The 7th Cavalry is synonymous with the Indian Wars. Formed in Kansas in 1866, the regiment is best known for Plains warfare, including engagements at Washita, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. However, for a brief time in the early 1870s, the unit took duty postings in the southeast region of the country. The regiment served about two years in the southeast. At various times 7th Cavalrymen served in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The 7th Cavalry, as well as regular infantry and artillerymen, aided civilian authorities in implementing federal law in the region. Their tasks included destroying illicit distilleries, curtailing Ku Klux Klan activity, and assisting U.S. Marshall and revenue officers in the execution of their duties.
Unfortunately, duty in the region posed distractions for many of the cavalrymen. As a result, many enlisted men ran afoul of military law. Serious offenses typically meant a dishonorable discharge confinement at the regional military prison: Fort Pulaski, Georgia.
Strategically located on Cockspur Island, Fort Pulaski defended the mouth of the Savannah River. The fortification became part of the “Third System of Defense” which relied on masonry forts built along the coast. Construction of the fortification began in 1829 and continued for the next 18 years. Confederate forces briefly occupied the fort at the beginning of the Civil War. Ironically, U.S. troops, supported by well-placed rifled artillery, breached a wall of the fort. As a result, the Confederate commander surrendered the post in April 1862.
The use of the coastal fortification as a prison began during the Civil War. It housed several hundred captured Confederate Army officers in 1864 and 1865. Following the War, army engineers remodeled and updated the fortifications. Technology, however, required the construction of a whole new facility. As a result, a skeleton garrison occupied the historic fort, which was, for all intents and purposes, abandoned in October 1873. Although outdated as a coastal defense fortification, the brick structure was still useful. In 1871, for example, the facility housed 31 military convicts in the brick casements.
7th Cavalry Prisoners at Fort Pulaski
At least 25 former 7th Cavalrymen served prison time at Fort Pulaski. Most were tried at Taylor Barracks, near Louisville, Kentucky, McPherson Barracks, Georgia, or Columbia, South Carolina. Seventh cavalry inmates represented a wide-range of backgrounds. They included former machinists William H. Clough and Frank Clark.
Unfortunately, we do not currently know the infractions that sent most of the 7th Cavalrymen to prison. However, some of this information has come to light. Privates Thomas Biernes and Frank Clark, both from Company G, for example, deserted together. Detectives arrested both men, who were on their way to New York, near Charleston on the steamship appropriately named South Carolina.
At the end of their sentences most convicts were provided government-paid transportation to the city/ station they enlisted at. Not all men left the facility alive. For instance, Frederick Schalch, a 5’5½” tall Swiss-born farmer and former private in Company I, died of disease on July 20, 1872. He is buried at the Fort Pulaski post cemetery.
From Prison to the Little Big Horn?
John Fay, a New York- born cabinet maker, enlisted in the regiment on July 5, 1867. He rose to the rank of 1st Sergeant in Company A before running afoul of military law. Fay served less than a year in prison and was released with an honorable discharge in September 13, 1871. The government provided his transportation and subsistence (food) costs from Georgia to Saint Louis. Two years, almost to the day, later a John J. Fay enlisted. He served with Company D, 7th Cavalry.
Interestingly, both enlistees had grey eyes and fair complexion. However, the height of the former sergeant was listed as 5’6¼” while the other soldier was listed as 5’5”. The biggest discrepancies were in the ages, birth city, and occupation, although all three demographic factors could have been fabricated. Regardless, the 1873 enlistee fought at the Little Big Horn and was discharged for disability in 1877 with a “very good” character reference. Was this the same individual or merely a coincidence? Further research may reveal the answer.
Private James Conway
Twenty-six year old James Conway, a former laborer from Pittsburgh, enlisted in the regular army on March 11, 1871. At 5’5” tall, Conway was the ideal height for mounted service and was assigned to Company H, 7th Cavalry. Commanded by Captain Frederick Benteen, H Company was one of the last to move from the plains to the southeast. Conway was likely one of 100 recruits who arrived in April. However, military life must not have appealed to him because he deserted on August 7, 1871. To make matters worse he also attempted to steal a government horse for which Captain Benteen was responsible. A general court martial found Conway guilty. Just months after joining the 7th Cavalry, Conway received a dishonorable discharge and began serving a 5-year prison sentence at Fort Pulaski.
However, Conway’s story soon became more complex. Barely a month after arriving at Fort Pulaski, the commander of convicts requested a remittance of Conway’s sentence. He stated “and that he may be sent to the Government Hospital for the Insane at Washington, D.C. as I am convinced [that] the man is of unsound mind, he not having spoken a word since his arrival here (Dec. 9th 1871), and takes no notice of persons or things, besides generally giving evidences of insanity.” Interestingly, Conway exhibited signs of mental distress during his trial. According to trial documents, he “remained mute when called on” to enter a plea.
The request to transfer Conway to the Government Hospital quickly filtered through army command. In February 1872, the adjutant general approved the request. Sergeant Perry A. Ball, Battery H, 3rd Artillery, then a member of the small Fort Pulaski garrison, escorted Conway to the hospital.
Continuing the Old Army Story
What happened to James Conway at the Government Hospital for the Insane? What infractions led to so many 7th Cavalrymen being sentenced to prison terms? Keep checking back as Old Army Records gathers information on these, as well as various other, topics. In the meantime, feel free to query us for specific research requests.
Descriptive Books of Prisoners (1868-1873), Fort Pulaski.
Letters Received (1805-1889), The Adjutant General’s Office.
Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, Adjutant General’s Office.
The Charleston News (1871)
Fort Pulaski National Monument Administrative History. J. Faith Meader and Cameron Binkley (2003).
Fort Pulaski National Monument, Georgia. National Park Service and Civilian Conservation Corps (1940).
Outline Description of U.S. Military Posts and Stations in the Year 1871. U.S. War Department (1872).
Outline Description of the Posts and Stations of Troops in the Geographical Divisions and Departments of the United States. U.S. War Department (1872).