THE RELIEF OF FORT PHIL KEARNEY

From:
ONE HUNDRED YEARS WITH THE SECOND CAVALRY
By Joseph I. Lambert, Major, Second Cavalry
Copyright 1939 Commanding Officer, Second Cavalry, Fort Riley, Kansas
Capper Printing Company, Inc.

IWBy Brigadier-General DAVID S. GORDON, U.S.A.

The garrison at Fort Laramie in the year 1867 was composed of four troops of cavalry and six companies of the Eighteenth Infantry, commanded by the late Gen. Innis N. Palmer, colonel of the Second Cavalry.

It was on Christmas night, 11 P.M., in the year 1866, when a full dress garrison ball was progressing and everybody appeared superlatively happy, enjoying the dance, notwithstanding the snow was from ten to fifteen inches deep on the level and the thermometer indicated twenty-five degrees below zero, when a huge form dressed in buffalo overcoat, pants, gauntlets and cap, accompanied by an orderly, desired to see the commanding officer. The dress of the man, and at this hour looking for the commanding officer, made a deep impression upon the officers and others that happened to get a glimpse of him, and consequently, and naturally too, excited their curiosity as to his mission in this strange garb, dropping into our full-dress garrison ball at this unseasonable hour.

As we were about to select partners for another dance word was passed into the ball-room that General Palmer desired to see me. Excusing myself, I reported to the commanding officer, who handed me a dispatch dated for Fort Phil Kearney, December 21, 1866, signed by Col. H. B. Carrington, commanding post, that Brevet Colonel Fetterman, with a detachment consisting of three officers, ninety-two men and two citizens, had been massacred outside of the post. This dispatch was repeated to Omaha, Neb., headquarters of the department, commanded by General Cooke. I think it was on the 26th that orders to the commanding officer at Fort Laramie were received to send troops immediately to Fort Phil Kearney and relieve Col. H. B. Carrington, Eighteenth Infantry. Six companies of the Eighteenth under Major Van Voast and Companies D and L of the Second Cavalry, commanded by myself, were to get in readiness and march to the relief of this garrison. As the snow was so deep and the thermometer indicated, as previously stated, twenty-five below zero, we were held a few days in the garrison for preparations and moderation of the weather. However, the infantry under Major Van Voast was soon in readiness and marched for their destination. As rumors were currently afloat in the garrison that it might be attacked on account of its depletion, I was held with my command forty-eight hours longer after the infantry left, so as to test the temper of the Indians camping in small parties near the fort; they were evidently spies upon us to watch our operations and the movement of the troops. As this information was developed afterwards the news was known through interpreters, Charlie Garue and Jules Coffee, the second day after the massacre. But nothing authentic until the dispatch was handed the commanding officer by one Portuguese Phillips, who was employed by Colonel Carrington in Fort Phil Kearney and was paid $1,000 for carrying and delivering this dispatch at Fort Laramie.

After making every preparation for the comfort of the men on account of the severity of the weather, and getting ready the necessary transportation of the camp and garrison equipage and forage for the animals, I commenced my march of 250 miles over a road entirely obliterated by snow and in some places drifted from three to six feet deep. On account of the drift I was compelled to countermarch the command by file and plunge a cut through it by the horses, and many places had to be shoveled out to get the wagons through as well as the men on foot. I overtook the infantry command the second day out, and both commands were marched together until we reached Fort Phil Kearney, making the distance in sixteen days, the command stopping at Fort Reno on the Powder River.

Here Lieut. Col. H. W. Wessells, of the Eighteenth Infantry, joined the command and marched with it, as he had orders to relieve Colonel Carrington at Fort Phil Kearney on our arrival. On account of the severity of the weather and deep snow there was no grazing for the animals, a scarcity of wood and the water in the streams that we crossed was partly frozen to the bottom, except in deep holes, where we were compelled to chop holes in the ice and water the animals out of buckets. This, of course, added more to our suffering and discomfort on the march, both to the animals and men. Our long forage gave out after being on the road two days and the mules were cold and hungry for hay, as they had been accustomed in the post, became reckless as bears and many of them broke their halters, and not satisfying their appetites by eating some of the wagon-tongues and feed-troughs to which they were hitched, they took a square meal of the manes and tails of their mates. Consequently we were obliged to substitute extra tongues of ridge-poles which we carried with us for emergencies to repair the damage done by the animals during the night, not without a few frosted ears, noses, fingers and toes.

We reached this unfortunate garrison on January 16, 1867, with but one casualty, a man being frozen to death. We found the fort poorly supplied, nothing in the way of delicacies or canned goods of any description, except the government rations, sugar, coffee, bacon, flour and hardtack; no corn-meal, potatoes, and worst of all, no wood to burn except green cottonwood branches which grew on Little and Big Pine Creeks, and not a pound of forage for the animals, except what we had transported in wagons for the command on the march. Consequently we were obliged to turn the animals out and let them forage for themselves or starve. But after consideration the commanding officer thought it best to send Capt. James T. Peale, commanding Troop L, Second Cavalry, back to Laramie with the cavalry horses. He made the march all right, but reached there without the animals, 150 in number. As evidences of that march their carcasses could be seen many years afterwards strewn along the road. On account of the scarcity of wood a detachment of 100 men under proper guards was sent to the mountains, six miles away, to cut logs and snake them in on the front wheels of the government wagons. Upon arriving at the garrison the logs were turned over to the post quartermaster, while a detachment of soldiers caused the logs to be cut in blocks and a block delivered to each tent or cabin door, split to suit. Officers, as well as myself, became expert woodsplitters, and we thought ourselves highly favored to have a piece of wood to split to keep from freezing.

For lack of vegetables, such as potatoes, onions, pickles and other antiscorbutics, the hospital was crowded to its limits by men down on their backs with scurvy, and no special remedy available other than drugs to prevent the entire garrison being afflicted. It was indeed a pitiable sight to see some of these poor soldiers so emaciated and weak and afflicted to the extent that their teeth were ready to drop out of their mouths, and no encouragement as to supplies reached the post until August, 1867, as they had to be transported in bull trains from Julesburg, Colorado, the terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad, some 700 or 800 miles distant. We had a long wait, and in the interim it was almost a question with some of the soldiers whether it would be best to die by scurvy or be scalped by the Indians. But thanks to Divine Providence, we survived, after living in a stockade garrison for over two years with a record unsurpassed as to thrilling adventures and hair-breadth escapes in protecting the post and guarding the transportation that brought our supplies and the wood-choppers in the mountains from the Indian raids.

We abandoned the post in July, 1868, and marched out, leaving behind us over 120 dead comrades, buried at the foot of Signal Hill, in plain view of the old abandoned garrison, but took with us our baby boy, Phil Gordon, who was born January 13, 1868, and was named by the officers of the garrison at a meeting called by the commanding officer, General John E. Smith, to perpetuate the name and memory of General Kearney, a gallant soldier of the late war, and the post that was also named after him.

His mother, who had accompanied me on this march, had made several previous marches in ambulances and government wagons, from 550 to 700 miles, before railroads and luxurious Pullman cars that are now enjoyed were in existence then in crossing the plains. Besides Mrs. Gordon, there was Ogden L. Morgan, who deserves mention, the wife of the captain of the Eighteenth Infantry, who is now in the Post-office Department in Washington D.C., and it gives me pleasure to state that these two heroic ladies are deserving the highest praise and deep consideration for their indomitable pluck in venturing out to accompanying their husbands on this march under such adverse circumstances.

In this connection I have given the details of the march, but have omitted the many thrilling incidents which happened during our stay in the post; in chasing the Indians and exchanging shots with them; and going to the relief of the trains that were transporting supplies to Fort Phil Kearney and Fort C. F. Smith. They were corralled for defense and could not move until I went to their relief.

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