The Fighting Men & Women of the Fetterman Massacre

fetterman massacre
Harper's Weekly illustration, 1867. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even with the protection of the fort, the soldiers and civilians at Fort Kearney were often besieged by bands of Native American warriors.

Most of the attacks took place when the soldiers left the safety of the fort and went into the forests to cut wood needed for cooking and heating.

It was during one such woodcutting event, on December 21, 1866, that Native Americans, led by Crazy Horse, hatched a clever plan. They lured the American soldiers away from the fort and right into an ambush. Eighty-one soldiers were killed by the Native Americans and their bodies were mutilated.

The Fetterman Massacre, or Fetterman Fight, was a resounding victory for the Native Americans, and a humiliating defeat for the American soldiers. Blame for the massacre shifted from various leaders at Fort Kearney, and it is easy to understand why.

fort phil kearney
Fort Phil Kearney. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Of the key figures of the event, we have one commander who was more academic than military leader, a trigger-happy soldier, a naïve general, and an insubordinate drunkard.

In addition, there were the two wives of the colonel who each wrote books defending their mutual husband. Let’s take a closer look at the men – and women – involved in the Fetterman Massacre and learn about the roles they each played in the slaughter of 81 men.

Related read: 7 Facts About Cheyenne Dog Soldiers & Their Warrior Legacies

1. Colonel Henry Carrington

Henry Beebee Carrington was an academic, lawyer, author, and professor more than a military leader. He received his undergrad degree from Yale University in 1845 and returned to Yale’s Law School where he graduated with his law degree in 1847.

He practiced law for a while, but also worked as a professor of Greek and natural science. He dabbled in abolitionist activities, taught at a women’s college, helped to organize the Republican Party, and hobnobbed with influential politicians. In his spare time, he wrote several books (remember this fact…it’ll be important later).

A year into the American Civil War, the Union Army was in desperate need of more troops. Volunteer soldiers were recruited, and Henry Carrington was tapped by his buddy, Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, to organize the new recruits.

Although he was a civilian bureaucrat, his efforts proved invaluable. Carrington was given the rank of brigadier general. Carrington never saw battle during the Civil War. His role was essentially a desk job.

Following the war, Carrington, now a colonel, was invited to take command of the 18th Infantry Regiment that was charged with guarding the Bozeman Trail. His friend, General William Tecumseh Sherman, persuaded him to accept this assignment, as we will see in a moment.

Related read: Oregon Trail Stories: True & Inspiring Tales of Prairie Pioneers

2. General William Tecumseh Sherman

Before accepting his post at Fort Kearney, Henry Carrington met with his friend, General William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman, admittedly, was weary of fighting after the long Civil War.

He was looking forward to a low-key postwar assignment and he thought that accepting a commission to lead a unit to protect the Bozeman Trail, as well as the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, would be just that.

William Tecumseh Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

At their meeting, Sherman encouraged Carrington to take the position at Fort Kearney. In addition, Sherman strongly suggested that Carrington and his men take their wives and children along with them when they go to the western wilderness.

He spoke to Carrington about the value of “a pleasant garrison life in the newly open country.” He added that it would be a “healthful” experience. Sherman expected the assignment to be one of “absolute peace.”

Spoiler alert: he was wrong.

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The Fetterman Massacre: Fort Phil Kearny and the Battle of the Hundred Slain

“The author endeavors to give the reader a ‘ring-side seat’ to the events and players leading up to the establishment of Fort Philip Kearney as well as the commanding officer’s viewpoint of those events that unfolded in those initial 6 months that the fort and it’s soldiers struggled to survive in the hostile environment which they were placed by the post-Civil War U.S. Army.”

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3. Crazy Horse and Red Cloud

Red Cloud and Crazy Horse were highly respected Lakota warriors.

As more and more American settlers encroached upon their lands, they were pushed to action. Red Cloud formed an alliance with the neighboring Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to retaliate against the Americans for the loss of land and resources.

He and Crazy Horse led bands of Native Americans in a series of small-scale attacks and raids. They struck Fort Kearney and the other forts along the Bozeman Trail, as well as parties of settlers. Collectively, these attacks were called Red Cloud’s War.

red cloud
Red Cloud. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

At Fort Kearney, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud noted that it was easier to harass the wood cutting parties than it was to attack the fort itself. Periodically, it was necessary for groups of soldiers and civilians to leave the security of the fort and go into the forests to cut wood. Because they were vulnerable during wood cutting expeditions, Carrington sent armed troops to accompany the wood cutters.

Crazy Horse noted a pattern in the American soldiers’ responses to the Native American attacks. The Lakota warriors would quickly strike the soldiers and then flee the area.

When they did, the soldiers would pursue them. Often, they led the impulsive soldiers far away from the fort. This happened often enough that it led Crazy Horse to hatch a bold plan.

Crazy Horse and Red Cloud discussed this foolish habit of the American soldiers. They thought it would be possible to lure the soldiers into an ambush. Plans were set in place.

Early in the morning of December 21, 1866, more than two thousand Native American warriors hid on either side of the road leading north out of Fort Kearney. A small band of just ten warriors led by Crazy Horse attacked the wood cutters.

They quickly fled, riding right past the fort and north along the road. As they often did, the American soldiers set out after the Native Americans, with Colonel Fetterman in the lead.

The soldiers rode right into the trap. When the ambush began, the Native Americans on either side of the road lobbed an estimated 40,000 arrows down on the unsuspecting soldiers.

No one survived.

In fact, the warriors were so intense with their volley of arrows that several of them were killed by friendly fire. Red Cloud and Crazy Horse both survived the Fetterman Massacre.

Related read: 10 Places to See Native American Pictographs & Petroglyphs in the West

4. Captain William Judd Fetterman

Lieutenant Colonel William Judd Fetterman, for whom the massacre was named, felt as though he had something to prove.

Perhaps he was right. Both Fetterman’s father and uncle graduated from the West Point Military Academy, so he planned to follow in their footsteps. But his application was rejected when he applied in 1852. He was forced to follow his Plan B and go into business.

William Judd Fetterman
William Judd Fetterman. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The outbreak of the Civil War gave the then 27-year-old Fetterman a second chance at a military career. He enlisted and was promoted through the ranks based on his bravery in battle more than his leadership ability.

After the war ended, Fetterman chose to stay in the army. As captain of the Second Battalion of the 18th Infantry, Fetterman was sent to Fort Kearney. He and his men were assigned the task of protecting travelers along the Bozeman Trail. He arrived in Fort Kearney in November of 1866, just seven weeks before the massacre.

Fetterman was obviously sensitive about his West Point rejection and his late start to his military career. He frequently boasted on his Civil War exploits and exaggerated his military experience.

He liked to feel superior to others, and he greatly underestimated the size and strength of the Native American tribes. He bragged to Carrington and others that he could “ride through the whole Sioux nation” with only 80 soldiers.

Ironically, the number of American soldiers killed at the Fetterman Massacre was exactly that: 80 soldiers plus Fetterman himself.

In the short time that Fetterman was stationed at Fort Kearney, he and Carrington clashed numerous times. Fetterman thought that Carrington was too cautious in engaging the Native Americans.

Instead of reacting to attacks, Fetterman believed Carrington should plan and execute offensive measures against the attackers. Carrington believed that Fetterman was trigger-happy and too eager to kill the Native Americans.

Fetterman was, according to accounts, openly disrespectful of Carrington, condescending to the officers at the fort, and desperate to prove that he was the superior military leader.

On the day of the massacre, Fetterman demanded to be in command of the unit that was going out to protect the wood cutters. In fact, when he was told someone else had been assigned to that task, Fetterman pulled rank so he could go.

So many horses at Fort Kearney had been lost in skirmishes with the Native Americans that Fetterman led his men on foot, marching them to the wood cutting location. They were accompanied by Lieutenant George W. Grummond, who led a small unit on horseback.

Altogether, the number of men added up to 81.

Related read: 10 Important Battles & Fights of the Great Sioux War

5. Lieutenant George W. Grummond

Lieutenant George W. Grummond had a reputation for being an angry drunk. He instigated a number of drunken outbursts that descended into violence. He openly disobeyed orders, was contentious, and reckless. After one particularly brutal incident, Grummond was court-martialed and publicly reprimanded.

Just two weeks prior to the Fetterman Massacre, Grummond ignored Carrington’s direct orders, leading to the deaths of two soldiers. Carrington distrusted Grummond, yet the fort was desperately short of experienced officers.

On the morning of the Fetterman Massacre, Carrington approved Grumond’s request to join Fetterman and his men. Grumond led a handful of soldiers on horses out of the fort.

Carrington gave Grummond explicit orders not to pursue the Native Americans beyond the crest of the road. The cavalry unit caught up to Fetterman’s men about a half-mile from the fort.

Crazy Horse and a few Lakota warriors launched a swift attack and then retreated quickly. Crazy Horse himself lingered a bit at the crest of the road to entice the American soldiers to follow him.

Grummond and his horsemen fell for the trap. Ignoring Carrington’s orders, they charged ahead of the infantry unit and right into the ambush set by Red Cloud and Crazy Horse.

fetterman massacre monument
Fetterman Massacre monument. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fetterman and his unit, on foot, were still about a mile away when the ambush took place. For reasons unknown, Fetterman continued to march his men up the road until they, too, were caught in the trap.

It could be that Fetterman was eager for battle with the Native Americans and looking for military glory, but the most plausible explanation is that he realized Grummond’s men were under attack, and he wanted to help them. No matter his reasoning, we know the outcome.

Grummond, Fetterman, and the other men were all slaughtered in the ambush. As soon as the volley of arrows stopped, the Native Americans stripped the dead soldiers and mutilated their bodies. This was thought to have been done in retaliation for the Sand Creek Massacre that happened two years earlier.

Related read: 7 Facts You May Not Know About the Conestoga Wagon

6. Margaret Carrington and Frances Grummond Carrington

The Fetterman Massacre resulted in the loss of 81 soldiers. As the commander of Fort Kearney, blame naturally fell on Carrington.

Although it seems clear now that Grummond’s insubordination and, perhaps, Fetterman’s eagerness for battlefield glory were the main reasons behind the devastating massacre, the military pointed fingers at Carrington and the newspapers of the day questioned his leadership abilities and fitness for command.

Carrington tried in vain to clear his name and salvage his reputation for the next forty years. Remember how Carrington was a prolific author and penned a number of books? Well, it seems a bit suspicious that both of his wives wrote books in which they tried to exonerate Carrington of any wrongdoing.

Carrington’s first wife, Margaret, published a book titled Absaraka, Home of the Crows: Being the Experience of an Officer’s Wife on the Plains in 1868. The main purpose of the book seemed to be to tell her husband’s side of the story. If that wasn’t suspicious enough, Carrington’s second wife also wrote a book on the incident.

When Margaret Carrington died in 1870, Henry Carrington married Frances Grummond, the widow of Lieutenant Grummond, the cavalry officer who led the soldiers into Crazy Horse’s trap.

In 1910, Frances Grummond Carrington wrote My Army Life and the Fort Phil Kearney Massacre: With an Account of the Celebration of Wyoming Opened. This book was also a vehicle in which to defend her second husband’s actions and boasted about his leadership qualities.

It seems rather sketchy that both of Carrington’s wives would feel compelled to write books about the incident and they both attempted to cast Carrington in a favorable light.

It is especially strange since we know that Carrington was a prolific writer. It is likely that he had a much larger role in the writing of these books than he admitted and that both books were his own attempt to clear his name.

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Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.

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