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Gen. Wessells's Report on the Ft. Phil Kearny Massacre
Letters Received by the Office of the Adjutant General
National Archives & Records Administration

Headquarters Mountain District
Fort Phil Kearney D.T.
January 21 1867

Assistant Adjutant General
Department of the Platte
Omaha N.T.


In compliance with the instructions contained in your communication of the 28th ultimo, I have investigated as far as lies in my power, the circumstances attending the recent Massacre of troops in the vicinity of this post, but as no member of that ill fated detachment has ever returned, I can only relate to you the causes which led to it, and its tragical [sic] result.

On the 21st December last the usual wagon train with an armed escort, left the post about 8 oclock [sic] a. m. for the purpose of procuring timber for the saw mills.  Not long after their departure, perhaps an hour, firing was heard in the direction they had taken, and the alarm was given that the train was attacked by the enemy, Capt. and Bvt. Lieut. Col. W. J. Fetterman 18th Infantry with a detachment of forty nine (49) men Infantry soldiers, made up by details from the different Companies was directed to proceed at once to the assistance of the train, and conduct it in safety to the post but not to pursue the enemy.  Lieut. Grummond 18th Infantry was then ordered to report to Lieut. Col. Fetterman with twenty seven men of the 2nd Cavalry and to reiterate to him the orders previously given, this detachment left the post within fifteen minutes after the Infantry, and soon joined it.

The force now consisted of three Commissioned officers, Seventy six enlisted men and two Citizens, Messrs. Wheatley and Fisher, Captain Brown having joined the command without authority, Lieut. Col. Fetterman being in Command of the whole.  The detachment instead of proceeding towards the wagon train, diverged very considerably to the right, crossed Big Piney Creek, and passing over the high grounds in a northerly direction struck the road leading to Big Horn river.  This route they seem to have followed for a distance of about five miles and were then attacked in great force by the enemy, eight men were here killed, and from this point they appear to have retreated about one mile in the direction of the Post, leaving six more men scattered along the interval, further retreat was here arrested the devoted band was surrounded on all sides, and every man perished where he stood, but few cartridge cases were found on the ground leaving the sad inference that they had exhausted their ammunition and were helpless under the arrows of their savage enemy.  Arrows were found, fixed in the earth pointing in all directions, showing that they were completely surrounded.  

Sharp firing was heard from the vicinity of the Post, continuing for about three quarters of an hour which caused reinforcements to be sent to their assistance.

This detachment commanded by Capt. Ten Eyck 18th Infantry, left the Post about noon, and marched in the direction of the firing, but arrived too late to aid their comrades or participate in the action, the enemy being in full view leaving the field, their number variously estimated at from 1,500 to 2,000 mounted warriors, the arrival of a few wagons caused them suddenly to disappear beyond the hills.  The field now presented a scene of a character too shocking for description, the unfortunate victims were scalped, denuded of all clothing their bodies pierced with arrows, and subjected to the most fiendish indignities and mutilations, but information relative to the incidents and details attending their tragic fate can only be derived at some future time from their destroyers.

The attack on the wagon train appears to have been only a feint, as it returned safely to the post.  Why Col. Fetterman should have failed to join it, can only be conjectured, he may have seen from the Valley that it was not seriously threatened, and in his zeal for soldierly distinction, have determined to attack the enemy the latter showing only small parties, and leading him to the position selected by themselves.  The various detachments appear to have been differently supplied with Ammunition, some leaving with twenty rounds, others with forty and the Cavalry armed with the Spencer repeating rifle, having sixty rounds.

The force sent out to cover the return of the train would have been sufficient to accomplish that object, and it is to be regretted that the wiles of the savage should have caused it to deviate from that purpose.  No estimate can be made of the loss of the enemy, a few pools of blood were found in different places giving evidence of killed or wounded, and three or four dead ponies were lying near the scene.  I would further state that this report is compiled from the statements of several officers and others who were at the post at the time of the massacre.

I have the honor to be sir
        Very Respectfully Your Obt. Servt.

Signed   H. W. Wessells
    Lt. Col. 18th Infty. Bvt. Brig. Genl. USA

Official Copy
W. A. Nichols
Assistant Agt. General