Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

'Give Me Eighty Men': Shattering the Myth of the Fetterman Massacre
Montana: The Magazine of Western History ^ | Autumn 2004 | Calitri, Shannon Smith

Posted on 05/26/2006 1:40:44 PM PDT by robowombat

Montana: The Magazine of Western History > Autumn 2004

'Give Me Eighty Men': Shattering the Myth of the Fetterman Massacre

Calitri, Shannon Smith

In 1866, near an isolated U.S. Army post in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, a well-organized coalition of Plains Indians executed an ambush that killed Captain William J. Fetterman and his entire detachment of eighty men. This spectacular victory for the Sioux and their allies would have gone down in history as the greatest defeat ever handed to the frontier army if George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry had not ridden into immortality at the Little Bighorn ten years later. Like "Custer's Last Stand," the so-called "Fetterman massacre" has been mythologized as one of the most famous events in the history and lore of the American West. The well-worn story of the ambush is built on variations of the infamous declaration attributed to Fetterman: "With eighty men I could ride through the entire Sioux nation." Citing the doomed officer's "reckless boasts," historians and popular authors have created an enduring-though erroneous-image of an arrogant buffoon so disdainful of the Plains Indians' military skills that he disobeyed his commander's orders and led his men to their deaths. This false characterization of Fetterman is derived from a flawed history shaped by Victorian-era gender roles and distorted by historians and authors as they embroidered the story into a national myth.

In the year after the Civil War ended, the federal government charged the U.S. Army with the task of protecting civilians traveling on the Bozeman Trail to the gold mines of Montana Territory.1 Grossly underestimating the determination of a loose coalition of Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho bands, considered by most to be led by Red Cloud, and disregarding the failure to negotiate a treaty, the army sent Colonel Henry B. Carrington, a Yale-educated lawyer who had spent the Civil War leading recruitment and administrative operations, and two partially recruited battalions of the Eighteenth Infantry Regiment to guard the trail.2

In May 1866 the newly appointed commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, General William T. Sherman, arrived at the Eighteenth's winter quarters in Fort Kearny, Nebraska, to review and approve Carrington's mission. During his visit Sherman encouraged the regiment's officers to bring their wives and families with them to the new post. At a dinner hosted by Margaret Carrington, Sherman told the officers' wives to keep journals to record their adventures for posterity, assuring them "a pleasant garrison life in the newly opened country, where all would be healthful, with pleasant service and absolute peace."3 Margaret and her two young sons, as well as three other officers' families and the wives of a few of the enlisted men and civilian contractors, accompanied the troops west that June.

By July Colonel Carrington had established three posts on the trail, with the headquarters at Fort Phil Kearny about 150 miles north of Fort Laramie. Here soldiers quickly set about cutting wood and building a fort, while nearby Red Cloud organized a camp of some five hundred lodgesmore people than lived in Omaha at the time. Even as the fort took shape the Indians attacked army and emigrant trains, stole livestock, and killed careless travelers who straggled too far from large groups. The civilian contractors cutting lumber in a pine stand a few miles west of the fort were a prime target and required a military escort at all times. By the middle of December the "pleasant service" envisioned by Sherman had turned into a conflict in which nearly seventy soldiers and civilians had been killed in over fifty skirmishes, many within view of the post.4

The widely accepted interpretation of the Fetterman fight, which occurred on December 21, 1866, goes something like this: soldiers at Fort Phil Kearny did not respect Colonel Carrington because he had never served in combat during the Civil War. The battle-hardened veterans, particularly Fetterman himself, believed Carrington was far too cautious in his response to the near-daily Indian attacks. When Carrington tried to convince Fetterman and the other officers that the situation required a defensive posture, Fetterman boasted, "Give me 80 men and I can ride through the whole Sioux Nation." During the seven weeks he served at the fort, Fetterman grew increasingly insubordinate and desperate to prove his superiority in battle. On the day of the disaster, Fetterman insisted, "by his rank," on taking command of a detail going out to relieve a party of woodcutters under attack. Carrington reluctantly gave Fetterman the assignment, but he was so concerned about the officer's overzealousness that he gave explicit orders that under no circumstances was Fetterman to cross Lodge Trail Ridge. Blinded by arrogance, a lust for glory, and disdain for his commander, Fetterman disregarded Carrington's orders and was easily lured over the ridge by Crazy Horse and a group of decoys. The story reaches a satisfying dénouement as the wild-eyed Fetterman-his sword in the air, spurring his horse and yelling, "Charge!"-dashes over the ridge, whereupon hundreds of warriors quickly overpower the foolish officer and his soldiers. This version of the story concludes with Fetterman and fellow officer Captain Fred Brown putting their revolvers to each other's heads and pulling the triggers.

Attractions of the dramatic story aside, this version of events is wrong. First, no evidence supports Carrington's assertion that Fetterman used his rank to assume command of the operation-a claim frequently cited to demonstrate Fetterman was desperate to fight. Carrington claimed that he initially assigned Captain James Powell to lead the relief detail because two days earlier Powell had carefully followed his orders on a similar mission. According to Carrington, upon hearing of the assignment, Fetterman-who had not made a fuss two days earlier-now "claimed by rank to go out." In testimony given during the official army investigation, lieutenant A. H. Wands, the officer of the day who had assisted Carrington in preparing the relief detachment, never mentioned Carrington's offer of the command to Powell. Private F. M. Fessenden, the headquarters orderly on the day of the disaster, claimed to have heard the exchange between Carrington and Fetterman. He said that Fetterman simply asked for the command. More significantly, in his testimony Powell did not state that Carrington had "tendered him the command."5

Likewise, none of the witnesses substantiated Carrington's oft-cited claim that he clearly and specifically ordered Fetterman not to cross Lodge Trail Ridge. An enormous amount of conflicting evidence surrounds these orders. Carrington remembered that he went to considerable effort to make sure that Fetterman understood his orders, which were to "support the wood train, relieve it, and report to me. Do not engage or pursue Indians at its expense. Under no circumstances pursue over the ridge, viz., Lodge Trail Ridge." Carrington claimed he first gave this order as the infantry detachment formed outside Fetterman's company headquarters. Fetterman then inspected men from Companies A, C, E, and H; approved forty-nine for the detail; and immediately marched with the unit out of the fort. But no one heard the orders being given to Fetterman. Orderly Fessenden wrote that Carririgton said, "Colonel, go out and bring in that wood train.... Not a word was said about how, or [by which] route, or where not to go." Powell testified that he saw Carrington in conversation with Fetterman as he prepared the infantry detachment, but he did not hear the instructions given.6

Abundant circumstantial evidence indicates that Carrington did not give these orders to Fetterman. If Carrington's orders were to go straight to the wood train, Fetterman immediately disobeyed them. Witnesses unanimously agreed that Fetterman did not proceed west to the wood train. Rather, he went northeast directly toward Lodge Trail Ridge. Anyone outside at the time could have observed the detachment's progress; everyone clearly saw that Fetterman intended to cut off the attackers as they retreated.

Carrington himself was watching the unit's progress from atop the headquarters building, and he later wrote in his official report that Fetterman was "evidently moving wisely up the creek and along the southern slope on Lodge Trail Ridge, with good promise of cutting off the Indians." This statement, and Fetterman's well-documented route, support the theory that Carrington authorized Fetterman to take offensive action.

Carrington acknowledged that the usual course in such skirmishes was to follow the wood tram road directly west to the location of the attack, but "the course [Fetterman] adopted was not an error, unless there was then a purpose to disobey orders."7

Clearly, Carrington understood Fetterman's intention as he watched from the lookout. Not long after the detachment left, pickets signaled that the woodcutters and their escort were no longer under attack and had moved to the pine stands to complete their work. Had Carrington disapproved of Fetterman's presumed strategy-to intercept and engage the Indians-he could have easily sent an orderly to call the contingent back. Carrington testified that after he understood the wood train had broken corral he "entertained no apprehensions of further danger."8 That Carrington permitted Fetterman's party to march on toward the ridge suggests that the commander and his second-in-command had settled on an offensive strategy during their lengthy discussion. If Carrington had ordered Fetterman to simply relieve the wood train, there was no point in Fetterman leading his mission in the direction of the ridge-away from the woodcutters. The only reason to allow Fetterman to position his command to the rear of the Sioux was for punitive action. Indeed, circumstantial evidence-evidence that few historians mentionindicates this was a planned offensive: Fetterman was commanding the largest "relief" force ever sent out by Carrington. It would have been a major coup for both officers had Fetterman succeeded in an offensive attack.

Another rarely explored aspect of the battle is that Fetterman was leading a detachment of raw recruits on foot. With one exception, all of the army's previous confrontations with the Sioux had taken place when a handful of officers responded to the Indians' strike-and-retreat attacks by jumping on horses kept at the ready. By late December, however, months of raids on the army's horse herd, coupled with sporadic delivery of grain and the necessity of using horses for escort and mail duty, had left fewer than three dozen horses available. To make matters worse, most of the regiment's soldiers were newly enlisted men with little experience using weapons or understanding military tactics. Shortly after he arrived in early November, Fetterman began drilling his men-who had spent the past four months building the fort-on infantry maneuvers. Captain Powell's mission two days earlier was the first time any soldiers had marched to relieve a wood train under attack.

No sooner was Fetterman's infantry detachment marching away from the fort than Lieutenant George W. Grummond requested permission to lead a small cavalry support detail. Carrington approved the request, ordering Grummond to report to Fetterman and "implicitly obey orders, and not leave him." Carrington then sent Wands to repeat the orders to Grummond. As Grummond and his twenty-seven cavalrymen rode out of the fort, Carringtori climbed the sentry platform and halted them to repeat his "precise orders" one more time. Wands testified that the orders he passed on to Grummond were to "tell" Fetterman-not remind him-not to cross the ridge. Although no witnesses came forward to confirm the statement, several witnesses described the elaborate fuss Carririgton made to ensure Grummond was aware of his orders. Today we know the commander had reason to be concerned.9

On the surface Grummond had enjoyed what appeared to be a stellar Civil War career, rising from sergeant to lieutenant colonel in the volunteer army. Closer inspection of his military record, however, reveals that the rapid promotions resulted from near-reckless bravery in battle. During a major Tennessee campaign, Grummond raced into formation ahead of the schedule set for a highly coordinated multi-unit operation. Not only did Grummond alert the Confederates, he engaged in battle before other units were in place and was forced to send an emergency courier requesting support. Brigadier General Robert Granger was livid and immediately removed Grummond from the campaign. In his official report, Granger wrote, "This movement of [Grummond's] I consider unfortunate, as it unquestionably hastened the movement of Wheeler from Lawrenceburg." And Grummond's irresponsible leadership was matched by his violent and drunken behavior off duty. Eventually, his subordinates filed a formal complaint against him; he was court-martialed and publicly reprimanded for drunkenness while on duty and for committing acts of abuse against civilians.10

Grummond's ungentlemanly conduct extended to his personal affairs. In 1862, during the second year of the war, he returned to his home in Detroit to recuperate from an illness. When Grummond re-enlisted in mid1863 and left for Tennessee, his wife, Delia, was pregnant with their second child. A few months later Grummond was courting a beautiful Union sympathizer from a slave-owning family named Frances Courtney whom he had met while stationed in Franklin. When the war drew to a close, Grummond, instead of returning to his family in Michigan, headed to Franklin to "renew" his relationship with the clark-haired belle. Meanwhile, Delia filed for divorce and received a two-thousand-dollar judgment against Grummond in absentia on the grounds that he "grossly, wantonly, and cruelly refused and neglected" to support his family.

Grummond appeared unconcerned with such legalities; he had already been married to Frances Courtney for twenty days when the Detroit judgment was rendered. Fleeing his financial obligations, Grummond applied for frontier service and accepted a commission as a second lieutenant-a huge demotion in pay and prestige even for the postwar officer corps. Perhaps embarrassed, Grummond evidently tolcl his naïve young wife he had been recommended for a brevet of brigadier general; Margaret Carrington later commented in her book, My Army Life, that it was "understood" he had been brevetted brigadier general. There is no record that he received a brevet of any grade.12

At Fort Phil Kearny the bigamist officer quickly resumed his dangerous behavior. On December 6, during the first and only large-scale offensive maneuver attempted by Garrington and his men before the Fetterman disaster, Grummond disobeyed Carrington's direct orders and snuck away from his detachment to pursue a lone Indian who appeared to have an injured horse. He led four soldiers directly into a trap that cost two of them their lives-and perhaps inspired the Sioux alliance to use the same ambush tactic a few weeks later.13 Carrington immediately relieved Grummond of his command for disobeying orders.

It is a testament to his desperate shortage of officers that Carrington approved Grummond's request to support Fetterman's command fifteen days later. About a half mile from the fort, Grummond and twenty-seven cavalrymen caught up to the infantry troops. The post's quartermaster, Captain Fred Brown, and two of his civilian employees, James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher, soon joined them. Fetterman was in command of eighty men-exactly the number with which he had supposedly claimed he could take on the Sioux nation.

In a masterful analysis of the Fetterman battle site published in 1966, J. W. Vaughn used aerial photography, the results of metal detector surveys, studies of infantry and cavalry operations, memoirs, and military records to show that it would have been impossible for Fetterman's infantrymen to make it to the ambush site a mile and a half beyond Lodge Trail Ridge by the time the attack began. Vaughn's time-versus-distance analysis indicates that Fetterman and the infantrymen were not yet over the ridge. Testimony from Indian participants substantiates this claim. We will never know what went through Fetterman's mind as he crested the ridge, but if we set aside the idea that irrational arrogance drove him, it seems likely he forged ahead in an attempt to support Grummond and his men. Clearly, it required courage and skill to lead a small force of inexperienced infantrymen into what were surely the sounds of a ferocious attack.14

Fetterman's supposed joint suicide with Captain Fred Brown is a second part of the myth that has grown unchecked, despite a substantial amount of conflicting evidence. Decades after the battle, Red Cloud and an Oglala warrior named American Horse both told their friend James Cook, a western Nebraska rancher, that American Horse killed Fetterman. American Horse eventually gave Cook the club he used to knock down the captain before slitting his throat. Fetterman's death certificate filed by Fort Phil Keamy's post surgeon listed his cause of death as a deep cut to the thorax, "crosswise with a knife." It makes no mention of a gunshot wound on Fetterman's body.15

The reason that nearly every rendition of the Fetterman massacre is more myth than history can be traced to the fiercely partisan post-Civil War political climate and overwhelmed postwar military establishment. The years immediately following the Civil War have been called "the army's dark ages," a time when the military struggled "almost helplessly against problems that multiplied with each passing day." While legislators bitterly debated the purpose of the peacetime military-particularly the army's role in Reconstruction-army administrators were bogged down in the process of demobilizing a million volunteers and re-recruiting a professional military. Logistical problems, including the lack of telegraph and railroad service in many parts of the West, further hampered operations. In addition, the very public jurisdictional dispute between the Department of War and the Department of the Interior over whether to address Indian problems with force or negotiation complicated the army's mission. Without a clear Indian policy, forced to stretch staffing and funding, the army was ill-prepared to support Carrington's mission of peace, let alone the full-blown conflict he ultimately faced.16

Just days before the Fetterman disaster President Andrew Johnson had publicly declared that the army was well armed and well supported and that the Plains Indians "have unconditionally submitted to our authority and manifested an earnest desire for a renewal of friendly relations."17 These assertions would have surprised the men at Fort Phil Kearny. Since June, Carrington had appealed to his superiors for more horses, guns, ammunition, and men to protect his posts. Carrington's commander, General Philip St. George Cooke, approved the requisitions and assumed that the materials were delivered, but only a fraction of Carrington's urgently needed supplies and men ever turned up at the isolated outpost.

General Sherman, General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant, secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and others in Carrington's chain of command were greatly alarmed when Carrington's initial report claimed the disaster resulted from a lack of support from army headquarters. At the time, Grant was caught in the middle of a vicious political battle between President Johnson and secretary of War Stanton over the army's role in Reconstruction. He was also fighting with the Department of the Interior for authority to resolve the so-called "Indian problem." It did not take long for the general to recognize the catastrophe's politically damaging consequences. To deflect attention from the War Department, Grant immediately removed Carrington arid Cooke from their commands and called for a military court of inquiry.18

Prompted by Grant's actions and rumors promulgated by the Office of Indian Affairs, newspapers cast Carrington as inept, and he soon found himself facing another investigation, this one by a Department of the Interior commission charged by Congress with uncovering the cause of the disaster. As Carrington struggled to protect his honor, reputation, and career, he began to realize powerful forces were working against him. His official reports were lost and delayed, while leaks from investigators added to the growing public sentiment that he was at fault. Soon it became clear to Carrington that Grant, and, to a lesser degree, Sherman, were keeping his performance shrouded in question.19

Because Carrington could not point the finger at his superiors, the national heroes of the Civil War, he began to refine his claim that Fetterman had disobeyed orders. To explain the sudden proclivity toward insubordination from a highly decorated and well-respected officer, Carrington stressed Fetterman's overzealous nature and disdain for his opponents' military skills. In his first formal report, Carrington rather innocuously claimed Captain Brown, with Fetterman at his side, had suggested they take "60 mounted men and 40 citizens" on an offensive strike against the Indian camp the night before the massacre. As the story evolved, Carrington emphasized that Brown and Fetterman, both supposedly "eager for Red Cloud's scalp," were angry at their commander's refusal and that his comments were "unfavorably regarded" by the men.20

Meanwhile, officers and soldiers devoted to Fetterman testified and worked behind the scenes to rebut Carrington's claims. For nearly two weeks after the battle, a raging blizzard had isolated the remote outpost and prevented letters, reports, and other news from reaching the East. Under intense pressure from Sherman and Grant, desperate for news to report to Congress and the public, General Cooke filed a report speculating on the cause of the disaster. This report was based on letters and comments from Captain William H. Bisbee and Captain James Powell, Fort Phil Kearny officers who had fought under and had been promoted by Fetterman during the Civil War.21

Bisbee was Cooke's aide-de-camp in Omaha, and he had General Cooke's ear and complete access to and responsibility for his correspondence and reports. Bisbee made sure that all information leaving department headquarters incriminated Garrington, not Fetterman. Among the damaging documents Bisbee showed Cooke were Powell's letters to Bisbee describing the lack of military order at the fort. Cooke, who had not met Carrington or visited Fort Phil Kearny, used this information to formulate his report. The report-in noting Carrington's lack of combat experience and the dearth of offensive engagements initiated by the regiment-implied Carnngton was a coward.

During the ensuing investigations, Bisbee and Powell conspired to ensure Carrington received the blame for the catastrophe. Powell testified the fort lacked military discipline and that following the massacre Carrington became paralyzed by the fear that Indians would attack the post.22 By the time Carrington became aware of Powell's devastating testimony, Powell had become a national hero, nominated for a brevet as a Lieutenant colonel for his defeat of Red Cloud and the Sioux alliance in the Wagon Box Fight near Fort Phil Kearny on August 2, 1867.

Desperate to make his case, Carrington met with Grant in Washington. Claiming Powell's affidavit was gross perjury, Carrington told Grant he wanted to prefer charges against the man. Grant, who had just approved Powell's brevet, replied, "That is a very serious charge sir" and abruptly closed the discussion. Dismayed, Carrington left the meeting convinced Grant was suppressing his reports to protect the recently decorated hero. Grant's reasons were probably more complicated than Carrington assumed: the evidence was so conflicting that the only thing War Department officials knew for sure was that further investigation would make their operations look worse than they already appeared. Grant and Stanton prevented Carrington's reports from being published to protect both Powell and themselves.23

Adding to Carrington's troubles, several other officers offered negative testimony, and dozens of newspapers featured damaging stories about the massacre. According to Margaret Carrington, "Pamphlets, letters, editorials, and pictures expressed their theories," and "no correct account of the tragedy has ever gained access to the people at large."24 By fall 1867 the Carringtons were desperate for a venue in which to promote their version of the story. When William Dennison, Carrington's former law partner and the past governor of Ohio, suggested that Margaret write about her experiences on the frontier, the couple seized the idea as an answer to their prayers.25

Using the journal that Sherman had encouraged her to keep, Margaret published Ab-sa-ra-ka, Home of the Crows in 1868. In Ab-sa-ra-ka, the Carringtons took advantage of Victorian-era middle-class gender roles to get their version of the Fetterman incident into the public eye. Margaret portrayed Fetterman as an honorable and chivalrous gentleman, but also characterized him as inexperienced in Indian warfare and as an officer whose zeal for recognition caused him to disobey explicit orders. In a politically astute move, she dedicated the book to General Sherman, who, bound by honor, sent his approval in a gracious and complimentary letter.26

Of course, the officers who had so recently worked to cast Carririgton as incompetent disagreed with Margaret's account, but none publicly challenged her story. According to historian Oliver Knight, the "officers' code of honor" required men to be loyal to the "women of their regiment." An officer would go to any length to protect a lady's name. No matter how the officers under Carrington felt about him, no officer was prepared to publicly dispute Margaret's word. Even William Bisbee, the most ardent and long-lived of Garrington's critics, never directly challenged the account in Ab-sa-ra-ka. Although he filed evidence refuting claims of Fetterman's disobedience with the Order of Indian Wars in Washington, D.C., in the late 1920s, he did not charge Margaret with fabrication in the files or in his book, Through Four American Wars, published in 1931.27

The first edition of Ab-sa-ra-ka sold quickly, and the Carringtons released a second edition in 1869. They felt hopeful that Carrington's reports, which apparently had been conveniently lost, would soon be made public. Margaret never saw that day. She died in early 1870, likely from tuberculosis contracted from her husband, though reports attributed her illness to the bad weather she had endured on the frontier. Margaret's death added to the poignancy and irrefutability of Ab-sa-ra-ka, and her status as a moral, refined lady gave significant weight to her account of her husband's actions. Ultimately, Margaret Carrington was able to accomplish what her husband could not: influence the American public. The biographer of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Shirley A. Leckie, notes that the wife of the famous general used a similar strategy to defend her husband. "Her reputation as a 'model wife' and shinine examnle of American womanhood, alone with the deference accorded female moral influence, made her, during her lifetime at least, an unassailable character witness."28

Colonel Garrington's second wife also fit this mold. Several weeks after the Fetterman battle, Colonel Carrington and his family, the widowed Frances Grummond, and a small number of regimental staff traveled to Fort Laramie. There Grummond's brother waited to escort Frances home to Tennessee. Throughout the ordeal of Grummond's death, Margaret had stood by Frances's side. When it became clear he had not survived the battle, Margaret arranged for Frances to move into the family's quarters, where she remained until they left for Fort Laramie. Back home in Franklin, Frances gave birth to a son, but when she applied for Grummond's military pension, she discovered her husband's other wife had already claimed it. Three years later the devastated young widow was still sorting through her husband's estate when she heard about Margaret's death and sent Henry her condolences. After eleven months of correspondence, Frances and Carrington were married on April 3, 1871.

Carrington, his military pension assured after a lengthy legal struggle, settled into life as a military professor at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He adopted Frances's son, William, and the couple had three more children in the next four years. Obsessed with clearing his name, Carrington lobbied ceaselessly to force publication of his suppressed reports. In 1879, three years after the Custer debacle had renewed the nation's interest in the "Indian question," Carrington issued the third edition of Ab-sa-ra-ka, adding lengthy appendixes, including his assessment of "Indian affairs on the Plains" and extracts of official reports supporting his performance. Three years later he published his own book, The Indian Question, containing the text of an address he had delivered in England as well as a portion of the appendixes that appeared in Ab-sa-ra-ka.29

Finally, in 1887, Carrington's dogged pursuit of the official release of his long-suppressed reports and testimony paid off when Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts introduced a bill demanding that the War Department and the Department of the Interior publish these documents. When the War Department released them a few months later, however, Carrington was dismayed to discover Cooke's and Powell's damaging accusations included. Instead of enjoying the exoneration he had anticipated for two decades, Carrington found himself compelled to prolong his vendetta for the "correction of history." To this end, he continued to promote and reissue Absa-ra-ka and The Indian Question, to which he added the information from his official reports.30

Carrington also worked diligently to ensure historians wrote his version of the affair. For example, when C. G. Coutant's History of Wyoming, a sweeping rendition of the state's past, was published in 1896, it contained a chapter on Fort Phil Kearny approved by Carrington. In 1903 Carringtori eagerly met with Dr. Cyrus Townsend Brady, who was compiling a history of the Plains Indian wars, and gave Brady access to all of his evidence, including proof of Powell's slanderous testimony. Intending to feature the hero of the Wagon Box Fight in the following section, Brady told Carrington he did not think it advisable to write about the "methods by which the Government had been induced to delay publication" of Carrington's reports. Nevertheless, he did allow Carrington to "read and correct" his article on the Fetterman incident. This account further ingrained the version of the story that Margaret Carrington had introduced thirty-five years earlier. Carrington later wrote to his son that he was "profoundly grateful to Dr. Brady" for taking the initiative to help him repair the damage to his reputation.31

The next year Brady published his histories as a series in Pearson's Magazine, then collected them in a book, Indian Fights and Fighters, which is still considered a classic of Indian wars history. "Fort Phil Kearny Massacre," Brady's opening article, was the first to publicly attribute the eighty-men statement to Fetterman. In the piece, Brady wrote that Fetterman "frequently expressed his contempt for the Indians" and was chief of a group of malcontents who "offered with eighty men to ride through the whole Sioux Nation!" He unequivocally concluded that Fetterman had disobeyed the orders that would have prevented the demise of his eighty men, "just the number with which he had agreed to ride through the whole Sioux Nation." Brady also wrote that Fetterman and Brown, "seeing that all was lost," committed joint suicide. Over the years, Brady's chapter has been the most frequently quoted source on Fetterman's personality and the eighty-men statement.32

In 1906 Carrington received another opportunity to reinforce his version of history. Frances Ten Eyck-the youngest daughter of Captain Tenodor Ten Eyck, the officer who commanded the contingent Carrington sent to support Fetterman when the fort first heard the sounds of battle-wrote to Carrington to ask for his help. She had read Coutant's chapter on the Fetterman fight in which he concluded that Ten Eyck had been intentionally slow to prepare his relief detachment and chose an indirect route to get to the scene of action. "Alas," wrote Coutant, "procrastination robbed Captain Ten Eyck of a victory and permitted the death of many brave men who died after their ammunition had been exhausted."33 Frances was on a mission to repair her father's reputation.

The network of chivalrous gentlemen Ten Eyck enlisted to help clear her father's name shows how gender roles once again shaped the story of the Fetterman massacre. Appealing to their sense of honor, Ten Eyck forwarded to these men meticulously copied letters attesting to her father's impeccable service. In a letter to one of her recruits, Eli Ricker, an amateur historian from western Nebraska who planned to publish a book on the Indian wars, Ten Eyck lamented, "I sympathize deeply with your cry of longing for the truth. Some clay surely that pure white light will shine through the shadows. All honor to those who help to clear the way for its shining!" For his part, Carrington carefully fine-tuned and ever-so-slightly modified his previous public statements-which had led Coutant to his conclusion about Ten Eyck in the first place-to demonstrate support of the captain.34

In the summer of 1908 Frances Ten Eyck came upon the perfect opportunity to publicly vindicate her father: a Fourth of July celebration marking the "fortieth anniversary of the opening of Wyoming" and a reunion of Fort Phil Kearny survivors planned by the city of Sheridan. Carrington was invited to be the keynote speaker. Soliciting their "chivalrous aid to break a lance for the cause of truth," Ten Eyck aggressively lobbied Carrington arid the other men in her network.35

The aging Carringtons-Henry was eighty-four and Frances sixty-three-determined to make the trek to Sheridan, and the occasion enabled Carrington to once again imprint his version of the past on the historical record. Under the pretense of performing a noble act to clear Ten Eyck's name on behalf of the dead man's daughter, Carrington delivered a lengthy monologue describing both his and Ten Eyck's valiant performances and the many wrongs done to them by history. His speech, and the Carrington's extended trip with its many visits with admiring civic and military leaders, invigorated the couple and inspired them to put forth one last effort to set the record straight.

Forty years after her stay at Fort Phil Kearny, Frances published My Army Life and the Fort Phil Kearney Massacre, with an Account of the Celebration of "Wyoming Opened." Liberally borrowing from Margaret's work, Frances expanded Ab-xa-ra-ka's defense of Carrington's performance. While Margaret emphasized that Fetterman's character was unimpeachable despite his being driven to "reach forth for laurels that were beyond his reach," Frances was far less subtle. She went so far as to claim she heard Henry Carrington deliver the orders Fetterman supposedly disobeyed. It is important to note that this statement, published so long after the incident, is not corroborated by any record of the event. Neither Margaret nor Frances specifically use "eighty men" m their accounts, but they claim, in identical wording, that just a few days after his arriving at the post, Fetterman boasted a "single company of Regulars could whip a thousand Indians." My Army Life also includes the full text of the Sheridan speech in which Henry unequivocally accused Fetterman of insubordination and reckless arrogance and used the eighty-men quote to support his claim.36

Little more than a year after her book was published, Frances succumbed to a lengthy illness. Henry lived twelve months longer. During their lives, and due to their efforts, Fetterman's image evolved from fallen hero to rash villainan image that scholars and popular authors thoroughly embedded in the narrative of western history in the decades to come. This acceptance of the Carringtons' version of history rests largely on a highly romanticized view of the women of the frontier army as courageous, saintly women struggling to maintain Christian homes on the decidedly uncivilized frontier embraced by historians of the era.37 Although most historians acknowledged Henry's hand in his wives' books, none challenged the image of Fetterman the books portrayed. In seeking to explain the catastrophe, all studies have presumed Fetterman's arrogance.

It is difficult to find a historical treatment of the incident that does not support the "arrogance leading to ambush" storyline. The historiography of this characterization reads like a "who's who" of western writers. From Grace Raymond Hebard and E. A. Brininstool's two-volume The Bozeman Trail published in 1922 to Stanley Vestal's stillpopular publications of the 19303 and 19408, Fetterman is portrayed as ignorant of Indian warfare and contemptuous of the Sioux. Describing his "over-zealous disposition," authors eventually branded him "the fire-eating Fetterman."38 Dee Brown's The Fetterman Massacre, originally published as Fort Phil Kearny: An American Saga in 1962, is widely regarded as the authoritative study of the event. To support the claim for Fetterman's arrogance, Brown cites Margaret Carrington's "single company of regulars" from Ab-sa-ra-ka as well as an eighty-men statement from Hebard and Brininstool's The Bozeman Trail, which was itself a slightly modified citation of Brady's work that had been guided by Carrington.39 For nearly a century, historians have used the ubiquitous "Give me eighty men" quote to paint the picture of Fetterman crossing over the ridge where "behind him, with rich irony, followed exactly eighty men."40

Novels and the popular press eventually appropriated this image. Michael Straight's Carrington: A Novel of the West became a best seller in 1960. The novel casts Carrington as heroically facing impossible tasks, including commanding a violent, crude, insolent, and disobedient Fetterman. "The Fatal Fetterman Fight," a 1997 article in Wild West, and "The Bozeman Trail," which appeared m Smithsonian Magazine in October 2000, describe a "brash," "eager to fight," "fire-eating Fetterman." Published in 20OO, Boone's Lick by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry tells the story of a determined woman's trek from Missouri to Fort Phil Kearny. The book cover says it all, proclaiming Fetterman's "incompetence resulted in one of the bloodiest massacres in the history of the American West." Describing the book's characters, a reviewer wrote, "William Fetterman is an imperious ass who butts heads with [the heroine] twice before he rides off into ignominy." Tom Hanks's production company recently optioned Boone's Lick for a Hollywood movie.41

Such an image of Fettermari does not fit with the primary sources describing his personality arid performance. Letters and memoirs by Fetterman's fellow soldiers universally describe him as an excellent officer, a chivalrous gentleman, and a compassionate superior who commanded devout loyalty from his men.42 His substantial military record shows him to have been a man with outstanding leadership skills both in battle and in administration and an officer who was thoroughly indoctrinated in the military code of conduct.

A recently discovered letter reveals Fetterman clearly believed Carrington was unqualified to command the post: "We are afflicted with an incompetent commanding officer . . . but shall be relieved of him in the reorganization," he wrote in November 1866. However, Fetterman also knew that the army's postwar reorganization that would likely promote him to post commander was to go into effect in thirty-five days.43 With so little time left to report to Carrington and a bright future ahead, it is unlikely that Fetterman would have displayed an unprofessional demeanor. Other than the Carringtoris' accusations, there is no evidence indicating that Fetterman was anything but a professional officer and a perfect gentleman. Due to the Carririgtons' efforts, the chivalry of their dissenters, and the deference scholars have accorded Margaret and Frances, the opposite perception has dominated.

Like Elizabeth Custer, the Carringtons were aware of the importance of history and knew that respect for women's moral authority empowered them to shape their story. Like Custer's Last Stand, the Fetterman massacre of books, novels, and articles keeps the myth solidly in the narrative of the country's heritage. Like other myths, this one originated in controversy and was "built upon actual deeds and events, magnified, distorted and disproportioned by fiction, invention, imagination and speculation." Tracing the evolution of the Fetterman myth reveals how domestically bound women and chivalrous men leveraged middle-class Victorian gender roles to create their preferred version of history. In this arena, women too did battle-with the might of their pens.44

1. For descriptions of the Bozeman Trail, see Grace Raymond Hebard and E. A Brininstool, The Bozeman Trail, 2 vols. (Cleveland, Ohio, 1961), 1:201-35. For analysis of Indian activity in the area, see Robert M. Utley, "The Bozeman Trail before John Bozeman: A Busy Land," Montana The Magazine of Western History, 53 (Summer 2003), 20-31; and Richard White, "The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries," Journal of American History, 65 (September 1978), 319-43.

2. For descriptions of the postwar army and its Indian strategy, see Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891 (1973; repr., Lincoln, 1984); and Edward M. Coffrnan, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 (New York, 1986). For descriptions of Red Cloud and the failed treaty negotiations that launched the conflict on the Bozeman Trail, see James C. Olson, Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem (Lincoln, 1965), 23-24.

3. Margaret I. Carrington, Ab-sa-ra-ka, Home of the Crows, 1st ed. (Philadelphia, 1868), 1,61; Frances C. Carrington, My Army Life and the Fort Phil Kearney Massacre with An Account of the Celebration of "Wyoming Opened" (Philadelphia, 1910), 61-62. All page numbers cited are to the first edition of Ab-sa-ra-ka.

4. Colonel Henry B. Carrington to Major H. G. Litchfield, November 5, 1866, in U.S. Senate, Letter from the Acting Secretary of the Interior, Transmitting in Response to Senate Resolution of February 11, 1887, Papers Relative to Indian Operations on the Plains, 50th Gong., 1st sess., 1888, S. Doc. 33,20-21,51-53 (hereafter U.S. Senate, Indian Operations on the Plains]. Published twenty years alter the Fetterman battle, this document contains testimony and evidence given by Carrington to the special commission called by Congress to investigate the Fetterman incident. Carrington referred to it throughout a lifetime of written communications as "Senate Document 3.3." Jaime J. Carrillo, "Life in a War Zone: A Social History of Red Cloud's War 1866-67" (master's thesis, University of Texas, El Paso, 1996), 50.

5. U.S. Senate, Indian Operations on the Plains, 39; Lieutenant A. H. Wands testimony, Military Court of Inquiry, May 1867, General CourtMartial Order 002236, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army), 1692-1981, Record Group 153 (hereafter RG 153), National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (hereafter NA); William H. Bisbee, "Items of Indian Service," in The Papers of the Order of Indian Wars (Fort Collins, Colo., 1975), 83; Brevet Major James Powell testimony (hereafter Powell testimony), July 24,1867, Meetings of the Special Commission, March 4, 1867 to June 12, 1867, Records Relating to the Investigation of the Fort Philip Kearny Massacre, 1866-67, Microfilm 740 (hereafter M740), Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75 (hereafter RG 75), NA.

6. U.S. Senate, Indian Operations on the- Putins, 40; Bisbee, Papers of the Order of Indian Wars, 83; Powell testimony.

7. U.S. Senate, Indian Operations on the Plains, 44.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., 40; Lieutenant A. H. Wands testimony, Meetings of the Special Commission, March 4,1867 to June 12, 1867, M740, RG 75, NA.

10. Robert B. Partridge, "Fetterman Debacle-Who Was to Blame?" Journal of the Council on America's Military Past, 16, no. 2 (1989), 36-43; U.S. Department of War, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, series 1, 70 vols., 128 books (Washington.D.C., 1880-1901), vol. 38, pt. 2,497-500, vol. 98, pt. 1,495-507.

11. Carrington, My Army Life, 18; John D. McDermott, "George Washington Grummond," in Civilian, Military, Native American Portraits of Fort Phil Kearny (Banner, Wyo., 1993), 88-92; George W. Grummond, Pension File 23, Widow's Claim 111-43, Records of the Veterans Administration, Record Group 15, NA; Deatma Umbach Kordik, "Frances C. Grummorid Carrington," in Civilian, Military, Native American Portraits of Fort Phil Kearny, 93-97.

12. Carrington, My Army Life, 18; Carrington, Ab-sa-ra-ka, 249.

13. Barry Hagan, "Prelude to a Massacre-Fort Phil Kearny, December 6, 1866," Journal ofthe Order of the Indian Wars, 1 (Fall 1980), 1-17.

14. J. W. Vaughn, Indian Fights: New Facts on Seven Encounters (Norman, 1966), 211; Partridge, "Fetterman Debacle," 36-43.

15. Elbert D. Belish, "American Horse (Wasechun-Tashunka): The Man Who Killed Fetterman," Annals of Wyoming, 63 (Spring 1991), 54-67; James H. Gook, Fifty Years on the Old-Frontier as Cowboy, Hunter, Guide, Scout, and Ranchman (New Haven, Conn., 1923), 229. The "Fetterman Disaster Club" is on display at Cook's ranch near Harrison, Nebraska, which is now a national monument.

16. Robert G. Athearn, William Tecumseh Sherman and the Settlement of the West (Norman, 1956), 16,190; Coffman. Old Army, 218-9; Robert A. Murray, Military Posts in the Powder River Country of Wyoming, 1865-1894 (Lincoln, 1968),52; Utley, Frontier Regulars, 10-14; Joseph Manzione, "I am Looking to the North for My Life": Sitting Bull, 1876-1881 (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1991), 7-8.

17. U.S. Senate, "Message of the President of the United States," Senate Journal, 39th Cong., 2d sess., 1866, 7-18; Congressional Globe, 39th Gong., 2d sess., 1866, voL 37, appendixes 1-6.

18. Rachel Sherman Thorndike, ed., The Sherman Letters: Correspondence between General Sherman and Senator Sherman from 1837 to 1891 (1894; repr.,New York, 1969), 275-316; Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction (New York, 1990), 143; General William T. Sherman to General Ulysses S. Grant, December 30, 1866, January 13, 1867, in Ulysses S. Grant, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, ed. John Y. Simon, 26 vols., (Carbondale, Ill., 1967-2003), 16:422-23,17:13-14.

19. Colonel Henry B. Carrington to Assistant Adjutant General, Department of the Platte, January 3,1867, in U.S. Senate, Indian Operations on the Plains, 40.

20. U.S. Senate, Indian Operations on the Plains, 40; Henry B. Carrington, "Explanation of Congressional Delay for Twenty Years," in "Wyoming Opened"-Carrington Scrapbook, Wyoming Room, Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming (hereafter FPL, Sheridan).

21. General Philip St. George Cooke, Department of the Platte, Omaha, to A. A. General, Department of the Missouri, St. Louis, January 14, 1867, in Reports of the secretaries of War and Interior in Answer to Resolutions of the Senate and House of Representatives in Relation to the Massacre at Fort Phil. Kearney . . . (1867; repr., Woodbridge, Conn., 1975), 35-36.

22. Powell testimony; Michael Straight, "The Strange Testimony of Major Powell," Westerners New York Posse. Brand Book, 7 (1960), 8; Henry B. Carrington, "Response to Captain James Powell's Affidavit," in "Wyoming Opened"-Carrington Scrapbook, FPL, Sheridan, also cited in Vaughn, Indian Fights, 211.

23. Carrington, "Explanation of Congressional Delay for Twenty Years," in "Wyoming Opened"-Carrington Scrapbook, FPL, Sheridan.

24. Lieutenant Frederick Pliisterer and Captain Henry Haymond testimony, May 10, 1867, General Court-Martial Order 002236, RG 153, NA, also cited in Robert A. Murray, The Army on the Powder River (Bellevue, Nebr., 1969), 4-5; Lieutenant William F. Arnold testimony, Meetings of the Special Commission, March 4, 1867 to June 12, 1867, M740, RG 75, NA; Captain William H. Bisbee testimony, ibid.; Carrington, "Response to Captain James PowelPs Affidavit"; Vaughn, Indian Fights, 206-23; Carrington, Ab-sa-ra-ka, 222.

25. Henry B. Carrington to C. G. Coutant, June 6, 1902, B-C235-hb, Grace Raymond Hebard Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie. This letter is also reprinted in Hebard and Brininstool, Bozeman Trail, 1:339-42.

26. Carrington, Ab-sa-ra-ka, 1; General William T. Sherman to Margaret Carrington, November 20, 1868, file 2, box 3, series 1, Carrington Family Papers (hereafter Carrington Family Papers), Manuscript Group 130, microfilm HM176, Manuscripts and Archives, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (hereafter Sterling Library, New Haven).

27. Oliver Knight, Life and Manners in the Frontier Army (Norman, 1978), 60,71,75; Bisbee, Papers of the Order of Indian Wars, 78; William Henry Bisbee, Through Four American Wars, The Impressions and Experiences of Brigadier General William Henry Bisbee (Boston, 1931).

28. Margaret Carrington, Ab-sa-ra-ka, Home of the Crows, 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1869); Shirley A. Leckie, Elizabeth Bacon Glister and the Making of a Myth (Norman, 1993), xx.

29. Murray, Army on the Powder River, 1-10; Henry B. Carrington, The Indian Question: Including a Report by the Secretary of the Interior on the Massacre of Troops Near Fort Kearny, December 1866 (Boston, 1884).

30. U.S. Department of War, Letter from the Secretary of War Transmitting in Response to Resolution of February 11,1887, Report of Colonel Carrington on the Massacre Near Fort Philip Kearny, 49th Gong., 2d sess., 1887, S. Doc. 97. The Department of the Interior published its report in U.S. Senate, Indian Operations on the Plains, 51-53, several months later.

31. Henry B. Carrington, "Explanation of Congressional Delay for Twenty Years," in "Wyoming Opened'-Carrington Scrapbook, FPL, Sheridan; Henry B. Carrington to James Carrington, September 9, 1903, file 2, box 4, microfilm HM176, series 1, Carrington Family Papers, Sterling Library, New Haven.

32. Cyrus Townsend Brady, Indian Fights and Fighters (1904; vepr., Lincoln, 1971), 22-32.

33. C. G. Coutant, The History of Wyoming (Cheyenne, Wyo., 1899), 574.

34. Frances Ten Eyck to Eli S. Ricker, June 1, 1906, folder 30, box 2, series l, Ricker, Eli Seavey, 1843-1936, Record Group 1227, Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln.

35. Henry B. Carrington to Eli S. Ricker, June 30,1906, ibid.; Frances Ten Eyck to Eli S. Ricker, June 27,1908, folder 31, ibid.

36. Carrington, Ab-sa-ra-ka, 246,171; Carrington,My Army Life, 119, 136,144,249-56.

37. Brady, in Indian Fights and Fighters, 11, launched this image when lie wrote, "History records no greater instances of romantic devotion than those exhibited by the army wife." Sandra Myres, in "Romance and Reality on the American Frontier: Views of Army Wives," Western Historical Quarterly, 13 (October 1982), 409-27, discusses the phenomena of army women portrayed as the "madonnas of the prairies." Shirley Leckie points out in "Reading between the Lines: Another Look at Officers' Wives in the Post-Civil War Frontier Army," Military History of the, Southwest, 19 (Fall 1989), 136-60, that army wives did not play the role of "civilizers" assigned them by historians.

38. Hebard and Brininstool, Bozentan Trail, 1:303-7; Stanley Vestal, Warpath: The True Story of the Fighting Sioux Told in a Biography of Chief White Bull (1934; repr., Lincoln, 1984), 59; Paul I. Wellman Jr., Death on the Prairie: The Thirty Years' Struggle for the Western Plains (1934; repr., Lincoln, 1987), 38-39; Stanley Vestal, Jim Bridger: Mountain Man (1946; repr., Lincoln, 1970), 270.

39. Dee Brown, The Fetter-man Massacre (1962; repr., Lincoln, 1971), 150.

40. Roy E. Applernari, "The Fetterman Fight," in Great Western Indian Fights, ed. Publications Committee of the Potomac Corral of the Westerners (1960; repr., Lincoln, 1966), 121-22; Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, Indian Wars (New York, 1977), 213. Dorothy Johnson titled her chapter describing the Fetterman Fight "The FireEater Extinguished" in The Bloody Bozeman: The Perilous Trail to Mentana's Gold (New York, 1971).

41. Michael Straight, Carrington: A Novel of the West (New York, 1960); B. F. McCune, "The Fatal Fetterman Fight," Wild West, 10 (December 1997), 36-42; Donald McCaig, "The Bozeman Trail,"Smithsonian Magazine, 7 (October 2000), 88-100; Larry McMurtry, Boone's Lick (New York, 2000); Zorianna Kit, "Uni Takes 'Lick' from McMurtry," Hollywood Reporter, November 8, 2002, , accessed May 30,2004; Christian Science Monitor, November 30,2000, Features sec.

42. Charles Wilson, a private in Company H, described Fetterman as a lather figure to his men, "always looking out for them, seeing to their needs, arid saving all unnecessary suffering." National Tribune, June 22, 1899, as cited in John D. McDermott "Price of Arrogance: The Short and Controversial Life of William Judd Fetterman," Annals of Wyoming, 63 (Spring 1991), 45.

43. William J. Fetterman, November 26,18G6, to Dr. Charles Terry, in "Wyoming Scrapbook: Documents Relating to the Fetterman Fight," ed. John D. McDermott, Armais of Wyoming, 63 (Spring 1991), 68-72.

44. William A. Graham, The Ouster Myth: A Source Book of Cnsteriana (Harrisburg, Pa., 1953), vii. Analysis similar to that of Brian W. Dippie's Ouster's Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (Lincoln, 1976; repr., 1994) is needed in order to discover the meanings behind the Fetterman myth and how it reflected the national character at various times during the past 135 years.

SHANNON SMITH CALITRI teaches at Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota. Her book Shattering the Myth of the Fetterman Fight is forthcoming this fall from the University of Nebraska Press.

Copyright Montana Historical Society Autumn 2004 Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

KEYWORDS: history; indianwars; redcloudwar

1 posted on 05/26/2006 1:40:52 PM PDT by robowombat
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: robowombat
Good article.

Here's more on the story for those interested.

The FReeper Foxhole Remembers the Fetterman Masscre (12/21/1866) - Dec 1st, 2004

2 posted on 05/29/2006 6:41:25 AM PDT by snippy_about_it (Fall in --> The FReeper Foxhole. America's History. America's Soul.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Tax-chick


3 posted on 06/17/2006 5:47:53 PM PDT by Tax-chick ("The root of the state is in the family. The root of the family is in the person of its head.")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson