A Fateful Decision

Rashness is the faithful, but unhappy parent of misfortune.

R. Buckminster Fuller

“Under no circumstances,” Colonel Henry Carrington urges Captain William Fetterman as troops rush to prepare to ward of the band of Indians harassing the wagon train bringing wood to Fort Phil Kearny, “pursue over the ridge, that is Lodge Trail Ridge.”

Captain Fetterman looks up to the ridge, knowing that he would be out of sight of the fort if he were to cross over it. “Yes, sir,” he says, turning to the gates to lead his men out. With the cavalry still saddling their horses, he knows he must hurry to protect the wagon train. He gives the order and he and his men march outside, with Lieutenant Grummond to bring the cavalry.

As they begin west towards where the wagon train is, ten Indians stand up on Lodge Trail Ridge, calling to them and taunting them. Unable to resist the jeers, Captain Fetterman turns his men north up the ridge as the instigators flee down the other side. At the top, the captain looks back at the fort. The cavalry has almost reached him, bringing his strength to over eighty men. The enemy who has been a thorn in the Army’s side since he arrived over a month ago is running away – only ten of them.

What is he thinking? Can he see Colonel Carrington below? He knows the wagon train is to the west, yet here is the enemy heading north. He looks back again, the colonel’s order replaying in his head.

Then he sets his face north and leads his men over the ridge.

* * * * *

So preceded the worst defeat suffered by the US Army on the Plains at the time. The Fetterman Fight, also called Hundred-in-the-Hands, took place on December 21, 1866 and held that unfortunate record until The Battle of Little Bighorn ten years later.

Within an hour, all eighty men and Captain Fetterman were slaughtered by an alliance of Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota warriors. By going over the ridge, he followed a decoy of the ten Indians who led him to an ambush.

The marker at the Fetterman Fight Battlefield.

Colonel Carrington would later send a detachment to retrieve the dead, who found all but one body scalped and mutilated. The one soldier left untouched was Adolph Metzger, a German immigrant who the warriors had covered with a buffalo blanket to show how bravely he fought against overwhelming odds. He was the bugler, and fought with his battered bugle when he ran out of ammunition. Emmalie and I were able to see what is believed to be his bugle at the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum in Buffalo, Wyoming, which was a sobering sight.

* * * * *

I had heard of the Fetterman Fight, but until visiting Fort Phil Kearny and the battlefield, I did not realize how much of a massacre it was. The fort was established in 1866 to protect migrants on the Bozeman Trail heading to the gold mines on Montana. It would only be used until 1868 when the Transcontinental Railroad made the dangerous Bozeman Trail obsolete. Cheyenne warriors would burn the fort just weeks after the Army left, and if the fort was not partially rebuilt as a museum and a marker erected at the Fetterman Fight, posterity might never know what took place in that area.

We also visited the Wagon Box Battlefield of 1867 where outnumbered soldiers repelled attacks from Red Cloud’s warriors by hiding behind a wall of wagon boxes. This marked the last battle of Red Cloud’s War.

While Fort Phil Kearny is has been reconstructed, it still gives a vivid example of what it would have looked like during its time of use. It was also humorous to read about military customs that haven’t changed in 160 years, such as not walking across the grass of the parade deck and not having your hands in your pockets. (“Then why do our uniforms have pockets if we can’t use them?” was what I always wondered while I was in the Marines). Maybe some private back then wondered that, too.

With Emmalie and Bunty getting bored of historical things, we opted for a little hike in the Bighorn Mountains which was gorgeous. It was strange to see snow this time of year!

Bunty and I in the Bighorn Mountains. Snow in summer was a strange sight!

We made it to Sheridan which had an awesome Old West feel to it, especially along its main street. We ate at Smith Alley Brewing Company which had fantastic bratwursts and beer – not to mention delicious adult root beer! Plus, with Doc Holliday quotes from Tombstone, you know it’s a place you need to visit.

It was a memorable weekend full of stories and memories, and was a nice break from work.

Thank you for reading!

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