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Indian Wars - Traditional Horse Cavalry

By Jim Heitmeyer

   Brevet Major General (Major) John W. Davidson, of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, was the man responsible for getting 7th Cavalry its start. He was directed to select "from the subalterns of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry a suitable number of officers to assist in the organization." Although Davidson was never actually assigned to the regiment, he was effectively the commander until 26 November 1866, when Brevet Major General (Colonel) Andrew J. Smith took over as the first actual commander of the regiment. Smith, with little time in the regiment, commanded for a mere five months until Brevet Major General (Lieutenant Colonel) George Armstrong Custer assumed command on 26 February 1867.

   Custer, the 1861 class "goat" (34th out of 34 graduates) of the United States Military Academy, served initially with the 2d Cavalry Regiment (Dragoons), then commanded the Michigan Volunteer Cavalry Brigade (Wolverines) from 1863 to the end of the war. He participated in every major battle of the war, and became the youngest officer ever to hold the rank of brevet Major General on 29 June 1863, two days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. In spite of his distinguished wartime record and rank, he never received the Medal of Honor.

   Almost immediately following its activation the Seventh Cavalry Regiment patrolled the Kansas plains for raiding native Americans and to protect the westward movement of pioneers. From 1866 to 1881, the regiment marched a total of 181,692 miles across Kansas, Montana, and the Dakota Territories. In the meantime, the bulk of the regiments activities involved escorting duty, both for settlers and Indian Agents.

   Coupled with low pay, alcoholism, poor subsistence, and generally poor conditions, the regiment suffered ten suicides and 160 desertions. To exacerbate the bad living conditions, a private's monthly pay was $16.00. One dollar automatically came out of his pay for savings, and there was an automatic twelve and a half cent deduction for the Soldiers Home. This left the basic private soldier with a grand total of $14.87 and a half cents per month.

   In 1867, Custer was relieved of his command and court-martialed on charges that during a pursuit of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, he had set such a killing pace that men deserted and he had issued the order to shoot on sight, wounding three and killing one. In addition, he was charged with an unauthorized absence from his command, to visit his wife Elizabeth at Fort Riley, Kansas. Custer was found guilty of these charges and was suspended from rank and command for one year with no pay during that time. General Ulysses S. Grant personally signed the court-martial order, and Custer's comparatively light sentence was most likely due to his distinguished service in the Civil War.

   After reinstatement in the fall of 1868 Custer started preparing the regiment for a winter campaign. In the meantime, the bulk of the regiment's activities involved escorting duty, both for settlers and Indian Agents. The Seventh was sent to deal with a group of Cheyenne who were encamped in the area of the Washita River. Custer's column marched south from their forward base, Camp Supply, towards the Washita. The regiment went to painstaking effort to clear the ridgelines lest the Cheyenne see them crossing the snow-covered hills. Osage scouts led the troopers. Upon detecting Chief Black Kettle's plan on the evening of 26 November 1868 Custer formulated his plan. The regiment would assault the camp in three separate columns.

   This division of forces, designed to surround their faster-moving enemies and bring the troopers' superior firepower to bear, became standard operating procedure with LTC Custer. As dawn broke on the extremely cold morning of 27 November 1868, the regimental band started playing "Garryowen." Many of the musicians' lips froze to their instruments in the cold. The regiment routed the Black Kettle and his men in a resounding victory for the troopers.

   Over the next eight years the regiment performed several key missions, one of which was the Black Hills Expedition of 1874. The regiment escorted several prospectors into the Black Hills (considered a sacred Native American burial ground) country of    South Dakota as the prospectors searched for gold. In the past, the land had been reserved for the Native Americans, but the prospectors were unconcerned with ceremonial rights. They found gold, and the resultant influx of gold-seekers were a contributing factor to the 1876 escalation of hostilities.

   In 1875, the regiment also escorted a railroad survey of the Yellowstone River valley. This expedition brought the regiment into constant conflict with Native American raiding parties. Custer, contrary to popular belief, was a peace-loving man. He did everything possible to prevent war during his frontier campaigns. Custer repeatedly requested authorization to share surplus food and grain with the Native Americans under the jurisdiction of the Standing Rock Indian Agency, but was denied permission by the Department of the Interior, which controlled the Indian agencies. The cavalry, on the other hand, was under the War Department, and thus, had no recourse. Typically, the federal government had broken every treaty it had made with the Indians.

   Food, supplies, and weapons that had been promised to Native Americans were instead sold for gold to the settlers. The government promised these goods to the Native Americans if the latter would peacefully remain on reserved lands. What few supplies that actually were sold to the Native Americans were at unreasonable prices. Flour and grain sent to the agencies were often mixed with sand; meat was often unfit for human consumption. Given the Native Americans' traditionally nomadic lifestyle and the poor living conditions, it was no surprise that they migrated.

   In his conduct of the "Cleaning House Campaign" against the Indian agents, Custer found one of the worst culprits in President Ulysses S. Grant's brother Orville. Abuse, cheating, and dishonesty ran rampant amongst the Indian agents who were supposed to uphold treaties and act as liaisons between the Native Americans and the federal government. Indian agents, who were appointed, often paid bribes to secure their position.

   President Grant relieved Custer of his command in April 1876 for the latter's sin of speaking the uncomfortable truth about Orville Grant and the Indian agents. In the meantime, the regiment had been in combat and had made its name as the finest horse cavalrymen on the frontier.

Reference: http://www.nhm.ku.edu.

Other out-of-print collectibles on the topic include his Very Silence Speaks: Comanche -The Horse Who Survived Custer's Last Stand by Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence (1989)

Keogh, Comanche and Custer by Edward S. Luce (1938).

There are also several children's books:

Comanche of the Seventh (1957) by Margaret Carver Leighton

David Appel's Comanche: Story of America's Most Heroic Horse (1951).



Jim Heitmeyer was born in Phoenix, Arizona and raised in Paradise Valley. Jim joined the United States Marine Corps and completed his service to our country. Jim later joined the Oklahoma Army National Guards 745 Military Police Company. Jim served during the Just Cause war in Panama and Operations Desert Shield & Desert Storm.  Jim Heitmeyer attained the rank of sergeant (E5).


Jim Hietmeyer is a retired lieutenant from the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office (Oklahoma).  After his retirement from the Oklahoma County Sheriffs Office he worked as a police officer for the Arcadia Police Department from 2001 through 2004.  During his career, he worked as a jailer, deputy sheriff, CLEET instructor, American Red Cross Instructor, and biohazards instructor.   He is the author of two books under the pen name of Jim Daly: Lockdown Madness and Behind Steel Doors.


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