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Health of the Seventh Cavalry: A Medical History

Health of the Seventh Cavalry: A Medical History


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With its charismatic leader George Custer and its memorable encounters with Plains Indians, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Seventh Cavalry serves as the iconic regiment in the post–Civil War U.S Army. Voluminous written documentation as well as archaeological and osteological research suggest that the soldiers of the Seventh represented a cross section of the men who joined the army as a whole at the time. In Health of the Seventh Cavalry, editors P. Willey and Douglas D. Scott and their co-contributors—experts in history, medicine, human biology, epidemiology, and human osteology—examine the Seventh’s medical records to determine the health of the nineteenth-century U.S. Army, and the prevalence and treatment of the numerous conditions that plagued soldiers during the Indian Wars.

Building on previous comparisons of archaeological evidence and medical records, Willey and Scott follow multiple lines of inquiry to assess the health of the Seventh, from its organization in 1866 to its 1884 station on the Northern Great Plains. Pairing general overviews of nineteenth- and twentieth-century health care with essays on malaria, injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other specific ailments, Health of the Seventh Cavalry provides fresh insights into the health, disease, and trauma that the regiment experienced over two decades. More than 100 tables, graphs, and maps track the troops’ illnesses and diseases by month, season, year, and location, as well as their stress periods, desertions, and deaths. A glossary of medical terms rounds out the volume.

As an ideal exemplar of regiments of its time, the Seventh Cavalry affords scholars and enthusiasts a better understanding of nineteenth-century health and medicine. This volume reveals the struggles that the post–Civil War Seventh, and the entire U.S. Army, faced on the battlefield and elsewhere.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806148397
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 05/26/2015
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

P. Willey is Professor of Anthropology at Chico State, and co-author with Douglas D. Scott of They Died with Custer: Soldiers’ Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Douglas D. Scott is retired as supervisory archaeologist, Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service. Widely known as an expert on military archaeology, he is the author or co-author of numerous publications, including They Died with Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Uncovering History: Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn, and Custer, Cody, and Grand Duke Alexis: Historical Archaeology of the Royal Buffalo Hunt.

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Health of the Seventh Cavalry

A Medical History

By P. Willey Scott, Douglas D. Scott


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5330-8


Seventh Cavalry Regimental History

Douglas D. Scott

Following the Civil War, many and marked changes were afoot for the military. The U.S. military turned from suppressing the rebellion to implementing Reconstruction of the South. In addition, the military brought change to the frontier and stability along the Mexican border and the Rio Grande. Many of these locations were distant from the East and South, where military attention had focused during the Civil War.

Because there was no longer a need for an enormous military, the army was reduced to a peacetime size. The decrease in the size of the force resulted in many career officers being reduced from their Civil War ranks to lower permanent grades. In some ways this reduction in forces dashed the hopes of numerous wartime officers who pursued promotion through the ranks. But as Robert Utley (1967:342) noted, the post–Civil War army was a peacetime army in name and strength only. There were many skirmishes and battles to be fought. And many commanders turned their attention and forces, which had previously subjugated the Confederacy, to dealing with the hostile Indians of the plains and the West in general.

Despite wide and varied duties, including suppressing hostilities on the plains, the primary responsibility of the post–Civil War military was keeping peace, what Edward Coffman (1986:328) called "the army's frontier constabulary phase." Previous military functions in the West included exploration and mapping. During the Civil War, most of the U.S. military had withdrawn from the frontier for engagement in the East and South. In part as a consequence of their absence, unrest on the frontier increased. The numbers of Indians in the West was telling. Of the 270,000 Indians there at the end of the Civil War, 100,000 were considered hostile (Coffman 1986:254). In the three decades that followed the Civil War, the Seventh was involved in more than forty fights with various Indian tribes, frequently involving the Sioux, Cheyennes, Comanches, Kiowas, and Arapahos (Garlington 1896:252). Most of these engagements were skirmishes, but several were major battles, the best-known being the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

When the Civil War concluded, the army had two new roles: policing the Reconstruction efforts of the Republican administration and restoring order on the frontier. The army, reorganized in 1866 by congressional action, was small relative to its wartime size, but it was a vastly expanded army that moved into the frontier, compared to its prewar strength (Utley 1973). The U.S. Seventh Cavalry was created as part of the 1866 reorganization. In July 1866 George Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly formed Seventh Cavalry. Although second in command, he was frequently in effective command because the colonel was often absent. In late October Custer joined his regiment at its permanent station, Fort Riley, Kansas (Frost 1964; Utley 1988; Daily 1995), to build the newly formed unit.

The Seventh U.S. Cavalry was one of forty regiments of the army during the span of this study, 1866 to 1881. During most of this period, the army's organization consisted of twenty-five regiments of infantry, ten regiments of cavalry, and five regiments of artillery. Those regiments totaled an authorized enlistment of 26,312 men (Utley 1973; Coffman 1986), although the actual number of men on duty seldom exceeded about 22,000 at any one time.

Administratively, the army during the study era was divided into divisions (each commanded by a lieutenant general), departments (commanded by a major general), and districts (commanded by a brigadier general). During the first five years of its existence (1866 to 1871), the Seventh Cavalry was in the Division of the Missouri (encompassing the entire Great Plains and commanded by William Tecumseh Sherman until 1869) and in the departments of Missouri (Kansas, Missouri, and Indian and New Mexico Territories) and Texas, which formed the southern half of the Division of the Missouri (Leckie 1963:28). The principal responsibilities of the Division of the Missouri were to protect settlers in, travelers passing through, and railroads being built in the division's geographic area. The means of achieving these goals have been called the "sword and olive branch" (Leckie 1963:28). Negotiations with Indians were attempted and were often successful, at least temporarily or to some degree. When negotiations failed, military action was taken.

Regimental Structure

Each cavalry regiment during the study era was headed by a colonel who had a regimental staff and twelve companies under his command. The regimental staff consisted of the colonel, a lieutenant colonel, three majors, a quartermaster, a chief musician, an adjutant, a contract veterinarian, a sergeant major, a quartermaster's sergeant, a saddler sergeant, a chief trumpeter, surgeons or contract surgeons, and hospital stewards.


Fort life on the frontier meant that not only the officers but their wives, families, and servants were intimately familiar with each other. Life at any post, but frontier posts in particular, was a structured affair. Rank had its privileges: ceremony, military courtesy, and military protocol took precedence.

The commanding officer at a post had an entire house for himself and his family (Coffman 1986). At Fort Abraham Lincoln, the Custers occupied the commanding officer's quarters during their tenure. They often invited other officers and their wives to socialize during the evenings and appeared to be the center of one of the regiment's social circles. Other officers had portions of townhouse-like quarters. The quarters were divided, depending on how many lived there. Junior officers could be bumped from their quarters by a senior officer who wanted to live there. Quarters were not assigned on the basis of size of family or number of people: a bachelor senior officer could have three rooms, while a junior officer with a wife and children might live in one room. Officer's wives had no official status or rights within the army. Should an officer die, his wife and children had to vacate the quarters as soon as possible, as Libbie Custer and the other Little Bighorn widows were required to do (Stewart 1972; Cook 1987).

Officers were responsible for their own meals or mess. If they were married, their wives might do the shopping and cooking, although the social status of an officer usually required a servant or soldier striker to do the menial chores and cooking. Unmarried officers sometimes ate with married officers and often pooled their meager resources and messed with other bachelor officers.


The lives of the noncommissioned officers were similar to the lives of the enlisted men. They had authority over the enlisted men, carrying out the orders of their superiors and overseeing day-today activities at the post and in the field. During this period of the Indian Wars, with understrength units and officers commonly on detached or other duties, noncommissioned officers became de facto small unit leaders (Arms 1991:25–30).

Noncommissioned officers and enlisted men usually lived in communal barracks and messed with their company. Enlisted men received $13 a month and rations; pay for noncommissioned officers was proportionally higher for the different grades. Each company was given a prescribed food ration per man each day. In garrison, individual rations included 12 ounces of pork or bacon (20 ounces of salt or fresh beef could be substituted) and 22 ounces of flour or bread with 16 ounces of hard bread substituted for field rations. For every 100 men in garrison each day, the commissary rationed 8 pounds of ground coffee, 15 pounds of beans or peas, 10 pounds of rice or hominy, 30 pounds of potatoes (if available), 1 quart of molasses, 15 pounds of sugar, 3 pounds 12 ounces of salt, 4 ounces of pepper, and 1 gallon of vinegar (Billings 1974). Each company was also supposed to raise a garden to provide fresh vegetables, but gardens often failed in the harsh plains climate.

Enlisted personnel were discouraged from marrying and in fact had to receive their commanding officer's permission (Kautz 2001:12). Married enlisted men's wives often worked as laundresses for the company and regiment. Laundresses were provided with rations and quarters; these allowances and the pay were incentives for an enlisted man to marry a laundress (Rickey 1963; Coffman 1986). Married enlisted men, often noncommissioned officers, lived with their wives and children in whatever housing they could find. If married to a laundress or hospital matron, the soldier might live in quarters designated for them. Otherwise he might live in a tent or some building that he constructed. No married enlisted quarters officially existed at this period, although some commanding officers did allow use of otherwise unoccupied or unused post buildings.

The Seventh Cavalry was composed of twelve companies. Most were understrength to some degree. In a sense each company was an independent unit, where men ate, slept, and worked together. Within the company, the members knew each other well. Companies stationed together might be acquainted with a few members of other companies, but generally the company was the enlisted man's world. Good officers and noncommissioned officers would make a man's service go well, while a martinet or disciplinarian could make an enlistment miserable. For many enlisted men, the army was the only place to find a decent meal in tough economic times. For others, it was an opportunity for adventure in the West. Each company had its own personality, usually reflected by its officers and noncommissioned officers.

The Seventh Cavalry from 1866 to 1882 and Beyond

The Seventh, which began in 1866, in many ways epitomized the army as a whole during the study period. The men assigned or recruited to join the unit were typical of the entire army in terms of stature, age, and ancestry (Coffman 1986; Scott et al. 1998; Chun 2004; Hedren 2011).

The structure of the unit and its stations during the study period are presented chronologically here, from its organization in 1866 to 1882 to a summary of the Seventh in the later years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Adjutant General's Office 1909; Chandler 1960; Daily 1995). The year-by-year chronology provides a broad view of the regiment's status. For details of company dispositions and deployments by year, see table 1.1.


Authorization for establishing the new Seventh Cavalry as well as three other regiments occurred in July 1866. By the end of August troops were being organized at Fort Riley, Kansas. The organization of the Seventh was completed late that year (map 1.1). Then the Seventh's companies were dispersed from Fort Riley. By year's end only Regimental Headquarters and three companies remained there, the other companies having been deployed to other forts on the central plains.

The Seventh was assigned to Fort Riley and other posts on the central plains because the central and southern plains were areas of rapid change and intense but sporadic fighting. In particular the Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Arapahos fought to maintain their more traditional lifestyle while settlers, travelers, and hunters traversed or homesteaded the area. The Seventh Cavalry remained in Kansas and adjacent parts of the central plains for the next four and a half years (Garlington 1896:251).


The first few years that the Seventh spent on the plains were particularly well chronicled by Albert Barnitz, an officer who had previously served under Custer during the Civil War. He was newly remarried in early 1867, his first wife and daughter having died in childbirth. He and his new bride (Jennie) headed to the frontier to join the Seventh. Barnitz trudged across the central and southern plains with the Seventh, only to be critically wounded in 1868 during the Battle of the Washita and awarded a disability retirement. His experiences, detailed descriptions, and astute insights on the Seventh's experiences during these formative years provide a humanistic perspective on the events and places and are used in this summary (Utley 1977).

After spending months in winter quarters, the Seventh joined General Winfield Hancock's spring expedition against the Indians on the central and southern plains. In late March Headquarters (HQ), Companies A, D, H, and M, moved from Fort Riley, despite bad weather, to Fort Harker, Kansas, where they joined Companies F and G (Barnitz's company). Barnitz was pleased with the facilities at Fort Harker and how well his troops and horses were housed and cared for. This lull was a time for reequipping and refitting both man and mount (Utley 1977:21).

In early April the combined companies traveled from Fort Harker to Fort Larned, Kansas, joined there by the Seventh Cavalry's Companies E and K. Even that late in the spring they were struck by snowstorms and freezing temperatures (Barnitz in Utley 1977:27). Hancock's expedition against the Kiowas and Cheyennes was off to a slow, cold, and wet start.

They joined Hancock's expedition and chased hostile Cheyennes and Sioux for 300 miles in April, although Barnitz (in Utley 1977) and his company spent most of that time in camp on Big Creek near Fort Hays, Kansas. Desertions were rampant: eighty-five men deserted from the Seventh Cavalry during April 1867 alone (Utley 1977:44). Barnitz attributed the desertions to the capricious and uncaring decisions of his immediate commander, George Custer.

That May scurvy swept through camp (Barnitz in Utley 1977:51), reportedly striking seventy-five men (although our medical record data show only thirty-one for the entire study period and twelve in 1867). Troops were ravenous for canned fruits and vegetables. In June HQ and six companies were encamped near Fort Hays when a flood occurred, drowning five men (Barnitz in Utley 1977:57). After the flood they moved near Fort McPherson, Nebraska, on the Platte River then to the Republican River and remained in that region for the next month. Later they transferred to the vicinity of Fort Wallace, Kansas. Barnitz was at Fort Wallace when he and his Company G were engaged in a skirmish with Sioux or Cheyennes, the first major encounter involving the recently established Seventh. This encounter resulted in the loss of Sergeant Frederick Wyllyams (Company G), whose mutilated corpse was photographed (fig. 1.1).

Cholera appeared in July (Garlington 1896:251). Company G was not immune. The company completed a march from Fort Hays (or Fort Wallace: Utley 1977:85) to Fort Lyon, Colorado, accompanying an engineering party (Chandler 1960:3–4). It was struck by cholera while en route (Barnitz in Utley 1977:85). The company returned to Fort Wallace, where cholera was also present: as many as seven soldiers died each day (none are reported in the Fort Wallace medical records). Among the dead was the surgeon's wife, "Mrs Dr Sternberg," with whom Jennie Barnitz had been particularly close (Barnitz in Utley 1977:85–86; Jennie Barnitz in Utley 1977:91). Barnitz wrote to his wife that "strictest sanatary [sic] regulations" in camp prevented or at least minimized the spread of the disease. These regulations included "taking a nice bath every evening, and having nice clean sheets, and white pillow cases" (Barnitz in Utley 1977:89), at least for an officer. Late in the month the epidemic abated, with only one or two soldiers dying each day (Barnitz in Utley 1977:90). Disease was not the only problem of epidemic proportions occurring that month in the regiment.

In July desertions became rampant. During one three-day period, thirty-four men deserted. Officers discovered plans for desertion of another one-third of the command (Utley 1977:86). Custer ordered thirteen broad-daylight deserters hunted down and killed. Although some escaped and others were captured, some of them were killed or wounded. Custer initially refused aid to the wounded prisoners, only later rescinding the order and permitting the surgeon to attend to the wounded.

By August, as Barnitz (in Utley 1977:91–92) worded it, George Custer had the "measels [sic]": he was under arrest. Custer had to stand charges that he drove the men and animals so hard during the expedition that men deserted and that he ordered those who did desert shot dead. His recklessness, it was claimed, damaged the animals. In addition to these charges, some of which might possibly be considered in the realm of duty, he faced charges outside the military realm. It is claimed that Custer went absent-without-leave from his command to visit his wife and failed to come to the aid of some members of his escort when they became separated and attacked by Indians. Custer was found guilty and suspended from rank and pay for one year (Chandler 1960:4–5). One man alone does not run a unit, however, and the regiment remained active during Custer's absence.

Major Joel Elliot was in command during Custer's absence. In August parts of the Seventh scouted the Saline River, ending their tour at Fort Hays. During that month, Hancock was transferred from the Department of the Missouri to the East. Major General Philip H. Sheridan received command of the Department and took active command the following year (Leckie 1963:63). In September all Seventh Cavalry companies actively served as escorts and were involved in troop movements, thus spending little time in camp.


Excerpted from Health of the Seventh Cavalry by P. Willey Scott, Douglas D. Scott. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Tables,
Preface and Acknowledgments,
Introduction, by Douglas D. Scott and P. Willey,
1. Seventh Cavalry Regimental History, by Douglas D. Scott,
2. Overview of Nineteenth-Century Medical Care, by Patrick J. Collison,
3. Nineteenth-Century Military Nosology, by P. Willey and Patrick J. Collison,
4. Researching the Seventh Cavalry's Medical Records, by P. Willey,
5. Regimental Strength and Background of Seventh Cavalry Troopers, by P. Willey,
6. Head and Neck Diseases of the Seventh Cavalry, by Patrick J. Collison,
7. Pulmonary Diseases of the Seventh Cavalry, by Patrick J. Collison,
8. Malaria Prevalence in the Seventh Cavalry, by Colleen Cheverko and Kristina Zarenko,
9. Sexually Transmitted Infections in the Seventh Cavalry, by P. Willey,
10. Cold Injuries in the Seventh Cavalry, by Katie Cohan,
11. Other Injuries in the Seventh Cavalry, by P. Willey,
12. Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Seventh Cavalry, by P. Willey, Gary Plank, and Douglas D. Scott,
13. Seventh Cavalry Medical Records Compared with Battle of the Little Bighorn Skeletons, by P. Willey and Douglas D. Scott,
14. Frontier Post–Civil War Military Enlisted Men's Deaths and Those in the Seventh Cavalry, by Billy Markland, Douglas D. Scott, and P. Willey,
15. Health of Urban American Civilians, Children, Women, and Old Men in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, by Colleen Milligan,
16. Summary and Discussion, by P. Willey and Douglas D. Scott,
Appendix: List of Surgeons Associated with the Seventh Cavalry, by Douglas D. Scott and Patrick J. Collison,
Glossary of Medical Terms, by P. Willey and Patrick J. Collison,
References Cited,
List of Contributors,

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