Wagon Box Fight, Banner, WY
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For students of military history, the period of 1860-1880 is a particularly interesting and dynamic time. Weapons development and advancement occurred more rapidly than at any time in previous history. Rapid firing repeating rifles, machine guns and powerful rifled cannon replaced muskets and smooth-bore artillery. Ammunition became more lethal and the effective ranges of weapons increased many fold. Unfortunately for many, tactics didn't change as fast. During the first part of this period - the Civil War - both sides relied on the linear shoulder-to-shoulder attack formation against rapidly improving weapons with horrific results. Many units on both sides during the Civil War found out that firepower in the hands of a few can trump the tactics of many.
On August 2, 1867, the Plains Indians fighting in Red Cloud's War found it out too. In a picture postcard meadow about five miles from Fort Phil Kearney, 32 men with new rifles fought 1,000 braves to a standstill and schooled Crazy Horse on modern firepower. The Wagon Box Fight was a lesson he never forgot and took to the Little Bighorn with him nine years later.
The muzzle loading rifle was the main weapon of both sides during the Civil War. There were significant advances in weapons, such as the Spencer and Henry rifles, but the Army was slow to get rid of the reliable musket. Many cavalry units had Spencers as well as revolvers. Scouts and other civilians often had Henry rifles. There were several Civil War units that bought their own Henrys, but your average foot soldier carried a muzzle loader during the Civil War and into the Indian Wars.
Native American warriors in the continental U.S. may have been the best light infantry fighters in the world at that time. Their mobility, skill, tactics, horsemanship and proficiency with their weapons were second to none. One of their primary tactics against the firepower of an army unit was similar to the tactics used by the North Vietnamese Army - "Grabbing them by the belt." The closer you get to the weapons, the less effective they become. How to get that close becomes the tactical challenge. Fight at night, ambush, feint, decoy, attack on multiple axes are all effective and the Indians used them all. Another primary attack mode involved exploiting the inherent weakness of a muzzle loader - its slow rate of fire.
A well-trained infantryman could fire three aimed rounds a minute with his muzzle loader. This meant that there were inevitable lulls in the firing. European armies tried to compensate for this weakness by forming into ranks and volley firing. In theory, this meant that there was always someone ready to fire while others were reloading. Although used in the Civil War, it was useless against the fluid and elusive enemy they now faced. It was during these lulls that the braves would advance until the defense broke down and was finished off in a final charge.
That's what happened at The Fetterman Massacre in December of 1866 (in which Crazy Horse was one of the leaders) and it was a wakeup call for the Army. One of the main outcomes was the realization that their infantry weapons needed to be improved. The image of infantry troops making their stand with muzzle loaders in close quarters fighting in bitter cold weather was hard to shake.
Over the winter of 1866-67, reinforcements arrived at Fort Phil Kearney. They were armed with a single-shot breech-loading rifle called the Springfield Model 1866. Using a mechanism designed by master gunsmith Erskine Allin at the Springfield Arsenal, these "Allin blocks" were used to convert muzzle loaders into breech loaders. It would be several more years before the Army deployed a new infantry rifle. For now, the Allin rifle was a quantum leap in weapons technology.
With the new rifles, the average soldier could fire 15-20 rounds a minute - over a 500% increase in firepower. Gone were the long lulls in firing that had been exploited so skillfully, but Crazy Horse didn't know that yet.
Fort Phil Kearney needed a large and continuous supply of wood. This was provided by civilian contractors who were guarded by soldiers. A logging camp had been setup in the Wagon Box Fight meadow in July of 1867. The wagon boxes were removed from the wagons to enable longer timber loads on the wagon beds. The boxes were formed into a defensive corral, along with supply wagons. Gaps were filled with wagon yokes, barrels and natural materials. The four foot high boxes were made of heavy wood providing good protection from fire. With the ends removed, men could move around the perimeter inside the boxes.
On August 1, a new detachment under the command of Captain James Powell took over security duties at the lumber camp. The day before, Red Cloud's men tried unsuccessfully to run off the cattle that were grazing there and pick off a few woodcutters.
On August 2, Red Cloud
returned with a force estimated at over 1,000. There
were 26 soldiers and six civilians in the corral when
they hit and another 50-60 in the meadow and surrounding
timber. Those outside the corral took cover where they
could and miraculously survived the battle, although
only as spectators. Hilltop pickets from Fort Kearney
saw the attack begin and a relief force began mustering
but for now, the woodcutters were on their own.
The Indians fell upon the
wagon box fort with a vengeance. Red Cloud himself
directed the attack. Led by Crazy Horse, they came in
waves on foot and on horseback for four hours. In
between, clouds of arrows arched into the tiny
compound. Many of them were fire arrows. Hoping to
set fire to wagons and bags of supplies, all they
succeeded in doing was igniting the thick horse dung
that carpeted the inside of the perimeter. A thick,
nauseous smoke soon filled the position. Still the
A single perimeter breach would have been fatal. It was hold or die. There were no soldiers in reserve and no counter-attack plans. Red Cloud held back several hundred warriors to exploit any opening in the perimeter. Some attackers died close enough to reach out and touch the wagon boxes, but the perimeter held. In between waves, the defenders poured rounds into the dead in front of them to make sure they weren't faking it. Powell's men, inside a strong defensive position and armed with breech-loading rifles and a few Henry rifles, held on until the relief force arrived. Powell lost three men killed and two wounded. Red Cloud's casualties were estimated as high as several hundred.
The Wagon Box Fight was the last major direct engagement of Red Cloud's War at Fort Phil Kearney, although the fort was under siege until the onset of winter. Possibly reflecting a change of tactics, the Indians set fire to the plains around the fort in late October. The fort survived intact only to be abandoned less than a year later when the 1868 Treaty of Laramie was signed.
However, this fight was a watershed event in the Indian Wars. The dramatic and effective application of firepower against far superior numbers was not lost on Red Cloud or Crazy Horse. This started an arms race on the plains, with the Indians determined to match the blue coats. After this, one of their primary objectives was to get their hands on modern weapons. They did so on November 2, 1867, when they ambushed a supply train and captured a wagon load of rifles. That was just the beginning. By the time the Indian Wars culminated at the Little Bighorn nine years later, many of the warriors were better armed than the 7th Cavalry.
There is a Wagon Box Fight virtual cache at the site. You have to pull some information off the monument plaque and email it to the cache owner. We had no idea this battle existed before exploring the area. It's just another example of finding something unique and historic Off The Beaten Path. There are many other caches throughout the area amid the spectacular scenery of the Bighorn Forest and Cloud Peak Wilderness. We easily filled an entire day touring and geocaching and could have spent several more. We'll be back.
The GPS coordinates of the Wagon Box monument are N44.5585º, W106.8983º. Click on the coordinates to bring up an interactive Google map.
Semper Fi....Out here....Alpha6