Fort Phil Kearney, Banner, WY
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Before the end of the Civil War, the western migration was in full swing. Promises of gold, land and freedom drew thousands of settlers to the West even as the war dragged on in the East. Much of this migration was through traditional Native American land. The encroachment into these lands resulted in the Nations pulling further west and north, until the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Shoshone were concentrated in present day Wyoming and Montana, which were then part of the Dakota Territories.
Gold was discovered near Bannack, Montana in 1862. To facilitate the rush of miners, an experienced explorer and frontiersman named John Bozeman blazed a trail almost 400 miles from Laramie, Wyoming to the Bannack gold fields. The Bozeman Trail cut right through the heart of the best Native American hunting grounds - the Powder River Basin. This area had been guaranteed to Native Americans by the Treaty of Laramie in 1851. Bozeman himself led 2,000 settlers and miners down the trail in 1864. Frustrated and with no where else to go, their entire way of life at risk, the Native American warriors started to make life on the Bozeman Trail extremely hazardous. So began one of the most intense periods of the Indian Wars, a series of violent campaigns between government forces and Native Americans that spanned most of the 19th century and was fought over much of the continental United States. Although no one could have known it then, the actions in the Powder River Basin right after the Civil War set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the Little Bighorn in 1876.
Over the previous decades, the U.S. government had established a series of forts to protect western migration. Earlier ones, such as Fort Snelling in Minnesota, were now in settled lands. With the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Army turned its attention to the West and headed for the Powder River Basin in 1866. On July 13th of that year, Colonel Henry Carrington, commander of the 18th Infantry Regiment, arrived at the confluence of Big Piney and Little Piney Creeks, about 20 miles south of present day Sheridan, Wyoming (which didn't exist until 1882). Piney Creek flows into the Powder River.
Carrington was not a career soldier. Before the Civil War he was a lawyer and college professor in Ohio. When the war started, he was given a direct commission as a Colonel and spent the entire war in Ohio raising troops and money for the state's regiments. He was an organizer and an administrator - not a combat leader. However, he put together a pretty good fort.
Named after a one-armed Union general who was killed at the Civil War Battle of Chantilly, Virginia in 1862, Fort Phil Kearney (pronounced "carney") was elaborate by frontier standards - and big. It measured 800 feet long and 600 feet wide, oriented roughly northwest to southeast. It was all enclosed by a wooden palisade. The logs were 11 feet long - three feet in the ground and eight feet above. A firing ramp was built three feet high along the inside of the wall along with apertures for cannons. Additional fields of fire were provided by blockhouses on the corners, which provided enfilade fire along the walls. Prairie grass around the fort was mowed to provide clear killing fields. There was a gate on each wall, with the main gate on the north wall. Sentries manned the walls 24 hours a day.
The fort was planted squarely in prime Indian hunting land. The soldiers plowed and mowed the area around them and staked out other tracts to graze horses and livestock. The Sioux warriors, led by Chief Red Cloud and his lieutenant Crazy Horse, wanted them gone. There were many frontier forts that never saw any action, but Fort Phil Kearney wasn't one of them. It was the Plains Indian War equivalent of a Special Forces A-camp in the A Shau Valley.
The fort's Achilles Heel was timber. They needed lots of it every day and the nearest stands were several miles away. Working parties had to get timber. At times, there were dozens of wagons out gathering wood. Livestock had to graze. Produce had to be grown. All of this had to be protected. Red Cloud's braves conducted a guerilla war. They ambushed logging parties, ran off livestock and picked off the occasional stray soldier that wandered away unaware. On at least one occasion, they set the surrounding prairie grass on fire. They were always a short distance from the fort and they owned the night. They chose the time and the place of all the fights. This all began a week after Carrington arrived and before the fort was even started. On the banks of Crazy Woman Creek, Sioux and Cheyenne braves attacked an Army supply train, keeping it under siege for 12 hours and killing two soldiers. History calls this the Crazy Woman Fight. It was the opening battle of the two year struggle called Red Cloud's War.
Carrington's biggest worry was that the fort would be massively attacked and there wouldn't be enough men to defend it. There were women, children and civilian workers in the fort that faced a massacre if that happened. Therefore, he kept everyone on a tight rein. The other officers chafed at these non-aggressive tactics and it was a major source of friction in the camp. Carrington had other worries also. Weapons needed to be upgraded. Most soldiers still had Civil War era muzzle-loaders, although the cavalry unit had seven-shot Spencer carbines. Civilian teamsters, loggers and scouts in the field carried Henry 16-shot lever action rifles. Ammo was scarce, with less than 50 rounds per man on hand. Food and sanitation were poor resulting in wide-spread disease. The number of horses steadily dwindled.
There is a perception perpetuated by Hollywood that frontier garrisons were all cavalry. That was not the case. Most of the troops were infantry. They walked everywhere. The cavalry detachment was used for reconnaissance and other mobility-type missions. This is another reason Carrington kept his men close. Foot soldiers that were miles away were sitting ducks for Red Cloud's horsemen and of no use if the fort was attacked while they were that far away.
By the time the winter of 1866 arrived, the garrison at Fort Phil Kearney had fought in over 50 separate engagements and lost over 150 men, but the direct attack Carrington feared never came. Red Cloud could have done it. He could muster 2,000 braves and the agile warriors could have easily vaulted the palisades, especially from horseback. But Carrington had a weapon that terrified Red Cloud. The Sioux called it the "gun that shoots twice". It was cannons loaded with canister rounds. It turns an artillery piece into a giant shotgun. The Indians got a taste of it one day when they were spotted in some trees on Piney Creek. The fort cut loose with some canister and stripped the trees almost bare. The Indians fled and gave the fort a wide berth afterwards. Carrington, of course, had no way of knowing that. The vision of the fort being overrun and everyone slaughtered was in his mind constantly. He issued a standing order that if the fort was attacked, the women and children were to be hidden in the magazine stores and blown up if capture seemed imminent. Meanwhile, his command was being killed off in ones and twos. That was about to change.
On December 21, 1866, Captain William Fetterman led a force of 81 men - infantry, cavalry and civilian scouts - out of Fort Phil Kearney to relieve a logging party that was under attack about five miles away. It was the shortest day of the year and bitter cold, so time was of the essence. He was under strict orders not to engage in offensive operations. Fetterman, who was itching for a fight, fell for the oldest trick in the book - decoy riders. One of the decoys was Crazy Horse. They put on a show for the troopers and took off. Fetterman took the bait and ran into 1,000 braves. All 81 men died in three separate groups. This represented a third of Carrington's garrison and almost all of his cavalry along with their Spencer carbines. History knows this as the Fetterman Massacre.
The garrison suffered through a hard winter with occasional skirmishes. Carrington transferred in January and left the army in 1870. He was replaced by Colonel Henry Wessells who was in turn replaced by Colonel Jonathan Smith, neither of whom have left any mark on history. Reinforcements also arrived along with modern weapons - breech loading Allin rifles. There were no major engagements until the following summer.
On August 2, 1867, a logging party of 32 troopers and loggers were attacked in a meadow about five miles from the fort by an estimated 1,000 warriors. Crazy Horse was one of the leaders. The men took cover in a makeshift perimeter of heavy wooden wagon boxes and with their faster firing new rifles, held off the Indians for over four hours until reinforcements arrived. The troopers lost three men. Indian losses were estimated at over 100 or more. History knows this as the Wagon Box Fight.
(At this point, one may ask " How did the relief columns know to come to their aid?" Two ways. The fort posted lookouts on the surrounding hills during the day so they could overwatch the terrain. Additionally, these operations happened within earshot of the fort. When the sounds of gunfire indicated an engagement, relief columns were sent out.)
In the meantime, Red Cloud had accomplished most of his strategic objectives. Civilian and commercial traffic on the Bozeman Trail had stopped in 1866. It was simply too dangerous. Likewise, the Kearney garrison was contained and incapable of any major offensive action. The forts were expensive to maintain and had no traffic to protect. Besides that, the transcontinental railroad was nearing completion and would make the Bozeman Trail useless. The U.S. government decided to abandon all forts in the region.
The Laramie Treaty of 1868 called for the abandonment of all the Bozeman Trail forts and full rights to the land restored to the Native Americans. Fort Phil Kearney was abandoned in August of 1868. It had been operational for only two years and cost the lives of hundreds on both sides. Red Cloud's warriors burned it to the ground. As the garrison went down the road to Laramie, they could see the smoke from the burning fort. Relative peace returned to the northern plains until the Great Sioux War of 1876.
Fort Phil Kearney has been partially restored and is a state historical site as are the Fetterman Massacre and Wagon Box sites. It has a small but informative visitor's center. The fort and the Fetterman site have detailed self-guided tours and the Wagon Box site has markers. KidsRN and I visited all three and found a number of geocaches in the area. In fact, our original reason for heading down that way was to do some caching. In the process, we stumbled on to this out-of-the-way gem. If you're in the Sheridan, WY area, it is well worth the time to see them and get a little bit of history that is Off The Beaten Path.
The GPS coordinates of the Visitor Center are N44.5339º, W106.8284º. Click on the coordinates to bring up an interactive Google map.
Semper Fi and Da svidanya ... Boris and Natasha