A Tale of the Fetterman Massacre
By Robert Lee Murphy
Five Star Publishing, June 2022
Fighting to defend their favourite buffalo hunting grounds following the Civil War, Lakota Chief Red Cloud’s coalition of Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahos drove the military forces out of the Powder River country.
On a bone-chilling day in December 1866, Captain William Fetterman led eighty men into the army’s worst defeat at the hands of the Indians until Custer’s Last Stand a decade later.
Despite the turmoil of virtually constant Indian attacks at Fort Phil Kearny, a youthful paymaster clerk and a beautiful young schoolteacher fall in love. Their future is torn asunder when in the aftermath of the Fetterman Massacre the United States abandons the forts protecting the Bozeman Trail, closing the shortest route used by immigrants to reach Montana’s goldfields.
Red Cloud’s War was the only war the American Indians won fighting the U.S. Army.
Having enjoyed Robert Lee Murphy’s Iron Horse Chronicles trilogy about the building of the transcontinental railroad I was eager to see how he told the story of the Fetterman Massacre. The vast majority of characters that appear in this book are real. Into this meticulously researched and well told tale the reader will follow the events that led up to the massacre, the loss of Fetterman and his men, and the aftermath.
Into this historical struggle, Robert Lee Murphy places a small number of fictional characters. It’s around Zach Wakefield, the paymaster’s clerk, that the fictional elements revolve as he falls in love with Katy O’Toole. Katy, though, is engaged. Then there is Duggan McGuire who is also interested in the young schoolteacher.
The story is told in the first person, through Zach, so there are certain events that can only be told by describing what he sees after they’ve happened, such as the massacre of Fetterman and his men. Zach only gets to witness the results as he helps gather the dead. The brutalities of war are graphic in their descriptions, especially when describing how people died.
Murphy easily held my interest as the historical events played out and he seamlessly blends his fictional storyline into them. The constant Indian raids means there’s plenty of action. There’s also the very cold winter weather to deal with, and a long ride in these sub-zero conditions to survive. Murphy also includes lots of detail about army life and their outdated weapons they have to use. How Fort Phil Kearny was built is another fascinating aspect of this tale.
The book ends with an historical afterword which tells of what happened to many of the surviving characters.
If you have an interest in the Fetterman Massacre, or like stories that are based around historical events, then this book should be on your reading list. Equally, if you just enjoy well told tales, then this is a book that I think most western fans will enjoy.