The Fetterman Massacre

The Fetterman Massacre

A review of Dee Brown's classic on this storied battle

Battles such as Isandlwana, Little Big Horn, and Maiwand have always fascinated me.  The combination of so-called “civilized” forces being pitted against “savages” and losing to the latter can grip the imagination when one imagines small knots of soldiers giving their all while surrounded by overwhelming numbers;  at least as depicted in popular culture.   The reality is always more gritty, desperate, bloody … but nonetheless just as fascinating as looking at, say, a sanitized painting by C.E. Fripp of the last stand of the 24th Foot in the face of the Zulu army defending their homeland at Isandlwana; if not more so.

One such desperate fight was the so-called Fetterman Massacre, which took place barely a year after the Civil War, on December 21st, 1866.   In this battle Captain William J. Fetterman lead a mixed force of infantry and cavalry with two Henry rifle-toting civilians tagging along (the walking soldiers carried the old Civil War-style muzzle-loading Springfield rifles, the cavalry seven-shot Spencer carbines)  on a mission to relieve an apparent Indian attack on a train bringing wood into Fort Phil Kearny on the Bozeman Trail to Virginia City, Montana, down in what once was known as the Wyoming Territory.

Little did they know, but they were riding and marching into a perfect ambush of over hundreds of Indians determined to wipe out a sizeable portion of the Fort Phil Kearny garrison.  A mission they accomplished after much blood and death as the battle-hardened troopers under Fetterman died in a way that would make the British Lion proud had they worn red coats instead of blue.

Dee Brown captures the whole story from the moment it was decided to send troops to guard the trail blazed by John Bozeman to the immediate aftermath of the Fetterman massacre (though the phrase “Fetterman fight” would fit better, given how it was a battle exclusively fought between soldiers and warriors; a rarity on the Plains).   In fact, his book is hard to put down.

By all means get it if you, like me, can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to have been with Fetterman on that bitter December day almost 150 years ago.