On 21 September 1866, the 7th Cavalry regiment was organized at Fort Riley, Kansas commanded by Colonel Andrew J. Smith. Recruits and veterans along with frontiersmen and immigrants began showing up at the fort.
The regiment consisted of 11 companies of fighting men and one company of musicians known as the Regimental Band.
The regimental song was GarryOwen.
As the story goes, one of the Irish troopers of the 7th Cavalry, who had a wee bit more of the of spirits than he should have, was singing the song. By chance Custer heard the melody, liked the cadence, and soon began to hum the tune to himself. The tune has a lively beat, that accentuates the cadence of marching horses and for that reason was adopted as the regimental song.
The 7th Cavalry was not the only regiment to have GarryOwen as "their" song. GarryOwen is also the Regimental March of another famous fighting unit, The Royal Irish Regiment. Organized in 1684 from Irish Pikemen and Musketeers, this regiment has seen service in all parts of the world.
Being a new regiment, first they had to learn how to become soldiers, and then cavalrymen. That was the job of the second in command, Ltc 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. Custer was appointed to the vacant Lt. Col. position of the 7th. During the War many soldiers were breveted, or given 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. That's why
Custer was always referred to as, General Custer.
Custer put the new members of the unit through a harsh but hardening training program before leaving Ft. Riley. The men were turned 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. They would soon find out.
This training made the 7th into one of the best fighting units on the frontier.
In March of 1867, when the Indians 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 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 Cheyenne's 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.
There was a second epidemic of cholera at Ft. Riley, and Custer feared for his wife's safety. Custer traveled from Ft. Wallace, with a small detachment, to Ft. Hays for supplies. He then went on to Ft. Harker and saw General Smith briefly. He then took the train to Ft. Riley.
This did not set well with his superiors. 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 Custer's absence, Major Joel Elliott, who was second in command, took 150 men from the 7th, and a battery of the 4th Artillery and provided the escort for the peace commission. 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.
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 their nomadic way of life and the tensions started up again.
On September 24th, 1868, Custer's court martial was remitted. He
joined his troops on Bluff Creek (near present day Ashland, Kansas). Almost immediately upon arrival, the 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. All they 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 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 nation's 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 allblack 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 a Northern railway route through Dakota and Montana territory. That same year the 7th was transferred to Ft. Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory.
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. This brought a flood of whites into the Sioux Nation, and they were not happy about it. In 1874 and 1875 the 7th was 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, who 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 were 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.