May 14

This Day in History

Old West

May 14, 1861:

William Fetterman joins the U.S. Army

William Fetterman, who will later lead 80 of his soldiers to their deaths at the hands of the Sioux, joins the Union Army.

By all accounts, Fetterman was a born fighting man. During the Civil War he served with distinction and received at least two battlefield promotions in recognition of his gallantry. Like his better-known comrade George Custer, Fetterman emerged from the Civil War with an unwavering confidence in himself and his military abilities. Moreover, like Custer, his overconfidence eventually proved to be his undoing.

After the Civil War, Fetterman was assigned to Fort Phil Kearny in northern Wyoming. Phil Kearny was the most important of a series of forts that the U.S. Army constructed to defend the Bozeman Trail, a wagon road that branched northwest from the Oregon Trail to the gold fields of Virginia City, Montana. The route violated Sioux hunting grounds, and Sioux warriors under Chief Red Cloud attacked travelers and soldiers alike in protest.

Fort Phil Kearny was an impressive compound nearly the size of three football fields. The tall wooden stockade around the fort made it nearly impregnable to Indian attack, but the stockade also proved to be the fort's Achilles' heel. In order to maintain the 2800-foot wooden stockade and provide firewood for the bitter Wyoming winters, soldiers traveled several miles from the fort to reach the nearest forests. Frequently, small bands of Sioux attacked the group of soldiers assigned to the "wood train," though casualties had not yet been severe. When attacked, the soldiers quickly took up a strong defensive position behind their circled wagons. The sound of shots alerted the fort of an attack, and the Sioux fled as soon as rescue squads arrived.

Soon after Captain Fetterman arrived at the fort in November 1866, he began to argue for troops to pursue and wipe out the Indians who attacked the wood trains. Though he had no significant experience fighting Indians, he regarded them as contemptuous cowards who would be no match for well-trained American troops. He often boasted that with 80 men he could travel through the heart of the Sioux Nation with impunity. Fetterman began openly ridiculing the commander of the fort, Colonel Henry Carrington, for failing to chase down and destroy the Sioux. Carrington, however, had come to suspect the Sioux attacks were only feints designed to lure the larger rescue squad into an ambush and he forbade his officers to pursue the fleeing Indians.

Impetuous and overconfident, Fetterman dismissed Carrington's fears. On December 21, 1866, a small band of Indians again attacked the wood train. Carrington ordered Fetterman and 80 soldiers to its relief, but historians dispute whether Carrington explicitly ordered Fetterman not to pursue the Indians that day. Fetterman and his men chased after the Indians, failing to notice that they seemed to be fleeing with a deliberate slowness. The decoys-one of whom was a young brave named Crazy Horse-led the soldiers straight into an ambush of almost 2,000 Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe warriors. Fetterman and all of his soldiers were dead within 40 minutes.

The Fetterman Massacre, as it came to be called, was the worst disaster suffered by the U.S. Army in the Plains Indian War until the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.

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