Before Custer’s Last Stand, There Was Fetterman’s


The history of Fetterman’s Massacre and its similarities to Custer’s Last Stand.

Almost everyone has heard of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand which occurred on June 25-26, 1876. However, few know about a similar event known as the Fetterman Massacre which occurred in 1866. It significance seems to be understated not only because of the struggle it portrayed, but also for its eerie similarities to and forebodings of what Custer and his men would experience 10 years later.

Fetterman’s Massacre

According to The Soldiers, the scene for the Fetterman Massacre was set on December 21, 1866 near Fort Phil Kearny in northeastern Wyoming. The fort had been established that summer along the Bozeman Trail. Its mission was to protect the travelers of that route from hostile tribes and road agents between the Oregon Trail and gold discoveries in Montana. The Sioux and Cheyenne had become increasingly aggressive towards this immigrant invasion of their hunting grounds.

Captain William Fetterman, a brash officer of the 18th Infantry Regiment, led a party of 80 men in response to an Indian attack on a wood-cutting detail collecting material for the fort’s construction and firewood. His orders from his commanding officer, Colonel Henry Carrington, were to drive off the attack on the detail but not to pursue the hostiles beyond a bluff some three miles from the fort known as Lodge Trail Ridge.

His force of roughly 30 cavalry and 50 infantry fended off warriors from the detail and chased them over Lodge Trail Ridge and beyond. The faster cavalry became separated from the infantry. They were unknowingly drawn into a trap by the retreating warriors led by the famous Crazy Horse. Over a thousand warriors hidden in the tall grass and rocky outcroppings sprang on the small party and proceeded to overrun the infantry unit first, and then the cavalry.

Alerted to the impending disaster, Colonel Carrington sent out reinforcements led by Captain Ten Eyck. Eyck watched helplessly from a ridge miles to the east of the battle as the swarming mass of Indians finished off the last of Fetterman’s group with a barrage of arrows and clubs. The entire battle lasted no longer than 40 minutes.

Custer and Fetterman Share Striking Similarities

Several similarities are evident between the Fetterman and Custer skirmishes. Both groups were annihilated due to ignorance. Neither man knew the sheer size of the opposing force each would encounter. Both commanders either purposefully or inadvertently divided their forces during battle making them more prone to defeat. Again this was done as the result of poor intelligence and battlefield awareness.

The mind behind the Indian victories at the Fetterman Fight and the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a Sioux warrior named Crazy Horse. He was able to effectively use tactics of ambush and flanking to overturn the enemy in both skirmishes.

Fetterman and Custer, while tested in battle, shared a fatal arrogance. Both men believed a very small U. S. Army force would overcome whatever the Indians could throw at them. Both were eager for a victory that could define and advance their careers. Both would disregard the orders of their superiors not to fully engage the enemy until reinforcements arrived. Both commanders, along with their men, would pay the ultimate price in blood as a result.