The Sioux and the Cheyennes, in large numbers, had been waiting with uncharacteristic patience, hoping a sizable group of soldiers would expose themselves. For once, the young warriors refrained from spoiling the ambush. Crazy Horse led a party of decoys whose job it was to tempt the soldiers to go where they had been told not to go: over Lodge Trail Ridge, a move that would take them out of sight of the fort. The soldiers, of course, were no strangers to the decoy tactics; they were not easily tempted. The legend is that it was Crazy Horse who skillfully and successfully played the wounded bird, leading the soldiers farther and farther from safety. He dismounted several times, pretending that his horse was lame; at one point he even built a small fire. Captain Fetterman had not insisted on taking this command merely to protect a few woodcutters. Eventually, ignoring his strict orders, he took the bait, led his soldiers over Lodge Trail Ridge, and went down the other side. The Indians, in this instance perfectly
disciplined, sprang the trap: in half an hour or less Captain Fetterman and his eighty men were dead. By some accounts Captain Fetterman saved his last bullet for himself; American Horse, however, claimed that he clubbed him down and cut his throat. Red Cloud, who probably wasn’t there himself, later said that he couldn’t remember American Horse being there. There were so many arrows in the air at the same time that some of the Indians may have been wounded by what we now call friendly fire. Whether Red Cloud was present at this battle remains a matte r for debate. Stanley Vestal thinks he wasn’t, but George Hyde believes he was somewhere around, being a general of sorts. Crazy Horse had his reputation enhanced, but the victory was somewhat spoiled for him by the death of his friend Lone Bear. The soldiers in Fort Phil Kearney expected to be attacked that night, but the Indians faded into a winter blizzard. General Sherman, like everyone else, underestimated the fighting spirit of the Plains Indians and misjudged their determination to resist the utter destruction of the hunting Sioux were on their way but not yet far enough west to be decisive. The Sioux and the Cheyennes hacked up the bodies of Fetterman and his men in a terrible but customary fashion. Some of the Cheyennes probably remembered that Chiv ington’s men had done exactly the same thing to Black Kettle’s people at Sand Creek. The Indians vented their fury on corpses; this is likely to occur in every war — think of Bosnia — but when these mutilations were reported in the eastern newspapers, they had the usual inflammatory effect on the nonmilitary public. It was, however, a divided public. The likelihood is that the government could have bought off most of the hostile Indians if they had offered adequate monies and decently spacious reservations. But the government was invariably penny-pinching in its allocations, and much of what it did allot was immediately siphoned off by corrupt Indian agents. Sherman, in charge of a large
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- Spring '18
- History, Sioux, Crazy Horse