7th Cavalry (U.S.) and Fort Pulaski Prison

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.

Aerial view photo of Fort Pulaski, GA. It held at least 25 7th Cavalry (U.S.) prisoners in the 1870s.
Fort Pulaski (1829-1873).

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.

Fort Pulaski

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 Although outdated as a coastal defense fortification, the brick structure was still useful.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.

Historic cartagrphic map Fort Pulaski, GA, 1862. It held at least 25 7th Cavalry (U.S.) prisoners in the 1870s.
Fort Pulaski occupied Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River. It served as a U.S. military prison, first for Confederate officers, and later for former regular army soldiers, including several from the 7th Cavalry. Map of Siege of Fort Pulaski, Savannah River, Georgia (1862) by Robert Knox Sneden.
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.

Historic photo of Fort Pulaski, GA, 1907. It held at least 25 7th Cavalry (U.S.) prisoners in the 1870s.
Prisoners confined at Fort Pulaski, including at least 25 former 7th Cavalrymen, occupied the casements. This view of the casements was taken circa. 1907. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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.

Sources

Unpublished Sources
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.

Newspaper
The Charleston News (1871)

Government Documents
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).

Leavenworth Military Prison: Inmate Property

The military service record of 19th century U.S. soldiers frequently included brushes with army justice.  Enlisted men convicted of serious offenses faced imprisonment and their case proceedings often included the statement “the Leavenworth Military Prison, Kansas, is designated as the place of his confinement.”  Alcatraz Island held soldiers serving in the Division of the Pacific.  However, between 1875 and 1895, Leavenworth became the official prison for most military convicts.

Leavenworth Military Prison Inmate Reception

Upon entering the prison, the convicted soldiers received a unique number and relinquished all personal property.  The prison adjutant took responsibility for money.  Presumably, a safe held the money.  The remaining property, clothing, jewelry, personal grooming items, etc., were kept in a storehouse.  Upon completion of their sentence, the inmate received their property.  Entries for about 4,000 convicts are in the register kept by the adjutant at the Leavenworth Military Prison between March 1877 and December 1888.

The prison adjutant, detached from an active military unit, acknowledged each entry with his signature.  The prisoners also signed the entry, or left his mark.  The register, therefore, is a good indicator of the literacy of the inmates.

Historic photo of Leavenworth Military Prison, circa 1900
Leavenworth Military Prison, circa 1900. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Personal Items From Money To a “Citizen Hat”

Most prisoners had few, if any, personal possessions.  However, for those who turned over items the list was diverse.  For example, Private Patrick J. Rourke, member of the 22nd Infantry band, deserted from Fort Wayne, Michigan in May 1877.  He surrendered at Fort Porter, New York.  There he stood trial by general court martial.  Upon being received at Leavenworth on October 5th Rourke (Prisoner #457) brought with him 80¢ and a memo book.

On January 16, 1882, Charles Taphner, Company F, 1st Infantry deserted from Fort Davis, Texas.  He was apprehended two days later.  The private was found guilty in a subsequent general court martial and received a harsh sentence, which included a three-year prison term (later reduced to two years).  Taphner (Prisoner #442) arrived with three other prisoners at Leavenworth on May 29, 1880 with a gold ring and silver watch.

Other examples of personal property of inmates include:

  • John Rust (Prisoner #170) turned over 2¢ and a corn husker.
  • William McClain (Prisoner #209) turned over 60¢ and a Grand Army of the Republic Badge.
  • James Guy (Prisoner #282) turned over $14.75 and a “citizen hat”.
  • William Campbell (Prisoner #305) turned over $8.00 and a “Photo Diary”.
  • Edward Barton (Prisoner #509) turned over $3.50, a banjo, and a package of books.
  • John J. Miles (Prisoner #514) turned over 5¢ and an Indian pipe.
1880 $1 bill courtesy of Wikipedia, File:US-$1-LT-1880-Fr-29.jpg
Inmates entering Leavenworth military Prison frequently brought paper money or coins, such as this dollar bill issued in 1880. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
From Little Bighorn to Leavenworth Prison
Leavenworth Military Prison inmates frequently turned over watches.
Seventh Cavalry inmates Joshua S. Nicholas and Thomas Seayers both turned over watches when they arrived at Leavenworth Prison. Image from page 511 of “The American garden” (1873).

Several veteran 7th Cavalrymen and survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn served time at Leavenworth Military Prison.  On May 19, 1878, enlisted men Frank Howard (Prisoner #174) and Joshua S. Nicholas (Prisoner #343) turned over personal items at the prison.  Both men fought at the Little Bighorn.  Howard, formerly of Company F, turned over $1.25, while Nicholas, who served in Company H, had a watch and chain and $34.60.  In a previous article, I discussed Private Thomas Seayers (aka Sayers) from Company A.  Seayers worked at the Fort Abraham Lincoln bakery before and after the Custer Battle.  Seayers deserted in June 1878 and surrendered three months later.  In February 1879, he arrived at Leavenworth Military Prison, was assigned ID # 255 and turned over $2.03 and a watch.

As Private Seayers demonstrates, the military service record of 19th century soldiers was complex.  More importantly, the U.S. Army bureaucracy documented the service history.  Old Army Records is systematically identifying, digitizing, and indexing those documents.  What details do your U.S. military ancestors have?  Contact us to uncover their complete military service record.

Sources

Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Department of the Platte, General Orders (1877)
Department of Texas, General Orders (1882)
Division of the Atlantic, General Orders (1877)
Prisoner Book, Department of Texas (1872-1886)
Register of Prisoners Received, Leavenworth Military Prison

Army Regulations
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895)

Other Source
Index of General Court-Martial Orders, Adjutant General’s Office, 1880 (GPO 1881)