Finding Old Army Battlefields: December 6th Battle

In the early 2000s, I had the privilege of directing the only large-scale archaeological investigations on Fetterman Battlefield.  Named after the senior officer in charge of the detachment (Captain William J. Fetterman) the battle resulted in the loss of 81 soldiers and civilians.   Grants from the National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) funded the fieldwork.  Before finishing the first field season, my thoughts turned to locating the site of another fight Fetterman participated in, simply known as the December 6th Battle, which occurred just 15 days prior to his death.

The December 6th Battle

In the early afternoon of December 6, 1866, Lakota and Cheyenne warriors attacked a wood train west of Fort Phil Kearny.  Post and military district commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington, annoyed by the constant harassment of his forces and pressured from his superiors to inflict casualties on “hostile” Indians, assumed personal command of the operation.  His plan called for a classic two-prong attack meant to trap the warriors.

Finding the Battlefield

The December 6th Battle was a fluid engagement occupying an area of approximately 6,700 acres.  Most of the fighting occurred during three short skirmishes.  In 2010, my archaeology consulting firm received the contract to locate the December 6th Battlefield.  The ABPP funded the project.  Our plan involved using metal detectors to locate at least one of the skirmish sites.  However, the engagement occurred in a 25-mile² area.  Obviously it was impractical to metal detect 16,000 acres.  In order to refine the search area, we turned to Old Army records.

Several military participants recounted the day’s events.  Carrington also prepared a map, based on visual inspections of the landscape, of the engagement.  His map, which lacks a scale, illustrates the movements of the major troop commands landscape features.  We were able to correlate the landscape, shown on Carrington’s illustration, with modern maps to delineate the probable boundaries of the December 6th Battlefield.

Map drawn by Carrington, December 1866. oldarmyrecords.com
Map of the December 6th Battlefield drawn by Colonel Carrington shortly after the engagement.
Results

The fieldwork occurred during 21 days and surveyed about 46 acres.  By locating at least one of the three main skirmishes, we hoped to verify the accuracy of the Old Army records.  To our amazement, we discovered one of Fetterman’s skirmishes.  A total of 15 artifacts were identified on two hills about a half mile away from where we expected to find them.  The location of these artifact concentrations is consistent with Fetterman’s route, as depicted on Carrington’s map and described by the officers.

Overview, to the north, of the December 6th Battlefield from the top of Lodge Trail Ridge. oldarmyrecords.com
Overview of the December 6th Battlefield from the top of Lodge Trail Ridge. View to the northeast down Jenks and Peno creeks. Photo taken December 6, 2010.
Conclusions

Both the military and Indian participants in the December 6th Fight spent most of their time attempting to exploit the landscape to their advantage.  Indian warriors concealed themselves in drainages and behind ridges while decoys led pursuing soldiers into ambushes.  Conversely, the soldiers sought out higher landforms for observation and avenues of approach.  Landscape features rather than artifacts are the defining vestiges of the engagement.  No doubt the warriors learned valuable lessons regarding army maneuvers and behavior on December 6th that translated into in a resounding victory 15 days later with the death of Fetterman, 78 soldiers, and 2 civilians.

Want More Information?

If you’d like more information on the December 6th Battle Archaeology Project, including a full synopsis of the battle and photos and descriptions of the recovered artifacts, contact us Please write “December 6th Report” in the subject box and we’ll send you a digital copy of the report, absolutely, free (public version-the pdf report is 96 pages long and 3 MB in size). Old Army Records does not sell or trade names or email addresses.

Sources

Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Letters Sent, Fort Phil Kearny, D.T.
Letters Received, Department of the Platte

Technical Reports
December 6th Battle Archaeological Survey Research Design (O’Dell-2009)
Final Technical Report:  Archaeological Investigations and Landscape Analysis at the December 6th Battlefield (O’Dell and Powers-2011)
National Register of Historic Places Evaluation of the December 6, 1866 Fight (O’Dell-2006)

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