Fort Laramie
Park History, 1834-1977
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FORT LARAMIE, 1834 - 1890

Chapter X:

The outbreak of Civil War in April, 1861, with the call to arms of both Union and Confederate forces, led to the reduction of western garrisons. By the end of that year Fort Laramie had only a skeleton crew. With the transfer of the overland mail and stage lines to the Central route on July 1, offering juicy targets for Indians on the prowl, the situation along the North Platte became double precarious. However, the first serious disturbances did not occur until the spring of 1862 when Sioux raided stations west of the fort, running off horses and scalping the tenders. To protect tenuous lines of communication vital to the Union, the Adjutant-General ordered volunteer cavalry companies to the western theatre. In response, Utah and California militia under General P. E. Connor assembled at Camp Douglas near Salt Lake City, while Colonel William O. Collins arrived at Fort Laramie in May with a battalion of the Eleventh Ohio Cavalry. It was his unenviable duty to guard the route between Courthouse Rock and South Pass, a distance of over 500 miles. It was infested with mounted warriors who made random raids on mail and telegraph stations. The thin blue line seemed powerless to intercept the raiders or to chase them down after their deviltry.

News of a great uprising by their Sioux cousins in Minnesota, with the deaths of hundreds of settlers there, bolstered the arrogance of the Plains tribes. Anticipating open warfare, the Army ordered the construction of a series of new fortified posts. Among these were Camp Rankin (later Fort Sedgwick) near Julesburg, Mud Springs near Courthouse Rock, Fort Mitchell at Scotts Bluff and, to the west, Platte Bridge and Deer Creek Stations.

In the spring and summer of 1864 there were large-scale Indian attacks on stations and ranches in Nebraska and Colorado, disrupting all travel. Then came the unauthorized surprise attack in November by volunteer troops under Colonel Chivington upon a Cheyenne-Arapahoe camp at Sand Creek near Fort Lyon in southeast Colorado. The virtual massacre of around 250 men, women and children, far from squelching the Indian spirit, precipitated a powerful and vengeful alliance of all hostile tribes.

In January 1865 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors focussed their wrath on the key trail junction of Julesburg, where they sacked the town and killed a bout 20 soldiers and civilians. After ravaging the South Platte they started a retreat northward. When Colonel Collins learned of the advance on Mud Springs he assembled a picked force from Forts Laramie and Mitchell, reaching Mud Springs in time to aid in its successful defense against a siege by massed warriors, who then withdrew to Powder River.

With the end of the Civil War in the spring, and the release of regular troops to replace volunteers, the Government laid plans to restore order to the Plains. However, the vastness of the desolate terrain, Indian aggressiveness and agility, and poor initial organization and execution by the Army resulted in 1865 being a banner year for the Red Man.

When Colonel Collins was assigned to establish Fort Collins, Colorado he was replaced by the ill-starred Colonel Moonlight. His order to execute by hanging two Oglala Sioux who voluntarily brought in some white captives added to the fury of the Sioux, who now stepped up their hit-and-run tactics against isolated stations. In June Colonel Moonlight ordered that a large village of Brule Sioux, encamped at Fort Laramie as friendlies, be transferred to Fort Kearny to reduce the expense of feeding them. Marching orders were given to an escort of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry. At Horse Creek, as if by pre-arranged signal, the Brules turned upon their escort, killing Captain Fouts and several enlisted men. They escaped across the river to join the hostiles despite cavalry efforts to intercept them.

Next came the Platte Bridge fight, another disaster because the troops and civilians involved were simply overwhelmed by numbers. The station at this crossing of the North Platte was near present Casper, Wyoming, so named for Lieutenant Caspar Collins, son of Colonel Collins, who died here in a heroic effort to reach and escort an approaching Army supply train. The hostiles swarmed over and decimated the would-be rescuers, then picked off a detail assigned to repair the torn telegraph line, and finally surrounded and annihilated the approaching wagoneers and soldier guards.

Late in the year a campaign against the hostiles, known as the Powder River Expedition, finally got under way with a force of 2,500 men, directed by General Connor. Three columns were to converge in Powder River country, one from Omaha and one going directly north from Fort Laramie met west of the Black Hills. The third, under Connor, marched about 100 miles up the Platte from the fort, then north to the headwaters of the Powder where Camp Connor was established. Descending the Powder, he destroyed a village of harmless Arapahoe, the only Indians he could find. The other columns barely escaped starvation and massacre by the Sioux. The expedition straggled back to Fort Laramie, the crowning failure of a dismal year for the U. S. Army.

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003