7th Cavalry Duty Before and After Little Bighorn

Today marks the 142nd anniversary of perhaps the most famous event in Old Army history.    I am, of course, referring to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  This post is not meant to rehash the events of that day.  Scores of books and articles describe and debate, often in great detail, the 7th Cavalry personalities, arms, equipment, and tactics involved in the battle.  Rather, I would like to discuss the duty of 7th Cavalrymen immediately before and after the battle.  Old Army duty focused on performing mundane activities, occasionally punctuated by expeditions and combat.  Duties, for both officers and enlisted men, included drilling, attending inspections, performing guard duty, and performing jobs akin to modern professions.

Plan of Fort A. Lincoln, 1876. oldarmyrecords.com
Seventh Cavalrymen performed jobs at the various buildings at Fort Abraham Lincoln.  This 1876 plan view of the post shows some of the buildings referenced in this post.

In the spring of 1876 Fort Abraham Lincoln served as headquarters for the 7th Cavalry Regiment.  Not surprisingly, cavalry officers comprised several of the post staff positions.  First Lieutenant Algernon E. Smith served as post Assistant Commissary of Subsistence (A.C.S.).  Post commanders relieved 7th cavalrymen from duty so that they could fight in the upcoming expedition.  Post commander, Major Marcus A. Reno, relieved Smith of his A.C.S. duties, replacing him with 1st Lieutenant James M. Burns, 17th Infantry.  In addition to commanding Co. E (Grey Horse Troop), Smith also served as the expedition A.C.S.  Interestingly, Smith in April 1876 received authorization to purchase a grey horse, “provided that the horse is not the mount of a trooper” for his private use.  No doubt, Smith rode this horse into the June battle.

Sixteen officers, including surgeons, died at the Little Big Horn.  The casualties included two key regimental staff positions, field commander (Custer) and adjutant (1st Lt. William W. Cooke).  Despite the decimation regimental business proceeded.  On June 27th Marcus Reno assumed field command of the regiment and appointed 1st Lieutenant George D. Wallace adjutant.

Enlisted Men

Enlisted men had jobs as well.  On May 1st, Private Samuel S. Shade, Co. C, was relieved of duty as the post schoolmaster.  The former school teacher enlisted in 1875.   Immediately prior to the departure of the expedition Private George W. Hammon, Co. F, 7th Cavalry, served on extra duty as a nurse in the post dispensary.  Private Montreville A. Clark, 20th Infantry counterpart, replaced Hammon.  Both Shade and Hammon died with Custer on June 25th.

Campaigns offered as break from garrison work and was likely viewed as a vacation.  Like any vacation the respite ends and the people resume their normal jobs.  On May 14th, for example, Private Thomas Sayers (aka Seayers) was relieved from duty in the post bakery to participate in the expedition.  He resumed bakery duty in September shortly after returning from the summer campaign.

Caring for the 7th Cavalry Dead and Wounded

On May 13, just a few days before the regiment left Fort Abraham Lincoln, Custer issued final orders related to a variety of subjects.  For example, Special Order 92, Paragraph 6, stated that “[u]pon the return of the expedition Companies A, C, D, and F will occupy the quarters, barracks and stables recently vacated by them.  “E” Company will occupy the barracks recently vacated by “I” Co. and the south stable nearest the river.”  Not long after returning to Fort Abraham Lincoln, surviving 7th Cavalry officer 1st Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey served on a board of survey convened to inventory of government property belonging to the five companies decimated at the Battle of Little Bighorn , including the property of companies referenced in SO 92.

Over 60 enlisted men received wounds during the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Many of the wounds were minor and did not interfere with duty.  Most of the severely wounded were immediately sent back to the hospital at Fort Abraham Lincoln.  Fittingly, several fellow battle survivors, detailed as nurses, attended comrades with serious injuries.  Seventh Cavalry nurses included privates Max Mielke (Co. K), Samuel Severs (Co. H), Francis M. Reeves (Co. A), and Henry Lang (Co. E).  Survivor guilt undoubtedly affected many 7th Cavalrymen after the battle and is discussed in an earlier post.

Closing Thoughts

Although combat was a pivotal event for any serviceman it represented only a small portion of the day-to-day life of an Old Army soldier.  Despite the tragic nature of these events, army duty, whether it be issuing orders, baking bread, accounting for government property, or tending the sick and wounded, continued.  These mundane tasks epitomized the service of a typical 19th century soldier.  Check back in two weeks for a discussion of one of the many duties performed by Old Army officers: councils of administration.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Fort Abraham Lincoln, Special Orders
Seventh Cavalry, General Orders
U.S. Army Register of Enlistments

Old Army Numbers: Boards of Survey 1870

Old Army officers constantly served on boards of survey.  These ad hoc councils determined who or what caused the loss or allocation of government property and were discussed in a previous blog.  This post presents some of the details of boards of survey convened in the Department of Platte (D.O.P.) in 1870.

Composition of Boards of Survey 

About 11% of the U.S. Regular Army was stationed in the department (a list of these stations may be found here).  That amounted to 60 companies representing the 2nd and 5th Cavalry Regiments, the 4th, 7th, 9th, 13th, and 14th Infantry Regiments, and a contingent of Engineers.  Boards of survey involved  249 officers as either the responsible party (the person financially responsible for government property) or board members (1-3 officers tasked with determining the disposition of government property).

As the chart below illustrates officers from the infantry, cavalry, and engineers comprised the boards.  Interestingly, 29 officers not assigned to a specific unit, also served on boards.  In 1869, Congress mandated a substantial reduction in the strength of the regular army.   This law consolidated several units, mostly infantry, and left many officers without a command.  They had no specific assignment until a vacancy opened up.

Distribution, by rank, of officers associated with boards of survey in the Department of the Platte (1870).

On average officers were associated with boards five times during the year.  First Lieutenant Thomas J. Gregg, 2nd Cavalry, was a responsible party once and served as a board member the most (16 times).  All commissioned ranks, 1st Lieutenant through Colonel, were associated with the boards.  Not surprisingly, company grade officers were the most frequent responsible parties and board members, as shown in the chart below.

Comparison, by rank, of officers who were responsible parties or members for boards of survey convened in the Department of the Platte (1870).

Boards of Survey Subject Matter

In 1870, 294 boards of survey convened in the department.  The four major categories of government property were Commissary Stores, Quartermaster Stores, Ordnance Stores, and Medical Stores.  The following is a breakdown of the 294 boards of survey convened in the D.O.P. in 1870.  Examples from the categories follow:


This catchall category includes boards convened to examine more than one class of government property (i.e. commissary and quartermaster stores).  It also included a case Signal Corps stores and equipment (Fort Douglas) and determining the number and size of stoves required in a cavalry barracks and kitchens at Omaha Barracks.  The board concluded that buildings in question should have Pioneer No. 38 and Charter Oak No. 12 stoves, the latter with 5 and 25 gallon coffee boilers.

Medical Stores

Three of the eight boards convened to examine medical stores involved liquor.  They include the loss of 12 quarts of brandy (Fort Fetterman), 9 bottles of whiskey, 2 bottles of alcohol, and 4 bottles of sherry (North Platte Station), and one bottle of whiskey (Miner’s Delight).  In the latter case, the board determined that Sergeant John Schumaker, Co. K, 7th Infantry was responsible for the theft of the whiskey plus:

Ordnance Stores     

Ordnance stores, not surprisingly, included artillery, small arms, horse equipment, and associated equipment and tools.  Surprisingly, 17 boards convened at nine posts/ sub-posts to determine the responsibility for the theft of 120 firearms throughout the department.  The loss of these weapons also meant a large financial burden for the government.


In most cases deserters stole the firearms and, consequently, were accountable for the loss.  While deserting from Plum Creek Station one night in May 1870, Sergeant John H. Groover, and four others from Co. F, 5th Cavalry took 8 Sharps Carbines and 30 Colt Army Revolvers.

Although the board of survey absolved Groover’s company commander, Captain William Henry Brown, of responsibility for the loss, Captain John R. McGinness, D.O.P. Chief Ordnance Officer, wrote a brief admonishment.  In his opinion the revolvers “…should have been placed in the hands of the men of the Comp[any] in order that each man could be held personally responsible for their safe keeping.”  McGinness further stated “[t]he fact that five enlisted men, wishing to desert would connect themselves with such a suspicious circumstance as to carry 6 revolvers and a carbine or two in addition about their person or offer them for sale seems strange enough to excite comment.”

Quartermaster Property

This category is by far the largest and most diverse classification of government property.  In the D.O.P., boards of survey for quartermaster property convened for as little as one crosscut saw (Fort Bridger) to 3,532 itemized uniform components (Fort D.A. Russell).

Perhaps the most unique subject of a board of survey was a pontoon bridge located at Omaha Barracks, Nebraska.  The bridge included 13 pontoon boats, 14 boats oars, 21 incomplete boats, and 12 anchors.  The board concluded that the bridge was “…nearly valueless five years ago, and [it] has been in almost constant use ever since.”

Virginia, Pontoon boat used by the Army of the Potomac. Old Army Records, LLC
Boards of survey often condemned government property.  In 1870, a board, convened at Omaha Barracks, considered 16 pontoon boats, similar to this one, “nearly valueless.”
Commissary Stores

Commissary stores comprised the largest numbers of boards of surveys.  Most of these items were perishable and subject to rot and loss due to evaporation and dehydration (known in Old army parlance as “shrinkage”).   Boards convened to examine something as little as little as 13 pounds of ham (Fort D.A. Russell).  More commonly, boards determined whether these articles were fit for issue or sale.  The following is an example from Fort Fetterman:

Closing Remarks

From food to furnishings, boards of survey provide a wealth of information pertaining to the life of an Old Army soldier.  The information provided in this post is only a small representation of the data contained in boards of survey documents.  Feel free to contact us at admin@oldarmyrecords.com for more information on this subject.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)

Reports of Boards of Survey, Department of the Platte (1866-1876)

Old Army Officer Duty: Boards of Survey

Duties of 19th century army officers varied.  The lowest grade officers (captain, 1st lieutenant, and second lieutenant) directed the day-to-day operations of companies and completed regular rotations as officer of the day.  Colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors oversaw the operations of regiments, posts, and often districts.  All officers also served on ad hoc assignments.  These included councils of administration, boards of survey, courts martial, and courts of inquiry.  Over time, we will examine these types of duties, but will begin with a discussion of boards of survey.

What is a Board of Survey?

Officers, regardless of rank or duty, were responsible for public property at some point in their career.   Public property included any article purchased by or used by the government.  The main categories of public property included subsistence (commissary), quartermaster, ordnance, and medical stores (click here for a further description of public property).   Property could include anything from a bottle of ink to mountain howitzer.  Per army regulations, “[w]hen public property becomes damaged, except by fair wear and tear, or otherwise unsuitable for use, or a deficiency is found in it, the officer accountable for the same shall report the case to the commanding officer, who shall, if necessary, appoint a Board of Survey.” Regardless of how small or inexpensive the article, officers could be held financially liable for any loss or damage to the article.

Commissary of Regiment. Dressed beef by Mathew Brady. oldarmyrecords.com
Most boards of survey dealt with commissary supplies, such as beef.

In addition to examining arms, uniforms, and material, boards of survey determined the cause of the destruction of military buildings, due to fire or some other cause.  Boards also convened to identify the personal effects of deceased soldiers or to rectify the accounts of dead officers.  Sometimes boards recommended the destruction of  damaged property, including horses.


A commanding officer, through his adjutant, convened a board of survey by issuing a special order.  The order included the name, rank, and position of the responsible officer and the composition of the three officers composing the board.  Typically, the junior officer of the board served as the recorder, transcribing the proceedings.

Most boards of survey convened shortly after the arrival of wagon trains, laden with supplies, at their destination.  Perishable food items were susceptible to spoilage and wastage while in transit.  Not surprisingly, commissary supplies were typically the subject of most boards of survey.

"The Supply Train", 1876, Old Army Records
“The Supply Train”, 1876

The proceedings began by reviewing the bills of lading.  Typically, the recorder prepared a detailed list comparing the invoiced amounts versus the received amounts.   The board then physically inspected the property in question.  Boards had the authority to call witnesses and prepare affidavits in an effort to determine the facts of the case.  Witnesses could be officers, enlisted men, government employees, or civilians.  More often than not boards determined that the responsible party was not accountable for loss or damage.  Click here to see an example of proceedings.

Approval of Boards of Survey

Once the board prepared its written decision, each member signed the proceedings and forwarded them to the commanding officer for review and approval.  Copies were also provided to the responsible party and members of the board.  Occasionally, boards were required to reconvene to address any improprieties or consider additional information.

Next, the commanding officer submitted the proceedings to the immediate superior command, normally department headquarters, where the appropriate staff department (i.e. ordnance, quartermaster, inspector general, etc.) reviewed and provided comments on the findings.   Pay was withheld for enlisted men and officers deemed responsible for property lost or damaged.  If contractors were held responsible, their contracts were amended to recoup the loss.

Boards of survey provide a wealth of information pertaining to the supplies, equipment, and furnishings of the Old Army soldier.  These significant documents are often fragmented and incomplete.  However, Old Army Records will continue to digitize and index them.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)

Reports of Boards of Survey, Department of the Platte (1866-1876)

Proceedings of Boards of Survey, Fort C.F. Smith, M.T. (1867-1868)

Proceedings of Boards of Survey, Fort Phil Kearny, D.T. (1866-1868)

Proceedings of Boards of Survey, Fort Reno, D.T. (1867-1868)


Published Sources

Revised U.S. Army Regulations (1863)

Customs of Service for Officers of the Army (1868)