On December 21, 1866, eighty men rode out of Fort Phil Kearny to support a wood-cutting expedition that had come under attack. The wood was absolutely necessary to the fort, and attacks against the wood-gatherers were common.
This day would prove anything but common. The attack force consisted of 27 cavalry, 49 infantry, Captains Fetterman and Brown, and two civilian veterans armed with Henry repeating rifles. They pursued a group of mounted Indians directly up the Bozeman Trail to a point several miles from the fort and completely cut off from it visually. There they were counterattacked by a much larger force of Indians that was lying in wait. All 80 men of the attack column were wiped out.
After viewing the pictures, or while viewing the pictures, it might help to also look at a topographical map of the area. (Opens in a new window so you won't lose your place here.)
This view shows the course of the Bozeman Trail and the string of hills where the battle played out. A monument stands directly behind the camera, marking the spot where the final survivors made their last stand. The further hill is where the infantry was positioned during the initial attack. Beyond that and just barely visible at the extreme left of the frame is Cavalry Hill, where the cavalry chased the decoys and triggered the ambush.
The ground is very rugged, even more so than it appears in this photo. The drop is quite steep in places, especially along the western (left) side. The snow patches that dot the central area of this view mark very steep drop-offs from the gently sloping hilltop. During the battle the ground was blanketed in snow, but I don't know its depth. There is no cover whatsoever on the ridge, but there are gullies and large rocks below. The only defense here is the steepness of the ground, and that would be little aid against a swift-moving mounted foe.
The west side of the ridge, more or less from the monument area. The main body of Indians was concealed beyond the furthest fold in the ground.
This is where most of the Indians were hidden. The cavalry chased the decoys out to this point, only to find that this low spot, which is quite precipitous and well sheltered, was filled with hostiles. The Indians immediately attacked up this slope and up a gentler slope out of the picture to the right.
Looking back southward toward the monument from Cavalry Hill. Indians were attacking from behind the camera, and the infantry support was resting on the lighter-colored hill that dominates the left-center of the photo. The monument is visible (barely) just to the left of where the road disappears. Ft. Kearny is beyond the high knob. You're a long way from help out here.
Cavalry Hill and the area North and East as seen from Infantry Hill. This is where the infantry was when the cavalry suddenly found itself under heavy attack on the hill at left in the distance. The two civilians with their repeating rifles took up positions near the trees to the right of Cavalry Hill in an effort to cover the cavalry's withdrawal. That was the most advanced position. The cavalry was tired from the pursuit, however, and in turn being pursued by Indians on fresh horses. They were quickly cut off. Those that got out just rode through the surrounding Indians, fighting all the way. They were trying to reach this position and the protection of the infantry.
Looking down into the western valley from Infantry Hill with the Bighorn Mountains in the distance.
The hills between the battle site and the fort. They're very hard to see in this photo, but two black dots -- one right on the skyline, slightly to left of center and between two snowfields, the other to the right at almost the same level but below the skyline and between the next two snowfields -- are life-size wooden cutouts of mounted Indians. When I first realized what they were, I thought they were somewhat comical, rather like plywood Santas in the front yard. But standing there all alone (except for my dog), it was very easy to imagine those dark shapes were hunting me, and suddenly I felt very isolated and vulnerable indeed.
Fort Phil Kearny | Wagonbox Fight | Return to Main Page