At the end of the Civil War, Congress saw a need for
a larger Army to help control the rising problem with the Indians on the
Plains. In October of 1866 the 7th. Cavalry was formed at Ft. Riley,
Kansas. The task of organizing the Officer corps and training the mostly
green enlisted Recruits, was given to Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
Custer was mustered out of the Army early in 1866 after the end of the
War, as a "Brevet" Major General, the youngest ever at age 23.
With the forming up of the new 7th, Custer was appointed to the vacant
Lt. Col. position. During the War many soldiers were "Breveted"
ranks in order to fill the positions of fallen officers. At the end of
the War, the need was no longer there, so many of them were demoted to
lesser ranks. That person was now paid the wages of rank he now held,
but was always given the respect and the title of the higher rank he
held before. Thatís why Custer was always referred to as General
General Custer was directly involved with developing the regiment which
consisted of 11 companies of fighting men and one company of musicians
known as the Regimental Band. The men were transformed into a
disciplined fighting unit through many months of Cavalry drills and
tactics, which were based upon Civil War experience. At that time no one
yet knew what fighting the Plains Indians would be like.
In March of 1867, when Indian depredations became more and more violent
in western Kansas, the 7th, was given its first opportunity to see what
fighting Indians was all about. Under the command of General Hancock,
they marched from Ft. Riley to Ft. Larned where it was joined by 6
infantry companies and a battery of artillery, altogether consisting of
some 1,400 men.
In April of 1867, a meeting was held between the Army and a few chiefs
of the Plains Indians. Due to a misunderstanding, when the Army moved
their troops closer to the Indian encampment, the Indians feared another
"Sand Creek Massacre," where in November 1864 a group of Army
volunteers attacked a peaceful village of Cheyennes under Chief Black
Kettle, 125 Indians were killed, mostly women and children, so the
Indians fled under cover of night.
Custer and the 7th, were given the task of tracking
them down, and spent the entire summer doing so. The only contact they
made with the Indians were with small war parties which constantly
harassed the troops.
Custer later left his command in the field, and traveled back to Ft.
Riley to visit his wife "Libbie." Upon arrival there Custer
was placed under arrest for being AWOL. On September 15, 1867, Custer
was court-martialed and found guilty. He was sentenced to one year
suspension from rank and pay. He went home to Monroe, Michigan where he
waited out his suspension.
In the meantime, a smaller party of officials were sent out to find the
Indians and persuade them to come in and sign a treaty. They were
successful in doing so, and the Indians agreed to sign the treaty if
they were allowed to keep their original hunting grounds and if the
whites agreed to keep the railroad from crossing their land. One other
stipulation was that the signing itself took place on "Medicine
Lodge Creek". There the Indians knew there would be plenty of water
and grass for all the tribes.
In Custerís absence, Major Joel Elliott, who was second in command,
took 150 men from the 7th, and a battery of the 4th. Artillery provided
the escort for the "Peace Commission" who were to go to
Medicine Lodge Creek and meet the Indians. The troops left Ft. Larned on
October 12th, 1867 with over 200 wagons, 30 of which were filled with
gifts for the Indians. They arrived at Medicine Lodge Creek on the
morning of the 14th. All tribes were present except the Cheyenne.
The first council was held on the 19th, with the Cheyenne still not
there. The Comanches and the Kiowas, signed their treaty on the 20th. On
the 25th the Plains Apache signed theirs. Still no Cheyenne tribe had
shown up, so the Peace Commission sent word that they would only wait
until the 28th and then they would leave. On Sunday evening, the 27th,
the Cheyenne tribe came into camp. It was agreed that the council would
begin at 9:00 in the morning. On Monday, October 28, 1867 the Cheyenne
and the Arapahos signed their treaty, thus ending the signing of the
"Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty."
With the coming of the new year 1868, the government had failed to live
up to its end of the treaty. So, the Indians had returned to the nomadic
way of life and the depredations started up again.
On September 24th, 1868, Custerís court martial was remitted. He
joined his troops on Bluff Creek (near present day Ashland, KS.). Almost
immediately upon arrival, Indians attacked the camp. Custer ordered his
troops, mounted and gave chase. They followed the Indian trail back to
Medicine Lodge Creek, but found no Indians. The only thing left was a
deserted Medicine Lodge that Custer stated "Had many scalps of all
ages and sex." Custer then returned to their camp on Bluff Creek.
There he and General Sheridan planned a winter campaign. They knew that
during the winter months, the Indians stayed on one location where they
would have plenty of water and firewood for their fires, all Custer had
to do was find it.
Guided by Osage Indian Scouts, the 7th headed for the Washita Valley in
Indian territory, (now Oklahoma). On November 27, 1868, they attacked
the Cheyenne village of Black Kettle, one of the chiefs who had signed
the treaty at Medicine Lodge the year before. During the battle, Black
Kettle and his wife were killed, along with 140 other Indians. Major
Joel Elliott, who coincidently commanded the troops at Medicine Lodge,
was also killed. The 7th lost 21 men that day, one of which was Capt.
Louis Hamilton, the grandson of Alexander Hamilton, our nationís first
Secretary of Treasury under President George Washington.
Kansas Governor, Samuel Crawford, resigned his
political position in order to lead the 19th, Kansas volunteers on the
campaign. But they became lost in a snow storm and arrived too late for
the battle. The "Battle of Washita" marked the beginning of
many encounters to come between the Cavalry and the Indians.
In January of 1869, the 7th Cavalry and the 19th,
Kansas, were responsible for locating a site for a new fort in Indian
territory. That fort became known as "Ft. Sill". When work was
competed in March of that year, the garrison was turned over to the 10th
cavalry, which was an all black regiment led by white officers. The 7th
and the 19th returned to Ft. Hays. From 1867 to 1870 the 7th Cavalry
fought many skirmishes with the Plains Indians, from Texas to Nebraska.
In March of 1871, the 7th was withdrawn from the
plains and sent to Kentucky for a 2 year stay. In 1873, the 7th, led by
Gen. Custer, conducted an expedition of the Yellowstone, where they were
seeking Northern railway route through Dakota and Montana territory.
That same year the 7th was transferred to Ft. Abraham Lincoln in Dakota
In 1874 the 7th conducted an expedition into the
Black Hills. Their mission was to find a site for a new fort. What they
found was "Gold in them hills." This brought a flood of whites
into the Sioux Nation, and they were not happy about it. 1874 and 1875
saw the 7th trying to keep the two nations apart, but without much luck.
In December of 1875, the government gave the Indians until January 31,
1876 to go to a reservation that was set aside for them. If they failed
to do so they would be considered "Hostile" and the Army would
be sent out after them.
The deadline came and went, so the Army was sent out once again. On May
17, 1876, the 7th Cavalry consisting of 11 companies with 45 men each,
set out from Ft. Lincoln. Their destination was the Big Horn Valley.
There they expected to find the Indian encampment. On Sunday afternoon,
June 25, 1876, the 7th Cavalry found the Indian village. Custer divided
his regiment into 3 columns, one under Capt. Benteen, who was to scout
out the surrounding area. The second column under Major Reno, was to
attack the southern part of the village, and Custer was to attack the
northern end. What they did not know was that the village was well over
5 miles long. The 7th, with a force of 600 men, attacked a village of
7,000 Indians, 2,000 of which were considered warriors.
By 3 P.M., Gen. Custer and 225 men lay dead on the
hillside near the Big Horn River. Major Reno was trapped on a hillside 5
miles to the south. On the morning of the 27th, the Indians pulled up
their camp and left the Big Horn Valley. Major Reno lost 47 men in his
battle. No one knew what happened to Custer until a relief column came.
On the afternoon of the 27th, they found Gen. Custer and his men.
Five members of the Custer family were killed at the Battle of the
Little Big Horn. The Gen., his brother Capt. Tom Custer, brother-in-law
Capt. James Calhoun, younger brother Boston, and Nephew Autie Reed, who
was only 18, both Boston and Autie were civilians. The 7th lost 272 men
during the battle, almost half the regiment.
The last encounter that the 7th cavalry had with the Indians, was at
Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890. Tensions were high and
sparks ready to fly when an accidental discharge of a rifle sent a
barrage of gun fire down upon the Indians. 350 Indians were killed that
day, most of which were women, children and old men.
That was the end of the Indian threat in the United States.