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Review: The Wagon Box Fight

A look at Jerry Keenan's work on a little-remembered battle of the Plains Indian Wars

The Wagon Box Fight.  Few beyond dyed-in-the-wool students of the history of the American west remember this battle which took place in what is now Wyoming on August 2nd, 1867 during Red Cloud’s War aimed at closing forever the Bozeman trail leading to the gold mines at Virginia City, Montana ... and right through prime hunting country for Red Cloud’s people.    

The Wagon Box Fight,  in my opinion, is reminiscent of the battle of Rorke’s Drift in Natal, South Africa in 1879 in that both featured vastly outnumbered defenders standing off hundreds of attackers.  The defenders in this case being  U.S. soldiers and civilian wood cutters near Fort Phil Kearny which took refuge in a large corral made of wagon boxes and stood off several determined Indian attacks thanks in part to being armed with new breach loading rifles which allowed them to fire faster than their comrades in arms armed with the old muzzle loader type could during the Fetterman disaster the previous December when Captain William Fetterman and 81 men were wiped out near the same fort.

This slim but informative 158 page volume first provides an overview of the events leading up to  the battle and then the battle itself, all written in a detached, almost clinical manner complete with informative footnotes.

More interesting to me, though, is Keenan’s reprint of three accounts by Army veterans of the battle first published in The Bozeman Trail, by historian Grace Raymond Hebard and E.A. Brininstool back in 1922.  Sure first-person accounts are contradictory and get hazy as memories fade, but the three included here are engaging and full of “human interest” that the cold, clinical text that precedes it lacks.  

After the first person account comes the heaviest reading in the book: a report written by three archeologists about archeological results obtained from surveys of the battlefield.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting, but best read when awake as opposed to half-tired because of how scientific it is.

If you are like me and are gripped by the story of Red Cloud’s War, then this book is a must read!