August 2, 1867, Captain Powell and his company of soldiers were once again
in the foothills of the Big Horns (see map), guarding the civilian wood
crews. When they had arrived at their site a few days before, the cautious
Powell's first task was to create a defensible position. He did this by
taking the boxes off some of his wagons, arranging them in a circle in
an open area, and piling sacks of grain on top. The wagon carriages were
then dragged across the openings between boxes. Powell's men carried brand
new .50 caliber Springfield breech loading rifles, one tangible benefit
of the Fetterman fiasco.
Early that morning 1500 to 2000 Lakota under the leadership of Red Cloud
and Crazy Horse had infiltrated the woods surrounding the camp. When two
men entered the woods looking for fresh game, they glimpsed Lakota warriors
instead. In the first scramble for safety, everyone who could made a break
for Fort Phil Kearny, a little more than five miles away. Three or four
men were killed outright; thirty-two men, including Captain Powell, took
refuge inside the wagon box circle. The war party turned the full force
of its anger on this tiny group. As they waited for the battle to begin
in earnest, Captain Powell took a position at one end and Lieutenant John
Jenness took the other. Poor shots were ordered to reload for the others.
At 8:00 a.m. the first wave of about 500 Lakota rushed the wagon box circle.
(The Indians frequently attacked in waves, a strategy designed to take
advantage of lulls in the shooting caused by the time it took to reload
the old rifles -- they had not yet encountered the new rifles.) Powell
held his order to fire until the Lakota were very close, and the surprising
barrage Powell's men unleashed drove the first wave back, and three or
four successive waves as well. At one point, however, warriors made it
to within five feet of the wagon boxes before they were shot down. Around
noon, the Lakota massed for a direct assault. Their sheer numbers would
surely have won the day, but reinforcements from Fort Phil Kearny arrived
just in time, a howitzer in tow, and the Lakota vanished, taking their
dead with them. They later admitted to having lost 50 to 60 braves. The
soldiers estimated that they had killed hundreds. Of the thirty-two men
inside the wagon box fort, only three were dead.