The Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud is generally portrayed as someone who chewed up the U.S. Army in battle after battle. He was, in the words of one author, “the first and only Indian leader in the West to win a war with the United States.” This conclusion is based on the Army’s decision to abandon the Bozeman Trail and the three forts that protected it after a series of battles with Red Cloud. Revisionist authors seem to delight in this—but there is something they don’t mention.
John Bozeman pioneered a trail from Virginia City, Montana, the site of a gold strike in 1862, eastward through a pass that bears his name in the northern Rockies, and then southeastward along the eastern side of the Big Horn Mountains to the North Platte River. The trail quickly became the favored route for wagon and pack trains bound for the Montana goldfields. Large wagon trains were usually safe from Indian attack, but smaller ones frequently suffered from Indian depredations. This was especially true in the Powder River country at the southern end of the Big Horns. The Teton Sioux, mostly the Oglala and Miniconjou bands, considered it their private hunting grounds.
In June 1866 a peace conference was held at Fort Laramie. Several Sioux chiefs agreed to allow travel over the trail. Others, including Red Cloud, refused. Government agents were unimpressed by Red Cloud’s obstinacy, regarding him as a minor chief. Their miscalculation resulted in Red Cloud’s War.
Following the conference, the Army built three small forts along the trail: Fort Reno, Fort Phil Kearny, and Fort C.F. Smith. The soldiers at Fort Phil Kearny saw action almost immediately—51 Indian raids in the vicinity of the fort during the last five months of 1866. There were probably 4,000 Sioux warriors in the area, occasionally reinforced by another 2,000 Cheyenne and Arapahoe. The Army had no more than 700 soldiers stationed at the three forts. Small parties of soldiers, details of woodchoppers and the like, could usually expect an attack. They had orders not to stray too far from the forts or to chase Indians who had fired at them, a precaution to avoid being decoyed into an ambush.
On a cold December morning in 1866 a wood-chopping party came under attack near Fort Phil Kearny. Within minutes Capt. William Fetterman led a relief party of 40 infantrymen and 40 cavalrymen to the rescue. A decorated veteran of the Civil War, Fetterman had begun drinking heavily at the frozen outpost and was thoroughly frustrated by the hit-and-run tactics of the Indians. Against explicit orders not to venture beyond Lodge Trail Ridge, he pursued the Indians into the valley on the far side. He suddenly found his small force surrounded by 2,000 Oglala warriors led by Crazy Horse. Although the boys in blue made an heroic stand, killing well more than 100 Indians before running out of ammunition, Fetterman’s Massacre was the result. A force of soldiers who arrived too late to help Fetterman found a grisly scene of Indian mayhem:
Eyes torn out and laid on rocks; noses cut off; ears cut off; chins hewn off; teeth chopped out; brains taken out and placed on rocks with other members of the body; entrails taken out and exposed; hands cut off; feet cut off; arms taken out from sockets . . .
Fighting continued through 1867. The Hayfield Fight near Fort Smith and the Wagon Box Fight near Fort Phil Kearny were major engagements. In both battles the soldiers were outnumbered 20 to 1, but the Indians got the worse of it, losing more than 100 at each fight. Red Cloud said he lost “the flower of his warriors.” The engagements clearly had a sobering effect on the Sioux. During 1868 Red Cloud and the other chiefs signed a peace treaty, giving them a large reservation in South Dakota and hunting rights in the Powder River country. Moreover, the United States agreed to abandon the forts along the Bozeman Trail. This last point is emphasized by the revisionists, while the Indian losses at the various major engagements are ignored. The uninitiated reader, typically a college student, concludes that Red Cloud was indeed victorious.
The revisionists don’t mention that, by 1868, the forts and the Bozeman Trail were no longer of any great importance. The Union Pacific railroad had been built far enough west to make other routes to the Montana goldfields more practicable. The Bozeman Trail had become obsolete, something akin to the “old road” one occasionally glimpses while racing by on a modern highway. The abandonment of the forts merely gave Red Cloud a chance to save face. He moved onto the Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and forevermore counseled peace with the whites. Those victorious in wars aren’t the ones who move onto reservations.