I’ve always been fascinated with the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third U.S. Presidents, died on the same day – July 4, 1826. And that the entire Civil War turned on the events leading up to the victory at Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg, both of which occurred on July 4, 1863. So here it is, another 4th of July, and I’m contemplating history.
My family was fortunate in a lot of ways. It was pure luck that our generations fell in such a way that relatively few of us were subject to military service during times of war. Even the Civil War – while it was so unfathomably tragic in human terms, I find just a handful of stories that directly involve or affect my people.
Henry C Davis, my great-grandmother’s brother, was a genuine survivor. Henry joined the 1st Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, in June 1863, before he was even 17 years old. The bulk of his war was spent in and around Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi. But the most often-told stories concerning this regiment took place after the end of the war.
Henry’s outfit heard the news of Lee’s surrender about the same time as everybody else, but they also received an order from Lt. Gen. Grant informing them they weren’t going home – rather they were headed for the Gulf Department – Alexandria, Louisiana, specifically – to organize into a new company and to and meet their new commanding officer, one George Armstrong Custer.
And this is where history takes a left turn – or a right turn, depending on whose account you read. A lot of books dub Custer a military genius; others, an utter lunatic. It’s rare to find an account of this group of men in this specific place and time and place that explores any gray area, or probes any middle ground. Most are seriously slanted and one-sided.
And on that note, the quotes I use in this piece come from “A history of the First Regiment Iowa Cavalry Veteran Volunteers” by Charles H. Lothrop, a WAY-seriously slanted history of the regiment published in 1890. Lothrop (standing, right, in the photo) was the regiment’s surgeon, and he was no Custer fan. But that said, Lothrop at least saw fit to include several key reports filed with the War Department and letters written to various people directly involved in the events of that time. While the author’s contributions are highly suspect, I find the facts presented through those eyewitness accounts and reports very persuasive.
Now then… It’s not clear why, but the outfit stayed in Alexandria, on the banks of the Red River, for nearly six weeks in the thick of a Louisiana summer. Medical supplies were non-existent, the water supply was impure, and rations were worse. Malaria and its related maladies were rampant. Odd since New Orleans was fairly easily reachable. Natchez was even closer, but I’m not sure they were able or willing to provide much assistance. Though I’m not sure of the route back then, the members of the regiment unfit to march on to Texas were evacuated to a hospital in New Orleans, and their journey (train, boat, wagon, or whatever) reportedly took just 26 hours.
Lt. Col. A. G. McQueen of the 1st Iowa wrote:
I can say that I never saw troops so badly managed and provided for, both in regard to outfit and rations, as this division of cavalry was while it remained under the command of General Custer, or such a lack of common sense in orders and in the exercise of discipline, as was displayed by its commander.
The regiment set out for Texas on August 8th “with rations exhausted, many of the soldiers barefooted, almost naked and without blankets, and with no supplies provided.” They arrived at Hempstead, a distance of 240 miles, on August 26th. One soldier wrote to his hometown newspaper:
The march… to this place was the most severe and uncomfortable, and attended with more suffering than any the regiment has experienced during its four years’ service in the field.
Perhaps the soldiers really were essentially unclothed, shoeless, and sick. Or perhaps they were just a bunch of renegade, panty-waist complainers. I guess we’ll never know for sure.
The key event in this story happened in early September. Driven by callous selfishness, or perhaps abject deprivation, some soldiers stole a cow or two off the prairie and killed it/them for food. And even though none of the evidence (that is, meat) was found in the 1st Iowa soldiers’ camp, the single arrest made in connection with the incident was the 1st Iowa’s Pvt. Horace Cure.
[Cure] was arrested on suspicion only that he knew the parties who had killed a beef running on the prairie and brought it in to the [team of wagons]; and because he would not or could not give information as to who the parties were, he was punished.
On September 14th, without a hearing or any kind of trial, Pvt. Cure received twenty-five lashes and a humiliating head-shaving – the very punishment detailed in an order Gen. Custer gave back in Alexandria on the first day of his command. Even if Custer had a reason for arresting Cure, flogging in the military had been outlawed by Congress in 1861, and the officers of the 1st Iowa were not going to take this lying down.
In the following days and weeks, Dr. Lothrop, wrote to Iowa’s Gov. Stone, who in turn asked the War Department to investigate the matter, and Cure’s punishment specifically. The Governor’s Military Secretary, George J. North’s reply to Lothrop concludes with this sentence: “The Governor is obliged to you for the definite information you have furnished, which will enable him the better to protect this Iowa regiment.”
Custer was eventually court-martialed and suspended from the service for a year without pay in 1867. His crime – no, not dereliction of duty, not illegal whipping of enlisted men. He was kicked out for abandoning his command and riding a couple government horses – nearly to death – in order to visit his wife Libbie in Fort Riley, Kansas. He eventually returned to the Army, of course – and he met his Montanan Waterloo at Little Big Horn eleven years (and two days) after he took command of Uncle Henry’s regiment.
For his part, Henry C. Davis was discharged from the Army in Austin, Texas, on February 15, 1866, after two years and eight months of service. Ten months after the goings-on at Appomattox Courthouse. A copy of his discharge papers can be found in the packet of papers he supplied in connection with his Nebraska homestead application.
PS – I’ve developed a distinct bias of my own in the preparation of this post. I hope it hasn’t clouded the basic story too much. For what it’s worth, I didn’t include this still photo of the brilliant Richard Mulligan as Custer from “Little Big Man” as I’d absolutely intended to – so there’s that.