Cheyenne and the Arapaho. There were two bands of Sioux in the battle. Wilson said there are seven different Sioux groups in eastern Montana, eastern Wyoming and South Dakota.
The land near the Bighorn Mountains was traditionally the land of the Crows, but the Sioux had driven them out, so the Crows allied with the Whites, hoping to reclaim their land.
Carrington’s orders were to protect the Bozeman Trail, not to attack the Sioux Nation. But on December 6, Fetterman went on the offensive instead of the defense. Captain Brown and Lieutenant George W. Grummond wanted to attack the Indians. Fetterman dispatched two groups of mounted infantry, which were armed with Springfield rifles and 50 cavalry armed with Star breech-loading rifles. They pursued the Indians until what is now Tunnel Hill.
Fetterman’s group has been ambushed by several warriors. One problem was that the cavalry horses were in poor condition and the column was not grouped. Sioux horses were in better shape because they were smaller than American horses and used to live off the land unlike Eastern horses. Bringham and Grummon left Fetterman in pursuit of a small group of Indians. During the skirmish, Bringham was killed. Grummon was surrounded, but he used his saber to pierce the Sioux line. It was a precursor to Fetterman’s combat and a way for warriors to find out what their enemy would do.
Carrington had other issues as well. There was a shortage of powder and lead, and Wilson said letters had been sent to Omaha asking them to send the necessary ammunition. Many of his recruits were untrained green newcomers. Instead of training them upon their arrival at the fort, they were ordered to build the palisade.
Carrington believed he had a peace treaty with the Sioux, even though Red Cloud had withdrawn from the Fort Laramie treaty talks and the United States was still negotiating with the tribes for the right to use the Bozeman Trail. The Sioux told the military that there would be a fight if they continued to move along the trail and build the forts.
On the day of Fetterman’s fight, 98 soldiers volunteered to leave the fort and protect the log train. However, only 49 had repairable weapons. After the fight, when Fetterman sent in soldiers to bring back the bodies, he barely had enough men to hold the fort. He needed reinforcements and John Portugee Phillips, a civilian from the fort, volunteered to travel to Fort Laramie for help.
Before the group left for the battlefield, Wilson opened the floor for questions. A question from the audience was “What was the weather like that day in 1866?” Wilson had this to say,
Wilson said the coldest tour he has done was 28 below zero. One person came to the tour, but he did not walk very far on the battlefield.
One in the audience, Terry Richards, said he was a descendant of some of the Indians who fought in the battle. He commented that Native Americans barely fought in winter, as their horses were also weak. Knowing this, he said the cavalry often attacked them in winter. He said Crazy Horse led his brother’s horse into battle as his own horse was shot down under him in a previous battle. âWe have our own interpretation of battles. My grandfather was there.
After the lecture at the fort, the crowd escorted to the monument for a tour of the battlefield. Regulars of Fort Phil Kearny, who reenact them in regular army attire and using genuine weapons, demonstrated the guns used in battle. Dark power weapons gave off a lot of smoke when firing, and when enough cannons fired, the smoke created a haze through which it was sometimes difficult to see targets. Or he provided a smokescreen for the soldiers.
The battlefield tour started at the Fetterman Monument, and there is a mile-long trail on the ridge with interpretive signs at various locations along the trail. You can also see the traces of the Bozeman Trail which are still visible on the ridge.
Wilson described the battle, highlighting the positions of the skirmishes. Grummond, who led the cavalry, Brown and two civilians, were in Fetterman’s command. In total, there were 27 cavalry and 49 infantry and a few civilians, such as James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher, for a total of 81 men. Between 800 and 1200 Indians attacked. The battle lasted less than an hour and was fought mainly on foot rather than on horseback.
Fetterman and all of his men were lost in the battle, and the Native American casualties estimate was 130, although oral history of the Sioux indicates that only about 20 warriors were lost. At one battle site, burials counted 60 bloodstains, believed to be 60 Indians killed or seriously injured. At another site, it was believed that around 60 other people had been killed.
The monument stands on the hill where Fetterman fought his last fight, and Fetterman’s fight is still remembered over 150 years later.
At Fort Phil Kearny, day one hikes begin at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on January 1. The first hike is an easy mile hike around the parade ground, and at 2 p.m. there will be a more difficult hike to Pilot. Button. Depending on the weather, snowshoes can be useful. Hot drinks and snacks will be provided.
For more information, call the Bozeman Trail Association. 307-684-7629