Old Army Ordnance Inventory: Fort Laramie (1877)

The one persistent theme of our articles is that paperwork and the 19th century U.S. Army went hand-in-hand.  Previous topics explored many types of records kept during that period, including orders, boards of survey, and lists of countersigns and paroles.  Lists provide a brief glimpse into the who, what, and where of the Old Army.  Army ordnance, for example, consistently made lists. 

Historic 1876 Fort Laramie plan view showing location of the army ordnance magazine, in red, taken from "Outline Descriptions of the Posts in the Military Division of the Missouri, 1876". oldarmyrecords.com
This plan view, dated 1876, shows how the size and extent of the Fort Laramie. Army ordnance of all ages was stored in the magazine located along officer’s row.

In the summer of 1877, the Department of the Platte inspector general (IG) submitted a report of military posts located in what is today Wyoming.  An IG scrutinized and reported upon a wide array of subjects pertaining to the efficiency of the army.  Significant topics coming under the purview of inspectors included the condition and serviceability of supplies, arms, and equipment.

In addition to providing brief discussions on the proficiency of the garrisons, the report included lists of ordnance and ordnance stores he deemed no longer of value and “should be transferred or sold.”  The IG report for Fort Laramie revealed a list of ordnance-related items. Magazines, buildings dedicated to the storage of arms and munitions, often became attics for various types of ordnance and ordnance stores.

Post on the North Platte

Established in 1849 in a run-down fur trade post, Fort Laramie became the center piece of army presence on the northern plains.  Over its 41-year history mounted riflemen, dragoons, cavalry, and infantry, passed through the fort.  Ordnance stored in the post magazine in 1877 was as diverse  as the fort’s history. 

Historic photo, 1942, of Fort Laramie magazine courtesy of Library of Congress. oldarmyrecords.com
View of the Fort Laramie magazine in 1942 years after the post was abandoned. Interestingly, the structure appears to have modified for use as a livestock shed. HABS WYO,8-FOLA,3I–1, Library of Congress.
Captured Army Ordnance

In October 1876, the army seized several firearms and related equipment from inhabitants at Red Cloud Agency.  At the time the agency, located 78 miles east of Fort Laramie, included 5,000 to 6,000 Sioux, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne Indians.  The list of confiscated weapons included the following, which were likely stored at Fort Laramie for safety concerns:

  • 1 old style horse pistol
  • 1 Harpers Ferry Rifle
  • 11 squirrel rifles (brass mounted, some barrels cut-down)
  • 1 English musket (cut-down)
  • 1 Sharps Carbine, caliber .50 (worn with a broken stock)
  • 4 Remington pistols
  • 7 Colt pistols (navy and army)
  • 8 Spencer Carbines (1 with a broken stock)

Some, if not all, of the weapons undoubtedly saw use by warriors in clashes with the army earlier in 1876.  Battles included Powder River, Rosebud, Little Big Horn, and Slim Buttes as well as numerous skirmishes.  However, the “squirrel rifles” probably represented small-animal hunting muzzle- loading firearms.  Many guns with that designation fired small caliber, roughly the size of a pellet, lead balls.

Other items taken from Indians included three bullet molds, three holsters, four field belts with cartridges, and about 100 rounds of caliber .44 ammunition for the Henry Rifle.  Unfortunately, the list does not elaborate on whether the Indians took the field belts and holsters from soldiers. 

Antiquated Arms 

The U.S. Army entered the Civil War woefully deficient in material, including firearms, to supply its soldiers.  As a result, the army purchased and issued guns of all different calibers and ammunition types.  Following the War, the ordnance department standardized the caliber of small arms.  As a result, the army adopted caliber .45 for its revolvers, rifles, and carbines.  Twelve years after the end the Civil War, the Fort Laramie magazine still contained antiquated ordnance of no use to the Regular Army. 

  • 19 Enflield Rifles
  • 14 American and English rifles
  • 5 Spencer Carbines
  • 11 Starr Carbines
  • 12 Smith Carbines
  • 1 Sharps Carbine
  • 2 Maynard Carbines
  • 1 Joslyn Carbine
  • 2 Springfield percussion carbines
  • 2 American-contract carbines

Significantly, the IG noted that the above property was “[a]ll broken, utterly unserviceable, and mostly fit for scrap.” 

Photo of Smith carbine, saw extensive service during the Civil War and at Fort Laramie and often showed up on army ordnance inventories.
The Smith Carbine, caliber .50, saw extensive service during the Civil War and at Fort Laramie.  By 1877, however, the Regular Army no longer needed the carbine and its foil-type cartridge.  Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History.
Outdated Ammunition

The Fort Laramie magazine also contained outdated ammunition, representing various calibers and ignition systems.  This included, for example, over 10,000 rounds of caliber .44 linen and/or paper cartridges for cap and ball revolvers and the Colt revolving rifle.  The inventory also included over 9,300 percussion caps.  In addition, 1,000 rounds of caliber .52 Sharps ammunition and 3,000 rounds of Poultney’s brass foil cartridges (with a patent date of December 13, 1863) for the Smith Carbine made the inventory.  

Perhaps the most interesting type on ammunition on the list are 5,890 rounds of caliber .58 ball cartridges for the percussion carbine.  This ammunition likely fit the two Springfield percussion carbines listed above.  The carbines were actually pistols with an attachable shoulder stock better known as the Model 1855 Percussion Pistol-Carbine.

Photo of M1855 Springfield percussion horse-pistol often showed up on army ordnance inventories.
Interestingly, in 1877, the Fort Laramie still had M1855 Springfield pistol-carbines and associated ammunition. However, the condition of the weapons were poor compared to this example at the National Museum of American History and photographed by Ralph G. Packard.
Other Agencies Storage Facility

Fort Laramie was strategically located on main travel routes.  As a result, numerous government expeditions, military and otherwise, passed through the post.  Sometimes, those expeditions simply left government property there.  In 1877, the army ordnance list included; 22 firearms (8 Spencer Carbines and 9 Springfield muskets, caliber .50) and 7 infantry cartridge boxes, “reported belonging to [the] Interior Dept.”  The condition of the weapons used by the Interior Department is revealing.  The IG noted that the condition of the Spencers, for instance, as “worn, rusty or [with] locks out of order.”  The rifles also showed signs of heavy use, or misuse.  Many, for instance, featured broken ejectors; with at least one broken stock.  I wonder if the condition of the guns would have been as bad if the Interior Department retained ownership and responsibility for them.

A Simple, yet Revealing View of the Old Army

Lists offer a simple, albeit brief, view into what the 19th century army considered important.  Inventories provide an overview of the types and number of arms, equipment, and rations on hand or used by soldiers.  Likewise, rosters indicate duty assignments or casualties.  Lists are one of the dozens of types of documents that Old Army Records is actively digitizing and indexing.  Want to know more about the 1877 Fort Laramie ordnance inventory?  Contact us.


Army Regulations
Department of the Platte, Office of the Inspector, Letters Sent
Fort Laramie, D.T., Letters Sent

Government Publication
Outline Description of the Posts in the Military Division of the Missouri (1876)


Sharpshooters: Ad-Hoc Duty at Petersburg (1864)

Most Civil War soldiers volunteered for federal service.  However, a few were draftees or substitutes (paid replacements for men drafted).  Regardless of how they entered service, all Union soldiers left a paper trail.  Compiled Military Service Records, often requested from the National Archives, include a synopsis of an individual’s stint in the Old Army.  Compiled Military Service Records usually list the dates the soldier was present for duty and provided general pay, death, hospitalization dates, and death or discharge dates.  However, much of the day-to-day or provisional duties performed by the soldier are often omitted from compiled service records.   

While completing a request for information from records generated by the U.S. 10th Army Corps, we came across General Order 14 assigning over 100 men for temporary duty.  Short-term duty assignments were common in the Old Army.  However, Order 14 is unique in that it formed a provisional unit of sharpshooters near Petersburg, Virginia. 

10th Army Corps (South Carolina to Pertserburg)

Organized in September 1862, the 10th Army Corps served mostly in South Carolina before joining the Army of the James in the winter of 1864.  In late May 1864 portions of the Corps were transferred to support the Army of the Potomac in Virginia.  The order, forming the ad-hoc sharpshooter detachment, came shortly after the 10th Corps arrived on the Petersburg front in June 1864.  

According to a history of the 48th New York Infantry (assigned to the 2nd Division, 10th Corps), “[o]n June 23d we finally reached the position in the forti­fications in front of Petersburg which we were destined to occupy for weeks; that position was in the immediate neighborhood of the Jerusalem Plank Road, and just to the left of where the fortifications crossed it. We were immediately on the right of Burnside’s Ninth Corps.  We were now confronted by Lee’s entire army, behind formidable lines of redans, redoubts, and infantry parapets, with skillfully contrived outer defences [sic] of abatis, stakes, and chevaux de-frise.”

Union troops often positioned themselves within yards of the fortified Confederates around Petersburg.  The proximity resulted in heavy casualties, especially from marksmen, inflicted upon Union soldiers.  The conditions prompted senior commanders to organize provisional units of marksmen to counter the Confederates.  Consequently, “[a] detail of sharp-shooters was made from the 97th P. V. [Pennsylvania Volunteers and other units in the 10th Corps] on June 27, the best marksmen of each company being selected for this arduous and dangerous service.”  Because they served under the 18th Corps, the sharpshooters were often referred to as belonging to that organization.

Three Historic photos of the fortifications & trenches outside Petersburg, Viginia, 1864 where sharpshooters fought. Images from page 542 of "The Civil War through the camera : hundreds of vivid photographs actually taken in Civil War times, together with Elson's new history" (1912)
In 1864, 10th Corps and Confederate troops fought in close proximity near Petersburg.  These images illustrate some of the fortifications near the city. Photos taken by Henry William Elson and Mathew Brady.
“The following…are hereby organized as Sharpshooters…”
1st Sergeant Herman Sixby, 112th New York Infantry and provisional 10th Corps sharpshooter, circa 1863. oldarmyrecords.com
Three veteran officers commanded the 10th Corps provisional sharpshooters. They included 1st Lieutenant Herman Sixby (112th New York Infantry) shown here as a 1st Sergeant. Photo courtesy of the Chautauqua County Historical Society, Westfield, NY.

General Order 14, issued by the 2nd Division, 10th Corps on June 27, 1864, lists 114 officers and enlisted men for duty as sharpshooters.  Captain True Sanborn, Jr. (4th New Hampshire Infantry) commanded the provisional unit.  Lieutenants Herman Sixby (112th New York Infantry) and John W. Filkins (115th New York Infantry) assisted Sanford.   Sanborn served as an officer with the 4th New Hampshire since 1861.  Sixby and Filkins both attained commissions after stints as enlisted men.  Sixby, for example, mustered in as a sergeant in Company E, 112th New York Infantry in August 1862.  Promotions to first sergeant and first lieutenant occurred by early 1863. 

Eight noncommissioned officers (NCO), four sergeants and four corporals, assisted Sanborn, Sixby, and Filkins.  The NCOs represented eight different regiments.  Jack Sheppard, from Company K, 117th New York Infantry, served as senior sergeant.  Sheppard enlisted in Remsen, New York in August 1862.  He served as sergeant since June 20, 1863.  Fittingly, he listed his civilian profession as hunter. 

Diverse Background of Privates

The 103 privates detailed as ad-hoc sharpshooters represented 13 different infantry regiments:

13th Indiana                                        112th New York

9th Maine                                            115th New York

4th New Hampshire                          117th New York

3rd New York                                      142nd New York

47th New York                                    169th New York

48th New York                                    76th Pennsylvania

                                    97th Pennsylvania

Just as importantly, the enlisted represented a wide-range of backgrounds.  For instance, Isaac Pawling (or Pauling) enlisted as a 21-year old blacksmith in August 1861.  Alfred Young was a 22-year old former printer from Chelsea, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.  Significantly, his captain considered him a “brave, faithful and fearless soldier.”  Private George J. Switzer entered service in October 1863 as a draftee. 

Service Without Fanfare

The 10th Corps sharpshooters did not wait long before getting into action.  On June 30, 1864 the ad-hoc unit formed a critical component of an assault on Confederate positions, which yielded few gains.  One of the rare official instances that mentioned 10th Corps sharpshooters occurred in July 1864.  Brigadier General John W. Turner stated that “[d]uring the night of the 29th Colonel Bell [4th New Hampshire Infantry] dislodged the enemy’s pickets in a point of timber some 100 yards in front…and secured a position for forty sharpshooters, which partly enfiladed and with considerable command over the enemy’s line.  These men did good execution during the following day” (emphasis added by me).  

Unfortunately, available records fail to provide the complete operational history of the 10th Corps provisional sharpshooters.  Significantly, several of the histories of the regiments, from which the sharpshooters served, offer little narrative on their activities.  However, we know that several of the soldiers littered the casualty rolls shortly after being detailed as marksmen.

Temporary Yet Deadly Duty

Lieutenant Sixby, for example, received wounds on July 30th while engaged outside Petersburg causing him to resign early in 1865.  Former carpenter Robert M. Williams joined the 117th New York Infantry shortly after the war began.  Unfortunately, Williams received serious wounds about a month after being detailed as a sharpshooter.  He died, as a result of the wounds, in August 1864.  Additionally, privates Charles D. Hall (4th New Hampshire, killed in action July 2nd) and Alonzo Harrington (117th New York killed in action July 17th) did not survive the war.

Privates Charles Sauer and George A. Houghtaling, both detailed from the 115th New York Infantry, survived the war, but counted as casualties in late July 1864 at the Battle of Deep Bottom.  Sauer, from Company E, received two wounds while Confederates captured Houghtaling.

Sharpshooters 18th Corps. oldarmyrecords.com
An 1864 drawing by Alfred R. Waud depicting “Sharpshooters on the 18th Corps Front” outside Petersburg.   However, the 10th Corps served under the 18th Corps. Are these figures actually men from the 10th Corps detailed by General Order No. 14? Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Important Information Missing From Most Compiled Military Service Records

The military service for Civil War soldiers included a wide-array of duty.  However, Compiled Military Service Records often omit important assignments, such as messengers, clerks, aides, and even sharpshooters.  Are you getting the complete military service history of a 19th century soldier?  We can help!  Contact us for more information.


Thanks to the Chautauqua County Historical Society, Westfield, NY, and especially Shari Gollnitz permitting Old Army Records to publish the photograph of Herman Sixby.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
10th Army Corps, General Orders and Circulars (2/1864-7/1865)

Published Sources (in Old Army Records digital library)

The History of the Forty-Eighth Regiment New York State Volunteers, in the War for the Union, 1861-1865 (1885)

History of the Ninety-Seventh Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry During the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (1875)

A History of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers, (Fourth Oneida,) from the Data of its Organization, August, 1862 Till That of its Muster Out, June, 1865 (1866)

The Iron Hearted Regiment:  Being an Account of the Battle, Marches and Gallant Deeds Performed by the 115th Regiment N.Y. Vols. (1865)

Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-5 (Fox 1889)

Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1866 (1895)

Government Documents
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.  Series 1, Volumes 40 and 42.

Other Sources

Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of New York for the Year 1903 (Serial No. 34)

Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of New York for the Year 1903 (Serial No. 35)

Military Service Hazards: Ordnance Testing

Combat aside, military service is dangerous in times of war and peace.  Disease and accidents claimed thousands of casualties in the 19th century army.  Additionally, implements of war meant to kill or maim also claimed casualties outside hostilities.  The testing, manufacture, and distribution of weapons, ammunition, and weapons-related equipment fell to small cadre known as the Ordnance Department. 

Annually, around 65 officers served in the Ordnance Department during the last quarter of the 19th century.  Despite being a small department, over 20 ordnance officers died over the same time span.  Upon the passing of an officer, the Ordnance Department issued an order eulogizing the deceased.  Admittedly, a handful, including Brevet Major General George A. Ramsay (1802-1882), died during retirement.  However, several were accidentally killed performing their duty. 

The obituaries were differentiated from other orders by a thick black page border.  While indexing these orders the words “killed by the bursting of a shell, on October 21, 1886, at the Proving Ground, Sandy Hook, N.J.” popped out.  What caused this accident?  While answering this question the names of other soldiers involved came to light.

“An officer of fine abilities and great professional zeal”

The subject of the memoriam mentioned above was 1st Lieutenant William Morgan Medcalfe.  Born in Maryland, Medcalfe entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1872.  In 1876 he was appointed a 2nd lieutenant in the 4th Artillery.  One of the many responsibilities of the Ordnance Department was defending the nation’s sea coast.  Mortars were an integral part of that defense system.  In the fall of 1886, Medcalfe was on duty at Sandy Hook, New Jersey supervising test firing of a 12-inch breech loaded mortar. 

Assisting Medcalfe were eight enlisted men belonging to the Ordnance Department and Allan G. Sinclair, a 62-year old civilian machinist.  The soldiers included 34-year old Sergeant John Abbott, corporals George Clark (aged 27), Walter Goodno (aged 34), and Ingram (aged 32), and privates Michael D. Burns (aged 24), Thomas Cramer (aged 39), Joseph Cunningham (aged 23), and Joseph King (age unknown); another source lists King’s first name as Henry. 

Scene of the Accident

At 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 21, 1886 Medcalfe’s team prepared for another test fire.  What happened next was summarized in two articles written by otologist Dr. Samuel Sexton and contemporary newspaper accounts.  By the late 19th century Dr. Sexton was an aural surgeon who “devoted special attention to the study and treatment of diseases of the ear”.  His research on tear trauma caused by explosions led him to the Medcalfe incident.  Through eye witness accounts, Dr. Sexton reconstructed the accident.  The following drawings (profile and plan view) depict the positions of nine of the men just prior to the explosion.

The positions of the men at the time of the shell explosion on October 21, 1886. Modified from Figure 1 published by Dr. Sexton in his article published in Science.-Supplement (April 8, 1887).
Plan view showing the positions of the men at the time of the shell explosion on October 21, 1886. Modified from Figure 2 published by Dr. Sexton in his article published in Science.-Supplement (April 8, 1887).

Correspondents from the Washington, DC newspaper Evening Star spoke with senior Ordnance Department officers.  Those officers evidently spoke with eyewitnesses who presented the following account.  Private King was closing the plug at the base of the mortar shell.  The shell weighed 585 pounds and was just filled with 27 pounds of rifle powder.  The threaded plug did not turn properly and per protocol, King rapped it with a hammer.  The ordnance officers theorized that “one or two grains of powder probably caught in the thread of the screw plug, and that these ignited at the blow of the hammer.” 

The explosion blew Private King 55 feet away from the shell, killing him instantly.  Incredibly, Lieutenant Medcalfe, standing at the base of the shell, survived 30 minutes after being blown 22 feet away.  His injuries were quite severe.  The Fairfield News and Herald (South Carolina) reported that he lost his right leg and his left leg was shattered.  The explosion also blew Corporal Clark 15 feet, but he survived.  Abbott, Burns, Cramer, Cunningham, Ingram, and Sinclair all managed to stay on their feet during the explosion and also survived. 

Just an Accident While Performing Routine Duty?

Fittingly, Medcalfe’s body was transported from Sandy Hook to Brooklyn on the tug named Ordnance.  He was then buried in a family plot at Green-Wood Cemetery.  Whereas the Ordnance Department published a memorial for Medcalfe no such order was issued for the Swiss-born Private King.  And, surprisingly, the incident is not referenced in the annual report of the Chief of Ordnance.  Likewise, orders issued by the Ordnance Department did not convene a board or court of inquiry to investigate the explosion.  It appears that the military simply wrote the incident off as an accident incurred during routine, albeit dangerous, Ordnance Department duty. 

This article started out as a simple quest to learn more about the death of Lieutenant Medcalfe, whom, I thought, was the only casualty of the “shell burst.”  As it turned out the accident affected eight other individuals, including nine enlisted soldiers.  Further research identified the names of the people involved in the mishap.  Importantly, the accident illustrates the daily interactions of officers and enlisted men.  The Civil War was, arguably, the defining event in 19th century U.S. history.  Nearly everyone alive during that conflict had a connection with the Old Army.  Dr. Sexton, for example, briefly served as an assistant surgeon in the 8th Ohio Infantry between July 1861 and October 1862. 

Old Army Records’ comprehensive indexing strategy allows researchers to link people, places, events, and various other military subjects.  Our search capabilities comb various 19th century sources, generated by government and civilian organizations, to compile in-depth military service records of soldiers from that period.  As our indexing progresses we hope to uncover more about the individuals involved in the mortar shell explosion on October 21, 1886.  For instance, did the accident factor into the court martial of Private Burns just seven months after the accident?  We will update this story as new information comes to light.

Have a research request?    Contact us


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Orders Issued by the Ordnance Department (1876-1895)


A Military History of the 8th Regiment Ohio Vol. Inf’y.: Its Battles, Marches and Army Movements by Franklin Sawyer (1881)

Biography of Eminent American Physicians and Surgeons by Dr. R. French Stone (1894)

Government Documents

Annual Report of the Secretary of War (1886, 1887)


“Blown to Atoms by a shell.” The Fairfield News and Herald, Winnsboro, SC (October 27, 1886)

“Effects of Explosions on the Ear.”  Science.-Supplement (April 8, 1887)

“Injury of the Ear Caused by the Blast of a Bursting Shell.” The Medical Record, (February 19, 1887)

“Killed by the Bursting of a Shell.” Evening Star, Washington, DC (October 22, 1886)

“Lieut. Medcalfe’s Funeral.” The New York Times (October 24, 1886)

Old Army Records Update

Jim and I are back from our most recent Old Army records acquisition trip.  As our journey through Old Army records continues, we always encounter new information that refines our knowledge on the daily operation of the 19th century U.S. Army.  For example, in 1864 the Adjutant General issued General Order No. 75, which clarified several personnel issues, including the designation of draftees and the transfer of soldiers to the U.S. Navy.  Last week we found a document that tabulated the number of copies and distribution of general orders in the 1860s.  The Adjutant General printed and distributed over 5,900 copies of G.O. 75 to various military commands, states, installations, and generals.  This example illustrates the civilian and military manpower required to maintain the War Department.  With that being said, we are excited to announce that soon thousands of names will be indexed related to the following Old Army topics:

  • Soldiers who qualified as marksman/ sharpshooters
  • Lists and assignments of army sutlers/ post traders
  • Charges and specifications against soldiers
  • Lists of soldiers fitted for artificial limbs
  • Lists and assignments of civilian nurses
  • Rosters of noncommissioned officers serving in regular army units
  • Lists of officers detailed to teach military science at high schools and colleges
  • Individuals issued specific firearms
  • Lists of soldiers detailed to perform specific jobs
  • Lists of civilian clerks working at various staff departments
  • Prisoners at Forts Leavenworth and Pulaski
  • Individuals serving as scouts during the Civil War

Old Army soldiers performed a wide-range of daily duty. For example, this list includes the names of soldiers from the 47th New York Infantry assigned to picket duty in North Carolina.

Wide range of Old Army Subjects

What distinguishes Old Army Records apart from other databases, is our commitment to not only capture the names of soldiers, but index the events, places, material, and other subjects associated with the period.  Together, these subjects, or what we call searchable units (SUs), put soldiers into context with the Old Army.  We are therefore pleased to announce the following additions to our dataset:

  • 500+ names and descriptive data for army horses and mules
  • List of countersigns and paroles used during the Civil War
  • List of safeguards issued during the Civil War
  • Tabular data of the types of firearms lost, damaged, and rendered unserviceable by regular army units
  • The causes of desertion from the regular army
  • Lists of items received by soldiers confined to prison
  • Accounting for ammunition expended in the southwest during the 1860s
  • Lists of ordnance and ordnance stores lost by the Union Army in key Civil War battles

Army officers were responsible for all government property and could be called upon to account for expenditures. One enterprising officer maintained a ledger which included the loss and usage of ammunition. This excerpt, for example, includes ammunition used in combat and by the the butcher for Company C, 1st California Cavalry in November and December 1865.

Following the Paperwork Trail

With each document digitized, we are amazed at the breadth of records kept by the 19th century U.S. Army and that survive, yet, today.  The details contained in those documents helps fulfill our goal of presenting the rich day-to-day life of an Old Army soldier.  In the coming months, while we index the new data, we will publish articles on these topics.  So, keep checking the Records Inventory page for updates.  In the meantime, feel free to contact us with questions or your research requests.

Old Army Officer Duty: Council of Administration

As previously discussed, Old Army officers completed a variety of temporary assignments dealing with government property, funds, and activities.  This series continues with an overview of another of these duties:  Council of Administration.

Council of Administration Jurisdiction:  Laundresses and Sutlers

Councils of administration became part of army regulations early in the 19th century; they were included in 1821 regulations.  Originally, council duties dealt with two specific adjuncts of the army:  laundresses and sutlers.  Laundresses were women, often spouses of enlisted men, employed to wash the clothes of the troops.  Councils determined the price laundresses charged the soldiers.  For example, enlisted men stationed at Fort Shaw, Montana in 1878 paid $1.00/ month for laundry services.  Officers paid $3.00/month; children $1.00/month.

Sutlers (also known as post traders) provided consumer goods to soldiers.  The Secretary of War appointed sutlers.  By the 1890s, the Army assumed the role of sutler with establishments known as canteens or post exchanges.  However, councils determined the prices of items sold and sometimes they decided the types of goods sold by the sutler.   In 1873 at Fort Abraham Lincoln, for example, the sutler offered no less than 15 types of cigars and nearly 40 styles/types of boots and shoes (men, women, children, youth, and misses).

Councils of administration regularly audited the accounts of sutlers to ensure soldiers paid fair prices.  Councils also assessed a tax imposed on sutlers.  The tax formula being a set rate (e.g. 10¢) times the average number of officers and enlisted men present at a post for a specific period.

File:Abraham Lincoln and the battles of the Civil War (1886) (14576118288).jpg, oldarmyrecords.com
A Council of Administration regularly audited the accounts of sutlers to ensure that they did not bilk soldiers.

Council of Administration Jurisdiction:  Funds

By the end of the 19th century Army regulations and soldier responsibilities increased significantly.  This trend also applied to councils of administration.  Consequently, by 1895, councils convened to examine a wide range of topics including the post, regimental, company, bakery, and mess funds.  These funds provided goods and conveniences meant for the benefit of the garrison (funds will be discussed in detail in future articles).  Councils of administration periodically examined the accounts of each fund and identified any improprieties.

Council of Administration Jurisdiction:  Personal Effects

One of the somber responsibilities of councils was disposing of the personal property of dead soldiers.  Councils took an inventory of and sold at public auction personal effects of the deceased whether they died in combat or from disease, illness, or injury.  Councils convened for two 1st Cavalry enlisted men, Sergeant William H. Smith and Private Karl Schohe, who died in Arizona Territory in June 1869 serve as typical examples.  A former shoemaker from Boston, 25 year old Smith died at Camp Bowie on June 10th.  Schohe, a 23 year old former butcher from Germany, died from an aneurysm at Camp Goodwin.  The inventory and prices realized for the auctions of the personal effects are summarized below.  Interestingly, Schohe’s meager belongings included an item reflecting his life before joining the army, a butcher knife.

Proceedings of Councils of Administration

Typically, three officers on duty at the respective post made up a council of administration.  Not surprisingly, the junior officer of the council served as the recorder and transcribed the proceedings.  Both the council president and recorder signed the proceedings.

Once the council prepared its written decision, each member signed the proceedings and forwarded them to the commanding officer for review and approval.  Per the 1895 Army regulations, “should the post commander disapprove the proceedings, and the council, after reconsideration, adhere to its conclusion, a copy of the proceedings will be sent to the department commander, whose decision thereon upon all questions not involving pecuniary responsibility will be final.”   The Secretary of War served as the appellate for monetary disputes.

Councils of administration are a great resource regarding personal items and goods and services purchased by 19th century soldiers.  The documents also allow the 21st century observer an opportunity to look at the purchasing power of our military ancestors.  These are the types of documents Old Army Records digitizes and indexes (see the list here).  We appreciate the feedback from you regarding previous posts.  As always, feel free to suggest an Old Army topic for future posts.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Orders and other documents, Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, Fort Shaw, Montana Territory, and Camp Bowie, Arizona Territory

Army Regulations
General Regulations for the Army (1821)
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895)
Regulations of the Army of the United States (1881)



Finding Old Army Battlefields: December 6th Battle

In the early 2000s, I had the privilege of directing the only large-scale archaeological investigations on Fetterman Battlefield.  Named after the senior officer in charge of the detachment (Captain William J. Fetterman) the battle resulted in the loss of 81 soldiers and civilians.   Grants from the National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) funded the fieldwork.  Before finishing the first field season, my thoughts turned to locating the site of another fight Fetterman participated in, simply known as the December 6th Battle, which occurred just 15 days prior to his death.

The December 6th Battle

In the early afternoon of December 6, 1866, Lakota and Cheyenne warriors attacked a wood train west of Fort Phil Kearny.  Post and military district commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington, annoyed by the constant harassment of his forces and pressured from his superiors to inflict casualties on “hostile” Indians, assumed personal command of the operation.  His plan called for a classic two-prong attack meant to trap the warriors.

Finding the Battlefield

The December 6th Battle was a fluid engagement occupying an area of approximately 6,700 acres.  Most of the fighting occurred during three short skirmishes.  In 2010, my archaeology consulting firm received the contract to locate the December 6th Battlefield.  The ABPP funded the project.  Our plan involved using metal detectors to locate at least one of the skirmish sites.  However, the engagement occurred in a 25-mile² area.  Obviously it was impractical to metal detect 16,000 acres.  In order to refine the search area, we turned to Old Army records.

Several military participants recounted the day’s events.  Carrington also prepared a map, based on visual inspections of the landscape, of the engagement.  His map, which lacks a scale, illustrates the movements of the major troop commands landscape features.  We were able to correlate the landscape, shown on Carrington’s illustration, with modern maps to delineate the probable boundaries of the December 6th Battlefield.

Map drawn by Carrington, December 1866. oldarmyrecords.com
Map of the December 6th Battlefield drawn by Colonel Carrington shortly after the engagement.


The fieldwork occurred during 21 days and surveyed about 46 acres.  By locating at least one of the three main skirmishes, we hoped to verify the accuracy of the Old Army records.  To our amazement, we discovered one of Fetterman’s skirmishes.  A total of 15 artifacts were identified on two hills about a half mile away from where we expected to find them.  The location of these artifact concentrations is consistent with Fetterman’s route, as depicted on Carrington’s map and described by the officers.

Overview, to the north, of the December 6th Battlefield from the top of Lodge Trail Ridge. oldarmyrecords.com
Overview of the December 6th Battlefield from the top of Lodge Trail Ridge. View to the northeast down Jenks and Peno creeks. Photo taken December 6, 2010.


Both the military and Indian participants in the December 6th Fight spent most of their time attempting to exploit the landscape to their advantage.  Indian warriors concealed themselves in drainages and behind ridges while decoys led pursuing soldiers into ambushes.  Conversely, the soldiers sought out higher landforms for observation and avenues of approach.  Landscape features rather than artifacts are the defining vestiges of the engagement.  No doubt the warriors learned valuable lessons regarding army maneuvers and behavior on December 6th that translated into in a resounding victory 15 days later with the death of Fetterman, 78 soldiers, and 2 civilians.

Want More Information?

If you’d like more information on the December 6th Battle Archaeology Project, including a full synopsis of the battle and photos and descriptions of the recovered artifacts, contact us Please write “December 6th Report” in the subject box and we’ll send you a digital copy of the report, absolutely, free (public version-the pdf report is 96 pages long and 3 MB in size). Old Army Records does not sell or trade names or email addresses.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Letters Sent, Fort Phil Kearny, D.T.
Letters Received, Department of the Platte

Technical Reports
December 6th Battle Archaeological Survey Research Design (O’Dell-2009)
Final Technical Report:  Archaeological Investigations and Landscape Analysis at the December 6th Battlefield (O’Dell and Powers-2011)
National Register of Historic Places Evaluation of the December 6, 1866 Fight (O’Dell-2006)