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Carrington Legacy

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By Lorna Thackeray

Published June 23, 2004 by the Billings Gazette

Even with a genealogy stretching back to the knight who carried the flag for Richard the Lion-Hearted in 12th-century England, writer William Graham Carrington allows that one of his favorite relatives has to be an obscure colonel who briefly commanded a series of precariously situated forts on the Montana and Wyoming frontier in the 1860s.

"I'm very proud of him as an ancestor,'' said Carrington, a North Carolina author, poet and inspirational speaker, in a telephone interview from his home in the Raleigh-Durham area. "He was a humanitarian as well as a soldier."

While his superiors devised the means of conquering and subjugating Native Americans, Col. Henry Beebe Carrington, also an outspoken abolitionist, viewed them with understanding and compassion, his living relation said.

On Friday (June 25, 2004), William Carrington will be among the speakers at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument for a day commemorating the 128th anniversary of the most famous battle of the Indian Wars. In a short address on the field of the 1876 battle, Carrington will talk about freedom and liberty and the "price we paid for it.''

There, in the Custer National Cemetery, are hundreds who, from the Indian Wars to Vietnam, paid the price. Among them are a contingent of 80 officers and men who died Dec. 21, 1866, in a military debacle unequaled in the history of the Indian Wars until 10 years later when Lt. Col. George Custer and five companies were wiped out at Little Bighorn.

William Carrington knew nothing about his connection to the battlefield and to the dramatic story at Fort Phil Kearney in 1866 until the mid-1970s, when he perused a book of family genealogy. There he found Col. Henry Carrington - as far as William Carrington knows, the only Carrington who served as an officer during the Civil War.

In 1995, while touring the country writing stories under contract to the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. for its owners' membership magazine, William Carrington parked his Hog at the visitor center at the old fort site. Long a student of Western history, he took in the physical expanse of the fort and his ancestor's connection to it. He has been a regular visitor since.

His acquaintance with the area is probably broader than that of Col. Carrington, who, along with most of the troops at the fort, rarely ventured far beyond the protection of the solid stockade walls that he had ordered constructed.

Only a few months after Col. Carrington took command of the fort near present-day Story, Wyo., Crazy Horse lured Capt. William Fetterman into an overwhelming force of Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne. Fetterman, acting against Carrington's orders, led his men in pursuit of a decoy party that drew them a few miles away from the fort's stockade walls and into their own valley of death.

None escaped alive. But many of the warriors, including Crazy Horse, lived to repeat the triumph at Little Bighorn.

When the government decided to cut its losses and close its hastily constructed forts along the Bozeman Trail, including Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.F. Smith in Montana, bodies in the cemeteries were transferred to the national cemetery at Little Bighorn Battlefield, said John Doerner, chief historian at the national monument. They were originally buried in rows on Last Stand Hill in 1888, but were removed and buried in the national cemetery below in 1930.

Two years ago, while contractors were working on a parking lot and roadway near the new Indian Memorial, they unearthed a few small bones from the area where the Fort Phil Kearny dead had first been buried. Doerner thinks that the remains fell out of a deteriorating casket when the graves were opened in 1930.

At 4 p.m. Friday, reburial ceremonies for the partial remains of the unknown Fort Phil Kearny soldier are planned at the battlefield amphitheater, followed by reburial near his comrades in the cemetery.

It will be a moment of reflection for William Carrington, 59. The remains, no doubt, belonged to a man who had once been under his ancestor's command. He may have even died in the battle launched by Capt. Fetterman, a disaster that shadowed what was left of the colonel's career and forced him to spend the next 20 years defending his actions.

Unlike his relative, the colonel probably never set foot on Little Bighorn Battlefield. He probably had never met Custer and, unlike Custer, didn't start his military career in the West awash in Civil War glory.

Carrington served in the Union Army during the war, but, according to historian Dee Brown, probably never heard a shot fired. The Yale-educated lawyer was good at recruiting and organizing and was deemed more useful behind the lines. But Carrington had military ambitions, and, when the Civil War ended, opportunities for command were mostly in the West.

About that time, Euro-Americans traffic along the Bozeman Trail to Montana's gold fields was stirring trouble in the heart of the Sioux and Cheyenne hunting grounds in Montana and Wyoming. Apparently no one in the military command structure understood the intensity of the opposition or the ability of the Indians to thwart efforts to pacify the trail.

Carrington, who had no previous combat experience, enthusiastically undertook his mission to occupy Wyoming's Fort Reno and build two new posts - Fort Phil Kearny and Fort Smith - to protect the Bozeman Trail.

But, from the beginning, the remote posts were undermanned and undersupplied. Resentful Sioux and Cheyenne continually harassed hated forts that intruded into their larder and threatened their way of life.

Life at Fort Phil Kearny was both dangerous and miserable. And Col. Carrington, whom some of his officers and men disdained as a Civil War paper pusher, may not have had the complete respect and authority essential under such dire circumstances.

It was Capt. Fetterman who set the wheels in motion for his own demise and put a screeching halt to Col. Carrington's military prospects. A party of woodcutters had come under siege a little more than a mile from the post a few days before Christmas 1866. Fetterman and his command rode through the gate to their rescue about 11 on that cold winter morning.

In his report of the incident, Col. Carrington wrote that his instructions to Fetterman were: "Support the wood train, relieve it, and report to me. Do not engage or pursue Indians at its expense. Under no circumstances pursue over the ridge.''

The colonel was so uneasy about Fetterman that Col. Carrington stopped the departing column and repeated his instructions. But Fetterman forgot his orders as soon as he saw the warrior decoys and chased them beyond the forbidden ridge. Firing started about noon, Carrington reported.

By the time reinforcements reached the hill overlooking the fight about half an hour later, the field was silent and still. Col. Carrington lost about 20 percent of his force in a single battle.

Frances Grummond, widow of one of the officers killed that day, later wrote that fear was so thick at the fort and danger so real that survivors debated the wisdom of trying to recover the bodies. But Grummond, who married Col. Carrington after the death of his wife, Margaret, wrote that the colonel gallantly insisted, "I will not let the Indians entertain the conviction that the dead cannot and will not be rescued.''

Margaret Carrington wrote in her own book a few years after the battle that the bodies brought to the fort were deposited in a spare ward of the hospital, in two hospital tents and in a double cabin. Troopers gave up their best uniforms to dress the dead for burial.

"The noblest traits of the soldier were touchingly displayed as they carefully handled the mutilated fragments, drew out or cut off the arrows, and decently composed all for the burial,'' she wrote.

Grummond, filled with terror and grief, could not sleep in the headquarters office where she had been moved. Carpenters were constructing pine coffins in the other half of the building.

"I knew that my husband's coffin was being made, and the sound of hammers and the grating of saws was torture to my sensitive nerves,'' she wrote.

Margaret Carrington wrote that a long line of pine coffins, numbered and arranged by the companies to which the men belonged, lined a street near the hospital. Names of the dead and their coffin number were recorded in case of future reburial, she reported.

A grave 50 feet long and 7 feet deep was carved from the frozen ground in weather so fierce that both Margaret Carrington and Grummond wrote in their accounts that it was as if the storm had set in to punctuate their tragedy. Grummond wrote that the cold was so intense that the gravediggers could work only in 15-minute shifts.

The bad news just kept coming for Carrington as word of the battle spread. Newspapers and the general public placed the blame directly at Carrington's feet, and lurid fantasies of him cold-heartedly refusing to aid the combatants circulated wildly.

Those higher in command had little sympathy and no understanding of the conditions Col. Carrington encountered at what was probably the most dangerous frontier military post in the country at the time. He was relieved of his command and ordered to Fort Casper.

He began the journey, taking his wife and the pregnant Grummond with him, on Jan. 23. The temperature was 38 below zero, and it did not get any warmer on the three-day journey to Fort Reno. After resting there, the dispirited party moved on to Fort Casper, where orders awaited him to proceed to Fort McPhearson in Nebraska.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Senate demanded an inquiry. A commission was established to look into the Fetterman disaster, and Col. Carrington was summoned to testify at a hearing at Fort McPhearson. His explanation of the situation and the supportive testimony of witnesses, including famed frontier scout Jim Bridger, were drowned out in a general outcry blaming the whole mess on Carrington.

Few paid any attention when an investigator concluded that Col. Carrington had not been furnished with enough troops and supplies to deal with a region in the middle of all-out war.

Col. Carrington retired from military service in 1870 and began teaching military science at Wabash College in Indiana.

But he returned once more to the site that ruled the rest of his life. In 1908, Col. Carrington and Frances Grummond Carrington were the honored guests at a reunion of those who had lived at the fort during its short life span from 1866 to the summer of 1868.

The colonel spoke for about an hour, historian Dee Brown wrote. Much of his oration defended his tenure there and the decisions he made. Then, in an alfalfa field where so many of his men had died, Carrington dedicated a marker to their memory.


In 1908 Col. Henry Beebe Carrington returned to the site of Fort Phil Kearny and the Fetterman massacre of 1866.

'Iím very proud of him as an ancestor. He was a humanitarian as well as a soldier.' - William Carrington discussing his ancestor Henry B. Carrington.


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