The Fetterman Massacre figures only peripherally in The Iron Horse Chronicles. In Eagle Talons, Jenny McNabb and her family are forced to follow the Overland Trail on their journey westward in 1867 rather than use the Oregon Trail. Because of the Fetterman affair in upper Wyoming (still part of the Dakota Territory at the time), General William Tecumseh Sherman (of “make Georgia howl” fame) closed the more northern route and forced wagon trains to follow a path he felt his soldiers could safely protect. Thus, Jenny traveled through Virginia Dale Station, a location I wrote about in my last posting.
Currently, I am researching a new novel set at the time of the events that involved the Fetterman Massacre near Fort Phil Kearny. When the massacre occurred in 1866 it was the largest defeat afflicted upon the United States Army by the “savage” Indians until Custer’s Last Stand a decade later. Its aftermath played a significant role in how the Army and the Indian Bureau struggled to accommodate the demands of Manifest Destiny and the westward expansion that ultimately forced the Plains Indians onto reservations and terminated their traditional way of life.
I visited the site of the massacre in 2010 and experienced snow and bitter cold not unlike what happened the day 3 officers, 76 soldiers, and 2 civilians died. The monument erected in 1905 proclaims there were “no survivors.” It fails to account for perhaps as many as 2,000 Indians who did survive. Perceptions change with time and a more thorough study and evaluation of history.
When I wrote Eagle Talons I followed the traditional version of the story proclaiming Captain William Judd Fetterman was a boastful, rash officer with no respect for the fighting ability of the Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, and Arapahos. My primary reference source was The Fetterman Massacre by Dee Brown, more famously known for his book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The oft repeated quotation by Fetterman that “with eighty men I could ride through the entire Sioux nation” I borrowed from Brown’s work. Brown’s book provides detailed information about the events surrounding the affair and is obviously well researched.
Subsequent research by John H. Monnett in his book Where A Hundred Soldiers Were Killed and by Shannon D. Smith in her book Give Me Eighty Men provides new insight into the Fetterman affair. They point out that no solid evidence exists that the frequently repeated quotation by Fetterman actually occurred. It may very well have been a literary invention of Cyrus Townsend Brady who wrote Indian Fights and Fighters years after the fact. The statement does neatly account for the number of men under Fetterman’s command.
In addition to several verbal accounts recorded by participating Indians, we are fortunate to have two first-hand written accounts about the events leading up to and following the affair. Still, no white man or woman actually witnessed the “massacre.” Margaret Irvin Carrington, the first wife of Fetterman’s commanding officer, Colonel Henry Carrington, resided at Fort Phil Kearny when the indicent occurred. She published her memoir Absaraka, Home of the Crows, in 1868.
Francis C. Carrington, Henry’s second wife, published her memoir, My Army Life and the Fort Phil Kearney Massacre, in 1910, years after the affair. (Note her different spelling of Fort Kearney, which is used in some documents.) She too was present at the time of the affair; but then she was married to Lieutenant George Washington Grummond, one of the three officers killed in the massacre. How she became Colonel Carrington’s wife is an interesting tale in itself.
The story is a wonderful example of how bizarre true history can be. While I am enjoying the research that draws me deeper into the mystery, I am also struggling to discern the “truth” in diverse accounts of the affair. It will take time before I complete my novel. In the meantime, you might enjoy reading a great telling of the story by the masterful western writer Terry C. Johnston in Sioux Dawn. He fell victim to the traditional assessment of Fetterman’s nature. That does not diminish his great novel.