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.
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 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.
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