History of the Second United States Cavalry

The 1854 Dragoon, courtesy of Ed Sims, Comp'y A, 1st Dragoons @ Ft Tejon CA.

Part 4: 1848 TO 1860, Life on the Plains

After the War with Mexico, the regiment returned to the duties originally intended for the Dragoons and the recently added (1839) Mounted Rifles: Standing in the breach between European settlers and the native peoples of North America.  This assignment meant the regiment was again split up into small groups of a few companies here and there at various posts. For a very good look at the Army on the frontier during this period please be sure to read Robert M. Utley's Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848 - 1865 (New York, 1967).

(editors note: this period of American history is again particularly difficult, considering the tragedy suffered by the American Natives at the hands of the ever growing immigrant population from around the world.  Soldiers are the tools of their society.  Society sometimes makes grave errors in using their soldiers.  Thank God we are a democracy founded upon, and growing ever successful at living by principles that minimize these errors.)

Companies D & E, under Bvt Major Graham left Monterey in July 1848, and after passing through Chihuahua, Tucson, and Santa Fe (Oct 10) proceeded to Los Angeles via a grueling march causing the loss of many animals and disabling a number of men by the time of their arrival in January 1849. Company H stayed on in Santa Fe for some time..

The remaining companies left Mexico in September 1848 for Texas and Forts Groghan, Graham, and Worth.  These posts were abandoned in August, 1853 and the companies distributed as: Company G at Fort Territt, A at Ft. McKavitt, C at Ft. Chadbourne, I on the Clear Fork of the Brazos, F at Ft. Belknap, and B at Ft. Mason.

During this period the squadrons and companies operated regularly against Apache, Navajo, and Mexican bandits while not allowed to interfere with European settlers who consistently transgressed on treaties. To better flesh out the life of the Dragoon on the plains we offer this treatise by a bugler of the regiment:

  The other companies moved to Ft. Leavenworth K.T. by April 1855, where D, E, H, & K took part in the expedition against the Sioux, culminating in the battle of Blue Water, N.T. on September 3.  In August, the Texas companies (A,B,C,F,G,I) left Ft.Belknap for Ft. Riley K.T. arriving September 28 after marching 485 miles in 33 days. Companies D & K joined them in June 1857 to assist in suppressing the disturbances in Kansas while E & H continued operating against the Sioux.

With the formation in 1855 of the new the First and Second Cavalry, a few later well known individuals transferred out of the Second Dragoons: Capt. Hardee to the 2nd Cavalry, with Capt May and 2nd Lt. J.E.B. Stuart going to the 1st. A few others of later note remained with "our" Second: Lt. Col. Cooke, Capt. Alfred Pleasanton (H), Lt. John Buford (H), and Lt. Beverly Robertson (K). A young Brevet Lt. Wesley Merritt would also soon join Company B under then Capt. Buford.

Notes from the Second Cavalry Association (thanks to Bill Heidner)

The Nation Expands West

After the Mexican war, the Regiment moved west to secure the country’s newly acquired territories for the influx of settlers. In June of 1849 troopers from Company F under the command of Major Ripley Arnold established an encampment along the banks of the Trinity River in Texas, which they named Fort Worth in honor of General William J. Worth, whom the Regiment had served with during the final years of the Seminole War. This area is now known as "the fort that became a city," Dallas/Fort Worth.

The Regiment spent the pre-Civil War period fighting Indians and securing the routes that brought settlers into the new territories of the United States. In 1854, the Second Dragoons took part in a campaign against the Sioux Indians and soundly defeated a sizable Brule Sioux force near Ash Hollow, Nebraska, without incurring a single loss. This action forced the Sioux to sign a peace treaty.

In late 1857, in response to reports of harassment and abuse of Federal officials from Mormon settlers in Utah, a battalion formed from the Regiment was sent to put down Mormon resistance to U.S. authority as part of a 2,500 man expeditionary force. Expecting a confrontation, the Mormon leader and Utah governor, Brigham Young, mobilized the Utah militia, but agreed to terms just before the expeditionary force reached the state. This long and arduous winter march is immortalized in the Don Stiver print, "Never a Complaint."

On 14 June 1858, Harney was promoted to Brigadier General and Philip St. George Cooke was appointed the Third Colonel of the Regiment. During this time Colonel Cooke published the definitive manual on cavalry tactics, which was used by both sides in the Civil War.

In July 1860, the President of the United States ordered Harney to St. Louis to take command of the Department of the West. Once there, however, the combination of the onslaught of political events and his own political naiveté ruined him. Although he was a brilliant cavalryman, Harney, as a political neophyte, could not negotiate the tangle of political affairs in Missouri. Suspected of Southern sympathies by the powerful Blair-Benton faction in Missouri, local politicians demanded his removal, and President Lincoln relieved him of his command in May 1861. On 1 August 1863, Harney was placed on the retired list. He was promoted to brevet Major General on 13 March 1865 in recognition of his long and faithful service. President Lincoln later admitted that Harney's removal was one of the biggest mistakes of his administration. Harney went on to serve several Indian commissioners and became known as "the nation's greatest Indian expert." He died in Orlando, Florida, on 9 May 1889. In his honor, the Sioux gave him a title he would have cherished, "Man-Who-Always-Kept-His-Word." A single thread runs through all that he did and tried to do – a fierce desire to serve. His epitaph in Arlington Cemetery captures his humility and dedication to the Regiment. It reads simply, "Harney, Second Dragoons." In 1985 Fort Leavenworth named its new gymnasium after this distinguished cavalryman.

After the civil war in Kansas came the march to, and occupation of, Utah in 1857 and 1858, with significant attendant hardships and privations. We'll share a little of Lt. Col. Cooke's comments to explain:

"In September (1857) we were suddenly recalled to Fort Leavenworth, in order to march and overtake and reinforce the command of infantry enroute to operate against the Mormons in Utah.  As a souvenir of that period, I append my report of our extraordinary march.

                              Headquarters Second Regiment of Dragoons,                                   Camp on Black Fork, U.T., November 21, 1857

I marched then, on the 17th. My preparations, though hurried, were as complete as was possible. ...On the 21st, after a hard rain, I marched six miles, which, on slippery roads, was as much as such a train might well accomplish; and only that night nearly half of one of the companies which we had met returning from Fort Leavenworth, from a march of 600 miles, reached my camp.

  Half allowance, or six pounds a-day of corn for horses and mules, was the largest item of transportation. Three or four laundresses with their children were with each company.

October 3.--There was so severe a northeast storm I lay in camp. I knew there would be no fuel at the next, on the Platte river.

October 4.--I marched in the rain, and on the 5th arrived at Fort Kearny at 10 A.M., my rate of marching after September 21 having averaged 21 miles a day.

On the 7th I marched in the rain, which had continued since the 2d of the month. ...Up to the 12th - eleven days - the rainy weather continued, clearing up with thick ice; but the marches averaged 21 miles. The grass was very scarce and poor...

...After this, the repeated hard frosts, with the previous consumption by the troops, trains, and sixty thousand emigrant cattle, almost left us without this all-important support -- I mean of a sort or condition fit for the support of our animals.

October 15.--I crossed the South Platte with a very cold northwest wind. Descended Ash Hollow and marched a mile or two along the North Platte in the vain search for any grass. These twenty two miles, with the two serious obstacles overcome, were accomplished by the whole train in good time. This must be attributed to the excellent management of that most efficient officer, First Lieutenant John Buford, Regimental Quartermaster.

After this, the horses began to die and necessarily be left on the road. ...A northeaster, with sleet, was distressingly cold that evening in camp on Smith's fork. Next day there was a snow storm, falling three or four inches, which the teams were scarcely forced to face; and twenty three mules, all three year olds, were relieved form the harness exhausted.

On the 22d, my camp was four miles below Fort Laramie, with scarcely any appearance of grass, and there was none other for miles. ...[John Buford] was directed to ... report upon all the mules, and a board of the older officers ordered to ... report upon the horses.

Fifty three were reported, on the 24th, ineffective for active service, and two hundred and seventy-eight fit to prosecute the march.

I had received your communication of October 5, giving discretionary authority to winter in the vicinity of Fort Laramie; but that evening I determined to continue on. I ordered the laundresses to be left. Those too sick to ride were ordered left. Of the men dismounted, one married man to a company, and such others as were deemed by the company commanders "ineffective afoot", were authorized to be left.

...The horses were all blanketed from that time, and on the march led and mounted alternate hours, besides dismounting on difficult ground.

...The marches were then twenty miles a day till October 30, when, finding on the river very unusually good grass...after eight miles... camp was made.

November 3.--Twenty miles were accomplished, against an excessively cold head wind, to a camp on Sago Creek. The horses were mostly led. The fatigue of walking up and over the high hills, in the face of the wind, was very great.

November 6.--We found the ground once more white and the snow falling. I marched as usual. ... The air seem turned to a frozen fog; nothing could be seen. We were struggling in a freezing cloud. ... Finally, [the guide] led us behind a great granite rock, but all too small for the promised shelter. Only part of the regiment could huddle there in the deep snow, while the long night through the storm and in fearful eddies from above, before, behind, drove the falling and drifting snow. ... There the famished mules, crying piteously, did not seek to eat, but desperately gathered in a mass;...

Thus morning light had nothing cheering to reveal; the air still filled with driven snow. ... But for six hours the frost or frozen fog fell thickly, and again we marched on as in a cloud.

 Marching ten miles only, I got a better camp, and herded the horses on the hills. It was a different road, where a few days before, the bodies of three frozen men were found.

November 8.--The mercury that morning marked forty four degrees below the freezing point. The march was commenced before eight o'clock, and soon a high northwest wind arose, which with the drift, gave great suffering. ... but of necessity, eighteen miles were marched to Bitter Creek.

The next day, nineteen miles were to be marched ... Seven hours thus, the Sweetwater valley was regained ... The animals were driven ... to herd on the high hills... but in the night a very great wind arose and drove them back from the scant bunch grass there, freezing to death fifteen.

November 10.--The northeast wind continued fiercely, enveloping us in a cloud, which froze and fell all day. ... Nine trooper horses were left freezing and dying on the road that day, and a number soldiers and teamsters had been frost bitten. ... A bottle of sherry wine froze in a trunk. ... having lost about fifty mules in thirty-six hours, the morning of the 11th, on the report of the Quartermaster, I felt bound to leave a wagon in the bushes, filled with seventy-four extra saddles and bridles and some sabres. ... The Sharp's carbines were then issued to mounted as well as dismounted men.

November 11.--Pleasant in the forenoon to men well wrapped and walking in the sun; we nearly surmounted the pass, marching seventeen miles, encamped on Dry Sandy. ... There remained one day's corn after that night. It proved intensely cold ... The mules for once were ordered tied to the wagons. ... Nine died.

[By the 12th] ... Fifty horses had been lost since leaving Laramie. The regiment had retained through it's sufferings an excellent spirit.

The 15th I reached and crossed the Green river; there was very little grass, near or far; ... The sick report had rapidly run up from four or five to forty two, thirty six soldiers and teamsters having been frosted.

November 16.--We had to face a very severe wind, and to march, too, eighteen miles before a camp-ground could be got, on Ham's Fork. ... Twenty horses were abandoned in that twenty four hours.

November 19.--Marched, leading through the mud and snow, as yesterday, fourteen miles, passing the camp of the Tenth Infantry. I encamped several miles above them, on Black Fork, and about three miles below Fort Bridger. From there I reported in person yesterday, and one of my companies joined the army headquarters, Camp Scott.

I have one hundred and forty four horses, and have lost one hundred and thirty four. It has been of starvation. The earth has a no more lifeless, treeless, grassless desert; it contains scarcely a wolf to glut itself on the hundreds of dead and frozen animals which for thirty miles nearly block the road with abandoned and shattered property; they mark, perhaps beyond example in history, the steps of an advancing army with the horrors of a disastrous retreat.

...         With high respect, your obedient servant,

                     P. St. George Cooke,

                       Lieutenant-Colonel Second Dragoons

The occupation of Utah territory remained unexciting, with regard to relations with the Mormons.  The regiment was assigned to herd and guard the Army's horses, mules, oxen, and cattle with almost no assistance from the near 30,000 man army entrenched at Fort Bridger over the winter.  Colonel St. George Cooke returned to Utah after an absent assignment to become head of the Department of Utah in August 1860. He renamed Camp Floyd Fort Crittenden.  

During the last year before war again erupted the Second Dragoons were particularly active on the plains.  The regiment, in "3 or 4 detachments", marched a cumulative "7,650 miles over the territories of Utah, New Mexico, Oregon, California, Kansas, and Nebraska". In an extreme example, Lt. William Sanders (H) and a sergeant left Ft. Crittenden UT on March 30, 1861 in pursuit of deserters.  They caught the fugitives in Los Angeles, turned them over to the nearest post for trial, and returned to Ft. Crittenden on May 31 after traveling 1,600 miles in 59 days.

Never a Complaint by Don Stievers.  The Second Dragoons on the Mormon Campaign

"Then up my gallant steed! the wild wind's speed

  Is but slow to thy headlong flight;

And we'll rein up soon, and the light dragoon

  with his charger will sleep tonight".

(from The Light Dragoon by Lt. L.P. Davidson)