History of the Iowa 7th Cavalry




Material from ; http://7thiowacavalry.com/history.htm


            Not all men who enlisted to serve as soldiers for the Union cause in America’s Civil War saw action on the major battlefields in the East. Some federal troops spent the war on America’s western frontier, where their greatest enemies were not Confederate armies, but isolation, a brutal climate, disease, boredom and the elusive Plains Indians.

            One such unit was the 7th Regiment of Iowa Volunteers Cavalry, which served in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska Territories from 1863 until 1866. The regiment was formed around three infantry companies raised in the Iowa City area known as the 41st Iowa Infantry, and one company of mounted troops known as the Sioux City Cavalry. These four companies, now designated as Companies I, K, L and M had already been serving in the Dakotas since 1862. which were combined with four fledgling companies raised in southern Iowa known as Companies A, B, C and D. The remainder of the regiment consisted of the four new companies from central Iowa, Companies E, F, G and H.

            Command of this diverse conglomeration was given to Samuel W. Summers, a wealthy Ottumwa lawyer with no previous military experience. John Pattee, who was in command of the 41st Iowa infantrymen, was named Lieutenant Colonel, and it didn’t hurt that he was the governor’s brother-in-law. The other staff and line officers were chosen from among the various units that had been transformed into the new cavalry regiment.

            True to the tradition of most of Iowa’s Civil War regiments, company officers were elected by the men. Several men recruited to serve in the 7th Iowa Cavalry had already served in other Iowa regiments, and some had even served in the War with Mexico. However, the vast majority of the officers or men lacked any actual combat experience.

            The eight newly-raised companies arrived in Omaha, Nebraska Territory in the late summer of 1863 after completing their military training at Camp Hendershott, near Davenport, Iowa. However, the regiment was never allowed to serve as a unit. Instead, the men of Companies I, K, L and M continued to serve on the northern plains of Dakota Territory, where they were involved in battles with Indians at Whitestone Hill and Killdeer Mountain.

            After marching across their home state the other eight companies of Iowa troopers were ordered to Fort Kearny, on the Old Oregon Trail, where they were to help keep the frontier’s vital overland roads open to traffic and to protect western civilians from any Indian warriors tempted to take advantage of the withdrawal of virtually all regular army troops. To accomplish this, the eight new companies of the 7th Iowa Cavalry were scattered throughout Nebraska at various posts along the Platte River.

            When units of the 7th Iowa Cavalry first arrived in Nebraska Territory, Fort Kearny was the only military post between the Missouri River and Wyoming Territory. To further extend the army’s reach, Company G was ordered to begin construction of a new outpost at Cottonwood Springs, near the junction of the North and South Platte Rivers.

            Built of rough-hewn logs cut from among the Red Cedars in nearby Cottonwood Canyon, the new post with its barracks, storerooms, officer’s quarters and hospital was completed just as the winter of 1863-64 descended on the plains. First named Camp McKean and later commonly known as Fort Cottonwood. the outpost was officially renamed Fort McPherson in 1866. This fort served prominently in the history of the frontier, and was home to many 7th Iowa cavalrymen.

            In 1864 two companies of the 7th Iowa Cavalry were ordered to march up the North Platte River to Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory. There, they received orders to proceed to Elk Mountain where they were to construct another new post. This new installation was to be named Fort Halleck and was intended to provide a military presence on the Overland Mail Road in south-central Wyoming.

            Until the summer of 1864 the only Indians the Iowa cavalrymen had seen were those who lived near Fort Kearny and were dependent on government rations and protection against free-roaming tribes such as the Sioux, Cheyenne and the Arapaho. These highly mobile Plains tribes were able to distance themselves from the volunteer soldiers, and due to their stealth and speed were able to stand and fight on ground of their own choosing.

            In August of 1864 Indian war parties struck along the Platte River Road killing settlers, burning stage stations and attacking wagon trains. A 7th Iowa Cavalry officer named Joseph Bone and detail of ten men watched helplessly as a freighting outfit consisting of eleven wagons was attacked near Plum Creek Station. His pleading telegram to Fort Kearny 40 miles distant reads:


Plum Creek

Col. Summers,

Ft. Kearny

            Send company of men here as quick as God can send them. One hundred Indians in sight firing on ox train.


            By the time the relief column arrived at Plum Creek, the Indians had already killed all the men of the wagon train and made their escape south into Kansas. They took with them two captives: Nancy Morton, wife of one of the wagon drivers, and young Danny Marble, a son of one of the other teamsters. This outbreak of hostilities in Nebraska resulted in the temporary closure of the Platte River Road. For several weeks the citizens of Denver were isolated and fearful of imminent attack.

            In the fall of 1864, Company F of the 7th Iowa Cavalry was ordered to build another new fort. This post, initially known as Fort Rankin, was erected near Julesburg, Colorado. On November 28, 1864, just as work on the fort was being completed, the 3rd Colorado Volunteer Cavalry attacked a Southern Cheyenne village on Sand Creek. This infamous attack upon Indians, who were actively involved in seeking a peaceful resolution to the recent hostilities, united the Plains tribes in a desire for revenge.

            As a result of the massacre at Sand Creek, the Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux began moving their villages toward refuge in the Black Hills. As they made their way north the warriors resumed attacks along the Platte River Road, and on January 7, 1865, a large war party ambushed a detachment of 7th Iowa troopers near Julesburg, Colorado. Fifteen soldiers were killed and the rest were saved only after a mountain howitzer from Fort Rankin was brought to the field. After a few rounds had been fired the attackers wisely withdrew out of range.

            However the Indians were still confident enough to return to Fort Rankin three weeks later. This time the chastened Iowans and the nearby townspeople watched from within the sod walls of the fort, while the warriors pillaged and burned Julesburg. The men of the 7th Iowa Cavalry engaged in several other campaigns against the Plains Indians, including the Wind River Expedition of 1865 and the Republican River Expedition in January of 1866. However, both of these campaigns failed to decisively engage any Indians.

            In the three years they served on the frontier, the 7th Iowa Cavalry escorted the US mail, marched thousands of miles on patrols and expeditions, repaired countless miles of telegraph lines, built three major military posts and fortified existing stage stations all along the Old Oregon Trail. During the regiment’s three years of service, 32 men were killed in action, 77 men died of disease, 14 others died of accidents or suicides, and 58 men deserted.

            Fatal misunderstandings are the bane of any military unit, and Civil War regiments were no exception. In June of 1865, Captain William Fouts and 100 men of the 7th Iowa Cavalry were ordered to escort some friendly Sioux from Fort Laramie to Fort Kearny. Fouts, a former Methodist clergyman saw this as a pleasant duty and even had his wife and children join the column. To avoid any possibility of conflict Fouts even decided not to have ammunition issued to his men.

            Unfortunately, The Sioux were fearful of the move to Fort Kearny as it was near the lands of their ancient enemies – the Pawnee. After four days on the trail, Captain Fouts rode into the Indian camp to learn why they were not preparing for the day’s march. Suddenly, Fouts and three Iowa troopers were shot and killed and the distrustful Indians made their escape to the north, leaving a grieving widow and a bewildered group of Iowa soldiers to wonder what had gone wrong.

            Accidents also took a heavy toll among the men of the regiment. For example, on June 20, 1865, a gun detail was formed on the parade ground at Fort Cottonwood to practice firing an artillery salute in preparation for the first Independence Day since the end of the Civil War. One of the rounds exploded prematurely, killing Private Benjamin Grooms.

            The men of the 7th Iowa Cavalry continued to serve in Nebraska Territory until May 17, 1866, when they were officially mustered out of the army. Most of the Iowans returned home and sought to resume their civilian lives, however, their experiences on the frontier led several former cavalrymen to return to the High Plains and make it their home.

            One former trooper who homesteaded land he had once fought to protect was Private Cyrus Fox of Company C. Fox was close at hand to watch as Fort Cottonwood evolved into Fort McPherson. When the post was finally abandoned by the military in 1880, Fox played a leading part in raising a monument to the Iowa soldiers who had once served in the region. Today, a weathered statue of a Civil War soldier stands where Fort Cottonwood had been built, and serves as the only monument to the sacrifices made by the men of the 7th Iowa Cavalry.