For a century-and-a-half, a legend has persisted concerning Capt. William J. Fetterman and a boast he supposedly made: “With 80 men, I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” Whether or not these were his exact words, there is no doubt that Fetterman maintained an elitist attitude where the Plains Indians were concerned. It was an arrogance common to the officer corps of the 1860s and ’70s—but in Fetterman’s case, it would prove tragically misplaced. Nearly 150 years ago, at midday on Dec. 21, 1866, fewer than a dozen Sioux warriors lured the ambitious, young captain and his 80-man command into an ambush that none would survive. 

The so-called Fetterman Massacre was just one in a series of defeats levied upon the United States Army by thousands of Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne warriors fighting under a brilliant Oglala Sioux chief. The popular press called it “Red Cloud’s War,” and it represented the only conflict in our history in which a Native American force defeated the United States Army, and drove the government to sue for peace on Indian terms.

Red Cloud was remarkable on a number of levels. Physically, he was impressive. A big, deep-chested man, he stood six feet in height—tall for his time—and his erect bearing made him look even taller. His broad beak of a nose was the most prominent feature on a heavily-lined, narrow face, offset with intense eyes that bespoke gravitas and intelligence. He habitually greased his hair, as was the custom, and wore his clothing stylishly accented with bead- and quillwork, ribbons, and eagle feathers. In the words of a recent biography, “he projected an aura of quiet dignity with an undercurrent of physical menace.” 

Born around 1822 to an Oglala mother and a Brule Sioux father, Red Cloud was raised by his mother’s family after his father died. Trained under the aegis of his uncle, Chief Old Smoke, Red Cloud excelled early as both a hunter and a warrior, and earned a reputation for ferocity in his fights with the Crow and Pawnee. By the time he was 20, Red Cloud was the head warrior of the ferocious Bad Face band, and within 10 years, became one of the most famous fighters on the Plains. His skill, natural wisdom, charismatic personality, and political savvy made him a magnet for young warriors, and would ultimately place him in a position to decide the fate of his people.

The young United States of the 1800s was afire with the doctrine of what one newspaperman had labeled “Manifest Destiny.” Simply put, it held that Americans of European descent were entitled to all the land bordered by the two oceans, without regard to the rights of those already living there. President Andrew Jackson was relentless and brutal in his enforcement of this concept, and even Abraham Lincoln—the Great Emancipator himself—held that the Indian must step aside or be plowed under. 

The Civil War briefly slowed the Westward tide, but at the war’s conclusion, it continued with a vengeance. Where violence failed to achieve the desired results, the federal government resorted to an endless string of treaties—the terms of which were invariably soon broken—to trick or bribe the Indians from their land. In 1865, after the failure of a punitive expedition against Red Cloud, the government offered the Sioux yet another treaty, this one guaranteeing as inviolate the huge stretch of land known as the Powder River Basin. Aside from providing idyllic hunting grounds to the tribes, the region also encompassed the Black Hills, which were sacred to the Sioux. Ostensibly, all the government was seeking was permission for its citizens to cross the region unhindered, along a recently blazed wagon road known as the Bozeman Trail. It ran nearly 550 miles out of the old Oregon Trail, from Fort Laramie to Montana. Significantly, it also ran straight through the feeding grounds of the buffalo herds, and the importance of the buffalo to the Plains tribes’ very survival cannot be understated.

In fact, what the federal government wanted—in addition to ensuring the wagon trains of California- and Oregon-bound settlers safe passage—was to acquire access to the rich deposits of gold that had recently been discovered in Montana. The Civil War had all but broken the country economically, and it was to the government’s fiscal advantage to open the region to the many thousands of gold-hungry miners and prospectors, few, if any, of whom had any regard for Indian rights. 

The treaty was a work of expediency couched in sincerity. “The Government of the United States,” it read, “desires peace, and its honor is hereby pledged to keep it.” It promised to punish all transgressors, white or red. The usual gifts were proffered—coffee, tobacco, knives, sugar, blankets—the usual promises made, and a number of chiefs and sub-chiefs agreed to the terms. 

The 44-year-old Red Cloud, however, was no stranger to the white man’s treaties, having abstained, 14 years earlier, from signing the empty treaty of 1851. As he later attested, “The white man made us many promises——more than I can remember. But he never kept but one. He promised to take our land, and he took it.”

 He now refused to “touch his quill” to this latest treaty, presciently warning his people that any agreement with the whites was doomed to failure, and would soon lead to devastation for the Sioux. 

Within the year, the government blatantly violated the terms of this agreement, as well. The army built three forts along the Bozeman, the better to protect the rapidly growing flood of opportunists who ignored the terms of the treaty. No whites were arrested, and when the Indians responded to these incursions with terrible ferocity, the government—caught between curtailing the Westward rush and punishing the Indians—chose the latter course. The army was assigned the task of subjugation—which to many whites was synonymous with annihilation. 

The transection of their domain by the Bozeman Trail was distressing enough to the Sioux, but the building of the forts was the final affront. Red Cloud organized his followers and went to war to reverse by force the trend of white migration. It was not about ownership of the land; neither he nor any other Indian ever claimed a single acre as his own. In their world view, they believed they had been given the divine right to use it for the benefit of their respective tribes. It was a philosophy that the whites were incapable of comprehending, as their treaties repeatedly attempted to assign ownership of specific parcels of land to the various tribes. However, the continued right to hunt in the Powder River country without fear of incursion, and the need to keep the Black Hills safe from violation, were strong enough motivators to send forth Red Cloud and thousands of like-minded warriors.

As the westering immigrants saw it, the Plains Indians—as with all the Native Americans confronted with Anglo expansion over the previous two and a half centuries—faced imminent conquest, thereby subjecting them to the will of the conquerors. The whites were fast discovering, however, that the Sioux, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne were far from vanquished—at least, not yet. Given the choice of bowing to the fickle will of the United States government or staging a resistance that many understood to be both futile and fatal, they opted to fight. 

Fighting was a thing with which the Sioux were well acquainted. Their manner of waging war was so alien and so dreadful to the soldiers—many of whom were seasoned veterans of Civil War combat—that the troopers often resolved not to be taken alive. The idea of saving the last bullet for oneself in an engagement with Indians is not a mere Hollywood conceit. In fact, there is evidence that several of Custer’s men took their own lives at the Little Bighorn rather than face death at the hands of the foe.

This was not a style of fighting invented by the Indians specifically for the white interlopers. The various tribes had been warring among themselves for centuries, and they had reduced their philosophy down to a simple, brutal, universally accepted battle ethic. Mercy connoted weakness; it was neither sought nor granted, and capture meant death by the most excruciating torture. There were no exceptions made for age, sex, or marital status. Civilians were treated the same as soldiers, and women were subjected to the same torments as men, with modifications made to accommodate their gender. If a woman was of childbearing age, she might be spared, but—given the harsh treatment levied upon her—she might soon wish for death. To the newly arrived and generally God-fearing troopers and white immigrants, there was nothing “Christian” about the way the Indians waged war. 

To the surprise and consternation of the army, Red Cloud proceeded to wage a well-planned and effective guerrilla war. He raided and burned wagon trains and settlements, slaughtering settlers, miners, and travelers. He was a splendid strategist, realizing that by picking off one or two soldiers at a time from hiding, he would instill a gnawing terror in his enemy. 

Red Cloud’s warriors struck in all weathers, whereas the soldiers were often snowbound by the brutal northern winters. Some of his favorite targets were the crews sent from the forts to gather wood. Within only six months of the construction of Fort Phil Kearny, Col. Henry B. Carrington—in command of all three forts along the Bozeman Trail—reported more than 50 Indian actions and 154 soldier and civilian fatalities. The Indians also rustled several hundred head of stock. Despite commanding some 800 troopers distributed among the three forts, Carrington could do nothing to stop it. He, along with the entire U.S. Army officer corps and the federal administration in Washington, D.C., badly underestimated the intelligence, number, and level of commitment of the “savages” of the Northern Plains.

In the summer of 1866, a frustrated General of the Army, Ulysses S. Grant, appointed his trusted subordinate, the volatile William Tecumseh Sherman, to the post of commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, with the specific task of pacifying the warring tribes. Sherman approached the job with a combination of bluntness and outright racism: “We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians check and stop progress. We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination—men, women, and children.” 

To implement Sherman’s plan, Capt. William Fetterman, a decorated Civil War veteran, was handpicked and sent to Fort Phil Kearny as Col. Carrington’s second in command, with orders to put an end to Red Cloud and his uprising. By this time, Red Cloud’s confederacy reportedly controlled an unprecedented 750,000 square miles, stretching from Canada to Colorado, and from Minnesota to the Great Salt Lake. Within it lived several tribes that were either allied with, or subservient to, the Sioux. It was, as Carrington reported to Gen. Sherman, “Red Cloud’s country,” and no tribe before or since has held sway over so vast a tract of land.

The destruction of Fetterman’s command proved the high-water mark of Red Cloud’s war of resistance. On Dec. 6, 1866, a few Indians baited a patrol that had sallied forth out of Fort Phil Kearny to protect the wood train. The troopers blindly chased them, whereupon a contingent of around 100 of Red Cloud’s warriors poured out of the woods and into the troopers. The result was a drubbing for the soldiers, with several troopers killed, including Carrington’s ranking cavalry officer. 

Red Cloud reasoned that the same ploy could work a second time, and on a grander scale. This time, he gathered a huge force that included a gifted young Sioux whose name in English loosely translated to Crazy Horse. 

On Dec. 21, a small party again attacked the wood crew, and again, a contingent left the fort in response. This time, it was commanded by Capt. Fetterman, Sherman’s ambitious, fair-haired boy. Before Fetterman left the fort, Col. Carrington—as he would later testify—specifically ordered him not to pursue the Indians, nor to go beyond Lodge Trail Ridge, where the previous attack had occurred. 

As before, some 10 mounted braves near the crest of the ridge—including Crazy Horse—taunted the soldiers, waving blankets, and yipping and howling in derision. Fetterman immediately took the bait, and against orders, with a combined force of 80 infantry and cavalry, charged over the ridge—and into the lances, arrows, war clubs, tomahawks, and scalping knives of more than 2,000 Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne warriors. Some 100 braves cut off Fetterman’s retreat. The fighting was brief; within 40 minutes, some 40,000 arrows were loosed, and every soldier lay dead upon the frozen ground, their bodies stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Before they left the field, Red Cloud’s men commandeered the troopers’ horses and Spencer repeaters. 

The Fetterman defeat stunned the nation. But, while labeled a massacre by the press and the government, it was nothing less than a well-conceived, flawlessly executed, and highly successful military operation.

Despite his pronouncements of genocide, Sherman—who had been instrumental in defeating the Confederate Army just a few years before—was powerless to stop Red Cloud and his “thieving, ragged Indians.” For three years, by sheer force of his skill and personality, Red Cloud held together and directed an unlikely alliance of warriors from disparate and often quarreling tribes and bands, in defiance of the stereotype of the Indian as an impulsive and disorganized foe. Under his brilliant leadership, they had virtually stopped all traffic on the Bozeman Trail, and rendered ineffectual the military posts along the Powder River. Quite simply, his warriors had outfought the army of the United States.

Ultimately, it was the federal government, and not the Indians, who sued for peace. Red Cloud met with Washington, D.C., representatives at Fort Laramie in the spring of 1868, and presented his terms. Bowing to the Indians’ demands, the army disassembled the forts along the Bozeman Trail. The Sioux agreed to live on a huge tract of land that was called the Great Sioux Reserve, which encompassed their hunting grounds, and the sacred Black Hills. For his part, Red Cloud swore never again to wage war against the United States.

The following year, the last spike of the Union Pacific Railroad was driven. It featured a special spur that ran to the gold fields of Montana. The trains also carried hordes of buffalo hunters, whose indomitable pursuit of the shaggy beasts would eventually drive the Sioux ever further into dependency on the white man for food and other essentials. In 1874, new gold deposits were discovered in the Black Hills, setting off yet another gold rush. Miners flooded the hills, coursing over the hunting grounds that had been vouchsafed to the Sioux. The following year, now-president Ulysses Grant again sent forth the army to protect the gold seekers. Once again, the Sioux and their allies went to war, during the course of which Lt. Col. George A. Custer, who had apparently learned nothing from the Fetterman debacle of a decade earlier, fell to a combined tribal force reminiscent of Red Cloud’s earlier confederacy. 

Red Cloud honored the pledge he had given at Fort Laramie, and refused to take up arms against the United States. As he had foreseen, many of his people perished, while those remaining were placed at the disposal of the federal government. He traveled to Washington, D.C., several times over the coming years, meeting with Presidents Grant and Hayes, but to little avail. Resolved to ensure the best possible conditions for his people, he assumed the task of acting as mediator between the whites and the Sioux. It was a thankless position, and resulted in vilification from both sides—the whites claiming he was misrepresenting the Indians’ situation, and many among his own people accusing him of selling out to the hated wasichu. 

By 1890, the government had created six reservations on which they confined the Sioux. The Great Sioux Reserve was no more. As he grew old, Red Cloud went blind, and became redundant. Long since replaced by other, younger leaders, he contented himself with telling stories of old times and better days to the younger members of his tribe. Red Cloud died at the age of 88, leaving a legacy as one of America’s most gifted military leaders. For a brief moment in time, he determined the fate of his people—history’s only Indian to ever vanquish the United States Army in combat.

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