Wagon Box Fight
|Wagon Box Fight|
|Part of Red Cloud's War|
Monument at the scene of the fight
|United States||Lakota Sioux Indians|
|Commanders and leaders|
|James Powell||Red Cloud
Hump (High Backbone)
|26 soldiers, 6 civilians||300-1,000|
|Casualties and losses|
|U.S. claim: 60 killed, 120 wounded
Indian claim 5 killed, 5 wounded
The Wagon Box Fight was an engagement on August 2, 1867, during Red Cloud's War, between 26 soldiers of the U.S. Army and six civilians and several hundred Lakota Sioux Indians in the vicinity of Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. The outnumbered soldiers held off the Indians with newly issued breech-loading Springfield Model 1866 rifles.
In July 1867, after their annual sun dance at camps on the Tongue and Rosebud rivers, Oglala Lakota warriors under Red Cloud, other bands of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and a few Arapaho resolved to attack the soldiers at nearby Fort C.F. Smith and Fort Phil Kearny. These would be the first major military actions by the Indians in 1867, following up their successes in 1866, including the Fetterman Fight. Unable to agree where to attack first, the Indians split into two large bodies, variously estimated at between 300 and 1,000 Cheyenne and Sioux, moving against Fort C.F. Smith and a similar number, mostly Sioux and possibly including Red Cloud, headed toward Fort Phil Kearny.
In addition to guarding emigrants on the Bozeman Trail, major tasks occupying the 350 soldiers and 100 civilians at Fort Phil Kearny included gathering wood and timber from a pine forest about five miles from the Fort and cutting hay for livestock in prairie areas. These jobs were performed by civilian contractors, usually armed with Spencer repeating rifles and accompanied and guarded by squads of soldiers. The hay cutters and wood gatherers had been a favorite target of the Indians since the establishment of Fort Kearny one year earlier. Dozens of small raids had been directed against them; several dozen soldiers and civilians had been killed and hundreds of head of livestock had been stolen. The soldiers were on the defensive. Their capability to strike back at the Indians was severely limited by a shortage of horses and trained cavalrymen and their weapons, consisting of muzzle-loading Springfield Model 1861 muskets. However, soldiers had recently been issued breech-loading rifles that could fire about three times as fast as muzzle-loaders and could be more easily re-loaded from a prone position.
The Indians were poorly armed, probably possessing only about 200 firearms and less than two bullets per gun. Bows and arrows were their basic weapon. Bows and arrows were deadly at short range and in a fight on horseback or on foot but were ineffective against a well entrenched or fortified enemy.
To protect against Indian raids near the pine forest, the civilian contractors had constructed a corral made by removing 14 of the wooden boxes that rested on the chassis of wagons and placing them on the ground in an oval 60-70 feet (20 mts) long and 25-30 feet (8-9 mts) wide. Both soldiers and civilians in the wood-cutting details lived in tents outside the corral of wagon boxes. On July 31, Captain James Powell and his command of 51 men departed the walls of Fort Kearny on a 30 day assignment to camp near the wagon boxes and guard the wood cutters. Until then, the summer had been quiet, with few hostile encounters with the Indians.
On the morning of August 2, Captain Powell's force was divided. Fourteen soldiers were detailed to escort the wood train to and from the fort; 13 soldiers guarded the wood-cutting camp, about one mile from the wagon box corral. The Indian plan of attack on the woodcutters and soldiers was tried-and-true, similar to the plan that had been used to kill Fetterman and his 80 men the year before. A small group of Indians would entice the White soldiers to chase them and the soldiers would be led into an ambush by a larger number of hidden Indians. Crazy Horse was among the members of the decoy team. Discipline and patience, however, were not characteristics of Indian warriors. The plan broke down when a number of them attacked an outlying camp of four woodcutters and four soldiers, killing three of the soldiers, but the other soldier and the woodcutters escaped and warned the soldiers near the corral. The Indian army halted at the camp to loot and to capture a large number of horses and mules and this gave the soldiers taking refuge in the wagon box corral time to prepare for the attack. There were 26 soldiers and six civilians in the corral.
The first attack of the Indians on the wagon box corral came on horseback from the southwest, but they encountered heavy fire from the soldiers using the new breech-loaders. The Indians withdrew, regrouped, and launched several additional attacks on foot. Indian snipers killed Powell's second-in-command, Lt. Jenness, and two soldiers. The battle continued from about 7:30 a.m. until 1:30 pm. The whites had plenty of ammunition and Indian arrows could not penetrate the thick sides of the wagon boxes.
Fort Kearny learned of the fight from its observation station on Pilot Hill and about 11:30 a.m. 103 soldiers under the command of Major Benjamin Smith sallied out of the fort to relieve the soldiers in the wagon boxes. Smith took with him 10 wagons driven by armed civilians and a mountain howitzer. He proceeded carefully and when he neared the wagon box corral fired his cannon at the distant Indians. The Indians quickly dispersed and Smith advanced without opposition to the corral, collected the soldiers there, and returned quickly to Fort Kearny. Additional civilian survivors, who had hidden in the woods during the battle, made it back to the fort that night.
The Wagon Box Fight is prominent in the folklore and literature of the Old West as an example of a small group of American soldiers holding off a much larger group of Indians. The new, faster-shooting rifles of the soldiers are cited as the reason for the survival of the soldiers in the wagon box corral against a superior number of attackers.
Estimates of Indian casualties range from "an unlikely low of two to an absurd fifteen hundred." Captain Powell estimated that his men killed 60 Indians, a "wildly exaggerated" estimate in the opinion of some historians. The Wagon Box Fight was the last major engagement of Red Cloud's War. Possibly the impact of the battle, and that of the similar Hayfield Fight a day earlier, was to discourage the Indians from attempting additional large scale attacks. "This was the last large charge Crazy Horse ever led against whites occupying a strong defensive position. He had learned that Indians with bows and arrows could not overwhelm whites armed with breech-loaders inside a fortification." For the remainder of 1867, the Lakota and their allies concentrated on small-scale, hit-and-run attacks along the Bozeman Trail.
- Keenan, Jerry. The Wagon Box Fight Boulder, CO: Lightning Tree Press,1990, p. 22
- Olson, James C. Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965, p. 65. The U.S. claim is "fantastically high" in the opinion of author Stanley Vestal. The Indian claim may be similarly low.
- Hyde, George E. Red Cloud's Folks, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1937, p. 159; Olson, pp. 63-64
- Price, Catherine The Oglala People, 1841-1879: A Political History Lincoln: U of NE, 1996, p. 64
- Brown, Dee The Fetterman Massacre Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962, p. 223
- Ambrose, Stephen E. Crazy Horse and Custer New York: Anchor Books, 1996, p. 293
- Keenan, p. 1992, p. 9
- Ambrose, pp. 293-294
- Ambrose, p. 295
- Keenan, pp. 20-22
- Keenan, p. 24
- Ambrose, pp 295-296
- Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site
- A detailed, first-hand account of the fight
- Wyoming State Parks - Wagon Box Fight details, list of participants
- Wyoming Tales and Trails - Good information and Photos
- Hebard, Grace; Brininstool, E.A (1922). The Bozeman Trail: Historical Accounts of the Blazing of the Overland Routes, Volume II. The Authur H. Clark Company.