In 1865, Major General Grenville M. Dodge ordered the Powder River Expedition against the Lakota aligned tribes. Dodge sent three columns into the Powder River country — but in the final analysis, the expedition did little more than increase the Sioux’s determination to resist white encroachment.
Realizing that military force was not producing a desirable result, the United States negotiated several treaties with the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. In exchange for money, the Indians agreed to withdraw from the overland migratory routes in the Powder River territory. The Indians who agreed to these terms, however, were the so-called Laramie Loafers: Indians who lived from US government handouts and resided near Fort Laramie. Red Cloud, whose assent was needed for any workable treaty, could not be found. Moreover, locating him was a dangerous undertaking for any white official and so the US government employed a few of the loafers to locate Red Cloud and invite him to parley.
On 2 March 1866, Red Cloud and his Oglala Sioux rode into Fort Laramie. The war chief promised to remain peaceful until the government’s chief negotiator, E. B. Taylor, arrived with presents. The thinking among the Sioux was that they were simply defending their territory. This was their right. It was their land — except, of course, for the fact that the Sioux had recently taken it from other tribes.
The Crow, meanwhile, began a clandestine campaign to set the white soldiers against their enemy, the Sioux. To cement this relationship, the Crow became allies of the US Army, serving as scouts, and advising them on what to expect from other tribes.
Negotiations between Red Cloud and other Indians leaders, and the US’ chief negotiator, opened on 12 June 1866. It was a short-lived negotiation because on the following day, Colonel Henry B. Carrington arrived with the 18th US Infantry (about 1,300 soldiers). His orders were to establish forts in the Powder River country. Red Cloud, accusing the Americans of bad faith, promptly withdrew from the fort.
Other Sioux leaders remained to listen to the American’s proposals. The Lakota would gain $70,000 annually; the Cheyenne $15,000 annually — but only if they agreed to cooperate with the US government. It was an interesting proposal, but the problem was that the Americans were not negotiating with the Indian’s true decision-makers. The Crow, remember, did not want Sioux Indians to cooperate with the white soldiers. The US negotiator believed he was making progress and duly reported his good news to President Andrew Johnson. Johnson gleefully reported that the Indians had submitted to US authority. What Johnson didn’t know, of course, was that well mounted Sioux Indians surrounded Colonel Carrington’s regiment.
Carrington departed Fort Laramie at the head of 700 soldiers, a 35-member regimental band, 300 civilians (wives and children of soldiers and civilian contractors), 226 supply wagons, and around 1,000 head of cattle. Of his 700 troops, two-thirds were recently recruited, most were on foot, and all of them were armed with antiquated muzzle-loading muskets. In total, Carrington had around 100,000 rounds of ammunition. Carrington’s mission was to build forts — not engage Indians, so he didn’t send out any mounted scouts. The only positive aspect to Carrington’s campaign was that noted frontiersman Jim Bridger served as Carrington’s principal advisor.
Carrington never stood a chance against the highly mobile Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Red Cloud commanded 13,000 warriors. In total, including women and children, there were around 33,000 Indians in the Powder River country. In 1866, the Lakota had but few firearms — but as we shall see, they didn’t need them
After leaving two companies as replacements at Fort Reno, Carrington marched north to establish the new Fort Kearny, which he established at Piney Creek, near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming. Leaving 400 soldiers at Kearny, two companies of the 18th Infantry advanced 91 miles to the Bighorn River, where they established Fort C. F. Smith.
Two Cheyenne War Chiefs, Dull Knife and Two Moons, visited Carrington at Fort Reno on 16 July. They told him that they desired peace with the white eyes. They also warned him that Red Cloud was nearby with 500 warriors. That very day, Indians murdered two civilians while they were hunting.
Red Cloud’s war against the Powder River forts began in earnest the following day. Having infiltrated Fort Reno pickets, Sioux Indians stampeded 175 horses and mules. Two-hundred mounted soldiers pursued the Indians in a fifteen-mile running fight, but the stolen animals were never recovered, and the soldiers ended up losing two dead and three wounded. When the soldiers returned to the fort, they found the bodies of six civilian traders.
On 20 July, Red Cloud attacked a wagon train near Crazy Woman Fork of the Powder River. Two civilians died. A second attack on a wagon train a few days later stopped all migratory movements. Carrington, who relied on supply trains for food and ammunition, was forced to detail soldiers as security for the supply trains. Crews working to construct Fort Kearny were under constant attack. Over several weeks, Indians killed six soldiers and 28 civilian contractors and made off with numerous horses and mules, dozens of cattle, and destroyed a hay-cutting machine.
In November 1866, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel William J. Fetterman reported to Fort Kearny from Fort Laramie. While an experienced combat officer, Captain Fetterman had no experience with Indians. Worse, perhaps, Fetterman was full of himself even to the extent of an immature confrontation with Colonel Carrington about the colonel’s passive approach in dealing with the Lakota. He foolishly bragged that with eighty good men, he would ride through the Sioux nation at will.
On 6 December Second Lieutenant Horace S. Bingham led a squadron of cavalry to provide security for a wood-cutting train. At some point during the day, Indians attacked Bingham and then quickly withdrew. Thinking he and his men had driven off the Sioux with gunfire, Bingham imprudently led his men in pursuit of the Indians. Several of Bingham’s men were killed in the action.
Carrington wisely realized that drawing whites into an Indian trap was a common Indian tactic and advised his officers to consider their circumstances before deciding to pursue hostile Indians. Fetterman was outraged by Carrington’s advice. It was Fetterman’s understanding that General Cooke expected his soldiers to pursue aggressive campaigns against all hostiles, wherever and whenever found. The boy colonel had apparently not considered that US soldiers were significantly outnumbered by their enemy.
After another attack on the wood train on the morning of 21 December, Carrington ordered a force of 49 infantry and 27 mounted troops to relieve them. Fetterman requested Carrington’s permission to command the detachment, which was granted. Lieutenant George W. Grummond, another of Carrington’s critics, commanded the mounted men. Post quartermaster Captain Frederick Brown requested permission to join the Fetterman detachment. Two civilians also joined Fetterman, which brought his force to a total of 81 officers and men. The infantry marched out first, followed by the cavalry.
Carrington instructed Fetterman not to cross Lodge Trail Ridge because of the difficulty of reinforcing him should it become necessary to do so. As Grummond was leaving the fort, Carrington again reminded him of his orders and instructed Grummond to remind Fetterman, as well.
Upon leaving the fort, Fetterman’s force turned north and crossed over the Sullivant Hills toward Lodge Trail Ridge. Within moments of their departure from the main road, a Lakota decoy party under Crazy Horse appeared on Lodge Trail Ridge and, contrary to his orders, Fetterman took the Indian’s bait.
Grummond soon joined Fetterman at a creek crossing and the combined force formed a skirmish line and marched over the ridge. On the other side, in the Peno Valley, Fetterman led his men into an ambush involving around 2,000 Sioux warriors. None of Fetterman’s men survived. Their bodies were later discovered scalped, beheaded, dismembered, disemboweled, and castrated. The only dead soldier who was not mutilated was Bugler Adolph Metzler, a teenager. Forensic evidence at the battle site suggested that Metzler fought off several Indians with his bugle, which he used as a bludgeon. Aside from his fatal head and chest injuries, the Indians honored him by covering his body with a buffalo robe.
Carrington dispatched a civilian by the name of John Philips to carry a message to General Cooke. Struggling through deep snow and frigid temperatures, Philips reached Fort Laramie in four days and delivered his message. Cooke immediately relieved Carrington of his duties and replaced him with Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells. When General U. S. Grant, then Commanding General of the U. S. Army, learned of the Fetterman disaster, he relieved General Cooke.
Red Cloud wisely avoided major engagements with the army; he accomplished his goals by confining his activities to small raids on soldiers and civilians at the three Powder River forts. The Fetterman Fight was the worst military defeat suffered by the United States on the Great Plains until the Battle of the Little Big Horn ten years later.
The failure of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 prompted another negotiation in 1868. It was a departure from the earlier treaty in the sense that the United States government was no longer interested in Indian culture or preserving tribal customs. It may not have been “politically correct,” but it did address the reality of the American west, and the nature of Indians tribes. The army implemented a heavy-handed approach toward either assimilating the Sioux into American culture and social norms or eradicating them. As but one example of this policy, Fort Laramie’s commander informed a group of Sioux that they were no longer welcome at the fort because they were south of their newly established territory. It was an effort by the Army to irritate the Sioux because in fact, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 contained no proscription about Indians traveling outside their territories; only that they may not reside outside of those territories.
The Treaty of 1868 (modified on three separate occasions by the Congress), lasted only a few years. The United States broke this treaty when it led an expedition of 1,000 men into the Black Hills, which was an event that led directly to the Great Sioux War of 1876 and the eventual seizure of the Black Hills in 1877.
(Continued next week)
- Chaky, D. Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and US Soldiers on Upper Missouri, 1854-1868. University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
- Gibbon, G. E. The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
- Harring, N. Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and the United States Law in the 19th Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Hassrick, R. B. The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society. University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
- Hyde, G. E. A Sioux Chronicle. University of Oklahoma Press, 1993
 Carrington was an engineer and a political appointee. He had no combat experience. He did build solid forts, however. Carrington’s junior officers were hotheads; they wanted a fight, and even though most had served in the Civil War, they knew nothing about Indian warfare.
 Fetterman’s permanent rank was Captain. He was 33-years old.