Sunday, April 11, 2021

Ridgeline - Michael Punke

Three summers ago, a friend with longtime family ties to Wyoming suggested that we visit Fort Phil Kearney while I was wandering around that part of the country. About the only thing that sounded remotely familiar to me at the time was the name of the Civil War general for whom the fort was named. I knew nothing about the history of the fort itself or what had happened there. Fort Phil Kearney is in such a remote location even today that it is easy to envision how scary it must have been there when the fort was constructed by military personnel in 1866, but it was only after hearing the fort’s history from an excellent Wyoming State Parks ranger that I wondered why it was still such a well-kept secret. Why were there no movies or novels about Fort Phil Kearney and the “Fetterman Fight” that happened there on December 21, 1866? After all, the Fetterman Fight, right up until the massacre of troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn almost ten years later, was the worst defeat the US army ever suffered in battle against united tribes of American Indians. 


Well, finally, someone has written a novel about Fort Phil Kearney, and as it turns out, it was well worth the wait because Michael Punke’s Ridgeline brings it all to life for today’s readers. Punke is, of course, best known for his novel The Revenant and the successful film version that followed some years later, and this seems like a natural for the Wyoming native who as a teenager was himself a National Park Service employee at the state’s Fort Laramie National Historic Site. 


No one can know exactly what happened on that bloody day — or why it happened the way that it did — but Punke’s combination of historical fact and logical speculation is certainly plausible. The basic facts are these

  • Several Indian tribes, some of them longtime enemies, worked together to bring approximately 2,000 warriors to the battlefield.
  • Tribal chiefs, with the help of a young warrior called Crazy Horse, concocted a precisely coordinated plan to lure soldiers from the fort into an ambush from which they could not possibly escape.
  • Despite being directly ordered not to cross the ridge that placed them out of sight from fort observers, a combination of 81 calvary and infantry soldiers did exactly that. 
  • Within an hour (some say thirty minutes) of having crossed that point, all 81 soldiers were dead.


The Indians knew they were fighting for their very survival as a people. A lesser threat would not have allowed longtime mortal enemies, as some of the tribes were, to put aside their differences even long enough to defeat a common foe. The soldiers were there because of  the country’s inevitable western expansion and its hunger for gold. The troops were a mixture of Confederate and Union veterans, and not all of them were even soldiers by choice. 


The story Punke tells, because he tells it in alternating sections from the points of view of both sides, has a little of the feel of watching two runaway trains approach an unavoidable head-on collision. It has a tragic feel about it, especially because all of the key characters in Ridgeline are based upon historical figures and what historians know about them. Among the Indians, there are: Crazy Horse, his friend Lone Bear, his brother Little Hawk, and chiefs Red Cloud and High Backbone. Soldiers include: the fort’s commander Colonel Henry Carrington, Captains William Fetterman and Tenador Ten Eyck, and Lieutenant George Washington  Grummond (the wild card in this story). In addition to the troops, a few families, including children, were also inside Fort Phil Kearney, and Punke uses two of the wives, Frances Grummond and Margaret Carrington, to illustrate some of the personality conflicts and jealousies that existed in the officer ranks. Scouts Jim Bridger (who played a key role in Punke’s The Revenant) and James Beckwourth also add to the mix.  


Bottom Line: Ridgeline is the kind of historical fiction that reminds readers that those who came before us were not all that different from the people we are today. Punke does not take sides. Instead, he gives the reader a sense of how — and why — something as tragic as what ultimately happened to this country’s native peoples happened. This is a memorable account of one little known fight between two very different cultures that had a much greater impact on American history than anyone could have realized at the time.  


Michael Punke

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

18 comments:

  1. This sounds like something I would really enjoy reading, Sam. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Like you, I'm wondering why we don't know anything about this. You would have thought the U.S. government at the time would've used this to inflame national opinion even further against the native tribes.

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    1. Cathy, it was such a stunning defeat that the military changed its plans for that part of the country for a couple of years. It bought the tribes some time, but their ultimate destruction was the same in the longer term. The army completely failed to realize that they were fighting a capable enemy, one that could adapt to conditions and do effective battle-planning. They just could not comprehend a defeat on the scale of this one, and they were stunned by it.

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    2. If I'm not mistaken, the U.S. and other countries used to teach the tactics leaders like Crazy Horse and Red Cloud used to fight the Army.

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    3. The big mistake the army made was underestimating the cunning and coordination of the Indian warriors and their leadership. Sounds like they finally figured it out.

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  2. Wonderful review and post, Sam. I knew nothing about this, which is hardly surprising when you didn't either! I'm constantly amazed at how many of these kinds of stories come to light only because an author like Michael Punke takes an interest. Makes me wonder how many amazing stories are out there, lost forever.

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    1. History is fascinating, Cath, because of what still surprises us. This had to be a major event of the day, but maybe it sort of fell through the crack because it happened in a remote part of the continent just 18 months after the end of the Civil War. Historical fiction like this is very valuable, IMO.

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  3. I also had never heard of this Fort or the incident, though I'm familiar with the name Crazy Horse.

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    1. Jeane, just 10 years later, Crazy Horse was a chief and one of the key drivers in Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn. I suspect he learned a lot from the tribes' success at Fort Phil Kearney.

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    1. Very much so, Lark. It's hard to imagine the terror those soldiers must have felt for that few minutes as everyone around them was cut down. Punke does a great job of seeing the event from both sides.

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  5. I sent this to a friend who lives in Wyoming. Thanks.

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    1. Wyoming fascinates me, Nan...as do some of the surrounding states. I've only ever been there that one time, but a return visit to that part of the country is high on my agenda when it's safe to stay in hotels again.

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  6. Fantastic review. This isn't my type of reading or subject, and you make me want to read it. It sounds like an amazing story. I have a librarian friend who is also very into history, I will have to ask him what he knows about this.

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  7. I'd love to hear if he's heard of the massacre, Tracy. I haven't found anyone yet who has, but it's not the type of thing that would suit many of the history classes most of us had.

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  8. Another book I hadn't heard about before! I always like to learn about little-known events in American history, so I just might have to check this one out. Glad it was worth the read for you, Sam.

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    1. This is really good historical fiction, Susan. I'm not reading as much nonfiction this year as I normally do, but this is definitely the next best thing. This one is destined to be one of my favorites of 2021.

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  9. I came back to tell you that I finally remembered to ask my historian / librarian friend about the Fetterman Fight, and he finally answered me. He did know a good bit about and described what he knew. It makes sense that he would, I guess, because he has a Masters in History. But there is so much about history to learn.

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    1. Thanks for commenting again. That's encouraging. Coincidentally, I had coffee with some friends from South Dakota today and mentioned the book to them. Both were aware of the fort and some of its history, but that may be because they grew up in that part of the country. I'm still pulling for someone to buy the movie rights to this one.

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