“Give me eighty men and I’ll ride through the whole Sioux Nation.”
So said Capt. William J. Fetterman in late 1866 as he assumed command of a U.S. Army detail tasked with defending a woodcutting expedition against Indians in the Dakota Territory. A fellow officer had declined the command after mounting, and failing to sustain, a similar effort two days earlier.
Fetterman overestimated his abilities and severely underestimated his opponent.
Born in Connecticut in 1833, William Judd Fetterman was the son of a career army officer. In May 1861, at the age of 28, he enlisted in the Union Army and immediately received a lieutenant’s commission. Twice brevetted for gallant conduct with the First Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment, Fetterman finished the Civil War wearing the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel of volunteers.
After the war, Fetterman elected to remain with the regular army as a captain. Initially assigned to Fort Laramie with the Second Battalion of the 18th Infantry, by November 1866 he found himself dispatched to Fort Phil Kearny, near present-day Sheridan, Wyoming. Since the post’s establishment five months earlier, the local population of about 400 soldiers and 300 civilian settlers and prospectors reportedly had suffered fifty raids by small bands of Sioux and Arapaho. In response, the fort’s commander, Col. Henry B. Carrington, adopted a defensive posture.
Fetterman immediately joined a group of other junior officers in openly criticizing Carrington’s protocol. Although the 33-year-old captain lacked experience with the Indians, he didn’t hesitate to express contempt for the enemy. His distinguished war record lent credence to his argument: Since the Indian raiding parties consisted of only twenty to 100 mounted warriors, the army should run them to ground and teach them a lesson.
Fetterman’s voice and continuing raids eventually convinced the regimental commander at Fort Laramie to order Carrington to mount an offensive. Several minor scuffles, during which the soldiers proved largely ineffective due to disorganization and inexperience, merely bolstered the Indians’ confidence. Carrington himself had to be rescued after a force of about 100 Sioux surrounded him on a routine patrol. Even Fetterman admitted dealing with the “hostiles” demanded “the utmost caution.”
Jim Bridger, at the time a guide for Fort Phil Kearny, was less circumspect. He said the soldiers “don’t know anything about fighting Indians.”
On December 19, an army detail escorted a woodcutting party to a ridge only two miles from the fort before being turned back by an Indian attack. The next day, Fetterman and another captain proposed a full-fledged raid on a Lakota village about fifty miles distant. Carrington denied the request.
On the morning of December 21, with orders not to pursue “hostiles” beyond the two-mile point at which the previous patrol had met trouble, Fetterman, a force of seventy-eight infantry and cavalry, and two civilian scouts escorted another expedition to cut lumber for firewood and building material. Within an hour of the group’s departure from the fort, the company encountered a small band of Oglala led by Crazy Horse. The Indians taunted the army patrol, which gave chase … beyond where they had been ordered not to go.
The great Sioux war leader Red Cloud and a force of about 2,300 Lakota, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne waited about one-half mile beyond the ridge. In less than twenty minutes, Fetterman and all eighty men under his command died. Most were scalped, beheaded, dismembered, disemboweled, and/or emasculated.
The Indians suffered sixty-three casualties.
Among the Sioux and Cheyenne, the event is known as the Battle of the Hundred Slain or the Battle of 100 in the Hands. Whites know it better as the Fetterman Massacre, the U.S. Army’s worst defeat on the Great Plains until Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer made a similar mistake ten years later at Little Big Horn in Montana.
Whether Fetterman deliberately disobeyed Carrington’s orders or the commander massaged the truth in his report remains the subject of debate. Although officially absolved of blame in the disaster, Carrington spent the rest of his life a disgraced soldier. Fetterman, on the other hand, was honored as a hero: A fort constructed nearly 200 miles to the south was given his name seven months after his death. A monument dedicated in 1901 marks the spot where the officers and men fell.
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