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Give Me Eighty Men

Women and the Myth of the Fetterman Fight

Shannon D. Smith

Publication Year: 2008

“With eighty men I could ride through the entire Sioux nation.” The story of what has become popularly known as the Fetterman Fight, near Fort Phil Kearney in present-day Wyoming in 1866, is based entirely on this infamous declaration attributed to Capt. William J. Fetterman. Historical accounts cite this statement in support of the premise that bravado, vainglory, and contempt for the fort’s commander, Col. Henry B. Carrington, compelled Fetterman to disobey direct orders from Carrington and lead his men into a perfectly executed ambush by an alliance of Plains Indians.
In the aftermath of the incident, Carrington’s superiors—including generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman—positioned Carrington as solely accountable for the “massacre” by suppressing exonerating evidence. In the face of this betrayal, Carrington’s first and second wives came to their husband’s defense by publishing books presenting his version of the deadly encounter. Although several of Fetterman’s soldiers and fellow officers disagreed with the women’s accounts, their chivalrous deference to women’s moral authority during this age of Victorian sensibilities enabled Carrington’s wives to present their story without challenge. Influenced by these early works, historians focused on Fetterman’s arrogance and ineptitude as the sole cause of the tragedy.
In Give Me Eighty Men, Shannon D. Smith reexamines the works of the two Mrs. Carringtons in the context of contemporary evidence. No longer seen as an arrogant firebrand, Fetterman emerges as an outstanding officer who respected the Plains Indians' superiority in numbers, weaponry, and battle skills. Give Me Eighty Men both challenges standard interpretations of this American myth and shows the powerful influence of female writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: Women in the West


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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vi-vii

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pp. ix-xv

“With eighty men I could ride through the entire Sioux nation.” The story of the Fetterman Fight on December 21, 1866, near Fort Phil Kearny on the Bozeman Trail, is built almost entirely on this infamous declaration attributed to Capt. William J. Fetterman. Accounts of the incident point to this statement to support the premise...

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pp. xvii-xxii

In 1866, near an isolated U.S. Army post in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, a well-organized coalition of Plains Indians executed an ambush that killed Capt. William J. Fetterman and his entire detachment of eighty men. The spectacular victory for the Lakota Sioux and their allies would have gone down in history...

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1. Prelude to Disaster

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pp. 1-24

At the most fundamental level, the Fetterman battle is the story of a fight over land. Fort Phil Kearny is located in the heart of a land that was known by non-Indians as Absaroka when Fetterman met his fate. Covering more than one hundred thousand square miles in present-day Wyoming, Montana, and South...

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2. To the Frontier

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pp. 25-40

On May 11, 1866, General Sherman arrived at Fort Kearney as part of a tour of his command. By all accounts he was uncharacteristically relaxed and enjoyed several days of hunting, photographic sessions, military ceremonies, and socializing with the officers and their families. During the previous two months...

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3. Ladies of the Regiment

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pp. 41-57

The population of Fort Phil Kearney fluctuated greatly during the first six months of operations on the Bozeman Trail. At its peak, nearly seven hundred soldiers and civilians lived and worked in the immediate vicinity, but as units were detailed to other posts or sent on mail and other duties, the number of soldiers...

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4. Officers and Gentlemen

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pp. 58-74

Carrington entered the Mountain District in June 1866 with twelve officers and anticipated another half dozen to be attached to his command within a few weeks. One month later, he was down to six officers at Fort Phil Kearny, the district’s headquarters. Carrington assigned two officers to remain at Fort Reno, the southern post on the trail, and after establishing Fort...

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5. Hard Lessons Learned

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pp. 75-93

The first three months in Absaroka were filled with hard work and adventure for the soldiers and civilians who formed the community in and around Fort Phil Kearny. In addition to about 450 soldiers, there were nearly 200 civilian employees of the government during the peak of activity at the Mountain District headquarters. They were...

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6. The Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands

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pp. 94-127

According to Colonel Carrington, between December 6 and December 19, 1866, Indian parties appeared almost daily around the wood party or near the fort, but they did not attack. Inside the compound the residents understood the severity of their situation. By all indications, morale was low and tensions were high. Frances...

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7. Blazing a Paper Trail

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pp. 128-158

Carrington’s full report on the Fetterman catastrophe was written in the days immediately after the massacre while the post was sealed off from the world by two weeks of blizzards and subzero weather. Christmas came and went with little notice, as the entire community was on edge as they fought the storms and somberly prepared the dead for interment — it took days to build the pine coffins and when it came time to dig a grave the weather...

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8. Women’s Work

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pp. 159-187

It is not clear exactly when Margaret Carrington started to convert her journal into a book. Henry Carrington secured a second six-month medical leave, enabling the Carringtons to remain in Connecticut until the summer of 1868. After a brief return to the frontier, the Carringtons moved to Indiana, and in the fall, Philadelphia publishers...

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9. The Rest of the Story

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pp. 188-199

Since the “Wyoming Opened” celebration, historians have used Absaraka, My Army Life, The Indian Question, and Carrington’s scrapbook as primary sources for research on the Fetterman Massacre. These sources have greatly influenced the narrative of what the public knows about the incident. When looking for blame, historians have turned their focus where the Carringtons aimed...


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pp. 201-217


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pp. 219-227


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pp. 229-237

E-ISBN-13: 9780803217812
E-ISBN-10: 0803217811

Illustrations: 40 illustrations
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Women in the West