STORY — It’s December 1866. You’re a young soldier in the U.S. Army and it’s your first time to the western frontier.
Your boots are at least two sizes too small; your weapon is a mystery to you; you’ve witnessed the daily passing of wagons loaded with mutilated bodies; and now, after hearing gunshots and screams, you’re ordered to march straight into the fight.
This is the time and place Fort Phil Kearny transported visitors to during its Full Moon Fort tours over the weekend.
Though always planned on the Saturday nearest the full moon, this was the first year the event landed on the exact night of it, adding eccentricity to the already eerie stage.
Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site Superintendent Misty Stoll said the theme this year was, “Consider the 76,” referencing the Fetterman Fight and having no connection to the year or to Custer’s infamous battle.
“So the 76 perspectives, that reflects the 76 enlisted men that were part of the 81 that went over the hill on December 21, 1866, and died in the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand,” Stoll said. “We talk about the officers and we talk about the two civilians and we never talk about what it’s like to be a 17-year-old boy out there with a weapon he doesn’t know how to use, boots that don’t fit him and a war he doesn’t even understand.”
Trident Theatre Company was hired to give guests a first-hand account of what it was like to live and die at Fort Phil Kearny. After two modern-day hosts introduced guests to the fort and set the scene, tour groups were taken to another world — a supernatural world that could only come alive during a full moon. There, they interacted with four spirits who each had a story to tell.
“There’s a baker, a laundress, Grummond and an infantryman,” said Stoll. “So they all have their own little slice of the story and none of it is the whole story and that would have been very true to the original perspective.”
The story escalated as guests were passed from spirit to spirit. Actors challenged guests’ imaginations as they explained buildings that had once stood in the place of the now bare field and described what they saw, felt, heard and even smelled while living at the fort.
At its climax, guests were painted a picture of a bloody battlefield made up of an American body part jigsaw puzzle. Stoll said this human experience and intense human suffering was brought to life by the actors justifying this year’s theme.
“Picture a dead body — you’re not picturing it as bad as it was,” Stoll said, explaining that many bodies were stripped, mutilated, burned and left to the wildlife for days. “I don’t mean to say those things lightly, but we asked Trident to come in and fill those roles this year because we forget how horrific war was. This is not a white versus native thing, this is a war thing.”
Though some, like Carrie Roller of Buffalo, thought the program was lacking in Halloween spirit, she said she liked the flow and honesty of the stories told.
Brandon Brinkerhoff and Kelsea Mayfield said it was an event worth the drive from Sheridan and they were inspired to make a trip back.
“It was really fun,” Mayfield said. “I just want to come back here during the day sometime and get to actually look at it with more light.”
Although the reservations system this year meant guest counts were reduced, Stoll said it was worth it to not sacrifice the full, quality experience of the fort at night, which is, after all, what keeps them coming.
“Something about the nighttime and the way the moon shines on the fort,” Stoll said of why the event has been popular. “And I’m not trying to be cheesy, but people really connect in that kind of environment.