The Whites called it a battle when soldiers entered a village at dawn and killed men, women, and children as they slept or as they fled for their lives. However, when Indians killed only soldiers on a field of battle, the Whites called it a massacre.
The Day: 21 December 1866, as the White Man counts time. The temperature hovers just above freezing, and there’s a thin cover of snow on the ground.
Colonel Henry B. Carrington sits in his office at Fort Phil Kearny reading the latest dispatch from the War Department when there is a knock on the door. Without looking up, he calls out, “Enter.”
Sergeant Bower seems nervous. “Sir, we’re getting low on wood.”
“What? We just had a detail out last week.”
“No, sir. That was almost two weeks ago. We lost four men.”
“I know how many men were killed, Sergeant.”
“Yes, sir. But with the weather we’ve been having lately, we’re using up firewood at a faster pace.”
“Any Indians lurking about?”
“No sign of any, sir.”
“Then organize a detail, but I want an officer to lead it. Get that new man, Grummond.”
“And make sure the detail is properly protected.”
Subsequent to leaving the Colonel’s office, the Sergeant makes his way to the officers’ mess where he finds Captains Fetterman and Powell in heated conversation.
“Give me eighty men and I’ll ride through the entire Sioux Nation,” boasts Fetterman.
Captain William J. Fetterman is a veteran of the war. He served under Ulysses S. Grant and believes Colonel Carrington’s methods in dealing with the Indians are too passive.
Bower approaches. “Excuse me, sirs. I’m looking for Lieutenant Grummond. The Colonel wants him to head an escort for the wood-cutting detail.”
Captain Fetterman orders the Sergeant to get the men together and informs him he will see to Lieutenant Grummond.
After the Sergeant has gone, Fetterman says to Powell, “I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of sitting on my backside. This may be an opportunity for some action. I’m going to ask the Colonel to take Grummond’s place.”
Captain Powell does not think much of the idea. “It’s freezing out there and all you’ll be doing is watching men cut wood and freezing your … your fingers off. They’ll be close enough. If we hear gunfire, we’ll be out there pronto. Then you can have your action.”
“Maybe you’re right. Even so, I’m going to ask the Colonel to allow me to lead the relief party if one is needed.”
“Alright, Bill, but I’m going to sit here and have another cup of this excellent coffee. And don’t forget to give Grummond the good news,” says Powell somewhat sarcastically.
Ten miles away, two thousand braves wait in makeshift shelters for the scouts to relay word that a wood train has left the fort. The council had adopted Red Cloud’s plan and the warriors readied themselves by painting their faces and tying war ribbons to their ponies’ tails. They left the next day for the three-day trek to Buffalo Creek where they now wait for the signal that will send them into battle.
At mid-morning, the lookouts see the first flashes of sunlight off the hand-held mirrors the scouts use to relay messages. It is as fast as the singing wires – or the telegraph, as the Whites call it.
A wood train has left the fort.
The braves separate into four groups. The two largest, a thousand strong each, go to where the ambush is to take place. The Cheyenne and Arapahos conceal themselves on the west side of the depression, the Lakota on the east. The other two groups are made up of ten men each. One will attack the wood train; the other will decoy the soldiers to their doom.
Crazy Horse and the decoys secrete themselves just below the rim of Lodge Trail Ridge on the far side from the fort. The two main forces split up. Some take positions behind boulders, while others, still mounted, hide on the far side of the ridges. The men who are to attack the wood cutters ride to catch up with their quarry.
The Indians fire the first shot thirty minutes before noon. The war party attacking the train does its best to kill soldiers, but the priority is to draw the Bluecoats out of the fort.
Hearing gunfire, Captain Fetterman rushes to Colonel Carrington’s office, and without bothering to knock, goes in to inform the Colonel a relief party is needed.
“Yes, Captain, I heard the shots. You take the 18th Infantry and the 2nd Cavalry and go to the aid of the wood train. They’re both at half-strength, but that should be sufficient to chase away the Indians; there’s never more than a dozen or so. Under no circumstance are you to cross Lodge Trail Ridge. Your orders are to bring the men of the wood train back to safety.”
Displeased because he cannot engage the Indians, Fetterman dejectedly affirms his orders.
From his place of concealment, Crazy Horse watches Fetterman and his soldiers leave the fort at full gallop, then settles in to await their return.
By the time Fetterman reaches the wood train, the Indians have disappeared, which annoys him to no end. “The base cowards! I warrant there isn’t an Indian in all of the Dakota Territory who has the courage of one White Man!”
Lieutenant Grummond informs the Captain there’s a wounded man who should be brought back to the fort.
“Alright, Lieutenant; I’m to bring you all back and then we’ll see what the Colonel wants to do about the wood situation.”
As the soldiers near the fort, Crazy Horse and the other decoys mount their horses and prepare to antagonize Fetterman and his men.
“What’s that up there on the ridge, Captain?”
“Up there on Lodge Trail Ridge. Wait … I’ll be damned. I believe those are the Indians who attacked us!”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m ordered not to go over the ridge. Anyway, they’re out of rifle range, but have your men take a few shots at them, anyway. Let’s see what happens.”
The soldiers fire but, as expected, the shots have no effect on the Indians. They continue to wave their guns and shake their fists at the Bluecoats below.
“Those sons-of-bitches!” shouts Fetterman. “Hand me your glass, Lieutenant. I want a better look.”
Putting the glass to his eye, Fetterman’s whole demeanor changes. His back goes rigid and he raises himself in his saddle, then sits back down. He hands the glass back to Grummond without saying a word. Naturally, the Lieutenant is eager to know what Fetterman has seen. He raises the glass to his eye and sees a few of the Indians standing on their horses with their leggings pulled down, shaking their bare rear ends toward the detail.
That’s the last straw for Fetterman. He orders Lieutenant Grummond to see the wood detail back to the fort. “I’m going to teach those redskins a lesson they’ll never forget.”
“With your permission, sir, I’d like to accompany you. I’m itching to teach a lesson, too.”
With permission granted, Lieutenant Grummond gives Sergeant Bower the same order:
“See them back to the fort, Sergeant.”
“Ah … ah …”
“What is it, Sergeant?”
“I’ve got an itch, too, sir.”
“What do you think, Captain?”
“Alright, Lieutenant, but let’s get a move on before everyone volunteers. Corporal Littlejohn, see the detail back to the fort. Bugler Metzler, sound Charge.”
With the acquisition of Lieutenant Grummond and Sergeant Bower, Captain Fetterman’s command now numbers exactly eighty-one soldiers.
As Fetterman and company start up the hill, Crazy Horse and the other decoys retreat a bit. Not too far, just enough to keep the soldiers interested. They stay on the crest until the last possible moment, then ride down the other side. Keeping just out of reach of the soldiers, they pretend to be running for their lives.
It’s just noon as the soldiers descend the far side of Lodge Trail Ridge, chasing the Indians. At the bottom runs Peno Creek. When the soldiers reach the creek, that will be the signal for the Indians in hiding to attack. By then, the soldiers will be too far into the trap to escape.
As soon as the first soldier splashes across the creek, the Arapaho and the Cheyenne pour out of their hiding places on the west, and the warriors behind the ridge swoop down to join in the fight. On the east, the same thing takes place. Before the soldiers know it, they’re in hand-to-hand combat. The infantry is the first to be wiped out. The cavalry makes it to the protection of nearby boulders and turn their horses loose. It’s there they’ll make their stand.
There are so many braves trying to get at too few soldiers, the braves get in each other’s way.
Near the end of the battle, the warriors on the outer edge stop to watch an amazing sight. The young bugler, Metzler, who had not yet reached his majority, stands with many arrows sticking out of him. But he fights on. He uses a musket as a club, and when that breaks, he takes the bugle hanging from his belt and clouts any Indian who gets near him. One by one, the Indians back away. They respect a brave enemy. This boy has fought with courage, with more courage than any other soldier. At least ten arrows pierce his young body. As the braves pull back, he looks about, wondering why the fighting has stopped. He does not know it, but he is the last man standing, and the Indians do not want to kill him. But too late, he is already dead; he throws his bugle at the nearest brave as he falls to the ground.
The trap had been sprung exactly at noon. Half an hour later, all eighty-one of Fetterman’s Bluecoats are dead.
The Indians strip the soldiers of their clothing and collect their weapons. The Arapaho round up the cavalry’s horses. The Cheyenne and Lakota disfigure the bodies. That is, all but Adolph Metzler’s. They remove the arrows from his body and cover him with a buffalo robe.
As they mutilate the bodies of the other soldiers, the Cheyenne think of Sand Creek. The Lakota remember Whitestone Hill and Blue Water Creek.
In irony of all ironies, the man who said if given eighty men he would march “through the entire Sioux Nation,” now lies dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He took his own life rather than face his enemies as his teenage bugler had.
The battle came to be known as the Fetterman Massacre by the Whites. But to this day, the Northern Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and the Lakota refer to it by its rightful name, “The Battle of One Hundred Slain.”
Ten winters will pass before the Cheyenne and the Lakota have another victory so complete. During that time, the United States pursues its policy of taking the Indians’ land. Year after year, soldiers are sent out onto the plains to subdue the Lakota bands that prefer hunting to sitting around a fort accepting handouts from the White Man. Hunters are labeled unfriendly, which means not only are the men of the tribe fair game, but their women and children as well.