Anyone who grew up on a diet of cowboy films will have the image of the US cavalry charging over the horizon guns a-blazing dressed in striking blue uniforms, bandannas, and yellow hats chasing the Indians off at the last moment to save the day. In this little piece of writing I aim to destroy this image, so if you are squeamish please look away.
In 1865 the American Civil War ended the country was in recession and broke, disbanding the huge armies was a priority and the few remaining roles highly sought after. One of these was the worst job in the army, cavalry deployed on the plains.
After the ACW the number of regiments deployed on the plains was increased from 6 to 10, two of the regiments were black and these were arguably the two best.
With there being an overabundance of officers getting in a regiment was incredibly difficult and promotion hopes terrible. After the war an estimated 88% of officers were West Point graduates and 12% enlisted men promoted during the civil war. Between 1866 and 1890 it took roughly 25 years to get promoted from lieutenant to major. It was even more difficult for Confederate officers who often joined as NCO’s or even enlisted men.
If there were too many officers, there was a shortage of enlisted men. The proverbial bottom of the barrel was scraped and nuances in the law used. One such was the fact Indian territory was technically outside of the United States so civil law didn’t apply and men convicted of crimes in the US weren’t criminals on the plains, so on the run criminals proved an excellent source of recruits. Another was recent immigrants. On average half of the troopers were recent immigrants; in numerical order the nationalities were Irish, German/Austrian, Italian, British, Dutch, French, Swiss, other nationalities. Of the 260 who died at Little Big Horn 30% were Irish.
The average age of 23 troopers came from a quite amazing diversity of backgrounds, US recruits could come from good families whereas immigrant motivation tended to be poverty. A company of Custer’s cavalry had 3 Professors, a doctor, a telegraph operator, a printer, 2 lawyers, 4 cooks, 3 schoolteachers, a farm labourer, a book keeper, a farm boy, a dentist, a blacksmith an ivory carver, a young man of position trying to gain a commission and a salesman ruined by drink.
The main problem the cavalry faced was not the Indians but desertion, roughly 1/3 of all soldiers deserted and companies were often as low as 50% strength. A special kind of professional deserter even emerged called ‘snowbirds’ they would join the army to see themselves through the winter, then desert in summer.
From the 60’s to the late 70’s the cavalry received no training other than basic drill. This is quite amazing when you consider most recruits had never seen a horse let alone ridden one. No riding training was provided whatsoever. When a trooper was went on patrol this was the first time he rode his horse. Hopefully he would have the luxury of weeks of uneventful patrolling in agony from saddle sores to learn horsemanship skills, but if he was unlucky enough to see trouble right away he had big problems, new recruits had little hope against the skilful Indian riders. From 1880 proper training procedures were established. Recruits learnt shooting, marching, physical fitness exercises, riding, mounted and dismounted sabre drill.
Equipment too was not standardised. Cavalry were given a single uniform when they enlisted but the uniform was so poor quality it quickly fell apart, it was also useless to in winter cold so most cavalry unlike in Hollywood movies reverted corduroy, buckskin or flannel scouting suits.
Cavalry horses differed from Indian ponies in that they lacked both the speed and stamina but were superior in that they could be ridden in winter unlike the Indian ones.
Up until 1870 there was no standardisation of weapons, a cavalry troop would have carried a mixture of Sharp muzzle loading carbines, short range Spencer repeating rifles, Springfield muzzle loading rifles, Remington’s and others, pistols were similarly mixed, the only standard weapon was the 1860 cavalry sabre which was not carried on campaign. In 1870 a standardised breach loading Allin Springfield’s were issued to all troops.
Warfare involved mostly long rides, hunger and exhaustion but little fighting, encounters tended to be ambushes with one side heavily outnumbering the other. Catching Indians on the run was almost impossible due to their superior horsemanship skills. Taking prisoners was rare for the cavalry and being captured meant slow torture and death so suicide was common if an action was going badly. Ironically the second biggest killer after the enemy was men falling off their horses.
Patrolling miles from civilisation the prospects for the wounded were grim, 5 out of every 1000 men died form wounding, however disease was to prove the biggest killer of all. Twice as many cavalry died from disease as were killed by Indians.
Life in the cavalry was harsh and not remotely romantic like in movies, it was mostly for the dispossed; criminals, the empoverished or people who couldn’t adjust to normality after the ACW. Pay was poor and propsect virtually zero, fights ended either in death or victory, but despite this it wasn’t very dangerous with a death rate of only 0.13 percent.