Wagon Box Fight
|Wagon Box Fight|
|Part of Red Cloud's War|
Monument at the scene of the fight
|United States||Lakota Sioux|
|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
Sioux 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 in the vicinity of Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. The outnumbered soldiers held off the attackers 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 of 1867 against government forces in the area, following up the Native American successes in 1866, including the Fetterman Fight. Unable to agree where to attack first, the Sioux and Cheyenne force - variously estimated at between 300 and 1,000 men - split into two large bodies, 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 White American 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 local people 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 taken. The soldiers were on the defensive. Their capability to strike back at the indigenous population was severely limited by both a shortage of horses and trained cavalrymen, and their weapons, which consisted of muzzle-loading Springfield Model 1861 muskets. However, the soldiers had recently been issued breech-loading rifles that could fire about three times faster than muzzle-loaders and could be more easily re-loaded from a prone position.
The native population were poorly armed, probably possessing only about 200 firearms and less than two bullets per gun. Bows and arrows were their basic weapon. Whilst bows were deadly at short range in a fight against a mobile opponent, whether on horseback or on foot, they were ineffective against a well entrenched or fortified enemy.
To protect against 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 troops 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 local population.
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 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 would entice the White soldiers to chase them and the soldiers would be led into an ambush by a larger hidden force. Crazy Horse was among the members of the decoy team. The plan broke down when a number of fighters 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 persuing force halted at the woodcutter's camp to loot and seize the large number of horses and mules present there, which 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 assault on the wagon box corral came on horseback from the southwest, but the attack encountered heavy fire from the soldiers using the new breech-loaders. The attackers withdrew, regrouped, and launched several further attacks whilst dismounted. Skilled and accurate fire from these attacks 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 furthermore, 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 began firing his cannon at long range. The attackers were forced to withdraw, 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 well-equipped professionals holding off a much larger but poorly equipped force: the new, faster-shooting rifles are cited as the principal reason.
Estimates of casualties amongst the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors range from "an unlikely low of two to an absurd fifteen hundred." Captain Powell estimated that his men killed 60, 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 native warriors of the locale from attempting additional large scale attacks against government forces. "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.