The US Cavalry
From 1865 to 1890, the Plains Cavalry protected American settlers,
railroaders, wagon trains, businesses, gold seekers and others from
Indian attacks. Robert W. Marlin describes the life that they led.

FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS movie fans worldwide have enjoyed a romance with the American Western film in general and with the US Cavalry in particular. This romance probably started around 1939 with the release of the film Stagecoach, which tells the story a group of stagecoach passengers who are saved from marauding Indians by the last-minute arrival of US Cavalry. With bugle flourishes, banners waving and snapping in the wind and stirring background music, the horse soldiers drive off the Indians and save the day.
         Some later films -- such as Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande -- have told a little about cavalry life in those days. However, these films dealt primarily with excitement, battle and heroism rather than the day to day life of the average enlisted cavalryman, jokingly referred to as the “dog-faced soldier” but officially referred to as a trooper. Who were these men and where did they come from? Before telling you about the men, it is necessary to give you some historic background regarding the US Cavalry itself.

The Plains Cavalry
The US Cavalry existed in various forms from 1775 to 1942. For all practical purposes this service ended during World War II when General Jonathan Wainwright surrendered his saber to the commander of Japanese forces at Corregidor. (This sword was returned to him on 16 January 1947, by which time the US Cavalry no longer existed.)
         The cavalry I am about to describe is the one that existed from 1865 to 1890 and was informally known as the Plains Cavalry. Formed at the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Plains Cavalry was charged with protecting American settlers, railroaders, wagon trains, businesses, gold seekers and others from Indian attacks. The Plains Cavalry was meant to operate primarily on the western frontiers of the expanding nation. At that time almost anything west of the Mississippi River was considered the frontier. Most Americans living east of the Mississippi had no idea of the danger, deprivation or hardship encountered by those who lived on the other side of the river.
         In order to combat the “Indian problem,” four additional regiments were added to the existing six. The 9th and 10th regiments consisted of black soldiers with white officers leading their ranks. These regiments later achieved fame as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” a name given to them by Indians.
         After the Civil War, the Plains Cavalry was overrun with commissioned officers. Many had held high brevet (temporary) ranks during the late war. One such man was George Armstrong Custer, who had graduated from West Point in the class of 1861. At the end of the Civil War he held the brevet rank of Major General. These temporary promotions were the rewards given for the performance of meritorious service. After the war he reverted to the permanent rank of Captain. At a later date when he became second in command of the 7th Cavalry he was appointed to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Hundreds of other officers were in similar positions. Ex-Colonels now served as Captains and Captains were now Lieutenants. These men were entitled to wear the insignia of their highest brevet rank they had held in the Civil War.
         Filling the enlisted ranks was another story. Most of the men who had served during the war were finished with fighting and returned to their families. Non-commissioned officers who had served as officers in the Confederate Army filled part of the void. A number of years passed before ex-confederate officers were allowed to serve in the cavalry as commissioned officers. Some of the more adventurous men with Civil War service also filled the non-commissioned ranks of the new regiments.

Trumpeter John Martini achieved fame as he was the only member of Custer’s group to survive. He had been ordered to deliver a message and so escaped the massacre.
Where They Came From
It was extremely difficult to recruit men for this difficult, hazardous and sometimes fatal duty. In some ways, the Plains Cavalry was America’s version of the French Foreign Legion. Like the Foreign Legion, the cavalry became a place to simply disappear. Most cavalry units operated outside the borders of the states and provided a new start in life with few questions asked. Early on, many of those enlisting in the cavalry had arrest warrants outstanding for them. Some joined the service as an alternative to serving jail time. Some judges believed that a hitch in the military would make a man out of the boy. This custom existed into the late 1930s. The ranks of the enlisted were filled with criminals, adventurers and many ex-confederate officers now serving as corporals and sergeants.
         Immigrants, especially those from Ireland and German, filled the ranks. Others came from England, France and Italy. John Martini was an Italian immigrant. He became a bugler in the 7th Cavalry, survived the Little Bighorn Massacre and had a long career in the cavalry. One of the biggest challenges encountered in the cavalry was the language barrier. While most of the American recruits did not read or write, the immigrants who did not speak English compounded this problem.
         A trooper started off at the pay of $13 per month. By the time he finished his first hitch and re-enlisted this was raised to $15. By now the trooper was a “50-cent-a-day professional.”
Organization of the Cavalry
A regiment consisted of 12 troops, 
usually labeled from A to M. There was 
no J troop because in the handwriting 
of that era it was easy to confuse the 
letter I with the letter J. A cavalry 
troop was equivalent to an infantry 
company. Four troops comprised a 
squadron or battalion. A major 
commanded each squadron. The troop 
itself was comprised of about 95 men 
broken down to the following ranks:

1     Captain
1     First Lieutenant
1     Second Lieutenant
1     First Sergeant
5     Line Sergeants
4     Corporals
2     Trumpeters
2     Farriers (horseshoers and 
78    Privates (approximate number)

         Various forts, both large and small were set up from the cold northern Dakota, Nebraska and Montana Territories to the hot desert areas of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. As the western borders of the US expanded, so did the areas covered by the cavalry. In some ways, garrison life in a fort was considered a picnic compared to being on patrol or being on a campaign. It also was also totally mundane, boring and unrewarding. Experienced soldiers preferred being in the field. Most events of the day were announced with bugle calls. The day usually started at 5:30am with the dreaded call of Reveille and ended at 10:00pm with the bugle sounding Taps. The working day usually ended at 5:15pm with Retreat, and this was followed up at 6:00pm with Supper Call.

Care of the Horses
A lot of time in garrison was spent grooming horses and training recruits to fight on horseback. Officers were well aware that the ultimate success of mounted troops demanded that horses be in top condition. Stable Call was sounded twice a day.
         Each horse was groomed and cared for meticulously. Even new recruits realized early on that a trooper without a horse walks.

Robert W. Marlin is the author of My Sixteen he can be reached at

See the second issue of History Magazine for the rest of this article.

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