This vivid and readable history is a re-examination of the so-called Fetterman fight, near Fort Phil Kearney, in the Powder River country of what is now Wyoming in the year 1866. The basic facts are as uncontested as they were grim for the immediately post-Civil War US Army, and glorious for the warriors of the joint Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoe force who drew a large party of soldiers and cavalry into skillfully laid ambush, annihilating them to the last man. It was a bloody nose for the Army, which had established the fort to protect travel along the Bozeman Trail â€“ and which now had proved that they couldnâ€™t even protect themselves. It would be the worse massacre of American soldiers in the Indian Wars until Little Big Horn, a decade later.
At least as interesting as the recitation of events, as reconstructed from archeological findings, old letters, memoirs and official reports, and the tales of the victorious survivors told to researchers decades later is the authorsâ€™ examination of how certain myths and conventional wisdoms grew out of the tangled circumstances of the Fetterman fight: was Captain Fetterman a reckless and hot-blooded fool whose impulsive pursuit of a decoy led more than eighty men to their deaths? Was it really another officer who was actually responsible for leading them into a trap? How much of that legend grew from the fort commanderâ€™s attempts to paint his own efforts in the best possible light? Colonel Henry Carrington was a political general, and an administrator with no combat experience in the war just concluded; his junior officers were. How much resentment and ill-feeling that must have caused in his isolated command, in the bitter winter of 1866? At the end of it all, he was the only one left living to tell his side of it, leading to ambiguities that have kept historians and enthusiasts happily occupied ever since.
A couple of ironies â€“ the territory disputed was only lately come to be the possession of the various Lakota divisions. It had formerly been controlled by the Crows. The great warrior Crazy Horse most likely was not a leader of the decoy party, although he might have been present at the battle as a very young man. And it has usually been stressed in this kind of history that it was destruction of the buffalo herds that drove the Plains tribes to the wall. Being deprived of hunting for food and for skins was an open threat to their way of life. But the author points out a more subtle threat â€“ that of the insatiable demand for wood â€“ both for construction and for fires as white settlement progressed. Thirty years of emigrant traffic and settlement along the various trails west had devastated groves of trees for miles alongside those trails. The subsequent devastation to the environment threatened the Plains tribes at least as much as the decimation of buffalo herds.
Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer and member of the Independent Authors Guild who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief. Her current book â€œTo Truckeeâ€™s Trailâ€ is available here. Her latest project, the “Adelsverein Trilogy” debuts in December, 2008. More about her books is at her website www.celiahayes.com.