In 1866 the United States Army had 10 regiments of cavalry. It also had 45 of infantry and 5 of artillery. The army was widely dispersed in small units in areas where they were likely to encounter trouble from Native Americans. A garrison based at a fort usually consisted of one company of infantry and one of cavalry. In 1870, the 1st, 3rd and 8th Cavalry were in Arizona, 2nd and 5th in Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming, the 7th in Kansas and the 4th, 6th, 9th and 10th in Texas.

Regulation cavalry uniform was blue tunic and trousers with yellow piping. While on military campaigns, troopers were allowed to wear buckskin jackets. A cavalryman was armed with a sabre, revolver and carbine. Some also carried bowie knifes.

The 9th and 10th Cavalry were Afro-American regiments led by white officers. The most important of these was Lieutenant John Pershing of the 10th Cavalry. Highly respected by the Native Americans these men were called Buffalo Soldiers because their short curly hair resembled that of the buffalo. They played an active role in the Indian Wars and took part in campaigns against the Sioux, Comanche and Apache. Eleven of these soldiers received the Medal of Honor. The first black officer was Henry O. Flipper, who served in the 10th Cavalry.

Cavalry Officer by Frederic Remington
Cavalry Officer by Frederic Remington

Primary Sources

(1) George A. Custer, My Life on the Plains (1874)

The Indians, who were interested spectators of these preparations for their reception, continued to approach, but seemed willing to delay their attack until the plain became a little more favorable for their operations. Finally, the desired moment seemed to have arrived. The Indians had approached to within easy range, yet not a shot had been fired, the cavalrymen havingbeen instructed by their officers to reserve their fire for close quarters. Suddenly, with a wild ringing war whoop, the entire band of warriors bore down upon the train and its little party of defenders.

On came the savages, filling the air with their terrible yells. Their first object, evidently, was to stampede the horses and draft animals of the train; then, in the excitement and consternation which would follow, to massacre the escort and drivers. The wagon master in immediate charge of the train had been ordered to keep his two columns of wagons constantly moving forward and well closed up. This last injunction was hardly necessary, as the frightened-teamsters, glancing at the approaching warriors and hearing their savage shouts, were sufficiently anxious to keep well closed upon their leaders.

The first onslaught of the Indians was made on the flank which was superintended by Colonel Cook. They rode boldly forward as if to dash over the mere handful of cavalrymen, who stood in skirmishing order in a circle about the train. Not a soldier faltered as the enemy came thundering upon them, but waiting until the Indians were within short rifle range of the train, the cavalrymen dropped upon their knees, and taking deliberate aim poured a volley from their Spencer carbines into the ranks of the savages, which seemed to put a sudden check upon the ardor of their movements and forced them to wheel off to the right. Several of the warriors were seen to reel in their saddles, while the ponies of others were brought down or wounded by the effectual fire of the cavalrymen.

Those of the savages who were shot from their saddles were scarcely permitted to fall to the ground before a score or more of their comrades dashed to their rescue and bore their bodies beyond the possible reach of our men. This is in accordance with the Indian custom in battle. They will risk the lives of a dozen of their best warriors to prevent the body of any one of their number from falling into the white man's possession. The reason for this is the belief, which generally prevails among all the tribes, that if a warrior loses his scalp he forfeits his hope of ever reaching the happy hunting ground.

(2) John F. Finerty, Warpath and Bivouac (1890)

In repelling the audacious charge of the Cheyennes upon his battalion the undaunted Colonel Henry, one of the most accomplished officers in the army, was struck by a bullet which passed through both cheek bones, broke the bridge of his nose and destroyed the optic nerve in one eye. His orderly, in attempting to assist him, was also wounded, but, temporarily blinded as he was and throwing blood from his mouth by the handful, Henry sat his horse for several minutes in front of the enemy. He finally fell to the ground, and as that portion of our line, discouraged by the fall of so brave a chief, gave ground a little, the Sioux charged over his prostrate body, but were speedily repelled, and he was happily rescued by some soldiers of his command.

Several hours later, when returning from the pursuit of the hostiles, I saw Colonel Henry lying on a blanket, his face covered with a bloody cloth, around which the summer flies were buzzing fiercely, and a soldier keeping the wounded man's horse in such a position as to throw the animal's shadow upon the gallant sufferer. There was absolutely no other shade in that neighborhood. When I ventured to condole with the Colonel he merely said, in a low but firm voice: "It is nothing. For this are we soldiers!" and forthwith he did me the honor of advising me to join the army! Colonel Henry's sufferings when our retrograde movement began, and, in fact, until - after a jolting journey of several hundred miles by mule litter and wagon - he reached Fort Russell, were horrible, as were, indeed, those of all the wounded.

(3) Sergeant Charles A. Windolph fought under Captain Frederick Benteen at the battle of Little Bighorn. He was later interviewed about his experiences.

I think we must have stumbled along in the dark for around three hours, when a halt was ordered. None of us had had much sleep for several days, so we were glad to lie down and grab a little rest. When daylight came around 3 o'clock we made coffee, but the water was so alkaline we almost gagged on it.

It was around 8 o'clock when we got orders to saddle up. We marched about ten miles, when we were halted in a sort of ravine. We'd been told to make as little noise as possible and light no fires. There'd been no bugle calls for a day or two.

(4) Sergeant John Ryan fought under Major Marcus Reno at the battle of Little Bighorn. He was later interviewed about his experiences.

When we got to the timber we rode down an embankment and dismounted. This was where the channel of the river changed and was probably several feet lower than the level of the prairie. We dismounted in haste, number four of each set of four holding the horses.

We came up onto higher ground forming a skirmish line from the timber towards the bluffs on the other side of the valley and facing down stream in the direction of the Indian camp. This was our first view of the Indian camp from the skirmish line. Some of the men laid down while the others knelt down.

At this particular place there was a prairie dog town and we used the mounds for temporary breast works. We got the skirmish line formed and here the Indians made their first charge. There were probably 500 of them coming from the direction of their village. They were well mounted and well armed. They tried to cut through our skirmish line. We fired volleys into them repulsing their charge and emptying a number of their saddles.... Finally when they could not cut through us, they strung out in single file, lying on the opposite side of their ponies from us, and then they commenced to circle. They overlapped our skirmish line on the left and were closing in on the rear to complete the circle.

(5) Frederick Whittaker, The Life of General George A. Custer (1876)

The men lay dead in an irregular line, Calhoun and Crittenden in place in rear. This is the order of the tactics, the officers watching and moving along their line, within a few feet. There they fell, every man in his place. They were ordered to stay and be killed, to save the day, and they obeyed orders. Who then was Calhoun, that he was the first ordered to die?... He was Custer's dearest of all friends on earth; he was the bravest and gentlest of men.... Did Calhoun murmur - did he question the order?...

Not a murmur came from that one, and the other showed by this first sacrifice that he placed the country above all his earthly loves. "The country needs; I give her a man who will do his duty to the death: I give them my first brother. I leave my best loved sister a widow, that so the day may be saved. Farewell."

Well did Calhoun redeem that trust. Every man in his place, no faltering, no going back, Calhoun's company kept on firing till the last cartridge was gone, and one by one dropped dead in his tracks under the fire of the swarms of Indians that kept dashing to and fro before them, firing volley after volley. Down they went, one after another, cheered up by this grand figure of duty, young Calhoun encouraging them to the last.... Calhoun, with his forty men, had done on an open field, what Reno, with a hundred and forty, could not do defending a wood. He died like a hero, and America will remember him, while she remembers heroes....

The sight of Calhoun's men, dying as they did, had nerved Keogh's men to the same pitch of sublime heroism. Every man realized that it was his last fight, and was resolved to die game. Down they went, slaughtered in position, man after man dropping in his place, the survivors contracting their line to close the gaps. We read of such things in history, and call them exaggerations. The silent witness of those dead bodies of heroes in that mountain pass cannot lie.

(6) John F. Finerty, Warpath and Bivouac (1890)

Colonel Royall, commanding the whole of the horse and mounted on a fast-going charger, regulated the time of the column, and we marched like greased lightning. Were I to live to the age of the biblical patriarchs I can never forget the beauty of that scene. A friend and myself allowed the soldiers to file somewhat ahead in order that we might enjoy a complete view. The cavalry rode by twos, the intervals between the companies, except those which formed the rear guard behind the pack mules, being just sufficient to define the respective commands. The wagons, 120 in all, with their white awnings and massive wheels, each drawn by six mules, covered the rising ground in advance of the horsemen, while the dark column of infantry was dimly discernible in the van, because Crook always marched out his foot, for obvious reasons, an hour or two ahead of his horse. We used to joke about the infantry and call them by their Indian nickname of "walk-a-heaps," but before the campaign was over we recognized that man is a hardier animal than the horse, and that shank's mare is the very best kind of a charger.