What Were the Circumstances Surrounding the Battle of the Washita River

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7th U.S. Cavalry

Unquestionably, the American Civil War forever altered the United States. After the four years of the “brothers’ war,” the cultural, economic, political, social, and regional fabric of the United States was drastically altered under the premise of Reconstruction. What is often forgotten; however, are the changes that affected the U.S. military after the guns were stacked at Appomattox Courthouse. Priorities changed from a civil war, primarily fought in the eastern U.S., to open warfare against the Native Americans who lived on the vast expanses of the western United States. In order to affect a formidable frontier military presence, the U.S. military needed to enhance its cavalry.

As the 19th Century progressed after the Civil War, expansion to the west increased due to available land, the destruction of homes and farms in the South, and the exponential growth of the railroad system. The hindrance to westward expansion included raids and violence along the plains states and the western U.S. as hunters and settlers encroached on designated Native American lands. Many of the tribes of the Plains were nomadic and relied on the buffalo for their very existence. With white hunters trespassing on Native hunting grounds in violation of government treaties, hostilities reached greater heights after the Civil War as the U.S. military had a surplus of seasoned troops by the end of 1865 and were at that time able to focus their attention on the western region of the country.

Expansion of the Cavalry

The West, known at the time as the frontier, consisted of vast swathes of unsettled lands that contained an abundance of natural resources. To commandeer these resources for their own benefit, white businessmen, railroad officials, hunters, trappers, and pioneers required military protection when traversing this region. As the territory was so immense, infantry soldiers were ineffective in covering such a seemingly limitless expanse. In order to scout trails and combat what were considered “hostile” Indians, the cavalry was needed.

In July 1866, the U.S. Congress authorized the formation of four additional cavalry units. These new troops were to be utilized almost exclusively in the western United States to form a defense against Native American attacks on pioneers and hunters. Further, cavalry units were needed to patrol the Texas border and ward off attacks from the growing number of bandito raids from Mexico. Not the least of the duties assigned to the new units was to protect the interests of the railroads. Transcontinental transportation was foremost on the mind of politicians, military brass, and businessmen alike. The treaties agreed to with the Native American tribes became increasingly inconsequential as the railroads grew and towns were settled. Arguably, the most blatant violation of Indian treaty came after gold was discovered in the Black Hills on designated Indian lands, which ultimately resulted in the slaughter of George A. Custer and his troops. Prior to that battle, the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, the men of the U.S. 7th Cavalry garnered acclaim for their bravery, skill, and tenacity during the Indian Wars of the 19th Century.

Major General Winfield Hancock, commander of the Department of the Missouri, issued Special Orders No. 2 on August 27, 1866. This new directive instructed Brevet Major General John Davidson of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry to “take charge of and superintend the organization of the new Regiment of Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas.”[1]Davidson was ordered to detail several officers from the 2nd Cavalry to assist him in this endeavor and these junior officers were instructed to remain at Fort Riley until such a time when new and suitable replacements arrived from Washington. These men were to lead the new recruits into becoming the U.S. Army’s premiere fighting force. The men who enlisted for this duty became professional soldiers with the goal of a long military career.

Issued on November 23, 1866 and retroactive to September 21 of that year, the War Department released General Orders No. 92, which delineated the field officers for the new cavalry regiments. Colonel Andrew J. Smith, Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, and Major Alfred Gibbs were appointed to command the 7th Cavalry, which fell under the purview of the Division of the Missouri.[2]By September 17, the unit was further organized into troops A-I and K-M.[3] At this time, 882 enlisted men commanded by the officers of the 2nd Cavalry composed the 7th U.S. Cavalry. When 1866 reached its end, the 7th Cavalry Regiment was fully functional and assigned to their duty stations with a complement of fifteen commissioned officers and 963 enlisted men.
  1. Lt. Col. Melbourne C. Chandler, Of Garry Owen in Glory: The History of the Seventh United States Cavalry Regiment (Annandale, VA: The Turnpike Press, 1960), 2.
  2. Chandler, 2.
  3. A troop J was never utilized in military units as the handwriting of the time resulted in I and J looking too similar. So as to avoid any confusion, J was simply eliminated.