It’s hard to overstate the drama of the Wagon Box Fight of August 1867.
On August 2, in the sweltering summer heat, thirty-two men within a make-shift defensive wall consisting of fourteen tipped-over wagon boxes held off a fighting force of eight hundred Lakota warriors.
By late morning, the sun was obscured by arrows and the thick, black smoke of the defending party’s freshly issued 2nd Allin Conversion rifles. An estimated thirty thousand rounds of ammunition were fired over the course of four hours in a standoff for which both sides claim victory.
Fires broke out as the heat from fired cartridges smoldered in dry, late summer grass; dead men lay amongst the thirsty while waves of mounted Lakota warriors charged the corral. As the small party’s ammo supply waned and each advance came closer, the soldiers began to take their boots off. Many of them had gathered the dead from the battlefield nine months prior, when eighty-one men had been easily overwhelmed by Red Cloud’s allied forces – fifteen hundred warriors strong.
Many of the men in the wagon box corral wanted to be sure that they were not alive if the line broke that day, but their reach was too short to turn their weapons on themselves, so they relied on their feet and their boot laces to get the leverage they needed to end their own lives.
The Lakota consider the engagement a victory – they succeeded in driving off a large herd of mules and in interrupting crucial wood-gathering routes to the fort (the Lakota would eventually win the war against the Bozeman Trail Forts). However, when aid arrived from Fort Phil Kearny at high noon in the form of a howitzer, the men still alive in the corral surely felt a sense of victory as well. A total of six soldiers and civilians died that day, with the Lakota warriors taking on a greater number of casualties than they’d likely expected.
The soldiers’ updated weaponry appeared to the Lakota to be the same inefficient muskets used in the ambush in Dec. of 1866, but with the new breech-loading capacity and fixed rounds of the 2nd Allin Conversion Rifles, the soldiers were able to be far more effective at repelling an ambush than the previous year’s experience had taught the Lakota.
On Aug. 5, 2017, Wyoming State Parks and the Bozeman Trail Association will host the Real Bird Family (Battle of the Little Bighorn) and Kearny’s Frontier Regulars for a live reenactment of the fight. The three-day, 150th Anniversary Commemoration will be held at Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site, located between Buffalo and Sheridan, WY – off of I-90, Exit 44. Visitors are invited to a Pig Roast Dinner and chat with “The Wagon Box Fight” author Jerry Keenan on the evening of Aug. 4, the reenactment and historical encampments on Saturday, Aug. 5, and a bus tour of the wood road sites and skirmishes on Sunday morning Aug. 6. All events are ticketed and can be purchased through www.FortPhilKearny.com. Get more information online or call (307) 684-7629.
By Misty Stoll, Superintendent, Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site
Photos are credit to Misty Stoll/Fort Phil Kearny
Black/White Drawing is credit R.C. Wilson
Painting is credited to Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum Wagon Box Fight Diorama