How Did United States Soldiers Survive In The 19th Century?

If you’re visiting our site, then you already know one thing with certainty: the 19th century was a dangerous time period during which to live, especially if you held ambitions to mind gold or settle out in the far west. The plains were still inhabited by many Native Americans, either on reservations or off (not all indigenous peoples abided by the terms of the “arrangements that had placed them on these lands). 

Soldiers in the late 19th century were known to have resorted to some less-than-kosher measures to increase the luxuries they experienced in between travel or military engagement. One story goes something like this: One man sells his skills as a bodyguard or escort during time off in town, pawns his equipment on a man, beats the man into submission after accusing him of theft, and then returns to service with more money on top of all the equipment he left with.

One Chicago journalist explained that low pay resulted in a certain type of soldiers: “Human driftwood — men who have committed crime elsewhere and are hiding in the service under assumed names; men who cannot brook the liberties and familiarities of society and take refuge in military discipline; men who are disappointed, disheartened and ambitionless and find the lazy life of a soldier a relief.”

Perhaps many soldiers and their superiors resorted to these interesting tactics to increase their lot in life because the United States had yet to provide “entitlements” to its citizens. Today, there are plenty of law firms like who provide legal services to compensate victims of negligence, and there are social programs to provide help to those who need it (i.e. disability benefits, insurance, etc.). 

Custer’s wife actually detailed one particular instance of soldiers going above their calling rather than below: the 7th Cavalry was present when a number of telegraph wires were taken down by a storm, preventing communication. 

Libbie Custer said, “The telegraph lines were frequently down, and except for the courage of the sergeants, we should have been completely isolated from the outside world. With four mules and the covered body of a government wagon on bobs, they went over a trackless waste of snow for 250 miles. Occasionally, there were huts that had once been stage stations, where they could stop, but deadly perilous for them to leave the telegraph line, no matter what drifts they were compelled to plunge.”

Most soldiers held little ambition to climb the ranks, which meant that any surplus money they stored would either go back home — or be spent on drinking. Others found smaller tasks to augment pay. One man, for example, was known to act as a personal tailor to Custer. 

Many others would marry working women (yes, they existed even back then). Women whose husbands were killed out west would need to find new ones to survive — and the U.S. Army was full of single men who were perfectly willing to take the job. Two incomes made survival much easier for both parties.

The Fetterman Fight Explained: Turning Point In Red Cloud’s War

We explored Red Cloud’s War in a previous article, only briefly mentioning the skirmish called the Fetterman Fight, which occurred at Fort Phil Kearny and was fought between an aligned force of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Native Americans and the fort’s garrison of United States Army troops. Until the fabled Battle of the Little Bighorn nearly a decade later, the Fetterman Fight was the single greatest catastrophe experienced by U.S. forces in the region.

Fort Phil Kearny was one of three constructed to protect miners, settlers, and other troops who traveled the Bozeman Trail. Many of these travelers continued to encroach land inhabited by the Native American opposition — even though treaties guaranteed that the Native Americans had the right to that land.

By this point in history, it was well known that the Native American warrior Crazy Horse was one of the most lucrative targets still alive. Perhaps this was the reason that 82 men, including Captain William J. Fetterman, were lured from their station when Crazy Horse and ten other warriors appeared near the fort. 

In allowing his detachment to be lured into the dangerous trap, Fetterman was also disobeying a direct order from superior Carrington, who said that his party was not to pursue any Native Americans over Lodge Trail Ridge. Fetterman took that trail.

During this time, he was outflanked and engaged by at least 1,000 Native Americans from two fronts. His detachment was killed to the last man, each of whom were later found mutilated by scalping, dismemberment, and castration. The only person to escape this mutilation was a teenage bugler.

Before the engagement transpired, Red Cloud said to his troops: “Here ye, Dakotas! When the Great Father at Washington sent us his chief soldier [General Harney] to ask for a path through our hunting grounds, a way for his iron road to the mountains and the western sea, we were told that they wished merely to pass through our country, not to tary among us, but to seek for gold in the far west.”

It was these tensions that led to the tragedy.

What Was Red Cloud’s War?

Before the Great Sioux War of 1876, there was a long period of escalating tension between the Lakota, aligned with the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho, and the United States Army. Like almost every conflict between the United States and Native American factions, Red Cloud’s War was fought over land  — and whether or not the U.S. and its allies had any right to control it. The conflict was sometimes called the Bozeman War or the Powder River War.

The fighting began in present-day Wyoming along the Powder River in 1866 and lasted for nearly two years. A treaty signed in Fort Laramie in 1851 had granted the Native Americans the right to control the land — but “which” Native Americans? The dispute was between the Crow, who believed they had the right to the land, and the Lakota, who had recently taken it for themselves. 

The Crow were aligned with the U.S., which provided the U.S. Army with the right incentive to protect the land, upon which they had already constructed several forts to aid in the transport of resources from one area to the next — and to protect the miners and settlers who used it on an almost daily basis.

The Native American opposition mounted many successful raids on these three forts, with the worst of them — dubbed the Fetterman Fight — amounting to the greatest military defeat by the U.S. military in the region until the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which was still a decade away. 

This was one of the few victories for the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne — and a temporary one at that — because the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 effectively ended the conflict by providing the tribes with the legal control for the lands surrounding the Powder River. The three forts that had been constructed were torn down. It was said that “… the government had in effect betrayed the Crows, who had willingly helped the army to hold the posts for two years.”

We don’t know exactly how many Lakota warriors were involved in the aforementioned raids, but some historians believe Red Cloud deployed 4,000 men. During the aforementioned Fetterman Fight, 88 Americans were killed in action. Of course, this was before the families of the wounded or dead could reclaim compensation in any form, including disability insurance (see for information on the subject). 

The massacre occurred when the infamous Crazy Horse planted a decoy force near the fort, prompting some of the garrisoned soldiers to leave the safety of the fort in order to “moon” the Native American warriors. The entire force of 82 men were ambushed by at least 1,000 angry Lakota — and not one of them survived. 

Like the massacred at the Battle of the Little Bighorn a decade later, most of the dead were mutilated, by scalping, decapitation, disembowelment and castration. The only body untouched (except for the wounds that had killed him) was the body of a teenaged bugle boy. 

How Did the Battle of the Rosebud Affect The Great Sioux War of 1876?

We spend a great deal of time unpacking everything about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which is the battle during which our website’s namesake was killed. But Little Bighorn wasn’t the only battle to have taken place during the Great Sioux War of 1876. There were several other important fights. Today, we’ll look at why the Battle of the Rosebuds happened and how it may have changed the war.

This battle was fought on June 17, 1876 in Montana. Anywhere from 1,000 to 1,800 men fought on both sides combined, but there were relatively few casualties. Reports suggest only a few dozen were killed. The U.S. Army joined with a group of Crow and Shoshone Native Americans to attack the Lakota and North Cheyenne on their home turf. 

Although the United States Army had launched this offensive with every intention of surprising the Native Americans, it was they who were surprised instead. Their own hunting gave away the element of surprise. In the middle of the night, at least 1,000 men — led by the infamous Crazy Horse —  left to engage the Americans. The two forces met at 8:30 AM on June 17, 1876.

Both sides were exhausted from the journey there, but the Sioux and Cheyenne attackers engaged the Crow and Shoshone on high ground, which gave General Crook ample time to boost his own defenses and deploy the troops for a counterattack. 

Hours of fighting proved fruitless, and eventually Crook gave the order to charge the Lakota, who were pushed back until the U.S. forces could form a better defensive perimeter. Crook eventually declared victory after several more hours of fighting (and an eventual retreat by the Lakota and Cheyenne), but there was little (or nothing) gained during the attack — and as already mentioned, some men lost their lives.

This did, however, set the stage for the Battle of the Little Bighorn only eight days later.

Overview Of The Great Sioux War Of 1876

The Great Sioux War of 1876 was the final nail in the coffin for President Ulysses S. Grant’s “Peace” policy toward Native Americans, which fell apart during his second term in office. It was also called the Black Hills War. Because the United States federal government wanted the Black Hills site for itself — because gold was found there — the Native Americans became fed up that the government and US settlers were once again breaking the terms of a treaty that had been previously signed, as they had done hundreds of times before.

The US government did not intend to begin a war against the Lakota tribe whose peoples inhabited the Black Hills region, so they told the Native Americans to vacate the area and go to the reservation by the end of January, 1876. They were threatened with violence should they fail to comply. This was a foolish decision to make in the middle of winter, because weather conditions made travel difficult or impossible. 

General Sheridan responded at the time, “The matter of notifying the Indians to come in is perhaps well to put on paper, but it will in all probability be regarded as a good joke by the Indians.”

A debate ensued here in Black Hills. One Lakota leader named Short Bull said, “About one hundred men went out from the agency to coax the hostels to come in under pretense that the trouble about the Black Hills was to be settled…All the hostiles agreed that since it was late [in the season]and they had to [hunt for buffalo] they would come in to the agency the following spring.”

But regardless of its fairness, the delay would breach the US government’s demands. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Q. Smith said, “…without the receipt of any news of Sitting Bull’s submission, I see no reason why, in the discretion of the Hon. the Secretary of War, military operations against him should not commence at once.”

It was Smith, Secretary of Interior Zachariah Chandler, and General Sheridan who ultimately ordered their men to begin a winter campaign against “hostile” Native Americans, who in reality had done nothing to precipitate such action.

The resulting military action led the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes to align against the United States. During an initial attack, men commanded by Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds believed they had attacked Crazy Horse’s village, when in reality they had attacked a Northern Cheyenne village. 

The three most noteworthy battles of the Great Sioux War of 1876 were the Battle of the Rosebud, Battle of the Little Bighorn, and Battle of Slim Buttes. The war actually continued until early 1877, when the “Agreement of 1877” was established. The Black Hills land was taken from the Sioux. Another reservation was established for the survivors. 

One of the most controversial tactics employed by the United States military was its “Sell or Starve” addendum to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876, which withheld Sioux rations until they ended their part of the violence and gave the US their territory.

What Was President Grant’s Policy Regarding Native Americans?

What to do about the Native American “threat” to Americans was a great source of contention for the people who had already pushed these indigenous peoples far from their ancestral homes, killing millions in the process. Ulysses S. Grant ascended to the presidency in 1869 and recognized immediately that there were no standardized processes in place concerning how to approach the Native Americans.

At the time, there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans living on lands that had been assimilated by the United States. Those peoples were bound by nearly 400 different treaties. It’s not an exaggeration to say things were confusing, and only getting worse with time.

Grant did a few things at the very beginning of his arrival in office. He appointed a Seneca man named Ely S. Parker to become Commissioner of Indian Affairs, then establishing a Board of Indian Commissioners, and finally enacting a “Peace” policy toward Native American peoples. It failed spectacularly.

Two years later in 1871, Grant managed to change the status of Native American tribes to make them wards of the United States federal government. Unfortunately, Parker resigned that same year, which put the fate of new programs in jeopardy. Despite this setback, peaceful negotiations were scaled up during Grant’s first term.

The second term is another story entirely. During a peace conference that was put together to end the bloody Modoc War, Major General Edward Canby was murdered by the Modoc leader, who was subsequently captured, convicted of murder, and hanged. The rest of the tribe was relocated shortly thereafter. 

In news sure to stun present-day environmentalists, Grant vetoed a bill that would have protected bison because he knew that the “lack” of bison would force Native Americans to abandon a nomadic lifestyle. They did. But now we’re without bison. See how that works?

These obstacles resulted in the Great Sioux War, during which General George Armstrong Custer was famously killed.

Were There Native American Reservations By The Time Custer Died?

Most people believe that Native American reservations were a concept established by the United States of America — but that’s not true. We simply took the concept and ran fast and hard. It was actually the British Empire that first decided to subjugate, assimilate, or push the Native Americans onto small parcels of land. They did this through treaties that would never have seemed “fair” to the Native Americans — and which were destined to be broken by European settlers anyway. 

The first reservation ever established was the Brotherton Indian Reservation in New Jersey. This was a 3,284 acre piece of land “given” in August 1758. A few years later, plans were drawn up that would determine how future purchases would be made. The idea was always to consult with the Native Americans first, but settlers would generally push onto Native American lands first, become violent, and then the Native Americans would understandably fight back. Then a new treaty would be made, only for the cycle to begin anew some years later. This would keep going for about 200 years.

By 1824, the famous John C. Calhoun conceived the Office of Indian Affairs to formally adopt treaties for the purchase of land or granting of reservations. 38 such treaties were adopted quickly.

Southern California tribes were forced to sign treaties that pushed them onto reservations during a 41-year period between 1851 and 1892. But Congress wouldn’t ratify the treaties, which meant their signing was swept under rug until 1896, when the Bureau of American Ethnology declassified them for the first time.

Toward the end of Custer’s life (he was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876), President Ulysses S. Grant was doing his best to avoid more violence with Native American tribes. He failed pretty miserably. His 1868 “Peace Policy” aimed to reorganize the Indian Service to “relocate” tribes. If the goal was to avoid violence, forcibly moving people from their ancestral homes was likely a bad way to go about it.

Somehow, he thought the idea would be received better if the men in charge were Christian officials nominated by the Church itself. You might have guessed that this too was a horrible idea.

The Native American tribes routinely ignored or fought back against the relocation orders (why wouldn’t they?) which forced the U.S. government to deploy the army to watch Native American movement. This led to the Sioux War (during which Custer was killed) and the Nez Perce War. President Rutherford B. Hayes decided to scrap the “Peace Policy” by 1877, and smartly asked the Christian officials to relinquish their posts. They acquiesced completely by 1882.  

The Indian New Deal (also called the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 or the Howard-Wheeler Act) guaranteed new rights for Native Americans, gave them back sovereignty of their own lands, and provided them with the authority to manage their own lands. Of course, by this point in time, “their own lands” were all reservations.

The Education Of George Armstrong Custer

Custer was an example of one following the Great American Dream — after enrolling in the McNeely Normal School (which became the Hopedale Normal College) in Ohio, he needed to move in with his elder half-sister. He knew he would have to work for what he obtained in life. He graduated from McNeely in 1856, after which he was an educator in Cadiz, Ohio. He enrolled in West Point in 1857 and was appointed as a cadet. He would have been 17 at the time.

The course demanded five years of study alongside 79 other cadets. However, the study was streamlined to four years because of the Civil War, and the class graduated on June 24, 1861 (which was the same year the war broke out). 

His education at West Point was hardly exemplary. It was worthy of note only because of his poor academic and social conduct!

The class of 79 cadets diminished to 34 after many dropped out or joined the Confederacy. Out of those remaining, Custer ranked dead last. Custer was given an awe-inspiring 726 demerits during those four years, which remains one of West Point’s worst since its conception.

The local minister said, “[Custer was] the instigator of devilish plots both during the service and in Sunday school. On the surface he appeared attentive and respectful, but underneath the mind boiled with disruptive ideas.”

One roommate remembered, “It was alright with George Custer, whether he knew his lesson or not; he simply did not allow it to trouble him.” 

Others noted that Custer’s career would have been doomed had the Civil War not broken out during the end of his education. He achieved decent postings at the beginning of his tenure as a junior officer, and quickly climbed in rank due to his willingness to take big risks — which included disrespecting higher ranking officers or outright ignoring their orders to gain notoriety for himself.

Could Custer’s Men File A Personal Injury Lawsuit (If They Had Survived)?

General George Armstrong Custer has been nearly idolized by historians for decades — and perhaps for no good reason. By some, he is considered to be battle-hardened, prepared, and ambitious. To others, he is considered among the most fool-hardy commanders in the history of the United States’ armed forces. Which argument would hold the most merit in court? Or, rather, would such a case even make it into court before being dismissed?

Keep in mind that the Battle of Little Bighorn was fought on June 25, 1876. Custer himself and most of the men he brought into battle were slaughtered by the Native Americans they had been harassing for months. These weren’t “kind” killings. The men were butchered. But this wasn’t at a time when you could hire some random Koonz McKenney Johnson & Depaolis LLP law firm to sue the pants off the United States government for personal injury or wrongful death. It didn’t work that way.

So there are a few things to first consider: One, Feres v. United States resulted in a Supreme Court decision that created a precedent that any active duty military personnel cannot sue the United States government for injuries sustained during service. More significantly, it related to medical malpractice by the federal government — because soldiers could still hold the government liable for malpractice.

But that ruling landed in 1950, which means precedent had not yet been established by the time Custer led his men into their last battle. Hypothetically, any surviving servicemen or the families of the slain could have launched a lawsuit.

The reality might have been a little different. But regardless, let’s explore the type of argument that might have been made on behalf of the servicemen in court. Where did Custer go wrong? Well, an advocate would likely argue that George Custer’s lofty aspirations led him astray — and his men with him. You see, Custer had his eye on the presidency (and was known as a man for showmanship in the public eye).

And how does a man like Custer become president? Simple: he fights his way there from the battlefield. The bigger the victory, the bigger the public eye on the man. Custer fought battles no matter the odds for one reason and one reason only: political ambition.

His life outside of the military only serves to bolster the argument. He was an avid gambler who, because of his love of betting, went to the grave with an enormous $9,000 debt. 

This is why an advocate would likely have made the case that Custer’s men almost certainly lost their lives because of his bad decision-making both on and off the battlefield. They would argue that regardless of his significant victories, they had always come at a cost, and the risks were far from calculated to ensure those victories. They might even say that Custer should never have been so elevated in the first place — and that some of the blame should fall on those still living, the men who decided to put Custer in such a high position. Ultimately, they would argue, Custer’s men paid the price for this cascade of bad decisions.

These are reports based on findings following the Battle of Little Bighorn:

What Was George Armstrong Custer’s Role During Sheridan’s Civil War Campaign?

Custer was well known for his flamboyant actions and flare for the melodrama. After losing more men in a Union cavalry brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War — 257, to be exact — he stated: “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry.” He was awarded a promotion for his role in the battle, but you already know how much of the rest of his career went — at least at the end. 

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was a pivotal site for the Civil War, and many battles were fought there — including a few led by Custer himself. 

Philip Sheridan was a cavalry commander for the Army of the Potomac, and commanded many of the forces that took part in the regional battles within the valley. Much of his military command during this time was subdued because of the presidential election of 1864, where a defeat might then lead to the end of Lincoln’s presidential campaign. Custer, however, ravaged the area with his “Wolverines” in the 3rd Division, defeating Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early.

After a number of fierce battles, Custer joined Sheridan to chase Robert E. Lee, who was in the process of fleeing to the renowned Appomattox Court House. Custer was successful in blocking Lee on the day the Confederate forces finally surrendered — and, in fact, Custer was the one to accept the first flag of truce.

Custer was reported to have said, “In the name of General Sheridan I demand the unconditional surrender of this army.”

Longstreet noted that he did not have the authority to make such a surrender, and that he certainly wouldn’t parley with Sheridan even if he were. Regardless of the antics at that particular battlefield, Custer joined the others where the surrender was finally signed (the aforementioned Appomattox Court House) — and he was even gifted the table on which the signing took place.