|The title, "The End of Their Shortest Day," plays upon two things: (1) is that the day you die will ALWAYS be your shortest day, and (2) the Fetterman Fight took place on December 21, 1866, the shortest day of the year. (Thus it was a "winter" fight, hence the presence of snow on the ground; Custer's famous fight took place in June, 1876, being, therefore, a "summer" fight.)
William Judd Fetterman had been stationed at Ft Phil Kearney in northern Wyoming. The fort's commander, Col. Henry Carrington, had built the fort in a valley far from timber which was needed for construction and for firewood, etc.
During the winter months, troopers had to venture forth in force to collect firewood for the fort's use. They were often attacked by roving bands of Lakota and Cheyenne Indians who inhabited the area. Under attack, the woodcutters would battle the Indians until a relief force from the fort could rescue them.
In one final effort to dislodge the soldiers from the fort, before winter set in, Red Cloud devised a plan to ambush as many soldiers as he could.
On December 21, 1866, a band of woodcutters went forth from the fort. They were soon under attack, the gunfire being heard by all inside the fort.
Carrington organized a relief force and gave command to Capt. Fetterman. Made up of foot soldiers and cavalry, Fettermen led his 81 men out from the fort....and into legend.
As there were no survivors, we can only guess as to their movements. Stories told by the victorious Indians claim that the soldiers came to a high ridge known as Lodge Pole Ridge. They hesitated and seemed to be wanting to return to the fort as the woodcutters were now safely inside.
A small group of warriors, including Crazy Horse, began to taunt the soldiers; Crazy Horse even got off his horse and started a small fire to warm himself by. The soldiers could not resist this temptation and charged up and then over the ridge.
Dropping into a narrow valley they began to chase these few Indians down the bottom of the valley.
Suddenly thousands of warriors poured out from hiding on either side of the valley. The soldiers, now strung out for a mile down the valley, began to try and fight their way back towards Lodge Pole Ridge. They never made it.
Fetterman and his foot soldiers climbed another low ridge and took shelter amongst some large boulders. The outcome, however, was never in doubt and the troopers were overwhelmed and slain.
Another relief column then appeared on Lodge Pole Ridge and were seen to observe the carnage. The Indians invited them to come on down and fight, but the officers wisely refused. The Indians left the field, taking their dead with them.
The relief column descended into the valley and came upon the horrible scene; the only thing found alive was a single horse, Dapple Dave.
Wagons were brought to haul the corpses back to the fort. As twilight fell, the stiff and frozen bodies were brought into the fort, the scene sending chills thru all the observers.
Afraid of an Indian attack, Carrington placed all the fort's women and children into the powder house; if the Indians took the fort, the powder house, and it's terrified occupants, would be blown to pieces to avoid capture.
The nearest help was almost 200 miles at Fort Laramie. A rider, John "Portagee" Phillips volunteered to go for help. Leaving that night, Phillips rode nonstop thru the freezing weather under constant threat for Indian attack. As he rode up to Fort Laramie, his horse collapsed and died within 100 yards of the fort's gate. Phillips staggered into the fort which was celebrating Christmas with a Christmas Eve dance. The appearance of this buffalo-robed, frozen creature must have stunned the dance participants.
A relief expedition was organized but all for naught. The Indians never attacked the fort, and winter settled in over the plains.
Carrington was blamed for the debacle and in his account of the event he placed the blame onto the shoulders of the deceased Capt. Fetterman and there it has sat ever since. Fetterman has come down to us as a hotheaded braggart who had no respect for the fighting abilities of the Indian. Most famously, he is quoted as saying, "Give me 80 men and I'll ride through the whole Sioux nation!" Well, he GOT his 80 men and the result was found strewn across the hills. But did he really say this? It is only in Carrington's account that this statement is claimed to have been made. Fetterman, himself, is now known to have been a competent, efficient officer and this braggadocio seems out of place with what we know of him.
A new book on the Fetterman Fight is coming out later this year (2008) and hopefully it will clear up some aspects of this fight which has perplexed historians ever since that snowy day in 1866.
This painting will be used as the cover illustration for the book.