The Great Sioux War / The First Victory After Custer’s Defeat

Take a drive about seventy miles north of the Black Hills and you’ll reach a site where a decisive battle took place during the Great Sioux War of 1876 which followed the stunning defeat of Colonel George Armstrong Custer in June of that year. The battle that took place at this site in September of 1876 was the first cavalry victory over the Sioux since Custer’s defeat.

slim buttes south dakota

Slim Buttes

The actual battlefield in northwest South Dakota is now on private property. The area is between the towns of Buffalo and Bison. Today the visitor to this site will find an historical marker and memorial along the roadway. The memorial site is on State Highway 20 about three miles west of Reva South Dakota in Harding County.

So much has been chronicled about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, including on this site, but the Battle of Slim Buttes was directly related to what happened to George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry in June of 1876.

The story of the army’s response to Custer’s defeat is often overshadowed by the debate over what exactly happened and who, if anyone, was to blame at the Little Bighorn including some of the investigations that ensued. The steps the army took immediately after Custer’s defeat is an interesting story.

little bighorn memorial marker

Little Bighorn Memorial

The U.S. Army troops in the area of Slim Buttes in 1876 were there because of the shocking defeat of Custer and his cavalry a few months earlier. They were there to end the Sioux War one way or the other. After the Little Bighorn battle the Sioux bands started to move eastward as a large group during July and August of 1876. General George Crook’s forces joined up with General Terry’s and started to move eastward as well.

After the Little Bighorn

The goal of course was to catch up with the hostiles and either to defeat them and/or drive them back to the Indian agencies. There was also concern that more Sioux didn’t leave the reservation and join their brothers. As a result, the army took over control of the reservations from the Indian Department. Any renegade Indians who did happen to show up at the agencies were immediately disarmed and had their ponies taken away.

What took place prior to the Battle of Slim Buttes could only be called the most rigorous and nearly impossible long march in U.S. Army history. What was to ensue over the following few weeks would try the most skilled soldier to the limits of human endurance. Both General Terry and General Crook reported directly to General Philip Sheridan who’s headquarters were in Chicago.

crooks march to slim buttes

General Crook's Horsemeat March, 1876

A March Like None Other

Instead of leading his troops toward a supply depot on either the Yellowstone River or further east at Fort Lincoln, Crook became concerned for the safety of Deadwood in the Black Hills. This was about 180 miles south of his current position. Crook’s concern was that Deadwood and other small mining camps around it would be attacked by the Sioux. As a result, he decided on a march to Deadwood while rations were almost exhausted.

Much of what took place during this arduous march would be chronicled by the journalists who were embedded in his command. Many rferred to this march as the “Horsemeat March of 1876“. The excellent book, Slim Buttes, 1876 by author Jerome A. Greene gives a detailed description of the long march, the slaughtering of cavalry horses necessary to feed the troops and the accidental Battle of Slim Buttes that took place during this journey toward Deadwood.

Captain Anson Mills

When the command was a few days ride out of Deadwood, Crook made the decision to send a detachment up ahead to Deadwood to both notify the town of their position and at the same time buy and bring supplies back to the camp where Crook decided to hold the troops for a while.The detachment sent to the Black Hills was commanded by Captain Anson Mills. Along with Mills was 150 select cavalrymen.

Crook ordered that the detachment avoid conflict with the hostiles during their journey. The detachment was sent for supplies to aid the larger group and were not sent out as scouts. While Mill’s detachment of 150 troops made their way toward the Black Hills one of their non Soldier scouts spotted Indians with game piled on their horses. When Mills heard of this he surmised correctly that there was certain to be an Indian village somewhere in the vicinity.

black hills south dakota

The Black Hills

Battle of Slim Buttes

At this point Captain Mills made the decision to locate the village. When they neared the area they dismounted. They wished to get closer and ascertain the size of the camp and didn’t want noise from their mounts to give them away.

When the village was located on the banks of the Moreau River which today is named Gap Creek, Mills and several others including their scouts approached on foot. They saw the village but could not figure out it’s size. One thing the troops in Crook’s command knew was that Custer’s attack on the Little Bighorn without first knowing the size of the enemy camp was a contributing factor to his defeat.

Everyone in Mill’s detachment knew that this was a critical element and especially since their numbers were only 150. As for the Indians, they had no idea about Mills’ detachment. They were well aware that Crook was in the general area but not that one of his detachments was anywhere nearby.

general george crook

General George Crook

After discussing the situation with his officers, Captain Anson Mills decided that a daybreak attack would take place the next morning. The army had embraced surprise dawn attacks as the preferred method. This went all the way back to the Civil War days. In this instance, Mills would attack with three columns. The right and left would be on foot. The center column would be mounted and would tear through the village, stampeding the Indian ponies and shooting at whatever they could. Mills had hoped that the attack would be over in one clean sweep. The Indians would be killed or captured and any provisions they could find would be sent to Crook’s starved soldiers.

The Attack

What transpired was a bit different. The problem was that many warriors were able to flee south and west of the village and fired at the troops from the rocks and buttes above their former camp. The swift victory that Captain Mills anticipated didn’t materialize. What occurred was a sort of standoff where Indians in the rocks took shots at troops rummaging through the lodges in the village below. There was also concern that some of the warriors who fled would bring in reinforcements from Indian camps that were nearby. If that occurred, Mills attack against an undetermined size Indian village could have the same end results as Custer’s attack. The challenge Mills had was to hold out until Crook’s reinforcements could arrive.

Crook to the Rescue

Captain Mills sent a courier back to General Crook’s encampment further north. Fortunately Crook did not stay encamped as long as anticipated and was moving forward when the courier reached him announcing the Indian fight Mills’ troops were involved in.

Crook and his troops set out in the direction of the village to reinforce Mills. Crook’s command reached the Indian village, joined the fight and after a full day and the loss of several men took the village as well as some captives, mostly women and children who were hiding in the rocks above.

Below are links to additional trips Into History articles you may enjoy…

Garryowen and Custer’s Seventh Cavalry

A Visit to Fort Apache Historic Park

The Start of the Western Indian Wars / The Grattan Massacre

indian warrior

Indian Warrior painting by Frederic Remington

The Aftermath

The Battle of Slim Buttes took place on September 9 and 10, 1876, about 2 1/2 months after Custer’s defeat.  Interestingly, while rummaging through and destroying the Indian lodges, Crook’s troops discovered several items taken from Custer’s command. Cavalry shirts, a Seventh Cavalry guidon and several other personal military effects were found.

The estimates of those killed in this battle were two cavalrymen and one civilian scout. After the battle ended and the dead were buried, Crook headed for Deadwood Dakota Territory where he would be welcomed along the way with supplies brought out by the citizenry. A courier had been sent to notify the town of Crook’s nearby position. When the troops eventually made it to Deadwood they were greeted with a great ovation.

Three excellent books on this subject include General George Crook: His AutobiographyA Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn by author James Donovan and The Slim Buttes Battle by author Fred H. Werner.

(Article copyright 2013 Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)


Garryowen and George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry

George Armstrong Custer and “Garryowen” 

Countless books have been published about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. At the time the battle that took place along the Little Bighorn River in Montana represented the largest single Indian War military loss. An interesting side story about Custer’s 7th Cavalry was their unofficial regimental marching song “Garryowen“. Marching tunes have been used in the military for centuries. They are used today.

garryowen montana memorial

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Peace Memorial, Garryowen Montana

All branches of the military are known to have cadence calls. The cadence call requires no musical instruments and sometimes the lyrics are composed of call outs and answers.

When you look back to the time before mechanized transportation, a marching song during a protracted hike helps build cohesion, keeps the troops in step and makes a long march a bit less weary. Essentially these tunes add rhythm to a march. A march is work and you could say these are “work songs”. In the U.S. these cadences are sometimes referred to as “jody calls”. The name Jody appears in many traditional military cadences thus the term “jody calls“.

Custer Adopts the Irish Garryowen

The story is that George Custer first heard the tune being sung among his Irish troopers. It was a old Irish tune going back to around 1860 with some believing it came directly from this neighborhood of Limerick Ireland. Some historians believe it was introduced to Colonel Custer by Captain Myles W. Keogh, one of his officers. Keogh’s father reportedly had been with the Fifth Royal Irish Lancers who had used this song. The Seventh Cavalry officially adopted the tune in 1867.

myles keogh of the seventh cavalry

Photo of the Seventh Cavalry. Myles Keogh seated furthest in front.

It originated just outside Limerick, Ireland and translates into “Owens Garden“. Custer liked it and started humming it himself. He also thought the tune matched up pretty well to a regiment of Cavalry horse soldiers on the march.

The tune actually was used by Irish regiments as a drinking song and some say it’s quick stepped  rhythm can be traced as far back as the early 1800’s. It’s first introduction among U.S. soldiers was in the early 1860’s during the Civil War.

In 1981 the Army’s First Cavalry Division made “Garryowen” it’s official song.

Original Garryowen Lyrics


[Verse 1]

Let Bacchus’s sons be not dismayed,
but join with me each jovial blade,
come booze and sing and lend your aid,
to help me with the chorus:


 Instead of spa we’ll drink down ale
and pay the reckoning on the nail,
for debt no man shall go to jail;
from Garry Owen in glory

[Verse 2]

We are the boys who take delight
in smashing Limerick lamps at night,
and through the street like sportsters fight,
tearing all before us. (Chorus)

[Verse 3]

We’ll break windows, we’ll break doors,
the watch knock down by threes and fours,
then let the doctors work their cures,
and tinker up our bruises. (Chorus)

[Verse 4]

We’ll beat the bailiffs out of fun,
we’ll make the mayor and sheriffs run,
we are the boys no man dare dun,
if he regards a whole skin. (Chorus)

[Verse 5]

Our hearts so stout have got us fame,
for soon ’tis known from whence we came,
where’re we go they dread the name,
of Garry Owen in glory. (Chorus)

Visit the Custer Battlefield

The Custer Battlefield Museum is located in Garryowen, MT. The site is right along Interstate-90 a few miles south of the Custer Battlefield and about 55 miles northwest of Sheridan, Wyoming.

This museum offers a vast display of photos, weaponry, paintings, manuscripts and many many more interesting artifacts. Several events are scheduled including reenactments of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The museum also offers internships for interested students. If you are in the general area I think this would make an excellent stop.

Below are links to additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy…

 The Buffalo Soldiers of West Texas

The Grattan Massacre in Wyoming and the Start of War

The Resting Place of the Heroes of the Alamo

little bighorn memorial

Little Bighorn Memorial on Last Stand Hill

Annual Battle of the Little Bighorn Reenactment 

This annual event is scheduled each June. Learn and experience the historic struggle for control of the West by visiting the amazing Little Bighorn Reenactment firsthand.

The Reenactment is located just south of Crow Agency, MT and between the historic points of Custer’s Last Stand Hill, Reno’s Charge / Retreat, and Reno – Benteen Battlefield. This battle has been called Custer’s Last Stand for over a century, with the National Park Service renaming of the Battlefield monument and park to Little Bighorn Battlefield.

For more information and for exact directions see website

(Article copyright 2013 Trips Into History. Photos and images in public domain)

A Visit to Fort Sill Oklahoma / A Frontier Army Post

Fort Sill Oklahoma is one of the country’s oldest military bases and is also a popular attraction for tourists traveling through southern Oklahoma. Before we give some information to help with your visit there we wanted to highlight some of Fort Sill’s  fascinating and long history.

henry flipper west point graduate

Henry O. Flipper, a former slave and West Point graduate

Fort Sill’s Colorful Past

Fort Sill Oklahoma is one of the most unique army installations in the United States. One very significant historical fact about  Ft. Sill is that it was the first posting of a 2nd Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper who was the first former slave to graduate from West Point. Flipper was assigned to the Buffalo Soldiers in 1877 while they were stationed in Oklahoma. Flipper served the U.S. Army from 1877 to 1882 and also was a civil engineer.

Another fact is that Fort Sill military base is the only fort still in operation today that was built during the southern plains Indian Wars. Fort Sill history therefore is quite extensive and interesting since it’s existence spans the old west frontier days to the present.

The fort was established at the direction of General Philip Sheridan in January of 1869. Sheridan was leading a campaign against the Comanches, southern Cheyennes, Kiowas and in some instances Apaches who were targeting white settlers in the area of western Oklahoma and Texas. The fort was established only one year after the Washita River Battle where George Armstrong Custer had destroyed the village of Black Kettle, killing he and his wife in the process.

general philip sheridan in the west

Harper's cover featuring General Philip Sheridan

Comanche Resistance

The Comanche unrest was going on for quite a long time. It was a significant part of the plains wars and had been going on as far back as to the early settlement days of Texas in the 1830’s and 1840’s and actually prior to that involving the Spaniards and Mexicans.

Like every other Indian conflict, the cause was the rapid western advancement of white settlements. Army forts as a rule were established along the western line of settlement and history of army action during this time was usually along that line.

In the case of Fort Sill, it was built within Indian Territory. This was the area of Oklahoma where reservations were established. The army’s goal was to resettle the Native Americans within the reservations and away from white settlers. Because of Fort Sill’s location it was very active during the latter part of the 1800’s.

The army outpost was first named Camp Witchita and later took the name of Sheridan’s West Point friend Brigadier General Joshua W. Sill.

comanche leader quanah parker

Comanche leader Quanah Parker

The Decisive Red River War

Fort Sill found itself in the spotlight during the 1874 Red River War. A Comanche named Quanah Parker was one of the most successful of the warrior leaders.  Parker was actually a half breed Comanche who was the son of a female white captive (Cynthia Ann Parker)  taken during a raid in central Texas in 1836. Most of her family was killed during the raid.

Just prior to the Red River War Quanah Parker was leading a war party for a second assault at Adobe Walls located in the Texas Panhandle. The raid wasn’t successful mostly because buffalo hunters were present with their very long range Sharps Bison Rifles.

The story in this instance is that Quanah Parker had his horse shot out from under him at an amazing range of 500 yards. This was enough for the warriors to call off the attack. This attack on Adobe Walls caused the government to reverse their prior peace initiatives and essentially ignited the Red River War.

sharps rifle buffalo gun

A Sharps Rifle like this allowed buffalo hunters to kill hundreds of the bison per day

It should be noted that by the winter of 1873-1874 the Plains Indians were in a lot of trouble. They were having a difficult time even surviving. The reduction of the buffalo herds with the help of the Sharps buffalo rifle decreased the size of the herds to unbelievably low numbers. At the same time the buffalo hunters were decimating the herd and white settlement to the west continued. The Indians were really between a rock and a hard place and total capitulation was just a matter of time.

As a result of the Adobe Walls affair, General Sheridan sent five army columns to the Texas Panhandle. A Red River battle was imminent. Three of the five columns sent were under the command of Colonel Ranald MacKenzie who would go down in history as being one of the most effective army Indian fighters in the southern plains. At one time MacKenzie was commander of Fort Concho in present day San Angelo Texas.

general nelson miles during civil war

Nelson Appleton Miles photo taken during the Civil War

Another column in this expedition was commanded by Colonel Nelson Miles who also went on to be a key figure in the surrender of Geronimo during the Apache Warin what is now southern Arizona. There were more than twenty battle encounters during the campaign with the army being highly aggressive. The cavalry wanted to engage the Indians as many times as it took to win. It was purely an offensive operation and Fort Sill troops took a major part in this campaign.

The campaign was effective against the Indians. The main reason was that the Indians were in no position to engage in a full scale battle. Their supplies were very low or non-existent. They were tired of the running and in most cases fled rather than fought when chased by the cavalry. It was obvious that Sheridan’s troops were better armed than the enemy. Sheridan’s full scale assault plan was probably his best option. It was believed that he too recognized that the Comanches and Cheyennes didn’t have the resources to fight effectively and his massive show of force would conclude things relatively quickly.

The links below are to additional articles from our Trips Into History and Western Trips sites that you may enjoy…

The Buffalo Soldiers of West Texas

The Comanche Indians

A Visit to Fort Reno Oklahoma

Two excellent books on the subject of Fort Sill and it’s long history include Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill by author Wilbur Sturtevant Nye. Also, Lawton-Fort Sill: A Pictorial History by David Stevens.

old fort sill buildings

Old Fort Sill Infantry barracks

Today’s Fort Sill Oklahoma

Today, Fort Sill army base is an active military installation where the field artillery is joined by the air defense artillery and electronic warfare branches to create the Fires Center of Excellence. The Fort Sill Fires Center of Excellence trains, develops and educated soldiers and leaders.

Fort Sill is a 21st century modern base which has evolved considerably since General Philip Sheridan first chose this location for his base of operations during the southern plains Red River War.

The Fort Sill National Historic Landmark Museum, opened in 1935, is a real glimpse into past army history. It also presents a lot of information about Fort Sill field artillery history. The museum serves both the general public and the military with all aspects of Fort Sill’s historic past. The museum is a depository of artifacts, photographs and documents pertaining to Fort Sill’s colorful past. The museum collection and it’s exhibits are large.

geronimo grave site

Geronimo's grave site at Fort Sill Oklahoma

Admission is free and open to the public. Forty-six of the original Fort Sill structures are still in use and in excellent condition. Fort Sill is located in southwest Oklahoma in Comanche county and next to the city of Lawton. It is about 90 miles southwest of Oklahoma City and about 60 miles north of Witchita Falls Texas just west of Interstate-44.

Before you go it’s important to know that Fort Sill is a closed’ post. In order to gain access you must show a valid photo Identification Card (ID). If you are driving into Fort Sill you must show proof of your current driver’s license, state vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. You must register your vehicle on post as soon as possible after you sign in. The registration form is provided to you at the Welcome Center during processing.

Fort Sill can be a fun and educational addition to your trip planner. The exhibits are very interesting and there’s plenty to explore both inside the museum and outside as well.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)

Grattan Massacre

The Grattan Memorial

There is a memorial in present day Goshen County Wyoming that many historians would say commemorates the very beginning of the Plains Indian Wars. What is known as the Grattan Massacre ushered in a quarter of a century of Indian warfare along the Great Plains of the western U.S.

grattan massacre memorial

Gratton Massacre Marker

The marker shown in this article is located about 1/2 mile to the southeast of where the massacre occurred on August 19th, 1854. The marker is along Route 157 about 5 miles west of Lingle Wyoming.

At the time of the massacre, the battle site was east of Fort Laramie in Nebraska Territory.

A small detachment of U.S. Cavalty entered a Sioux camp and when it was all over a total of twenty-nine soldiers were killed plus a Lieutenant John Grattan and an interpreter.

The Ignition of Hostilities

Historians occasionally debate as to what represented the start of the plains Indian Wars. The Indian War was not one contiguous event but more of a decades long conflict with fits and starts and interspersed with weak treaties. History pretty much describes an escalating conflict that grew more violent and more fierce as more and more settlers traveled through traditional Indian lands. Of course, along with the settlers and emigrants heading to California and Oregon, so did the U.S. military increase it’s presence. In a very real way the Indian Wars were an event just waiting to happen. What was the spark that set it off? Was it a relatively small event that escalated into something much larger?

The Dakota War of 1862

The question then could be...just when did these hostilities begin? What was the beginning of the Indian Wars? In particular, what set off the Plains Indian Wars?

dakota war 1862

Settlers fleeing during the 1862 Dakota Indian War in Minnesota

One answer often suggested is the very bloody Dakota Indian war in the state of Minnesota that occurred in August of 1862 right in the middle of the American Civil War.

The Dakota Indians residing in Minnesota were from the eastern band of the Sioux. Leading up to the war and one of it’s causes was something that would plague Native American-U.S. government relations for years to come...late or unfair annuity payments of supplies as per treaties in force at the time.

White traders had something to do with this as well since they were making demands to the government to send the annuity supplies to the Indians through them. The Dakota’s on the other hand wanted the supplies directly from their Indian agents, not from the traders. Everything reached a standstill.

In this unhealthy atmosphere, four young Dakota Indians came upon a farmhouse and were allegedly caught stealing some eggs. One thing led to another, and there are various variations of the story, but when all was said and done, five whites at the farm were killed by the Dakota youths. This event alone would have caused certain retaliation but to make matters worse, that very night a Dakota tribal council agreed to go to war against the whites and drive them out of the entire area of southwestern Minnesota. The bloody conflict went on for several months and only ended when the U.S. Army intervened and caused the surrender of most of the Dakota Sioux.

mankato minnesota mass hanging

Drawing of mass hanging in Mankato Minnesota in 1862

There are no reliable numbers of how many white settlers were killed at the hands of the Dakota Sioux, but most estimates say several hundred and some as high as 800. In December of 1862, an event never seen before or after occurred when the largest mass hanging in U.S. history took place. This occurred in Mankato Minnesota on December 26, 1862. A total of thirty-eight Dakota Sioux were hanged in front of a large crowd. After the U.S. government shut down the reservations in the spring of 1863, the Dakota Sioux were formally thrown out of the state and wandered westward to what is today Nebraska and South Dakota.

Trouble on the High Plains of Wyoming

What often is overlooked as the start of the Plains Indian Wars is what occurred just outside of Fort Laramie some eight years prior to the Minnesota Dakota War. What should have been a relatively routine event in the year 1854 exploded into the history books as one, if not “the” turning point in how Native Americans would be dealt with by the federal government for decades to come. This 1854 event marked the beginning of the Plains Indian Wars.

Additional articles we’ve published that you’ll find interesting are a Frontier Soldiers LifeExcerpts from the Oregon Trail Diaries…and the Fetterman Massacre.

On our Western Trips site, see the articles The Battle of Slim Buttes and the Steamboat and an Indian War.

A Mormon and his Slain Ox

The story starts with a Mormon pioneer making a complaint to the commander of Fort Laramie. The complaint as filed was that one of his oxen was killed by an Indian. The Mormon emigrant was traveling along the Oregon Trail and his ox apparently wandered away. The emigrant was certain that it was killed by one of the Sioux camped nearby. Handling of something like this would normally be the duty of the assigned Indian agent. It was not thought of as being a military matter.

The Indian agent was due in several days with annuities. In the meantime the owner of the ox was demanding an immediate $25 payment. The local Sioux Chief Conquering Bear tried to negotiate unsuccessfully.

old fort laramie

Old Fort Laramie, circa 1840

At this point the military ordered the chief to bring the guilty Indian, who was identified as a Miniconjou, in to the fort. This is where things started to get out of hand.

The chief refused because he said he had no power over the Miniconjou’s. With things at a dead end in the affair, the military dispatched a young officer, Second Lt. John Grattan, to go to the Miniconjou Sioux camp and retrieve the wanted Indian. Lt. Grattan rode to the camp with twenty-nine armed soldiers. The task was to be relatively simple…arrest and bring the accused Indian back to Fort Laramie.

Similar to other historic events, the real details often come out sometime later as told by those who witnessed them. Sometimes they conflict but you can usually get a general idea of what took place.

In this particular confrontation most interpretations paint a picture of a relatively inexperienced young officer leading his heavily armed troops to the camp of the Miniconjou’s bent on returning with the accused Indian. During what turned into a standoff, one of the troopers apparently shot the Chief Conquering Bear. At that point the Indians attacked the small detachment of soldiers and killed all of them. It happened that quick.

cavalry and indians

An 1899 chromolithograph of U.S. cavalry pursuing American Indians, artist unknown

Much of the descriptions of this event were related by a James Bordeau who owned a nearby trading post. Bordeau witnessed the massacre. Bordeau placed some of the blame on the interpreter brought along who he claimed taunted the Indians prior to the violence. Bordeau escaped with his life only because he was married to a Sioux and was also on very friendly terms with the tribe. Regardless, his trading post was cleaned out by the frenzied warriors.

In the aftermath of the massacre, some warriors rode to Fort Laramie determined to attack what they knew to be a lightly defended post. They ultimately withdrew without an attack and then moved their camp to the north knowing full well that some form of retribution would be coming.

Outcry From the Press

Outrage hit the streets when the press reported the Grattan Massacre. The description “Grattan Massacre” was the exact headline used in newspapers throughout the east. Newspaper reporting during the westward migration embraced the policy of Manifest Destiny. Stories often times were greatly embellished to help sell papers in a competitive environment, however the outcome of the Grattan Massacre was evident to all. What the press did was just throw lots of fuel on the fire.

general william harney

General William S. Harney

Outrage Throughout the Nation

People were riled and tempers were flaring. The outrage wasn’t only in towns and cities but reached all the way up to President Pierce in Washington. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, characterized the massacre as being preplanned and vowed a strong military response.

The military response did come about one year later headed by General William S. Harney. Harney, a southerner and later a Confederate soldier, led a scorched earth policy against the Sioux. Harney was looking for retribution, not parley, and one result was the wiping out of an entire Lakota Sioux camp in a raid known as the Battle of Ash Hollow and sometimes called the Battle of Bluewater Creek. The infantry pinned the Sioux down between themselves and the cavalry. Women and children were caught in the crossfire.

Dozens of prisoners were also taken back to Fort Laramie and some sent back to Fort Leavenworth Kansas. General Harney was able to put together a treaty with the tribes a year later which was on strictly U.S. Government terms but as with many treaties agreed upon and signed years later, they usually weren’t lasting.

Historic Sites to Visit

The bodies of Grattan and his troops were recovered and buried. Later they were reburied and memorial markers built. The troops were formally buried at Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Lincoln County Nebraska and that of Lt. John Grattan at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas.

chief red cloud

Chief Red Cloud in latter years

The Grattan Massacre in 1854 and it’s aftermath however was recognized as the first time the U.S. federal government officially set out against the plains Indians in a retaliatory mission. The military mission in 1855 was to answer the opening salvo which took the form of the Grattan Massacre. Many expeditions would follow in the ensuing decades.

From that point forward, through Red Cloud’s War in the late 1860’s and the resulting Fetterman Massacre, the Sioux War of 1876-77 and the Custer defeat, and then years later to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, conflicts took place on and off with various Native Americans of the Great Plains. The Plains Indian War was a war that raged on and off for almost four decades.

It all began with the Grattan Massacre on August 19th, 1854 in Nebraska Territory.

(Article copyright 2013 Trips Into History. Photos and images in public domain)

Fetterman Massacre

The Frontier Cavalry

One of the most significant battles of the U.S. frontier army in the 1860’s was the Fetterman Fight which is often referred to as the Fetterman Massacre. This battle among the U.S. Cavalry and Sioux Indians occurred in Wyoming a decade before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There’s been a tremendous amount written  about Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn. Much less has been written about a conflict which happened in Wyoming, about 25 miles south of the present day city of Sheridan.

Diagram of Fort Phil Kearny, 1866

The Bozeman Trail

Back in the mid to latter part of the 1800’s many areas of the western U.S. where immigrant traffic was significant. One place in particular was the area of northern Wyoming. During the 1860’s, army forts were built along an emigrant path called the Bozeman Trail. This trail was a cutoff from the heavily traveled east/west Platte Road and Oregon Trail which was the main overland trail used by people moving to the west from the area of western Missouri. The Bozeman Trail ran northwest from the Platte Road beginning near Fort Laramie, WY. This trail ran to Montana where gold mining at that time was booming. Fort Laramie as well as Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.S. Smith to the north were built along the Bozeman Trail to help protect wagon trains from Indian attack. Much of the trails traffic at that time were from miners heading to the gold fields. There are many side stories that go along with the history of this area but one, the Fetterman Fight, in particular, is of historical interest.

The Settlers and Miners Flood the Area

Fort Phil Kearny which was directly on the Bozeman Trail north of Fort Laramie was under constant assault from several Indian tribes, most notably the Lakota Sioux. The issue from the Native American perspective was simply that they had occupied this land for centuries and were understandably not happy to give it up. The massive flow of settlers were a steady reminder to them that things were changing fast. The gold boom in Montana worsened the situation from the perspective of the Indians. In addition, the emigration from the east disturbed the buffalo hunting grounds which were the main source of sustenance for the plains tribes. In a situation like this conflict is inevitable.

Colonel Henry B. Carrington, Commander of Fort Phil Kearney

The Fetterman Massacre

There were many skirmishes between the U.S.cavalry and Indian during this period and  many books have been published on the topic.Many moves as well have been produced on the subject of the Indian Wars. Regarding the area of Wyoming and Montana there was one conflict in the 1860’s which stood out among all others.This was called the Fetterman Massacre. In essence, an entire command of cavalry and infantry soldiers (81 in all) commanded by a Captain William J. Fetterman stationed at Fort Phil Kearny were annihilated by a surprise grouping of some 1500-2000 or more Indians on Dec 21st, 1866. The battle itself lasted only about thirty minutes. There are many reasons why this occurred and who may or may not have been to blame. Most accounts appear to place the blame on an overly eager cavalry officer who reportedly disobeyed direct orders from the fort commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington.

Test your knowledge with our short twenty-five question history quiz

History Quiz

On the same day of this massacre, the Indians had attacked another site just outside Fort Phil Kearny and Captain Fetterman was sent out with his troops to give chase. A small group of Indians made themselves known to the soldiers not far from the fort and near a rise in the terrain. Captain Fetterman, in pursuit, led his troops over this small rise. This was only about one mile from the fort itself.

Modern day Bozeman Trail Historical Marker

Unknown to Fetterman was the fact that the Indians had hid in gulleys and behind rocks just over the crest ready to spring the trap. After ascending the rise, the troopers were greatly overwhelmed by the attacking Indians. The rise was in eyesight of the fort but not the battle site just over the rise.

The Aftermath and Conclusions

The Fetterman Fight in 1866 stood as the U.S. Cavalry’s worst defeat up to that date. George Armstrong Custer’s  battle was still 10 years into the future. That historic battle would take the place of the Fetterman Massacre as the worst cavalry defeat during the Indian Wars.


Site of the Fetterman Massacre

The obvious fact that the troops in this instance were vastly outnumbered certainly contributed to the defeat.  In addition, the soldiers were using outdated weaponry such as the single shot muzzle loading Springfield Civil War era rifle. This was before the use of repeating rifles which changed the odds greatly.  A contributing factor was that the soldiers in this battle were not considered experienced Indian fighters and did not display the horsemanship of the average Indian warrior. Although taking place very near the fort, the battle field could not be seen from Fort Phil Kearney and this delayed the sending of reinforcements in any timely manner.

Also, you’ll enjoy our photo article regarding the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon Texas during the Red River War.

Much was made of the fact that Captain Fetterman went against the orders of his commander, Colonel Carrington. The question of why Fetterman led his troops over the rise will never be answered for certain.

As a side note, there are many stories connected with this particular battle, the fort itself, the commanding officer of Fort Phil Kearny, a Congressional inquiry and the army’s response. A decade later the Battle of the Little Bighorn was actually a continuance of the unrest in the Wyoming/Montana region. There are some very interesting books available on the subject and you’ll probably find information at your local library that cover these topics from both the governments perspective and that of the Indian. Only the Battle of the Little Bighorn stands as a larger defeat for the frontier U.S. Cavalry.

Fetterman Battlefield Site Plaque

What the visitor to this site in Wyoming will see is a monument dedicated in 1908 at the very sight of the battle (the top of Lodgepole Ridge). Fort Phil Kearny itself was burned down by the Indians shortly after the army vacated the fort some two years later supposedly because the expanding railroad was making the trail obsolete and as part of an agreement to end Red Cloud’s War of which the Fetterman Massacre was a part. Red Cloud’s War, led by Chief Red Cloud, is often referred to as the one Indian War lost by the U.S.

Visiting the Site

There is a monument (shown above) at the site of the battle which is accessible to visitors. As mentioned above, the monument was erected during a ceremony on July 3, 1908. The site is in Johnson County Wyoming, about 25 miles south of Sheridan Wyoming and just west of Interstate-90. For the history minded traveler, this site would be a great addition to a western U.S. trip planner.

(Photos and images from the public domain)