Painting by Casper College Instructor Richard Jacobi
History from the Center: Battle of Platte Bridge
By Johanna Wickham
The Western History Center at Casper College offers access to thousands of historic newspapers of the 1800s, many of which include accounts of the Battle of Platte Bridge. In addition, the WHC archives also have numerous photographs and illustrations of Platte Bridge Station and the soldiers stationed there. This article is written from an excerpt from Johanna Wickman’s book, “Lost Forts of Casper,” published in 2016 through The History Press.
The Battle of Platte Bridge in July 1865, where young Lt. Caspar Collins was killed, is far more well-known than the skirmish of June 3, 1865, which preceded it. This small engagement served as a precursor to the Battle of Platte Bridge as the Native Americans used similar tactics in their ambush of U.S. Cavalry troops.
During the summer of 1865, the 11th Kansas Cavalry, under the command of Colonel Thomas Moonlight, was tasked with protecting telegraph stations along the emigrant trails within the north subdistrict of the Great Plains, based out of Fort Laramie. Lt. Colonel Preston Plumb served as his second in command headquartered at Camp Dodge.
Although the exact location remains unknown, Camp Dodge was situated somewhere near the base of Casper Mountain, likely close to where the east and west forks of Garden Creek join. It was reported to be in a location where it could look upon Platte Bridge Station, present-day Fort Caspar, to see any potential threats, and near wood and water. Rather than a permanent fort structure, Camp Dodge would have been a tent encampment that probably moved to some degree as the soldier’s horses grazed. Plumb personally selected the camp’s location and named it in honor of General Grenville Dodge, who was the commander of the Department of the Missouri. He and his troops arrived there in mid to late April with only enough rations for 20 days, which were expected to last throughout the summer.
On May 26, 1865, approximately 150 Native Americans attacked and burned the telegraph station of Rocky Ridge. The station was manned by five men of Co. G, 11th Ohio Cavalry who made a hasty escape underground. Luckily for the soldiers, they had a nearby earth cellar to hide in while the fire spread to their ammunition stores. The resulting explosions managed to scare off the attackers, and all five men survived.
Raids continued in the next week all along the route. Elkhorn Station was attacked, horses and mules were stolen from Sweetwater Station, Pole Creek was attacked, and the entire army herd was stolen from the Laramie Peak sawmill. In response, security was increased at Platte Bridge Station. A noncommissioned officer was dispatched to the former Platte River crossing at Richard’s Bridge, located in Evansville, Wyoming, as a lookout. Despite these increases in security, a wagon train was attacked twice while en route between Platte Bridge and Fort Laramie, and 300 warriors attacked Three Crossings Station. The situation had clearly devolved to the point where it was no longer safe for travelers to pass along these routes. All emigrant travel was halted near Julesburg, Colorado, and only those affiliated with the government were allowed to pass. Settlers and commercial traffic were directed to use the Overland Mail Road instead.
Lt. Col. Plumb took charge of the situation and dispersed his men throughout the area to repair the telegraph line and rebuild the station at Rocky Ridge after the horrific attack a few days prior. Plumb reported the event to Fort Laramie and wrote that Lt. Caspar Collins went from Three Crossings station to Rocky Ridge to investigate and look for survivors. Still, he only got close enough to see the station burning and did not consider it prudent to venture any closer. The attacks continued, and just a few days later, 40 warriors stampeded the horses and mules at Sweetwater Station. One Native American was killed in that attack.
On June 3, 1865, the attacks reached Platte Bridge Station. At approximately 3 p.m., 10 warriors rode up to the riverbank opposite Platte Bridge Station and opened fire. The troops forced the warriors to retreat and returned fire with carbines and the mountain howitzer. Fearing a major attack, First Sgt. S.B. White sent a corporal and 10 men of Co. G, 11th Ohio, in pursuit with instructions to keep track of the warriors’ movements until Lt. Col. Plumb and reinforcements at Camp Dodge could be informed of the attack. Upon receiving the messenger, Plumb set out at once for the post and ordered 30 of his men to follow him. He picked up 10 more men at the bridge and pursued the attackers for approximately five miles before finally coming within firing range. The troops managed to kill a horse and wound two warriors, but Plumb had become separated from half of his detachment during the hot pursuit. The warriors used this to their advantage and turned and charged at Plumb and the men whose horses had been able to keep up the hard pursuit. Plumb fired a volley at the advancing warriors to allow him and his men the chance to escape. As they turned and fled, 60 previously obscured warriors emerged and chased them down Dry Creek, slightly to the left of Plumb’s position, trying to cut them off from the fort. At the last moment, the men from Camp Dodge who had been separated from Plumb caught up with them, and the warriors called off their attack. Seven soldiers continued on to pursue the fleeing warriors but were led into an ambush resulting in the deaths of Private Bonwell of the 11th Kansas and Private Stahlnecker of the 11th Ohio.
According to Plumb’s description of the battle location, it was somewhere near the current Natrona County International Airport, which is about 10 miles from Camp Dodge’s likely location.
The 11th Kansas Cavalry abandoned Camp Dodge shortly after this incident in mid-June. Colonel Plumb received orders to go to Fort Halleck and bring Companies A, B, F, L, and M with him. He established regimental headquarters at La Bonte station, near present-day Douglas, Wyoming, at the end of June.
The Native American tactics of using a small group of warriors to draw out a large detachment of soldiers into the open to ambush them would be used again at Platte Bridge Station less than two months later with devastating results.