The American West: Fetterman’s Massacre Was High Drama On The High Plains

The bloody and ill-advised skirmish with Indian warriors at Fort Phil Kearny in 1866 that became known as Fetterman's Massacre didn’t have to happen. Capt. William J. Fetterman disregarded orders and got his troops wiped out.

James A. Crutchfield

June 23, 20247 min read

An illustration depicting Fetterman's Massacre that was printed in Harper's Weekly on March 23, 1867. The battle was Dec. 21, 1866.
An illustration depicting Fetterman's Massacre that was printed in Harper's Weekly on March 23, 1867. The battle was Dec. 21, 1866. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Tom Lubnau’s recent column about the Fetterman Massacre in Cowboy State Daily brought back some wonderful memories to me.

In 1987, my wife and I visited Fort Phil Kearny and, with other members of Western Writers of America, took a tour of the site of the bloody affair.

In attendance was one of our own, the noted historian and writer Dee Brown.

Dee was the author of the seminal book about the massacre, “Fort Phil Kearny: An American Saga,” and he delighted all of us with a blow-by-blow account of the action on that fateful day in December 1866.

What came to my mind as I read Mr. Lubnau’s commentary was a backstory to the incident of which I imagine few readers are aware.

Lt. George Grummond, who led the cavalry in the Fetterman fight, was a veteran of the Civil War and had served as a lieutenant colonel at the bloody Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.

The vicious conflict was fought on Nov. 30, 1864, between Union and Confederate armies led respectively by Gens. John M. Schofield and John Bell Hood.

The human toll of the five-hour battle was so horrific that by nightfall, most of the small town’s private residences and businesses had been commandeered by one force or the other and designated as field hospitals.

Grummond And The Sympathizer

During the aftermath of the battle, Grummond became acquainted with a local girl named Frances Courtney, a Union sympathizer, who joined her mother and other women helping the medics minister to the wounded and dying soldiers of both sides.

A courtship between Frances and George ensued, soon followed by marriage.

Following the end of the Civil War, the U.S. War Department found itself with a surplus of men.

Accordingly, many of the officers experienced a reduction of rank and were reassigned to the Great Plains and other parts of the trans-Mississippi West where they served out the remainder of their enlistments on the Indian frontier.

Grummond, now with the reduced rank of 2nd lieutenant, was ordered to report to the 18th U.S. Infantry in Dakota Territory.

By way of a circuitous route to New York, Vicksburg, Mississippi, and St. Louis, the Grummonds reached Fort Phil Kearny, one of several posts guarding the Bozeman Trail, during the fall of 1866.

Soon after their arrival, they met the post commander, Col. Henry B. Carrington, and his wife Margaret, with whom they soon became close friends.

From frequent conversations with Colonel and Mrs. Carrington and other officers’ wives, Frances learned of the precarious position that Fort Kearny occupied on the Bozeman Trail.

Earlier treaties with the Sioux and other Plains tribes had isolated and guaranteed for the Indians the entire region lying between the sacred Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains.

Dec. 21, 1866

When rich gold fields in present-day Montana were opened to white prospectors, the Bozeman Trail offered easy access to them and, with the treaties cast aside, the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho suddenly found their lands overrun with thousands of gold seekers.

Relations between the army and the natives, already tenuous, quickly deteriorated.

Dec. 21, 1866, at Fort Phil Kearny dawned cloudy and cold, with the icy residue of recent snow clinging to the mountains in the distance.

Carrington hoped that the weather would remain kind until the woodcutting detail that he was soon to dispatch could harvest the valuable pine timber required by the post’s ever-hungry warming and cooking fires.

The Indians had been demonstrating around the fort for some weeks, engaging in several minor skirmishes with the soldiers and making life inside the post anything but comfortable.

Within an hour after dispatching the woodcutters and their escort, Carrington was notified that the detail was under attack by tribal fighters.

He quickly assembled a relief column of 81 infantrymen and cavalrymen, commanded by Capt. William J. Fetterman and assisted by Lieutenant Grummond.

No one knew the numerical strength of the Indians gathered in the surrounding hills.

Carrington ordered Fetterman that under no circumstances was he to pursue the Indians, but rather to relieve the woodcutters and their escorts and return to the fort.

When a handful of tribesmen confronted the soldiers, Fetterman, undisciplined in Indian warfare, disregarded his superior’s orders and gave chase.

The result was a lightning fast, well-executed ambush by the mixed collection of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors in which, within minutes, all of Fetterman’s command was annihilated.

On the day following the brief but bloody battle, soon to be called “Fetterman’s Massacre,” Colonel Carrington personally led a detail to retrieve the remainder of the corpses of the brave men not brought in the night before.

Of the ordeal, Frances Grummond wrote years later in her memoirs that, “The horrors of the following days, the making of coffins and digging in the hard, frozen earth for a burial place, when the cold was so intense [with snow on the ground and temperatures falling below zero] that the men worked in fifteen-minute reliefs, and a guard was constantly on the alert lest Indians should interrupt their service.”

Col. George Grummond and Francess Grummond.
Col. George Grummond and Francess Grummond. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The Hard Road Back

Colonel Carrington in the meantime, was relieved of his command of Fort Phil Kearny and ordered to report to Fort Caspar and assume its command.

As he was working out the logistics of relinquishing his former responsibilities and assuming those at his new post, another serious consideration came into play when Frances Grummond, now in an advanced stage of pregnancy, decided that she would return to her family in Tennessee and transport the remains of her late husband with her.

Continual snow on the ground, exacerbated by sub-zero temperatures, did not make Carrington’s job any easier.

Nevertheless, Lieutenant Drummond’s corpse was exhumed and, on Jan. 23, 1867, in a blizzard and amidst bone-chilling temperatures, Carrington’s wagons and escorts moved out of Fort Phil Kearny.

Carrington’s entourage consisting of 20 cavalrymen and 40 infantrymen, included several wagons carrying the women and children, as well as possessions for their new life.

The wagon train followed the Bozeman Trail southward to Fort Reno. Along the way, Mrs. Carrington’s wagon driver suffered severe frostbite to his feet and legs. At Fort Reno, the man had both legs amputated and did not survive.

Mrs. Grummond, in her memoirs wrote, “Of all rides I ever had taken in army life or out of it, this one in an army wagon without springs, with mules at a gallop over such a road, or no road, exceeded all in utter misery.”

From Fort Reno, Frances Grummond, her late husband’s body and all of her earthly possessions continued the journey to Fort Casper, Fort Laramie, Fort Sedgwick in Colorado and Fort McPherson, Nebraska Territory.

A reasonable assumption would be that, from the railhead of the Union Pacific Railroad at present-day Omaha, Nebraska, Mrs. Grummond proceeded to St. Louis, then to Nashville aboard the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad.

She then continued to her hometown of Franklin, some 20 miles south of Nashville. The entire trip had taken seven weeks.


Just two months after she arrived in Franklin, Frances Grummand gave birth to her son, William “Willie” Grummond, on April 14, 1867.

Both Mrs. Grummond and Mrs. Carrington wrote memoirs of their lives and experiences with their husbands in the U.S. Army at Fort Phil Kearny.

“Absaraka, Home of the Crows” by Mrs. Carrington was published in 1878, and Mrs. Grummond’s book, “My Army Life and the Fort Phil. Kearney [sic] Massacre,” published over the name Frances C. Carrington was released in 1910.

Why did Frances Grummond use the name “Carrington” as author of her book? Because a couple of years after her return to Tennessee with her husband’s body for burial, she read Margaret Carrington’s book.

A short time later she discovered that her old friend Margaret had passed away.

Frances sent a note of sympathy to Colonel Carrington and ensuing correspondence between the two culminated in them exchanging wedding vows in 1871.

The couple lived happily together in Massachusetts until her death in 1911. Colonel Carrington died the following year. Both are buried in Hyde Park, Massachusetts.

Colonel Carrington adopted Willie Grummond and he and Frances had three additional children. Willie Grummond died Jan. 19, 1897, and is buried in Hyde Park, Massachusetts.

Contact James A. Crutchfield at

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James A. Crutchfield


James A. Crutchfield is a writer for Cowboy State Daily.