Mike Kuzara President of the Big Horn City Historical Society
(This is a compilation of Kuzara’s talk and his report on the Shurly Fight. of 1867)
There was the Fetterman Massacre, the Wagon Box Fight and, of course, the Custer Battle. But how many have heard of the The Shurly (Shirley) Skirmish, which took place Nov. 3-5, 1867, on Prairie Dog Creek, about six miles east of Sheridan?
Traveling East on present day Highway 14, as soon as you leave the Goose Creek Valley behind, the road descends into the Prairie Dog Creek drainage. Once on the ‘flats,’ the highway goes along a portion of the old Bozeman Trail Wagon Route.
Keep traveling around the ‘S’ curve, and the road crosses Prairie Dog Creek. After one crosses the creek, there is a the turnoff on Upper Cat Creek Road. It was in this area that the Shurly Skirmish was fought.
This hardly known battle was the subject of Mike Kuzara’s talk to the Big Horn City Historical Society on Jan. 23. For many years this site was lost. “Everyone thought it was on Goose Creek. Even the official documents said Goose Creek.” Kuzara said. “Everyone was looking in the wrong place.
Kuzara said that historian Glenn Sweem was the one who found the actual site of the battle. He was at a friends house one day and saw an old rifle on the wall.
Still the actual battlefield landscape had all been “rearranged” by highway construction which even included a severe re-routing of Prairie Dog Creek.
Kuzara felt that since Shurly referred to Prairie Dog Creek as Goose Creek, Shurly was not familiar with the area or had only sketchy or bad information about the “lay of the land” and some of the hazards to freight wagon travel that he would encounter and plan for.
“The old reports were rather sketchy, I believe, for the following reasons: Maps were inaccurate or even nonexistent, and weighed against the horrific results of the Fetterman folly, the stunning failure (from an Indian point of view) of the Wagon Box fight, The Shurly Skirmish, received a rather “ho-hum, another Indian raid, what else is new?” treatment by the people of that time,” Kuzara said.
Due to the fact that Shurly and his 40 men were surrounded by an estimated 700 Indians, it was a great display of courage and leadership. During the fight, Kuzara believed that the Shurly did an excellent job of protecting the people in his charge as well as “delivering the goods” as ordered to best of his ability.
One thing Shurly did have going for him was a four pound Howitzer, which gave the army much better firepower than the Indains, who were mainly using bows and arrows at the time of skirmish.
However, the Indians stampeded the team of mules pulling the wagon with most of the army’s ammunition, leaving Shurly’s men very low on ammo. Shurly told his men that the first one that fired without his order would be shot.
The cannon also had only six rounds of ammo. Kuzara said, “The (cannon) shells were, if I decipher the description correctly, of the exploding type rather than solid shot. In order to be effective, the cannoneer would have to be trained or at least knowledgeable about how much fuse to use for an aerial burst at a certain distance.
“Such a shell, exploding above a group of people could bring down quite a number depending on how closely they were assembled,” He added.
The Indians respected such a weapon but were readily aware of its obvious limitations by charging during the time it was being loaded or by getting in too close in for the cannon to be used.
The men managed to repel the Indians changes again and again until help arrived.
In terms of time, except for the siege of the Sawyer Expedition by the Arapaho on Tongue River Aug 31 1865 which lasted for 13 days, Shurly, if one looks at the dates on the reports, was under attack from Nov 3rd until the 5th when relief arrived from Fort Phil Kearny. Shurly mentions only one night, so 2 days at least, 3 days at the most.
Shurly said after the fight they picked up a “wagon load of arrows”. This indicates the soldiers obviously were cognizant of the fact that if left lying around, the arrows could be salvaged and used again. It also indicates that the Indians were showering the defenders with arrows hoping to hit something. In many cases that meant not only people but livestock which could add to pandemonium and injuries within the defensive circle.
Shurly’s small group of soldiers repelled a tremendous attack of the Indians and when help arrived each man had only two cartridges for each gun left. In a letter to General Brisbin, after the engagement, he said that a cheer went up when Major Dave Gordon with his Company came trotting up to the camp ahead of the column. The relief force was made up of four companies of the 2nd Cavalry, commanded by Captain John Green and the Indians scattered.
Kuzara said, “I believe Shurly’s orders to make every shot count and his handling of the situation quite possibly saved all of their lives and kept the cannon away from the Indians.
“Shurly was wounded in the battle, and forced to retire from the Army the following year. In 1890 several of Shurly’s fellow officers who knew of his fight on “Goose” Creek attempted to get a further brevet rank for Shurly for his heroism in the action, but the war department did not grant the honor.
“I also believe that a monument should be erected near the place of that siege to preserve another piece of the Bozeman Trail and give recognition to Shurly and his men who faced much of the same odds as did Custer and Fetterman but lived to tell about it.”