Military organization is an evolving system. It was so in the 1870’s and is so today. It may be helpful to address the organizational structure and then go to the individual soldier ranking.
Army Structure in the Mid-Eighteen-seventies
The prime tactical and administrative unit of the 1870’s army was the COMPANY. The company generally contained 45 to 60 men in an infantry unit; a few more in a cavalry unit. It may be noted that a trend was starting at about this time to informally refer to cavalry companies as ‘troops’. We may add that similar artillery units were called ‘batteries’. Since Fort Hartsuff was primarily an infantry post, we will consistently refer to this size unit as a company. The individual soldiers were the basic ingredient, but more about them later. The term “squad” was occasionally used but its size and composition was not well defined, as it has been since the period 1900 onward.
The next larger command unit was the REGIMENT. Infantry regiments consisted of ten companies designated by the letters “A” through “K”, excluding “J”. Cavalry and artillery regiments were composed of 12 companies and batteries respectively. Each of the latter added “L” and “M” to their designations. Regimental headquarters were generally located at a large post and seldom included the entire regimental strength. On some occasions, generally during field service, two or more companies might operate independently. They were generally designated temporarily as BATTALIONS or sometimes as “wings”.
Regiments were assigned to separate military DEPARTMENTS. The department in which Fort Hartsuff was located was the Department of the Platte headquartered in Omaha with supporting companies at Fort Omaha. This department was comprised of the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming Territory and parts of Utah and Idaho.
The next larger unit on the organizational chart was that of DIVISION. Totally unlike the modern military definition of the word ‘division’. The 1870’s designation referred to a large geographical area. The more descriptive word DISTRICT may be alternately applied. Commanders of such districts reported to the General of the Army in Washington, D.C. and he to the Commander in Chief, the President of the United States.
All the above terms were in somewhat of a state of flux during the period of Fort Hartsuff’s active service (1874-1881). The definitions will serve well enough in most cases to clarify future references.
THE INDIVIDUAL SOLDIER AND HIS RANK GRADUATIONS
The most important and basic unit of the Army was the individual soldier. The lowest and most numerous on the scale was the PRIVATE. He was the prime unit of soldiers called “enlisted men”. Upon initial entry into his five-year obligation of service such privates might be referred to as “recruits”. Literally recruited at several enlistment centers in cities or at their new units own post they generally received very little training prior to their assignment to permanent company size units. There they entered a more or less formal learning period best described as ‘on-the-job-training’. Many soldiers who served on the Plains during the 1870’s were inducted into military service at Governor’s Island just off New York City’s lower Manhattan. Often these new soldiers were newly arrived in the new world, often of Irish, English and German extraction. After a brief introduction to army life, they would be transported to their newly assigned posts and respective companies.
The new privates wore no mark of rank. Their uniforms may have been piped in the color of their respective service, for example: blue for infantry, red for artillery and yellow for cavalry.
The next rank designation was that of CORPORAL. He would often be a responsible man of some experience. He received a two-dollar increment of pay increase beyond the base monthly pay of thirteen dollars, paid every two months in paper cash. Incremental pay increases based upon years of service were granted to all military enlisted ranks. There might be stratification of corporals within a company based upon longevity or ability, sometimes being referred to as ‘first’, ‘second’, on through ‘fifth corporal’.
The men who effectively ran the company size units were SERGEANTS. The sergeant with by far the greatest power in the unit was the FIRST SERGEANT. His survival instincts, military record, reputation and perhaps physical strength were prime criteria for this lofty and formidable designation. He was aided by as many as five regular sergeants, second, third etc. Most training, discipline, tradition and esprit de corps were these sergeant’s responsibilities, always under close guidance of the First Sergeant. This completes our overview of the enlisted ranks at an Infantry company level. There were specialized ranked enlisted men such as ordnance sergeants, quartermaster sergeants, saddler sergeants, wagon masters and hospital stewards. Some specialists were sometimes referred to as ‘artificers’.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION OF RANK ON ENLISTED UNIFORMS
The designation of rank for each enlisted grade appeared on the sleeve and the trouser seam. As mentioned, the private would have no indication of rank since he had none. His uniform of sky-blue kersey trousers, dark blue blouse and dark headgear was essentially the same as that of all enlisted men, regardless of rank. All levels wore their indication of branch of service color. This color was the background of sleeve chevrons and trouser stripes allocated to the corporals and sergeants. The service color designations were (and still are) blue for Infantry; yellow for Cavalry; and red for Artillery. Incidentally, both corporals and sergeants were universally referred to as ‘non-commissioned officers”, because they were not COMMISSIONED by Congress as were the higher echelon of soldiers.
(Insert drawing or picture of EM rank insignias)
Non-commissioned officers (NCO’s) insignia of rank.
As mentioned, the private had no rank designation. The corporal was distinguished by two stripes on his upper sleeve and a one-half inch stripe down the outside seam of his trousers. The sergeant wore the sleeve stripes, three in number, and had a one-inch wide stripe down his trouser leg. In all cases the stripes reflected his branch color: blue, Infantry; yellow, Cavalry; and red for Artillery. The first sergeant added a diamond to his three sleeve stripes.
COMMISSIONED OFFICER RANK, EMBLEMS AND DUTIES
Military personnel who were commissioned as officers were often graduates of the United State Military Academy at West Point. Sometimes they were commissioned from the ranks of enlisted men due to exceptional leadership, bravery or unusual skills. Army officers were often the Federal government’s primary presence for authority on the frontier.
The basic rank upon commissioning was that of SECOND LIEUTENANT. He wore a gold bar with rank placed upon the shoulder rather than the sleeve. His branch of service was also indicated by the colored background upon these shoulder board rank devices. He also wore a wider stripe of his branch of service color at the outside seam of his trousers. The second lieutenant sometimes commanded smaller units within a company, called platoons in more modern parlance. Though rare, he might even command a company if his ranking officers were on leave or otherwise located on assignment. A second lieutenant even once commanded the post here at Fort Hartsuff. Young Lieutenant Stivers had graduated from the USMA at West Point in 1879. He soon married and brought his eastern states bride to live in the officer’s quarters here at Fort Hartsuff. By the spring of 1881, the fort was in the process of being closed in favor of Fort Niobrara, which was newly built closer to the Sioux reservation. Both the company commander, Captain Samuel Munson and the senior Lieutenant Thaddeus Capron, opted to take leave. So it devolved upon young Lieutenant Stivers to assume command of the post until its final abandonment in June of 1881.
CAPTAINS AND FIRST LIEUTENANTS normally commanded company size units. At smaller size forts such as Hartsuff, the commander of the single company present commanded the post also. If it was a two or three company post, it would likely have had a Major assigned as commander. The senior Captain often assumed this role also. A company or post commander and his second in command performed a variety of formal and informal duties. All officers, regardless of rank, were expected to maintain a very active social life among fellow officers and their families and also the better class of citizens nearby. They hosted and entertained visiting officers and other officials. Among these might be the paymaster on his welcome visit; other military units traveling through; or even more pleasant quasi-official duties. One of the latter was a successful elk hunt our own Captain John Coppinger hosted. The hunting entourage was headed by an English Nobleman. Fortunately, this gentleman wrote a book detailing his hunting in South and North America and left us a very vivid account of his trip to Fort Hartsuff in 1875.
First Lieutenants in the U.S. Army wore a single silver bar on each shoulder as indication of rank. A Captain wore two silver bars whereas a Major wore a silver oak leaf.
The commissioned rank of MAJOR is one of a less easily-defined role. Majors were often assigned staff positions within headquarters units. Regimental adjutants were generally Majors. Other staff positions such as Inspectors General, paymasters, and Aides-de-Camp were often assigned to officers with the rank of Major. Frequently when two or more companies were on detached duty in field or temporary camp, a Major would generally command this separate unit. On the occasion of all or most of a Regiment being in the field and a few companies were assigned some specific mission, the Regimental commander would designate the detachment as a BATTALION. The Battalion might operate for a few hours or a few weeks as a self-contained separate entity with its own staff, supply and support personnel.
A good example of a small two-company detachment commanded by a Major occurred here in the Loup Valley. During 1871, 72 and 73 such temporary camps were established near the small present-day town of Cotesfield. These two-company detached units (from Fort Omaha) were successively commanded by Majors Wells, Townsend, Sweitzer and Brisbin. A more famous case which included Battalion designation, occurred just prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June of 1876.
In this latter case, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer (acting as Commander of the Seventh United States Cavalry in lieu of Colonel Sturgis) opted to strategically assign Major Marcus Reno to command Companies “M”, “A”, and “G” as a separate Battalion to attack the Indian village in the valley. Concurrently, Captain Benteen (a VERY senior Captain) was ordered with Companies “H”, “D” and “K” to scout to the left to keep the Indians from escaping. While the Battalions under Reno and Benteen were moving to complete their missions, Lt. Col. Custer moved downstream toward the center and lower end of the village. With Custer were Companies “C”, “E”, “F”, “I” and “L”. Company “B” had remained with the pack train in the rear. The reader will note that this field expedition was comprised of all twelve companies of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry. It was unusual to have an entire Regiment in the field together.
Yes, the Commander of the Seventh Cavalry that fateful twenty-fifth of June of the year 1876 was LIEUTENANT-COLONEL Custer. We know that Regimental commanding officers were full Colonels as a rule, and such was the case with the Seventh Cavalry. Due to Custer’s stellar Civil War record and brevet rank, plus his successful record as an Indian fighter on the Central Plains, Colonel Sturgis seems not to have objected to his junior officer assuming command. In fairness, Sturgis was on detached military duty at this time.
Army officers with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel were generally designated as second in Regimental command. Other duties of officers of that rank might include those of regimental paymaster, general court martial board, recruiting duty or staff or aide duty at a higher level of command.
The exalted rank of full COLONEL almost always was held by Regimental Commanders within the Regular Army. During this period of the Indian Wars there were twenty-five Regiments of Infantry and ten Regiments of Cavalry. Artillery units played only minor roles in fighting on the Plains. It is interesting to note that the entire number of personnel in the United State Army at that time was around twenty-five thousand men! Contrast this with the many hundreds of thousand serving during the Civil War and the millions during World War II.
Colonels served in many staff posts and advisory positions if not in the coveted command positions. To a man, they aspired to the coveted STAR on the shoulder indicating the rank of General. Full Colonels were distinguished from other rank positions by the EAGLE upon his shoulder epaulettes. His inferiors in rank, the Lieutenant Colonels, wore a SILVER OAK LEAF.
The rarely attained rank of GENERAL ascended through four grades, from one star through four stars. The one star designated the BRIGADIER GENERAL; two stars the MAJOR GENERAL; three stars the LIEUTENANT GENERAL; and four stars simply GENERAL. Department commanders were generally Brigadier Generals.
Our own Fort Hartsuff’s superior unit, the Department of the Platte, was commanded by Brigadier Generals. Successively, they were Brigadier Generals Christopher Colon Augur, Edward Otho Cresap Ord, and the more famous Indian War Officer, George Crook. General Augur was in command of the Department when the Battalion size units of the Ninth Infantry and Second cavalry were stationed at temporary (April through November) camps Munson, Vincent, Ruggles and Canby. These camps were located down the Loup Valley about forty miles from present-day Fort Hartsuff. General Augur is commemorated as a creek designation lying between modern-day Cotesfield and Elba.
General E.O.C. Ord was Department Commander at the time Fort Hartsuff’s location and erection was taking place. He actually made a trip to this upper Loup River region to make recommendations for possible sites for the new permanent post. He visited during mid-summer of 1874 but had previously sent Company “C” of the Ninth Infantry Regiment to establish a camp named Camp Ruggles further up the Loup a few miles southeast of present-day Burwell. When a proper site for a permanent fort was selected, the money appropriated by Congress, and the Quartermaster plans and preparations made, construction began in late August, early September of 1874. The soldiers of Company “C” of the Ninth Infantry moved northeast across the river two or three miles to the site of the projected new fort. The new facility was initially called “Fort on the North Fork of the Loup River’. By December of that year it was officially given its present name of Fort Hartsuff. General Ord was commemorated by having the county seat of Valley County named for him.
The new fort was named for General George Lucas Hartsuff who had died the previous spring. Hartsuff was a well-known Civil War officer. As was typical, our fort was named for a recently deceased officer. Even the earlier temporary camps of Vincent and Canby were named for officers recently deceased. The more famous of these officers was General Edward Canby. He was killed fighting Modoc Indians in northern California. His death occurred on the 11th of April of 1873, about the time that the camp was being established which soon bore his name. His fame is based upon the fact that he was the ONLY General Officer killed by Indians during the entire bloody and long-running Indian War period. Neither Hartsuff, Canby or Vincent ever set foot in the North Loup Valley, yet they left their names indelibly scribed commemorating their brave service to the United States of America.
General George Crook had attained a highly regarded Civil War record, as had Augur and Ord. He proved to be a very effective leader during the Indian Wars. He commanded the southernly of the three armies sent against the hostile and resistant Indians of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana Territories in the spring of 1876. The overall campaign was titled the “Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition”. His command, consisting of more than one thousand men, encountered the Indian force at the Battle of Rosebud Creek. This battle took place on the 17th of June 1876 and resulted in what most historians consider a draw. Both forces withdrew to their base camps with moderate causalities on each side. The same Indian force, supplemented by additional wanderers, met and defeated the Seventh Cavalry under Custer a week later. The site of the Little Bighorn Battle was about 30 miles northwest of the Rosebud Battle. One of the companies in the Rosebud Battle had served at Fort Hartsuff in 1874-75. Company “C” of the Ninth Infantry later garrisoned the Fort until its abandonment in 1881.
As mentioned, Crook’s command moved up the southern of the three ‘prongs’ of the concerted campaigns to surround the Sioux and their allies and force them onto their reservations. Another prong approached from the Northwest under General John Gibbons. The more notable was the third prong approaching southeast Montana from the northeast. This army came from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota territory and was commanded by General Alfred Terry. Among the units he commanded was the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, whose twelve companies were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. This unit suffered the greatest loss having around 265 men killed out of the Regiment’s seven hundred and fifty total.
Though not achieving the fame of Custer, our General Crook was the more successful of the two noted Indian War leaders. One of Crook’s innovations was his active recruitment of Indian scouts to aid his regular soldiers against the Indian foe. He developed this Indian Scout partnership to a high level of perfection. Crook achieved his greatest success in utilizing Indian allies during warfare against the resilient and determined Apaches of the Southwest. Fort Crook south of Omaha city was named from him. It has since been integrated into the modern Offutt Air Force Base.