ONE HUNDRED YEARS WITH THE SECOND CAVALRY
By Joseph I. Lambert, Major, Second Cavalry
Copyright 1939 Commanding Officer, Second Cavalry, Fort Riley, Kansas
Capper Printing Company, Inc.
On August 3, 1876, General Crook marched from the Tongue River camp to Goose Creek, where Colonel Merritt awaited him with the Fifth Cavalry. This raised the force to 2,000 men, all that were to be received at this time. The General then decided to send the wagons, 160 in number, back to Forts Fetterman and Laramie, and use only pack transportation on the campaign. The men were not allowed to carry a change of clothing, but were required to take 100 rounds of ammunition and four days’ rations on each person. The pack train carried fifteen days’ rations and the reserve ammunition.
Having opened communication with General Terry, the column under Crook marched north to join him, at the same time scouting for Indian trails. It was believed at this time that Sitting Bull’s force was north of the Yellowstone, while Crazy Horse and his band were along the Powder River. After six days of hard marching, General Crook joined General Terry on the Rosebud thirty miles south of the Yellowstone, August 10. The two battalions of the Second Cavalry from Fort Ellis, under Major Brisbin, and the one under Major Noyes, met at this camp for the first time in seven years. The united commands now numbered over 4,000 effectives, and started east on an Indian trail August 12, under General Terry. The marches were severe at this time, many of the cavalry horses having to be abandoned, and some of the infantry, becoming exhausted, had to be carried on travois or mules. Mostly because of the lack of grain, the horses became very weak and had to be led most of the time. After an unsuccessful attempt to follow an Indian trail, the column, on August 17, marched to the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Powder River and awaited supplies.
Information had been received that the savages were now separated into relatively small bands. Accordingly, it was decided that Colonel Gibbon would march his original column west along the Yellowstone and look for the Indians in that area. Companies F, G, H, and L, Second Cavalry, were with his command, and after a fruitless search for the hostiles, they went into winter quarters at Fort Ellis in September. Colonel Miles, with twelve companies of infantry, was to patrol the line of the Yellowstone for Sitting Bull, while General Crook continued active pursuit of Crazy Horse toward the south and east.
Leaving the camp on the Yellowstone August 24, 1876, Crook’s command marched with fifteen days’ rations up the west bank of the Powder River. A part of this unit were Companies A, B, D, E, and I, Second Cavalry. After one day’s march in this direction, they came across the Indian trail, which the junction with Terry’s command prevented them from following. Turning to the east they marched to O’Fallon’s Creek and then to Beaver Creek by August 31. Finding no Sioux, they went on to Andrew’s Creek, and then to the Little Missouri, which was reached September 4. After a day’s trek to Heart River, General Crook decided to march to the Black Hills, which were to the south.
One of the reasons for turning southward was to obtain supplies from the settlements which had recently grown up in the Black Hills as a result of the gold rush. Only two and one-half days’ rations were left to last the command during seven days’ march of 200 miles. Horses were becoming exhausted by the score, and over 250 dismounted cavalrymen were now marching at the rear of the column.
On September 7, Captain Anson Mills was detached with 150 picket men of the Third Cavalry and fifty pack mules to make a dash for the Black Hills to obtain food for the famished men and horses. It was at this time that the General ordered that as many of the animals as necessary could be killed as food for the troops. Some of the men began eating a species of cactus, which resulted in many cases of dysentery. The water was so brackish that neither men nor horses cared to drink it. Besides horse meat they were on half rations of hard bread and coffee with fuel difficult to obtain for making the coffee.
On the morning of September 9, a dispatch was received from Captain Mills that his command had attacked and captured a Sioux village of forty-one lodges, a herd of ponies, and supplies. He desired reenforcements because the Indians were fighting hard to regain their village. The General selected one hundred fifty men and the best horses from the Second, Third, and Fifth Cavalry, and commanding them himself, started for the fight, which was seventeen miles south at Slim Buttes on the Grand River. The remainder of the command was to follow as fast as possible.
Upon his arrival at the scene General Crook found the fighting had practically ceased and the Indians were scattered about in the surrounding ravines. Lieutenant William P. Clark, Second Cavalry, was ordered to select fifty men and dislodge the enemy from the nearby gulch. The Indians had taken refuge in a sort of cave, where they fought with great fury. The fighting became heavier at this time and all the troops present were soon engaged.
After the arrival of the infantry in the afternoon, Crazy Horse appeared on the field with reenforcements and began a new attack. The infantry was placed on the southern bluffs, while the Fifth Cavalry formed a skirmish line along the hills to the west. The Third Cavalry was placed along the northern heights. Captain Noyes, with the five troops of the Second Cavalry, made a mounted attack around the eastern sector in order to threaten the flank and rear of the Indians. Firing having ceased at dusk, camp was made in the village, where the troops feasted upon food captured from the Indians.
Because of the exhausted condition of the horses and the shortage of food, General Crook decided it would be useless to pursue Crazy Horse. He broke camp next morning and pushed on for the Black Hills where he could obtain supplies. Hardly had the column gotten in motion when the rear guard was attacked by the Indians. The soldiers held their ground well while the main body moved on. The savages, finally realizing the fight was hopeless, withdrew and never molested the column again. During this engagement the troops lost three killed and fourteen wounded, while the Indians lost thirteen killed, including the chief, American Horse, and an undetermined number wounded.
Camp was made on the Belle Fourche September 13, not far from the town of Crook City. Supplies of vegetables, beef, and crackers were obtained from the settlements, and the soldiers had their first adequate food since leaving the Yellowstone. The command then moved to Custer City, where it remained a short time to rest. After a conference with General Sheridan at Fort Laramie, General Crook received orders to send the troops of his column to their proper stations. Accordingly, Companies A, B, D, and E were sent to Fort Sanders, Wyoming, and Company I to Fort D. A. Russell, Wyoming.
This campaign was admitted by all to be one of the most severe in the annals of American Cavalry. The five troops of the Second Cavalry were in the field since May, and without shelter of any sort since August 3. During this time, it fought two battles, numerous engagements or skirmishes, and marched over 1,300 miles. Owing to lack of forage and the severe marches, the horses suffered a great deal, over 600 having died, been abandoned, or destroyed. During this severe test of the mettle of the American soldier, there was no occasion when the commander could not feel proud of them for their hearty response.