Sioux War of 1866-1868

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The Sioux War of 1866-1868


The Bozeman Trail, 1866-1868

Map 3. The Bozeman Trail, 1866-1868

The discovery of gold in western Montana in 1862 around Grasshopper Creek, near present-day Deer Lodge, brought hundreds of miners and prospectors into the region. Nearly all of these fortune seekers had come up the Platte Road, the northern fork of the old Oregon-California Trail, and moved into Montana from the west. Others worked their way up the Missouri River as far as Fort Benton (1), then came down into the goldfields from the northeast. In 1863, two entrepreneurs, John Bozeman, a Georgian who had arrived on the frontier only two years earlier, and John Jacobs, a veteran mountain man, blazed a trail from the goldfields to link up with the Platte Road west of Fort Laramie. This route cut through Bozeman Pass east of Virginia City, crossed the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers, ran south along the east side of the Bighorn Mountains, crossed the Tongue and Powder Rivers, then ran south through the Powder River country to join the Platte Road about eighty miles west of Fort Laramie. It reduced by nearly 400 miles the distance required by other routes to reach the goldfields.

Travelers along the Bozeman Trail soon found themselves under fierce attack by hostile Indians. Under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the U.S. government had set aside the Powder River country, through which the Bozeman Trail ran, as Oglala and Brulé Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne hunting land. Thus, these tribes objected to the intruders and attempted to turn back their wagons and herds. In 1865, responding to the demands of the settlers for protection, the U.S. Army sent a column under General Patrick E. Connor to the region. Connor constructed a stockade, Fort Reno, 169 miles north of Fort Laramie at the forks of the Powder River, but his attempt to subdue the tribes failed.

In June 1866, while a number of the Powder River chiefs were at Fort Laramie negotiating yet another treaty, Colonel Henry B. Carrington led the 2d Battalion, 18th U.S Infantry, up the Bozeman Trail. Leaving one company at Fort Reno, Carrington proceeded sixty-seven miles to the forks of Piney Creek, near present-day Banner, Wyoming, where he established Fort Phil Kearny. In July, Carrington detached two companies under Captain Nathaniel C. Kenney to move even farther up the Bozeman Trail to build a third fort, Fort C.F. Smith, ninety-one miles north of Fort Phil Kearny, near present-day Yellowtail, Montana. The Indians would contest the establishment of this trail for the next two years.

Fort Phil Kearny, 1866

Map 4. Fort Phil Kearny, 1866

On 17 June 1866, Colonel Carrington and the 2d Battalion, 18th U.S. Infantry Regiment, left Fort Laramie for the Bozeman Trail. In addition to the 700 troops of the 18th, more than 300 women, children, sutlers, and civilian contractors accompanied Carrington. The column included 226 mule-drawn wagons, the 35-piece regimental band, 1,000 head of cattle to provide fresh meat for the force, and all the tools and equipment necessary to create a community in the wilderness.

Carrington left Fort Laramie fully confident that he would be able to accomplish his mission without difficulty. Peace negotiations were taking place at Fort Laramie, and considering the number of chiefs participating, the prospect for an early settlement seemed good. Carrington was also well suited for his mission. A graduate of Yale, he was a practicing attorney when the U.S. Civil War began in April 1861. He volunteered immediately for service and secured a commission as colonel of the 18th U.S Infantry upon its organization in May 1861. He was brevetted brigadier general in November 1862. Although he saw no action with the 18th, he performed numerous staff duties efficiently and retained command of the 18th at the end of the war.

On 28 June 1866, Carrington's column arrived at Fort Reno, built the previous year by General Connor. Here, Carrington spent ten days repairing, provisioning, and garrisoning the fort with a company of infantry. On 9 July, the remainder of the 2d Battalion left Fort Reno with all its impedimenta. Four days later, Carrington selected a site for the construction of his headquarters post.

Carrington's chosen site lay just south of the point where the Bozeman Trail crossed Big Piney Creek. The narrow valley in which the fort sat was surrounded on three sides by high terrain. To both the north and south, the Bozeman Trail passed over ridges out of sight of the fort. To the west, the valley stretched five or six miles along Little Piney Creek before giving way to the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains. It was up this valley that the woodcutters and log teams would have to travel to provide the all-important building materials and fuel for the post's cooking and heating fires. Carrington's selection of this position has long been questioned. One weakness of the site was that the Sioux and Cheyenne continuously dominated the high ground and observed all movement into and around the fort.

Construction of Fort Phil Kearny began as soon as Carrington's column arrived and continued almost until it was abandoned. The main post was an 800-foot by 600-foot stockade made by butting together 11-foot-high side-hewn pine logs in a trench 3 feet deep. The stockade enclosed barracks and living quarters for the troops, officers, and most of their families; mess and hospital facilities; the magazine; and a variety of other structures. An unstockaded area encompassing shops, stables, and the hay corral extended another 700 feet from the south palisade to Little Piney Creek, the primary water source for the fort. Two entrances provided access to the post, the main gate on the east wall and a sally port on the west side of the unstockaded area.

The Fetterman Disaster

Map 5. The Fetterman Disaster

Friday morning, 21 December 1866, dawned cold and gray around Fort Phil Kearny. The temperature hovered below freezing, and snow blanketed the valleys, pine woods, and ridges in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains. At about 1000, Colonel Carrington ordered the wood train to proceed to the pinery for the daily woodcutting detail. Knowing that an attack on the wood train was likely, he sent an especially strong escort with the wagons. Within an hour, the lookout on Pilot Knob signaled that the wood train was under attack, and firing could be heard at the fort. As he had done on similar occasions, Carrington immediately ordered a column to relieve the besieged detail. He placed it under Captain (Brevet Major) James Powell, who had successfully carried out a similar mission just two days earlier. On the morning of the 21st, however, Captain (Brevet Lieutenant Colonel) William J. Fetterman insisted on commanding the relief column on the basis of his seniority. Reluctantly, Carrington agreed to Fetterman's demand.

Fetterman, ambitious aggressive but also humane and popular with his troops, had arrived only seven weeks earlier at Fort Phil Kearny. A U.S. Civil War combat veteran, he was contemptuous of his Indian foes and is reputed to have said that if he were given eighty men he would ride through the entire Sioux nation. Although there is some controversy about Carrington's order to Fetterman, most sources agree that Carrington told him to relieve the wood train and then return to the fort. Under no circumstances was he to go beyond Lodge Trail Ridge. This last admonition was based on an action fifteen days earlier when Red Cloud's Sioux had lured part of a relief column under Carrington's direct command beyond Lodge Trail Ridge and nearly succeeded in destroying it. Only stern discipline and timely action by Fetterman prevented a tragedy on that day.

At 1115, Fetterman moved out of the southwestern sally port of the fort with forty-nine handpicked men from four companies of the 18th U.S. Infantry Regiment armed with muzzleloading Springfields. A few minutes later, Lieutenant George Grummond followed Fetterman with twenty-seven mounted troops from the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment, mostly armed with Spencer repeating rifles taken from the regimental band. Captain Frederick Brown, a close friend of Fetterman, volunteered to join the column. James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher, two civilians armed with Henry repeating rifles, also volunteered to go in order to try out their new weapons. Thus, Fetterman embarked with eighty men.

Fetterman's course of action at this point is controversial. Some witnesses claimed that Fetterman first rode toward the wood train corral before turning north, moving over Sullivant Hill, and crossing Big Piney Creek. Other accounts state that he rode east and proceeded up the Bozeman Trail. Most current sources, however, agree that Fetterman led his force directly north, passing to the east of Sullivant Hill before crossing the creek and ascending Lodge Trail Ridge (see map A). In any case, Fetterman was in direct violation of Carrington's order not to cross Lodge Trail Ridge.

No sooner had the infantry skirmish line passed over the crest of Lodge Trail Ridge than heavy firing was heard beyond it. Fearing the worst, Carrington ordered Captain Tenador Ten Eyck to take what men could be spared from the remaining garrison to assist Fetterman. By the time Ten Eyck reached the battle site, however, it was too late. Fetterman and his entire command had been wiped out, and the Indians had left the area.

Although the details of the fight are uncertain, it appears that the cavalry and infantry became separated as the cavalry pushed ahead, anxious to come to grips with the foe (see map B). Charging down what is today Massacre Hill, the cavalry was suddenly surrounded by a force of approximately 1,800 Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho hiding in the scrub, trees, and depressions around Peno Creek at the foot of the slope. The infantry, somewhat farther up the hill, was soon engaged and overwhelmed. Fetterman and Brown fell together at the top of the hill. The bodies of Wheatley and Fisher were found among some rock outcroppings below the cavalry position. They had apparently used their Henry rifles to good effect before succumbing.

The Wagon Box Fight

Map 6. The Wagon Box Fight

Reverberations of the Fetterman disaster were still being felt along the Bozeman Trail when, on 2 Aug 1867, a group of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors again tried to ambush and destroy a woodcutting detail and its escort. Throughout the spring and summer, the Indians had continued to harass the garrisons at Fort C.F. Smith and Fort Phil Kearny, but none of the attacks had been seriously pressed, and neither side had sustained significant casualties.

Probably because action against the forces at Fort Phil Kearny had been sporadic, the Indians were unaware that early in July a shipment of 700 new M-1866 Springfield-Allin .50-70-caliber breechloading rifles had arrived at the fort. The Springfield-Allin was a modification of the .58-caliber Springfield muzzle-loader, the standard shoulder arm of the Civil War. Although single shot, the new weapon, which used the Martin bar-anvil, center-fire primed, all-metallic .50-caliber cartridge, was highly reliable and could be fired accurately and rapidly. Along with the rifles came 100,000 rounds of ammunition. Fort Phil Kearny to a wagon box corral to begin a thirty-day assignment as guard and escort for the civilian woodcutters in the pineries, The corral was made by removing the boxes from atop the running gears (wheels and axles) of wagons. The running gears would then be used to haul logs from the pineries to the fort. The boxes, approximately ten feet long, four and one-half feet wide, and two and one-half feet high, were then placed in a rectangular formation approximately sixty feet by thirty feet. Two wagon boxes, with canvas still attached, held the rations for both soldiers and civilians and sat outside the corral.

The Indians, their martial ardor stirred by a recent religious ceremony, attacked the soldiers at the corral on the morning of 2 Aug 1867, Powell had already sent out the working parties, which scattered when the Indians attacked. The Indians then turned their attention to the small detachment left at the corral. Over the next three hours, this small group of thirty-one soldiers held off hundreds of Indian braves. Finally, a relief party fired a mountain howitzer that surprised and dispersed the Indians. Powell credited his successful defense to the rapid fire of the breechloading rifles, the coolness of his men, and the effectiveness of his position. This successful action was a badly needed tonic for the morale of frontier soldiers, who still smarted from the Fetterman disaster. At a cost of only three soldiers killed, Powell's small command had inflicted heavy casualties on the Indians.

In spite of this small victory at the wagon box corral, the days of the Bozeman Trail were numbered. After eight months of negotiations, the majority of the Indian chiefs finally agreed to the terms of a new treaty, but it was not until November 1868 that Red Cloud signed the document at Fort Laramie. The 1868 treaty met almost all of the Sioux demands, including the abandonment of the three forts in the contested area and the closing of the Bozeman Trail, In August 1868, the last U.S. Army units departed Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.F. Smith. Even before the Army columns were out of sight, the Sioux and Cheyenne set fire to the remaining buildings and stockades and burned them to the ground.


  • Robertson, Brown, Campsey, McMee, compilers, Atlas of the Sioux Wars, Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas


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