Wagonbox Fight

On August 2 of 1867, just over seven months after the Fetterman debacle, a wood-cutting expedition was again under attack. This time, things would turn out much differently.

Getting to the Wagonbox site was a small adventure all by itself. From Fort Kearny, you follow a dirt and gravel road for several miles as it winds along the creek bottom and past some very picturesque farms and homes. In March, this road was rutted and filled with substantial puddles. Finally, a sign directs you down a steep side road to the battle site. I had to stop at the top of that hill and survey the ground below pretty carefully before finally deciding that I could get my car back out again if I drove down. Fortunately, I grew up driving on gravel roads in all sorts of weather, so I'm accustomed to their unique challenges. Summer visitors would have a much easier time accessing this site. If you get the chance, it's well worth the trip. This was my favorite stop along the whole 2,000-mile journey.

Here you can see how tiny the laager was. The red stakes mark its outer perimeter, and it extends only a few more yards to the right and left. It sheltered just 25 men. The wagonbox, too, is surprisingly small. It reached only about to my knees and was perhaps six or seven feet long.

The perimeter stakes are supposed to be connected by chains but as the site was officially closed for the season, most of the chains were down. Much as I wanted to step inside the perimeter and hunker down behind that wagonbox, a palpable sense of respect kept me outside.

This view looks approximately 180 degrees from the wagonbox shown above. The first charge, launched by mounted warriors, boiled across this ground. At least one party of defenders was out in the open, just to the right of center, I believe. They fired heroically for a while and then beat feet back to the wagons, covered by fire from the laager. The charge was stopped by unexpectedly rapid fire from the defenders' new breechloading Springfield rifles. Once the attackers realized they were up against a new sort of weapon, they dismounted and shifted their attack to more covered approaches.

The rock structure barely in the photo on the right edge is the battlefield monument. The white-topped posts along the walkway have viewing holes drilled through them to direct your eye to particular spots of interest in the surrounding area: where attacks originated, where certain figures were positioned, where the wagon road crossed the ridge, and so on. The Bighorn Mountains are much closer than this wide-angle photo makes them appear.

Several Indian "commanders" (I don't recall specifically who) viewed and directed the battle from this hill, along with women and other spectators. It was fortunate for the defenders that none of the Indians was equipped with a good long rifle and the skill to use it well, because a talented sniper on this hill might have made things very hot in the laager.

Remember, the red stakes mark the approximate perimeter of the wagonbox laager. It's tiny! I'm standing at the near edge (right next to the wagonbox shown in the first photo). There's a private fence beyond the perimeter, and then a line of darker vegetation. That demarcation marks a sharp dropoff of the ground, and it's closer than it looks in this wide-angle photo. Indians were able to move under cover to that crest and then open fire or creep forward. This is where the later, more cautious attacks came from.

It helps to look at a topographical map of the area. (The map opens in a new window so you won't lose your place here.)

This is looking 90 degrees to the left of the view shown above (halfway between the preceding shot and the second shot). The field of view is much longer in this direction and wide open. I don't believe any attacks of substance came across this ground, but isn't it gorgeous? The beauty of this spot is breathtaking. Standing here, with the sun shining and the breeze blowing, the Bighorn Mountains towering in front of you and the tangled banks of the creek behind, it's easy to understand why the Indians fought so hard to keep control of the Powder River country.

Fort Phil Kearny | Fetterman Massacre | Return to Main Page