Eyewitnesses, truth, and the Fetterman fight

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It is often said that victors write history. As a historical fiction author, I try to get the history right. One method is to go back to diaries and other eyewitness accounts, primary sources. I prefer this when possible.

But have you ever asked a group of people about an event they just witnessed? You’d think everyone would say the same thing- didn’t they just see it? In reality, even eyewitness accounts of events minutes before conflict with one another. Sorting through them to get the truth, or something approximating objective truth, can be a daunting task. Most married folk are familiar with the phenomenon of one spouse telling a story from their mutual past, and the other spouse chiming in with conflicting details.

In research for historical fiction, it is not uncommon to encounter conflicting eyewitness accounts, compounded by the accounts sometimes being written decades after the events. How clearly do you remember what you were doing twenty years ago today?

This brings me to a discussion of the events surrounding what is known as the Fetterman fight, a battle between the US Army, and a confederation of Sioux and Cheyenne in Wyoming, December 21, 1866.

Background: Gold was discovered in Montana. Settlers and miners were seeking faster overland routes to California and the western United States. The Homestead Act and the end of the Civil War turbocharged western expansion. Native Americans were increasingly being pushed out of their hunting grounds. A treaty negotiation was underway at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to allow settlers to travel on the Bozeman trail to Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. The treaty specified that the army could construct forts on the Bozeman trail, and settlers would travel unmolested, in exchange for gifts and food to the Native Americans. The prior treaty of 1851 was a failure. Both sides began violating it almost before the ink was dry. In the middle of negotiations in 1866, Colonel Henry Carrington shows up with men, a sawmill, and orders to construct the forts. Over 2000 Native Americans were gathered for the talks, including important leaders: Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, Man Afraid of His Horses, and Cheyenne leaders as well. They were told the government didn’t want to buy or disturb their land. “Whites would stay on the roads and wouldn’t kill off the buffalo or otherwise disturb the game, the commissioners promised. If the tribes would agree, they would be paid well in yearly supplies. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail asked for time to bring in the rest of their people, camped in Nebraska, a few days’ journey away.” – Wyoming Historical Society.

The arrival of Carrington and 700 soldiers broke off serious negotiations. Red Cloud and several others left in disgust, saying the soldiers intended to take the land, whether the Sioux agreed or not. A few signed, but the agreement meant nothing without the other Sioux leaders. This started Red Cloud’s War. Red Cloud gathered a confederation of Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne acting together, and actually defeated the US Army, forcing the treaty of 1868.

In 1866, Carrington built three forts on the Bozeman Trail, including Fort Phil Kearny. The army never gave him sufficient supplies or troops to effectively defend and staff the fort. Often he scarcely had one hundred serviceable horses and the men were raw recruits, with no experience in fighting on the frontier.

The Sioux and Cheyenne surrounded the fort. Rather than engage in a full frontal assault, which likely would have been suicidal, given the mountain howitzers and canister shot the fort possessed, they harassed the wood train and any other foray out from the fort. One night some braves built a larger than normal fire on a nearby ridge, and began dancing and singing war songs around it. Carrington ordered the artillery to take aim on the spot and fire. This was an education for the Sioux, about the “guns that shoot twice” – the large boom, and then the explosion of the canister shot sending hundreds of rounds in all directions. After that, they stayed farther from the fort, and attempted to entice patrols and other small units out where they could be dealt with.

Carrington was cautious. He had no men, horses, or ammunition to waste. When some reinforcements did arrive, in the company was Captain William J. Fetterman, a veteran with a good Civil War record. Some of the men in Carrington’s command, notably Lieutenant George W. Grummond of the Eighteenth Infantry, grumbled and chafed under Carrington’s caution. Grummond was due to ship out and leave the army soon– he was anxious to see some action, to be able to say he’d fought Indians. Fetterman has often been credited with saying that given eighty men, he could ride through the whole Sioux nation – but there are some doubts about that quote, as we shall see.

The Sioux were not only busy at the fort. Along the whole Bozeman Trail, nothing that moved was safe. Wagon trains were attacked, settlers slaughtered. Red Cloud was the architect of the strategy. He waged a successful guerilla warfare, never confronting the whites in force, but taking every opportunity to kill small parties.

Carrington had an almost impossible task, trying to keep the Overland mail and stage route open, which was distant from the forts, and continue to build and maintain the forts in the face of constant pressure from the Sioux and Cheyenne. His requests to Washington and his superiors were ignored. In fact, Washington ordered him to cut the salary of his veteran scout, Jim Bridger, in half– and then dismiss him altogether. Carrington refused.

In December of 1866, he had barely forty rounds of ammunition per soldier. Fetterman requested permission for a night attack and barely made it back alive after Carrington gave consent. The Sioux did not fall into his trap and made off with a large portion of the post’s cattle.

Often a single Indian, reputed in Sioux accounts to be Crazy Horse, appeared on the ridge within view of the fort, enticing them to fire or come after him.

Finally, Carrington’s superior, General Cooke, ordered him to take action, to retaliate against the Sioux for the depredations on the trail. On December 6, the wood train was attacked again, and Carrington sent relief. Fetterman took a company of cavalry and another of mounted infantry and went to the train’s aid. Carrington personally led another detachment to cut the Indians off. However, Grummond became separated from the main body and was surrounded by one hundred warriors. Fetterman successfully broke the wood train free, and came to their aid just in time, like the movies. Carrington was shaken by the experience, and re-doubled training.

Again on December 19, the wood train was attacked, and Carrington sent Captain Powell out to help. Powell was a cautious man and did exactly as ordered. Fetterman, reportedly, still wanted to go adventuring against the Sioux, asking permission to attach a village on the Tongue River, fifty miles away. Carrington was not willing to risk the loss of troops.

Two days later, when Carrington sent out another wood train, it was attacked, despite having an escort of ninety men. Carrington had no idea that there was in the near vicinity a force of two thousand Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Some say Red Cloud was present, some say not. In his autobiography, Red Cloud does not speak of it. Crazy Horse and several other prominent Sioux war leaders were present. Carrington intended to send a relief party, again led by Captain Powell. However, Fetterman reportedly claimed rank, and received command of the relief party, with Grummond commanding the cavalry.

Supposedly, Carrington came over to Fetterman before he left, and repeated his order not to go beyond a certain ridge, under any circumstances. Sioux sources say they planned to show a small force of ten volunteers, and entice the soldiers to follow them, attacking and falling back.

The plan was successful. The popular account is that Fetterman exceeded his orders, went beyond the forbidden ridge, and led his men into an attack. Instead of turning to rescue the wagon train, he followed the decoys into the valley. What is certain, given the recovery of the bodies later, was that Fetterman and his entire command were wiped out, found beyond the ridge. Carrington received the blame and spent the rest of his career trying to remove the blotch on his record.

Carrington sent a distress call to Fort Laramie, the end of the telegraph line, in the form of the heroic rider John “Portegee” Phillips. Phillips volunteered, riding Carrington’s own horse through a severe blizzard. He rode 236 miles in a foot of snow, a blinding blizzard, and sub-zero temperatures. The horse died on arrival. Phillips arrived in the middle of the Christmas ball.

Cooke, distressed by the Fetterman massacre, sent back orders relieving Carrington of command. Carrington, his wife, and the pregnant wife of Grummond journeyed back to Laramie, accompanied by sixty troops. Cooke did finally send guns and reinforcements to Fort Phil Kearney.

In 1868 a new treaty was signed on Red Cloud’s terms, and all three forts constructed by Carrington were burned to the ground.

That’s the narrative – however, the main sources for the story are Margaret Carrington, Carrington himself, and Francis Grummond, who later married Carrington after Margaret’s death. Each had a stake in vindicating Carrington, and demonizing Fetterman. Grummond, it turns out, had a second wife– he was a bigamist. He was also a drinker, and one that had a record of “recklessness in battle, insubordination and a series of violent, drunken incidents culminating in being court-martialed and publicly reprimanded.” Carrington very publicly ordered Grummond to report to Fetterman, and obey all orders.

New scholarship at the Wyoming Historical Society has begun to cast doubt on the role of Fetterman as insubordinate braggart. Fetterman’s service record in the Civil War was one of a good officer, not given to disobeying orders. One begins to wonder if he was the victim of a cover up. Perhaps Grummond rode off seeking glory, and Fetterman tried to rescue him, dying with his command in the attempt? Grummond and his cavalrymen were found farther into the valley than Fetterman. There were no survivors among the soldiers, and the Sioux accounts are scattered, notes taken some years after the events. Was Francis Carrington nee Grummond trying to protect both her husbands? There is certainly some evidence uncovered that the braggadocio statement by Fettermen about 80 men defeating the Sioux was embellished at a later date.

This brings us back to the mystery and difficulty – which eyewitnesses do you believe? Was it a conspiracy on the white side between Francis, Margaret, and Carrington to clear his name and blame the dead?

We’ll likely never know for sure.

Fetterman Fight, Harper’s Weekly March 1867, three months after the event.
Library of Congress

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