We explored Red Cloud’s War in a previous article, only briefly mentioning the skirmish called the Fetterman Fight, which occurred at Fort Phil Kearny and was fought between an aligned force of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Native Americans and the fort’s garrison of United States Army troops. Until the fabled Battle of the Little Bighorn nearly a decade later, the Fetterman Fight was the single greatest catastrophe experienced by U.S. forces in the region.
Fort Phil Kearny was one of three constructed to protect miners, settlers, and other troops who traveled the Bozeman Trail. Many of these travelers continued to encroach land inhabited by the Native American opposition — even though treaties guaranteed that the Native Americans had the right to that land.
By this point in history, it was well known that the Native American warrior Crazy Horse was one of the most lucrative targets still alive. Perhaps this was the reason that 82 men, including Captain William J. Fetterman, were lured from their station when Crazy Horse and ten other warriors appeared near the fort.
In allowing his detachment to be lured into the dangerous trap, Fetterman was also disobeying a direct order from superior Carrington, who said that his party was not to pursue any Native Americans over Lodge Trail Ridge. Fetterman took that trail.
During this time, he was outflanked and engaged by at least 1,000 Native Americans from two fronts. His detachment was killed to the last man, each of whom were later found mutilated by scalping, dismemberment, and castration. The only person to escape this mutilation was a teenage bugler.
Before the engagement transpired, Red Cloud said to his troops: “Here ye, Dakotas! When the Great Father at Washington sent us his chief soldier [General Harney] to ask for a path through our hunting grounds, a way for his iron road to the mountains and the western sea, we were told that they wished merely to pass through our country, not to tary among us, but to seek for gold in the far west.”
It was these tensions that led to the tragedy.