Fetterman Massacre

After ignoring warnings against pursuing American Indian decoys, a U.S. Army captain and eighty of his men were ambushed and killed near Fort Phil Kearny in the worst Indian massacre of whites before the Battle of the Little Bighorn a decade later.

Summary of Event

At the end of the U.S. Civil War, the West was divided into two geographical areas for the purpose of military operations. Major General Henry W. Halleck headed the Division of the Pacific, and Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman commanded the Division of the Missouri. The peacetime army Frontier, American;and Native Americans[Native Americans] increasingly faced the prospect of Indian wars on the Western frontier. Fetterman Massacre (1866)
Native American wars;Fetterman Massacre
Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars]
Wyoming;Fetterman Massacre
Fetterman, William Judd
Carrington, Henry Beebee
Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868)[Red Clouds War (1866-1868)]
Sioux;Red Cloud’s War[Red Clouds War]
[kw]Fetterman Massacre (Dec. 21, 1866)
[kw]Massacre, Fetterman (Dec. 21, 1866)
Fetterman Massacre (1866)
Native American wars;Fetterman Massacre
Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars]
Wyoming;Fetterman Massacre
Fetterman, William Judd
Carrington, Henry Beebee
Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868)[Red Clouds War (1866-1868)]
Sioux;Red Cloud’s War[Red Clouds War]
[g]United States;Dec. 21, 1866: Fetterman Massacre[4000]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Dec. 21, 1866: Fetterman Massacre[4000]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 21, 1866: Fetterman Massacre[4000]
Red Cloud
Cooke, Philip St. George
Sherman, William Tecumseh

An 1865 peace treaty with the Sioux guaranteed them use of areas that included southeastern Montana, northeastern Wyoming, and the western Dakotas. However, when emigrants began the move west, particularly after finding gold in 1862, settlers began using the Bozeman Trail Bozeman Trail through Wyoming to Montana. The Indians in the area, however, considered the constant stream of migrants along the trail a violation of the treaty because the travelers repeatedly trespassed on their traditional hunting grounds. Sioux chief Red Cloud Red Cloud organized other tribes and began to make small raids on wagon, supply, and wood trains. In the spring of 1866, the U.S. Army ordered Brevet Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke, Cooke, Philip St. George commander of the Department of the Platte (which included the Bozeman Trail Bozeman Trail ) and the Eighteenth Infantry Regiment, to secure the trail against such attacks by establishing two other forts along the Powder River.

Henry B. Carrington, a former lawyer and recruiting administrator in Ohio during the Civil War, was assigned the task of building the additional posts to protect westward settlers. His first objective was to construct the central stockade of Fort Phil Kearny on the plateau between the forks of Piney Creek. Carrington also faced inadequate supplies and manpower issues. Recruits were difficult to get, and they received little training, low pay, and few promotions. Complicating logistics was the postwar political climate and the question of Indian relations. A public dispute erupted between the Department of War and the Department of Interior about developing a cohesive Indian policy; the dispute often fluctuated between negotiating and using force.

Carrington lacked battlefield experience, and he took a decisively defensive strategy in dealing with these attacks. Oftentimes men were engaged in construction, guard, or escort duty, which left little time for training drills. The commander also gave strict orders to not pursue Indians because he feared he did not have enough manpower or weapons to repel them.

Carrington Carrington, Henry Beebee was an efficient organizer, but morale and discipline began to suffer at the fort, a matter that upset Captain William J. Fetterman. Fetterman was an aggressive and decorated soldier who marched with Sherman in the Georgia campaign during the Civil War. He detested Carrington’s passivity in military matters and openly criticized his leadership abilities before fellow officers. Fetterman allegedly boasted to his commander that he could take down the entire Sioux nation with eighty men.

In late November, Cooke Cooke, Philip St. George ordered that the army begin strikes against the Indians while they were in winter camp. By early December, the fort was nearly complete, and Carrington did make plans for offensive movements against them. This led to a series of engagements. On December 6, one hundred Indians attacked another wood train. Carrington and Fetterman encountered them near Peno Creek. The troops panicked; two officers were killed and five soldiers were wounded in the melee, reinforcing for the Sioux that their decoy tactics were successful. Erring on the side of caution, the commander then gave explicit orders for the men not to pursue under any circumstances.

Thirteen days later, the Indians attacked again, and the troops, following Carrington’s orders, failed to follow them. On December 21, Fetterman was sent with seventy-nine soldiers and two civilians to help reinforce a wood train attacked earlier that morning. This time Fetterman fell for the trap, and he decided to pursue Crazy Horse and the other decoy over a range of hills known as Lodge Trail Ridge. Fetterman led his men right into an ambush by a force of up to 2,500 Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux warriors. The infantry and cavalry soon became separated into two groups, attempting to set up defensive positions, but were overtaken three miles from the fort. The shooting could be heard at the fort, but by the time Carrington dispatched cavalry to the ridge’s summit, Fetterman and his entire detachment were dead—they had been killed within an hour. The Fetterman Massacre, known by Indians as the battle “100 in the Hand,” represented the climax of Red Cloud’s War.


The Fetterman Massacre was the worst defeat on the Western frontier until the time of George Armstrong Custer’s Custer, George A. Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. A court of inquiry exonerated Carrington of any fault for the massacre, but he was relieved of command nonetheless. Carrington retired from the military three years later, but he spent the remainder of his life trying to restore his reputation by altering the historical account of the massacre.

The forts along the Bozeman Trail Bozeman Trail were eventually abandoned during the next few years; Fort Phil Kearny closed in 1868. Railroads would eventually serve as the main form of transportation in the West. The U.S. government also agreed to restore unceded territory to the American Indians.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Dee. The Fetterman Massacre, Formerly Fort Phil Kearny: An American Saga. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971. Recounts the events that preceded the massacre. A well-documented book based on Army records and reports. Scholars consider this work the definitive account of the massacre.
  • Calitri, Shannon Smith. “’Give Me Eighty Men’: Shattering the Myth of the Fetterman Massacre.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 54, no. 4 (Autumn, 2004): 44-59. Refutes the claim that Carrington was completely reviled by Fetterman, his fellow officers, and subordinates as commander at Fort Phil Kearny. Calitri contends that Fetterman lived by a gentleman’s code of conduct and would have behaved as a professional officer despite having misgivings about Carrington.
  • Johnston, Terry C. Sioux Dawn: A Novel of the Fetterman Massacre. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. A fictional work about the history and circumstances surrounding the Fetterman Massacre.
  • Longstreet, Stephen. War Cries on Horseback: The Story of the Indian Wars of the Great Plains. New York: Doubleday, 1970. This work examines the battles and clashing cultures from 1865 to 1900 between whites and American Indians. Both groups were fighting to control the Western frontier.
  • Olson, James C. Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem. 1965. New ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. Provides an account of Red Cloud’s life. The author contends that Red Cloud was a transitional figure whose traditional warrior way of life was diminishing, and who was eventually forced to acquiesce to government demands to save his people.
  • Partridge, Robert B. “Fetterman Debacle—Who Was to Blame?” Journal of the Council on America’s Military Past 16, no. 2 (1989) 36-43. Partridge contends that Fetterman and Carrington are case studies for conflicting military leadership abilities, the importance of loyalty, and the dangers of disobedience.
  • Utley, Robert M. Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indians, 1866-1891. 1973. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. In a meticulously documented book, Utley examines the Regular Army’s role to subdue American Indians during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Utley addresses policy decisions, recruitment, military operations, maneuvers, and equipment.
  • Vaughn, J. W. Indian Fights: New Facts on Seven Encounters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966. A reexamination of seven engagements during the Indian wars. Chapter 2 addresses the Fetterman Massacre.
  • Wenzel, Nikolai. “The Fetterman Massacre of December 21, 1866.” Journal of the Council on America’s Military Past 28, no. 1 (2001): 46-59. Wenzel concentrates on the personality clash between Fetterman and Carrington. He believes Fetterman was a rash officer whose thirst for glory was placed above the safety of his men.

Great Sioux War

Long Walk of the Navajos

Sherman Marches Through Georgia and the Carolinas

Sand Creek Massacre

Red Cloud’s War

Chisholm Trail Opens

Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty

Washita River Massacre

Grant Signs Indian Appropriation Act

Sioux War

Battle of the Little Bighorn

Wounded Knee Massacre

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