Taken from "Custer's Last Stand" by Mort Kunstler

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The 7th U. S. Cavalry: A brief history amid controversy

 

The 7th U. S. Cavalry was one of four new regiments organized on July 28th, 1866 by act of congress. The 7th through the 10th Cavalry regiments were to be stationed on the frontier in hopes of combating the Indian menace.

The 7th Cavalry was assigned to Ft. Riley, Kansas, initially to support the building of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. The Commanding Officer was Col. Andrew Johnson Smith (Brevet Maj. Gen.) - later replaced by Col. Samuel D. Sturgis in May, 1869- with Lt. Col. (Brevet Maj. Gen.) George Armstrong Custer second in command as field commander. Custer arrived at Ft. Riley on November 3rd, 1866. The 7th consisted of 12 troops of cavalry; not all stationed at Ft. Riley. In fact, only troops A, D, H & M remained at Ft. Riley, with the other troops being stationed at Ft. Lyon & Ft. Morgan, Colorado, Ft. Hays, Ft. Harker, Ft. Wallace, and Ft. Dodge, Kansas. 

In 1867 Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock was ordered to form an expedition to prevent expected uprisings on the plains. The 7th Cavalry formed a part of that expedition which left Ft. Riley in April. While the expedition met with some of the plains Indians, and then burned their village when the Indians deserted it fearing an attack by the troops, the expedition as a whole was a failure. Custer spent the summer chasing down the Indians believed to be responsible for a number of attacks on the railroad, military personnel and citizens alike, but the only contact was with small war parties. 

Desertion was a problem with the military stationed on the western plains. During the summer the 7th Cavalry suffered its share of desertions while on campaign. In one brazen instance a number of troopers deserted in broad daylight. Custer saw this occur and immediately ordered those troopers be caught and shot. Those who were on foot were soon caught and three were indeed shot before being returned to camp. One, a trooper Johnson, later died of his wounds. 

The 7th Cavalry eventually returned to Ft. Wallace exhausted and in need of resupply, which could not be obtained closer than Ft. Harker. In addition, a cholera epidemic had begun on the plains and the military forts were suffering from this dreaded disease. Custer left his command and returned to Ft. Harker to report and order supplies for his troops. He then obtained permission to travel to Ft. Riley to visit his wife "Libbie". After this visit he returned to Ft. Harker and was placed under arrest by Col. Smith for being AWOL, for his handling of the deserters, and for abandoning two troopers who were later killed by Indians. He was court-martialed and suspended from rank and pay for 1 year. He and his wife returned to their home in Monroe, Michigan to wait out the suspension. Custer's handling of the deserters and his abandoning the troopers did not sit well with many officers and men of the 7th Cavalry. His actions and personality would create a schism within the command that would last beyond Custer's death.

During his absence, a group of officials from the United States Government met with Indian leaders of the Comanche, Kiowa, Lipan Apache, Arapaho and Cheyenne nations who agreed to sign a treaty in October 1867 on Medicine Lodge Creek.  The 7th provided part of the escort to the peace commission who met with the Indians. What became known as the Medicine Lodge Treaty was to provide annuity goods on reservations south of the Arkansas River, which would allow the railroad to continue construction through the area of the Arkansas and Platte rivers.

Even though a treaty had been signed, the Indians distrusted the white man and many of their young warriors believed the treaty to be worthless. The year 1868 brought an increase in depredations against white settlements, while Indians at Ft. Larned, Kansas - where annuity goods for the peaceful Indians who had honored the treaty were to be issued - were angered by a delay in issuing those goods. The 7th Cavalry was ordered to march to Ft. Larned to support the four troops of cavalry already stationed there. After their arrival the agent decided to issue the goods which not only consisted of food, tools, blankets and cooking gear, but also contained arms and ammunition. After the issuance was complete the Indians departed and almost immediately began raiding settlements in Kansas.

Another expedition was formed, this time out of Ft. Dodge, Kansas under Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully. The 7th Cavalry was brought together as a unit as part of this expedition. This expedition met with no greater success than the Hancock expedition, and suffered hit-and-run ambushes both day and night while in the field. Sully returned to Ft. Dodge with the intention of refitting for another expedition, however Gen. Phil Sheridan, now Commander of the Dept. of the Missouri, became disenchanted with him and actively sought to have Col. Custer reinstated before his suspension was over.

Custer rejoined his regiment on October 6, 1868 near Ft. Dodge. He found the regiment in low morale from the summer campaign, poorly mounted and with shabby uniforms. Sheridan planned a winter campaign where he hoped by attacking their villages he could force the Indians to come in to the reservations or starve. A three-pronged campaign was planned with troops participating from Ft. Bascom , New Mexico (6 troops of the 3rd Cavalry & 2 companies of the 37th Infantry); Ft. Lyon, Colorado (the 5th Cavalry), and Ft. Dodge, Kansas (11 troops of the 7th Cavalry, 5 companies of the 3rd Infantry to be joined later by the 19th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry). The march from Ft. Bascom would continue along the Canadian River after establishing a supply depot on Monument Creek, and then proceed along the North Fork of the Red River until they reached the Red River. From Ft. Lyon, the cavalry would proceed southeast and scout toward the Antelope Hills and along the North fork of the Canadian River. From Ft. Dodge, the combined units would establish a cantonment along the fork of Beaver and Wolf Creeks, and continue south in search of the Indians.

This third wing of the campaign left Ft. Dodge on November 12th. Six days later they arrived at a favorable spot on Wolf Creek and established Camp Supply (Oklahoma). Upon arrival at Camp Supply Gen. Sheridan returned Gen. Sully to Ft. Dodge as district commander and appointed Col. Custer in command of the expedition.  Custer led his command from Camp Supply on November 23rd during a major snow storm. On November 26th an Indian trail was discovered by Maj. Joel Elliott and was followed to a camp along the Washita River. The morning of November 28th the command under Col. George A. Custer attacked the village on the Washita, Custer dividing his command into four squadrons, one being the wagon train. The village belonged to a Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle who, along with his wife, was one of perhaps 140 Indians killed. Although the village was captured and burned, the cost to the 7th Cavalry was high. It was not known until later that Maj. Joel Elliott and 19 troopers had been ambushed and killed during the attack. One more death (that of Capt. Louis Hamilton, grandson of Alexander Hamilton) brought the death toll to 21. Black Kettle's village along the Washita was only one of several villages. Indians from other villages came to Black Kettle's rescue upon hearing of the attack, and Custer retreated from the scene back to Camp Supply without determining the fate of Maj. Elliott and the men with him. It was on returning to the village on December 10th with Gen. Sheridan that Custer and the rest of the 7th Cavalry found the bodies and learned of their fate.

As mentioned above, Custer had been a polarizing figure within the 7th Cavalry. It seemed as though one was either for him or against him. This was especially true of the officer's corps. This division of loyalty gained momentum during the summer of 1867, and was certainly exacerbated by his leaving the field of the Washita campaign without determining the fate of Maj. Elliott and his men. These strongly held beliefs would likely play a roll 8 years later at the Little Big Horn.

In January of the following year the 7th Cavalry was ordered to locate a site for a new post within the Indian territory, later to become Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. That post was later turned over to the 10th Cavalry and the 7th was ordered back to Ft. Hays, Kansas. During 1869 and 1870 the 7th Cavalry fought skirmishes with the Indians of the lower plains. In 1871 the 7th Cavalry was ordered to return to the East and was headquartered at Elizabethtown, Kentucky while acting in small detachments in assisting U. S. Marshals in hunting down illegal distilleries and moonshiners, and in efforts against the Ku Klux Klan.

In the Spring of 1873 the 7th Cavalry was reunited in Dakota territory for the purpose of assisting the Northern Pacific railroad in defending its surveyors against Indian attack. It joined the Yellowstone expedition under Col. D. S. Stanley on June 10th at Ft. Rice. In addition to supporting the Northern Pacific railroad the expedition also conducted geological surveys and had at least a couple engagements with Indians before completing its tour in 66 days. At this time the 7th Cavalry was reassigned to a new post being established; Ft. Abraham Lincoln, Dakota territory.

In 1872 the first military post was opened at this location on the Missouri River, and garrisoned by infantry. It was known as Ft. McKeen.  Ft. McKeen was later named Ft. Abraham Lincoln and that name applied to both the infantry post and cavalry post later established nearby. In 1874 the Black Hills Expedition was organized to explore that area of western Dakota and eastern Wyoming, and to establish military routes between Ft. Abraham Lincoln and Ft. Laramie. This expedition would proceed into unceeded Indian territory violating the treaty of 1868.

Leaving Ft. Lincoln on July 2nd,  the expedition consisted of ten troops of the 7th Cavalry, two companies of infantry, three Gatling guns, one Rodman gun and a train of approximately 100 wagons. Along with the expedition rode both geologists, newspaper reporters a photographer, and two miners. Col. Fred Grant, brother to the President, also accompanied the expedition as an aide to Custer. The inclusion of the miners prompted speculation that part of the expedition's purpose was to determine whether the Black Hills area was rich in ore deposits.

The expedition traveled southwest into the southeastern corner of present-day Montana near the Little Missouri River before turning south and approaching the Black Hills along its western border. Turning southeast, it moved into the Black Hills as far as Harney's Peak before retracing its route for awhile, then heading north around Elk Buttes along Box Elder Creek. During the expedition gold was discovered at several locations within the Black Hills. On August 16th the expedition broke camp for the return to Ft. Lincoln. The return trip took them due north and crossed its outgoing trail, only to turn east after it reached the Little Missouri river not too far from Sentinel Buttes. It arrived back at Ft. Abraham Lincoln on August 30th. The reporters with the expedition insured that news of the gold strikes soon became national news.

As gold hungry miners began invading the Black Hills the 7th Cavalry was ordered to prevent such occurrences. Wagons and outfits of gold seekers were seized, however some miners got through and later made exaggerated claims of the area's richness. A commission organized to secure mining rights from the Sioux met with failure and returned to Washington leaving the issue unsettled. The government then withdrew the military forces guarding the Black Hills and whites poured in from all over. The Indians realized the dire nature of the situation and retreated into wilderness areas far from their agencies. War was inevitable.

1875 brought little in the way of military campaigns. The 7th Cavalry performed its usual garrison and escort duties and Custer found himself embroiled in political matters involving post traders. Custer, along with other officers uncovered a grainery scam between post traders and businessmen in the nearby town of Bismark. In addition to this the post sutler habitually charged large sums for items that could be had at a fraction of the cost locally. However, the War Department turned a blind eye to the trader's profits even going so far as to order officers to discontinue efforts to provide goods at lower prices. There was also a great deal of graft and corruption occurring within the Indian Bureau (a division of the Department of the Interior) at this time. Army officers who knew what was happening could do little, their  reporting to the War Department. 

Custer and others criticized Secretary of War William Belknap, accusing him of corruption in the post trader's scandal. In the meanwhile severe weather caused short rations at Indian reservations and Congress was slow to respond with appropriations. Indians sought for and receive permission to leave the reservations and hunt the Powder river country before winter set in. Custer himself took an extended leave of absence, visiting New York with his wife. During this stay the New York Herald made further allegations against Secretary of War Belknap (possibly fueled by reports from Custer), and Custer was ordered to testify at hearings in Washington.

The Indian Bureau issued orders in December, 1875 that any Indians not on reservations by the end of January, 1876 would be considered hostile. Runners were sent out to bring these Indians in to the reservations, however there was no way this could be fully accomplished in the time available. The War Department issued orders at the end of January to bring in all Indians still off the reservations, but those orders could not be carried out due to the severity of the weather. Custer returned to Ft. Lincoln from leave (being caught in a blizzard while enroute from St. Paul, Minnesota to Bismark by train). Upon arriving at Ft. Lincoln he was immediately called back east to testify before the Clymer Committee which was investigating the War Department's role in the post trader scandal.

Custer returned to Washington and testified before the Clymer committee. He was highly critical of Secretary Belknap and also implicated the President's brother, Orvil Grant. While in Washington movement was under way for another expedition to round up all the Indians who had not returned to their reservations by the deadline just past. This expedition would consist of three separate movements against the Indians in the Tongue and Powder River countries; one movement emanating from Ft. Lincoln . Custer, having been released from his orders to testify by the Clymer committee, then sought permission to return to duty with the 7th Cavalry and lead that prong of the expedition. His efforts proved futile. Having severely angered the Grant administration by his testimony he was told he was not the only officer who could lead the expedition. He then sought an audience with the President who snubbed him on two occasions. Custer left Washington on his own recognizance on May 4th intending to return to Ft. Lincoln. He was met as he stepped from the train in Chicago and was informed of his arrest for leaving Washington without authorization by a member of General Sheridan's staff .

Fearing that the arrest order would prevent him from reaching his regiment before it marched he boarded a train for St. Paul in disobeyance of that order. He sought the aid of General Terry his department commander, who intervened on his behalf and obtained permission from the President, through General Sheridan, for Custer to accompany the expedition although not as commander but merely in charge of his regiment. General Terry himself would be in charge of this wing of the campaign.

The 7th Cavalry marched from Ft. Abraham Lincoln on May 17th on its road to destiny.

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