South African Military History Society

NEWSLETTER -- March 1997

Past meeting - Johannesburg
The title of the curtain raiser at the 13th February meeting was "Did the Boers Have Chaplains?", and the speaker, the Rev Russell Campbell, explained that the short answer was "yes". Indeed the Boers did have chaplains, and among the ample evidence to prove it were the biographies of such Dutch Reformed Church Dominees as A J Burger and J D Kestell, from which the speaker proceeded to quote.
Burger, who wrote of his wartime experiences in High Dutch, served with the Middleburg Commando. Kestell, who wrote in English, and was in fact descended from 1820-settler stock, served with the Harrismith Commando. Other serving chaplains must have ensured that at one time or another virtually all ordinary commando members would have had access to the services of chaplains of their own churches.
However, the same was not true for the men serving with the various volunteer corps. These were foreign nationals, and even though there may have been clergy of their own nationalities and denominations at work in South Africa, these were discouraged from offering their services to their fellow countrymen by their home governments' policies of neutrality. The suspicion and vigilance of the British also helped ensure that this prohibition was not broken.
Similarly, those Boers who changed sides and joined the National Scouts also found themselves without spiritual support. In their case it was the result of a general policy of social rejection, and not only by their compatriots and fellow citizens. Their church, too, distanced itself from their activities and discouraged them from claiming the rights of full church membership.

The main lecture of the evening was given by society member Hamish Paterson on the Fetterman Disaster of 1866, an incident in the war between the US and its native inhabitants that provided one of the more outstanding examples of the US Army's inept handling of the kind of guerrilla warfare conducted by the Indians.
The Fetterman Disaster took place in the shadow of the Little Big Horm Mountains in what is now the State of Wyoming. In addition to the end of the American Civil War, the previous year had seen the end of the the Indian War of 1864-65, which had been triggered by the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. The treaties that were negotiated in the aftermath of this war were worthless because both sides lacked the means and the will to keep them. The result was that Colonel Henry B Carrington, OC 18th US INfantry Regiment, who had been sent to the Powder River area to build forts, found he had to fight an active enemy.
Carrington's problems were aggravated by the hostility of the Department of Platte commander, the lonely and embittered Brevet Major General Philip St George Cooke, a southerner who had chosen the Union side in the civil war and had cut himself off from family and friends by doing so.
Carrington's problems did not end there. He had spend the previous five years behind a desk, and his lack of experience in battle alienated his veteran subordinates. To make things worse, the bulk of his men were recruits and their weapons both obsolescent and of dubious effectiveness. On the other hand Carrington's opponents were the Sioux Indians, variously described as the world's finest light cavalry. Their tactics of harassment and hit-and-run raids baffled and frustrated Carrington's officers, who had become accustomed to the convential fighting of the civil war.
This frustration widened the rift between Carrington and his officers, and the situation worsened with the arrival of Captain (Brevet Lt-Colonel) Willian J Fetterman, an officer with a fine combat record whose success had gone to his head. Fetterman was contemptuous of both Carrington and the Sioux, and boasted that with 80 men he could ride through the whole Sioux nation.
On 6th December 1866 Carrington attempted to deal with a Sioux raiding party and learned how dangerous it could be to stray too far from his fort. A second raid on 19th December was successfully dealt with, but two days later fate decreed that Fetterman should get both his 80 men and his chance to ride through the Sioux nation.
Instead he rode straight into an ambush. With the help of 40 000 arrows, it took the Sioux less than an hour to destroy Fetterman's force. He and his second-in-command shot each other to ensure the Sioux would not capture them alive.
Eight months later a force only half the size of Fetterman's, but equipped with breach-loading rifles and in a strong defensive position, succeeding in driving off a Sioux force that outnumbered them 50 to one.
An interesting human sequel to the whole sorry affair was that after the death of his first wife Carrington married the widow of Lt Grummond, an officer who had been killed in the Fetterman disaster.

The Museum is appealing for books -- any books -- that can be sold to supplement its funds. Society members who have books they would like to donate are asked to deliver them to the Museum library.


Johannesburg: 13th March
CR Martin Ayres The Unluckiest Division inWW1
ML Louis Wildenboer The English Castle
Johannesburg:10th April
Annual General Meeting
ML Capt Ivor Little The Scottish Navy
Durban 13th March
Ken Gillings The Bhambatha Rebellion: The Battleof Mome Gorge
Cape Town 13th March
Garth Benneyworth Two battles fought by Lt-Gen Lord Methuen in the Anglo-Boer War: Belmont, 23rd November 1899, Modder River 28th November 1899
George Barrell (Scribe)
(011) 791-2581

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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