The Fetterman Fight- Irish Casualties

On 25th June 1876 Lieutenant-Colonel George Armstrong Custer rode into immortality when he and elements of the 7th U.S. Cavalry were wiped out at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That engagement represented the greatest disaster to befall United States forces in their conflict with the Plains Indians; included amongst the lost were thirty-four Irish born soldiers. ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ has become perhaps the most famous instance of a battle that led to the annihilation of one of the participating elements. It was not the only the example that the conflict on the western frontier produced. The fate of the men Custer led against the Indians in 1876 permanently overshadowed the events of 21st December 1866, when another U.S. military detachment was annihilated by Indian warriors.

An 1867 representation of the Fetterman Fight (Library of Congress)

An 1867 representation of the Fetterman Fight (Library of Congress)

In 1866 United States forces constructed a series of fortifications in the Powder River country of what is now Wyoming, along the route of the Bozeman Trail, which connected the goldfields of Montana with the Oregon Trail. The area was rich in resources, and was a particularly fruitful region in which to hunt. In the 1850s the territory had been part of the Crow homelands, but the Lakota, recognising its value, had conquered the Powder River country by 1859. When the white soldiers arrived, they found Lakota warriors who were in no mood to give up what they had so recently won. (1)

The central fortification constructed by U.S. troops in the Powder River country was Fort Phil Kearney, named for the American Civil War General who had been killed in action in 1862. It was established in July 1866, and would soon become the principal target of the Indian’s ire. Violence erupted that would become known as ‘Red Cloud’s War’ and which would run from 1866 to 1868. Red Cloud was a Oglala Lakota war leader, whose name became synonymous with the conflict. By far the most significant engagement of the war came at Fort Phil Kearney on 21st December 1866.

Fort Phil Kearney was severely hampered by the fact that it had no nearby timber source. This meant that parties of civilian contractors, protected by an armed escort, had to regularly leave the Fort to travel to the Wood Camp and gather essential supplies. This presented a perfect opportunity for the Indians to strike, which they did on a number of occasions before 21st December. The most notable prior to the 21st took place on 6th December, when some 150 to 200 Indians engaged with troops from the Fort, using decoys in an attempt to lure the soldiers into a trap. After the 6th December no-one in Fort Phil Kearney was under any illusions concerning Indian decoy tactics. (2)

On 21st December a party of Indians again moved through the snow-covered landscape to launch a sortie against the wood convoy. The Fort’s commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington, decided to send out the biggest relief group yet to ensure the convoy’s safe return. Captain William Judd Fetterman exited Fort Phil Kearney in command of a force that included Captain Frederick H. Brown, Lieutenant George W. Grummond, 49 men of the 18th U.S. Infantry, 27 troopers of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and two citizen volunteers.

As soon as the soldiers left the Fort the Indians attacking the wood convoy immediately broke off and began to flee. Fetterman pursued them and a number of decoys, moving his men onto nearby Lodge Trail Ridge. Although he had orders not to pursue beyond this ridge, Fetterman advanced over it in an attempt to cut off the Indians. From here Fetterman and his troops could no longer be seen by those still in the Fort. It would appear that the cavalry under Lieutenant Grummond sped ahead of the infantry in an effort to catch the Indians. Instead they rode straight into a trap. Nothing could have prepared any of those men for what they saw next. Somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors began to disgorge from their hiding places on all sides. This huge force had been amassed with the specific intent of bringing about an opportunity such as this. It is probable that Fetterman’s command knew they were doomed only moments after the ambush was sprung. Whatever their thoughts, the fate of the 81 men was sealed. (3)

The memorial which now rests on the area where Fetterman's command made their last stand (Photo:Junkerjorg)

The memorial which now rests on the area where Fetterman’s command made their last stand (Photo:Junkerjorg)

Not a single member of Fetterman’s party survived. The Indians came to call the victory the Battle Where A Hundred Soldiers Were Killed, or the Battle of 100 in the Hand. Prior to Custer’s defeat a decade later, it was the greatest setback ever suffered by U.S. arms on the western frontier. From the distribution of the bodies and Indian testimony it appears that the furthest penetration of the cavalry was at a location now known as Wheatley and Fisher Rocks, after the two volunteer civilians who accompanied the soldiers. Their bodies were found here, where they had met their end firing their repeating rifles from behind the scant cover. From here a trail of cavalry bodies led back towards the infantry position, where those troopers who survived in the initial onslaught threw in their lot with the foot soldiers. Here the last of Fetterman’s command died, around a cluster of rocks on what is today called Monument Hill. (4)

The soldiers were shown no mercy and many of their bodies were mutilated after death- Colonel Henry Carrington of the 18th Infantry described the scene when he came upon it: ‘… eyes torn out and laid on the rocks; noses cut off; ears cut off; chins hewn off; teeth chopped out; joints of fingers; 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; private parts severed and indecently placed on the person; eyes, ears, mouth and arms penetrated with spear-heads, sticks, and arrows; ribs slashed to separation with knives; skulls severed in every form, from chin to crown; muscles of calves, thighs, stomach, breast, back, arms, and cheek taken out…’. (5)

Of the 81 soldiers who died, twenty were of Irish birth.* A number of others were clearly members of the Irish-American community, bearing Irish surnames and birthplaces in well-worn Irish emigrant paths in Canada. Although the 18th U.S. Infantry had served throughout the American Civil War, it is striking how many of the men who fell in the Fetterman Fight were new recruits, having joined in 1865 and 1866. It is clear from examining the Irish soldiers that the majority had been in the service for only a short time, often only a matter of months.

One of the men who fell was Private Michael O’Garra from Co. Sligo. He had enlisted in Chicago at the age of 22, only eight months before the Fetterman Fight. The passenger lists of the Chancellor, which plied the route between Liverpool and New York, suggest that he may have been a very recent emigrant. A ‘Michl Garra’ aged 20 arrived in the U.S. aboard this vessel on 3rd May 1865. It seems likely that this may well be the same man- in 18 months he had made the almost unimaginable leap between life on the rural west coast of Ireland and a gruesome death, surrounded by Native Americans defending their territory on the snow-covered plains around Fort Phil Kearney. (6)

*I am grateful to Billy Markland for confirming the nativity of  Private Michael Kinney of Company H, 18th U.S. Infantry.

The area where the Fetterman Fight took place (Photo:Junkerjorg)

The area where the Fetterman Fight took place (Photo:Junkerjorg)

The Irish-born men identified as falling in the Fetterman Fight are as follows**:

18th United States Infantry, Second Battalion

Company A

Private Thomas Burke

25-year-old, 5 foot 3 inches tall former laborer with a dark complexion, grey eyes and black hair. Enlisted 21st March 1866 in Brooklyn, New York. A Co. Cork native.

Private Patrick Shannon

26-year-old, 5 foot 5 inches tall former laborer with a sandy complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Enlisted 25th July 1865 in Louisville, Kentucky. A Co. Roscommon native.

Corporal Robert H. Lennon

23-year-old, 5 foot 5 3/4 inches tall soldier with a dark complexion, blue eyes and dark hair. Enlisted 10th March 1866 in Boston, Massachusetts. A Co. Down native.

18th United States Infantry, Second Battalion

Company C

Corporal Patrick Gallagher

27-year-old, 5 foot 7 inches tall former laborer with a fair complexion, brown eyes and brown hair. Enlisted 25th July 1865 in Cleveland, Ohio. A Co. Donegal native.

Sergeant Patrick Rooney

24-year-old, 5 foot 7 inches tall former laborer with a dark complexion, grey eyes and black hair. Enlisted 11th April 1866 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A native of Ireland.

Private Frank P. Sullivan

24-year-old, 5 foot 6 inches tall former laborer with a ruddy complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Enlisted 29th March 1866 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A Co. Kerry native.

Sergeant Francis Raymond

30-year-old, 5 foot 10 1/4 inches tall soldier with a ruddy complexion, grey eyes and dark hair. Enlisted 8th March 1866 in Washington D.C. A Co. Westmeath native.

Private Patrick Smith

33-year-old, 5 foot 3 1/4 inches tall former laborer with a  florid complexion, grey eyes and dark hair. Enlisted 13th March 1866 in Chicago, Illinois. A Co. Clare native.

Private Michael O’Garra

22-year-old, 5 foot ten inches tall former carriage maker with a fair complexion, hazel eyes and black hair. Enlisted 12th April 1866 in Chicago, Illinois. A Co. Sligo native.

18th United States Infantry, Second Battalion

Company E

Private Timothy Cullinane

18-year-old, 5 foot 4 1/2 inches tall former laborer with a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Enlisted 15th March 1866 in New York. A Co. Cork native.

Corporal John Quinn

27-year-old, 5 foot 9 inches tall former laborer with a dark complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Enlisted 23rd January 1865 in Indianapolis, Indiana. A native of Ireland.

18th United States Infantry, Second Battalion

Company H

Private Perry F. Dolan (also borne as Pierre F. Doland)

22-year-old, 5 foot, 6 1/2 inches tall former farmer with a fair complexion, hazel eyes and dark hair. Enlisted 10th April 1866 in St. Louis, Missouri. A native of Ireland.

Private James Kean

25-year-old, 5 foot, 6 1/2 inches tall former laborer with a dark complexion, black eyes and dark hair. Enlisted 13th March 1866 in New York. A Co. Clare native.

Private Michael Kinney

Nativity listed as Co. Roscommon (with thanks to Billy Markland for this information).

Corporal Michael Sharkey

28-year-old, 5 foot, 8 inches tall soldier with a ruddy complexion, grey eyes and auburn hair. Enlisted 29th March 1866 in Indianapolis, Indiana. A native of Ireland.

2nd United States Cavalry

Company C

Sergeant James Baker

22-year-old, 5 foot 11 inches tall soldier with a ruddy complexion, brown eyes and brown hair. Enlisted 7th December 1864 in New York. A native of Dublin.

Artificer John McCarty

27-year-old, 5 foot 11 1/2 inches soldier with a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Enlisted 9th September 1865 in Philadelphia. A native of Kerry.

Private Patrick Clancy

25-year-old, 5 foot, 9 inches former laborer with a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Enlisted 25th May 1866 in Boston. A native of Limerick.

Private James P. McGuire

21-year-old, 5 foot, 8 1/4 inches former engineer with a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Enlisted 2nd October 1865 in New York. A native of Cavan.

Private James Ryan

27-year-old, 5 foot, 6 1/4 inches soldier with a florid complexion, grey eyes and dark hair. Enlisted 21st September 1865 in Cincinnati. A native of Tipperary.

**The above information has been compiled through a review of the casualties in the Final Statements (1862-1899) and the U.S. Army Register of Enlistments (1798-1914).

(1) Monnet 2008:14; (2) Monnet 2008: 106-118; (3) Monnet 2008: 119-159; (4) Ibid; (5)  US Congress 1887: 43; (6) Register of Enlistments, New York Passenger Lists, Final Statements;

References and Further Reading

Congress of the United States 1887. Letter from the Acting Secretary of the Interior Concerning Indian Operations of the Plains.

Monnett, John H. 2008. Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed: The Struggle for the Powder River Country in 1866 and the Making of the Fetterman Myth

United States Army Register of Enlistments 1798-1914

New York Passenger Lists 1820-1957

Final Statements 1862-1899

Fort Phil Kearney State Historic Site

8 Comments on “The Fetterman Fight- Irish Casualties”

  1. Patty MM
    November 8, 2012 at 12:30 am #

    I had never heard of this before. It’s times like this that I know that children in the USA are not taught enough history in school. I am glad you can fill in so much for me!

  2. November 8, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Thanks Patty, I am glad you enjoyed it!

  3. November 8, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

    Per my database, Kinney gave on his enlistment his birthplace as Roscommon, Ireland. Honigan or Horrigan has his birthplace as Sorel, Canada. I’ll double check the Honigan/Horrigan spellings against the regimental returns and the enlistment registers…which is where I obtained the information.

    Billy

    P.S. Robbie has my contact info.

    • November 14, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

      Hi Billy,

      Many thanks for getting in touch! I was working off the Final Statements and enlistments I could find, but no matter how hard I looked I just couldn’t track them down! Would you have any issue with providing the Kinney info I have for the other Irish soldiers for inclusion here, naturally with the appropriate reference and accreditation? I would love to complete the list, which clearly stands at 20 given the information you have. Many thanks for letting me know!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. November 12, 2012 at 2:21 am #

    What is particularly sad about the deaths of the young Irishman – some right off the boat – is that they had no idea of what they would be facing in an Indian attack. Nothing could have prepared them. Nor would they have learned of the years of broken treaties with the Indians and destruction of their home lands and way of life. Worse, deaths were often caused by the sheer incompetence or arrogance of their officers. (I just finished reading The Buffalo Hunters by Mari Sandoz and Patty MM is right – we don’t get enough history in school.

    • November 14, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

      I agree entirely- thanks for the comment!

  5. Patrick Pennie
    November 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    Having read the Book “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee I can understand the brutality of the Native Americans they were so many times misled,cheated and wholecongregations slaughtered, these people were driven to do what they did and after all they are the true native Americans.

    • November 20, 2013 at 8:38 am #

      Hi Patrick,

      Many thanks for the comment. I agree- there is no doubt the wars against the Native Americans in the 19th century (and indeed before that) were horrendous- what they experienced was savage in the extreme. All the more reason I think to seek to understand Irish involvement in that and examine some of the different causes and motivations that led Irish people to places like the Little Big Horn and indeed Wounded Knee.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

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