Red Cloud's War (also referred to as the Bozeman War or the Powder River War) was an armed conflict between the Lakota and the United States in the Wyoming Territory and the Montana Territory from 1866 to 1868. The war was fought over control of the Powder River Country in north central Wyoming, which lay along the Bozeman Trail, a primary access route to the Montana gold fields.
The war is named after Red Cloud, a prominent Oglala Lakota chief who led the war against the United States following encroachment into the area by the U.S. military. The war, which ended with the Treaty of Fort Laramie, resulted in a complete victory for the Lakota and the temporary preservation of their control of the Powder River country.
The Powder River country encompasses the numerous rivers (the Bighorn, Rosebud, Tongue and Powder) that flow northeastward from the Bighorn Mountains to the Yellowstone. As more of the northern plains was occupied by white settlement, this region became the last unspoiled hunting ground of the various bands of the Lakota.
In 1865, Maj. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge ordered the Powder River Expedition against the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Troops commanded by Patrick E. Connor defeated the Arapaho at the Battle of the Tongue River. The battle wrecked the Arapaho ability to wage war on the Bozeman Trail, but the expedition was unable to bring the Lakota to battle, and served as a forerunner for further conflicts.
The U.S. peace commission had bargained in bad faith with the Lakota by offering them annuities to alleviate near-starvation but deliberately keeping from them the plan to build forts along the Bozeman Trail. Red Cloud, who was present at the council, was outraged that the army was bringing in troops before the Lakota had agreed to a military road through the area. Eventually, Red Cloud and his followers left the council promising resistance to any whites who sought to use the trail or occupy the Powder River country.
A coalition of various bands of Lakota, Northern Cheyennes and Arapahos under the leadership of Red Cloud invested the troops at both Forts Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith. The Indians effectively closed travel on the Bozeman Trail. Wood parties, mail carriers, emigrants and traders became the regular targets of Indian resistance. Although 175 troops were assigned at both Forts Reno and C.F. Smith, and 400 at Fort Phil Kearny, they were largely untrained. Carrington had only sufficient manpower to protect his posts and supply trains, and was unable to provide escorts on the trail or to engage in aggressive operations.
Carrington was an engineer and political appointee, not experienced in combat. He spent a great deal of energy building his fortifications rather than fighting Indians. This was due in part to his arrival in the region in mid-July. Given the severity of the Wyoming winters, this strategy was not unreasonable, but it infuriated many of his junior officers. Most of these officers were Civil War veterans unfamiliar with Indian fighting who believed the Lakota could be easily defeated and viewed Carrington's apparent unwillingness to fight Indians as a form of cowardice. On the other hand, Carrington respected the fighting capacity of his foe, their better knowledge of the terrain, and their vastly superior numbers.
On December 6, Second Lieutenant Horace S. Bingham, commanding Company C, 2nd Cavalry, was killed by Indians while driving off a force that had attacked a wood train, then fled over Lodge Trail Ridge. Carrington worried about the propensity of his officers to blindly follow Indian decoy parties; Fetterman was further outraged by what he considered the ineffectiveness of Carrington's leadership, especially in light of orders from the commander of the Department of the Platte, Gen. Philip St. George Cooke, to mount an aggressive winter campaign.
On December 21, 1866, the wood train was attacked again at approximately 11:00 a.m. A relief party composed of 49 infantrymen of the 18th Infantry and 27 mounted troopers of the 2nd Cavalry was ordered to relieve the wood train. Captain James Powell, who had led a similar effort two days earlier and declined to pursue over the ridge, was according to Carrington's report, directed to command the force, but Fetterman, claiming seniority by being a brevet lieutenant colonel to Powell's brevet major, asked for and was given command of the relief party. Powell remained behind. Another officer of the 18th and a vocal critic of Carrington, Lt. George W. Grummond, led the cavalry, leaderless after the death of Lt. Bingham.
Colonel Carrington also stated he ordered Fetterman not to cross Lodge Trail Ridge, where relief from the fort would be difficult. Fetterman was joined by Captain Frederick Brown, until recently the post quartermaster and another of Carrington's critics. Carrington stated he told Grummond (the cavalry had to retrieve its mounts before it could follow the infantrymen) to remind Fetterman of his order not to cross over Lodge Trail Ridge. The relief party numbered 79 officers and men. Two civilians, James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher, joined Fetterman and brought the total force up to 81 men. Instead of marching down the wood road to the relief of the wood train, Fetterman turned north and crossed the Sullivant Hills toward Lodge Trail Ridge.
At approximately noon, gunfire was heard, beginning with a few shots followed immediately by sustained firing. The ambush was not observed, but evidence indicated that the cavalry probably charged the Indians, since their most advanced group was nearly a mile down the ridge beyond the infantry. When the trap was sprung, there was no avenue of escape and there were no survivors.
Reports from the burial party sent to collect the remains showed that the soldiers had died in three groups. The most advanced and probably most effective were the two civilians, armed with 16-shot Henry repeating rifles, and a small number of cavalrymen who had dismounted and taken cover in the rocks. Up the slope behind them were the bodies of most of the retreating cavalrymen, armed with new 7-shot Spencer carbines, but encumbered by their horses and without cover. Further up the slope were Fetterman, Brown and the infantrymen, armed with obsolete Civil War muzzle-loading rifled-muskets. These soldiers fought from cover for a short while, until their ammunition ran out and they were overrun.
Carrington heard the gunfire and immediately sent out a 40-man support force on foot under Captain Ten Eyck. Shortly after, the 30 remaining cavalrymen of Company C were sent dismounted to reinforce Ten Eyck, followed by two wagons, the first loaded with hastily-loaded ammunition and escorted by another 40 men. (Carrington called for an immediate muster of troops to defend the post; including the wood train detail, the detachments had left only 119 troops remaining inside the fort.) However, Ten Eyck took a roundabout route and reached the ridgetop just as the firing ceased at about 12:45 p.m. He sent back a message reporting that he could not see Fetterman's force, but that the valley was filled with groups of Indians taunting him to come down. Ten Eyck suffered severe criticism for not marching straight to the sound of the battle. His force reached and recovered the bodies of Fetterman's troops, but because of the continuing threat of annihilation, those of the cavalry were not recovered for two days.
Carrington's official report claimed that Fetterman and Brown shot each other to avoid capture, though Army autopsies recorded Fetterman's death wound as a knife slash, with no gunshot wounds. It remains a subject of debate. Severe mutilations were committed upon the bodies of nearly all the soldiers and were widely publicized by the newspapers. The only body left untouched was that of a young bugler, Adolph Metzler, who was believed to have fought several Indians with just his bugle. His body was left untouched and covered in a buffalo robe by the Indians. The reason for this remains unknown, although it may have been a tribute to his bravery. The battle, named the Battle of the Hundred Slain by the Indians and the Fetterman Massacre by the soldiers, was the worst army defeat on the Great Plains until the disaster on the Little Big Horn ten years later.
Fort Phil Kearny prepared for a last stand that never came. Colonel Carrington was unfairly held solely responsible for the defeat and was relieved of his command on December 26, 1866, (the relief had been planned anyway with the conversion of the 2nd Battalion to the 27th Infantry, but Cooke ordered it immediately to make the point). General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the U.S. Army, was not inclined to place sole blame on Carrington and in turn relieved Cooke on January 9, 1867.
Two investigations, an Army court of inquiry and one by the Secretary of the Interior, were conducted. The Army's reached no official conclusion and the Interior's exonerated Carrington. After a severe hip injury, Carrington resigned his commission in 1870. He spent the rest of his life defending his actions and condemning Fetterman's alleged disobedience. The shock of the Fetterman defeat resulted in calls for a reassessment of the government's Indian policy. Ultimately Carrington's views came to be the most widely accepted, placing most of the culpability on recklessness by Fetterman. However, Carrington, a political appointee without combat experience, could have recalled Fetterman before the ambush took place, able to observe from the fort that the attack on the wood train broke off around 11:30. Also in mitigation, Fetterman may have felt he had no choice but to support Grummond if in fact it was the cavalry that violated Carrington's orders, as Grummond's record during the Civil War indicates was likely.
It is believed that Red Cloud was not present during the Fetterman battle, but he certainly was the inspirational leader in the same way that Sitting Bull would be for the Great Sioux War in 1876. He was possibly present on August 2, 1867, for the Wagon Box Fight near Fort Phil Kearny, where a small army detachment held off more than a thousand Lakota for five hours with new breech-loading rifles. The Army experienced a similar success in the Hayfield Fight the previous day.
While the army had been constantly demanding that Colonel Carrington take offensive action against the Indians, his successor at Fort Kearny, General Wessels, never launched a major offensive against the Indians. By late summer 1867, despite successes against the Sioux in the Hayfield Fight and the Wagon Box Fight, the government decided that the transcontinental railroad then pushing through southwestern Wyoming toward Salt Lake City, and the use of the Bridger Trail, were better alternatives than trying to maintain an expensive and unproductive military presence in the Powder River country.
Peace commissioners were sent to Fort Laramie in the spring of 1868. Red Cloud refused to meet with these individuals until the Powder River strongholds, Forts Phil Kearny and C. F. Smith, were abandoned. In August 1868, Federal soldiers abandoned these forts and proceeded on toward Fort Laramie.
Red Cloud did not arrive at Fort Laramie until November. He signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 which created the Great Sioux Reservation, including the Black Hills. The reservation covered what is now all of western South Dakota. In addition, the Powder River country was declared to be Unceded territory as a reserve for Lakota who chose not to live on the new reservation and as a hunting reserve for all the Lakota.
After 1868, he lived on the reservation and became an important leader of the Lakota as they transitioned from the freedom of the plains to the confinement of the reservation system. He outlived all the major Sioux leaders of the Indian wars and died in 1909 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he is buried.