Health of the Seventh Cavalry

Health of the Seventh Cavalry

A Medical History

Edited by P. Willey and Douglas D. Scott

University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, 2015, 480 pages

Book Review published on: April 28, 2017

I first met Doug Scott in the 1990s taking U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officer Course students to the Indian Wars battlefields of Wyoming and Montana as part of the staff ride elective course. He was invited to lecture at Fort Leavenworth as a guest of the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society, where he gave extremely informative and highly entertaining talks for several years. Scott is a treasure-trove of information, and his participation in the book Health of the Seventh Cavalry will not disappoint anyone interested in the history of the Army on the frontier.

The 7th Cavalry is one of the most storied Regular Army regiments of the U.S. Army. It began its service in 1866 and has been on continuous service since. Until the Vietnam War, it was best remembered for the disaster that it incurred on 25 June 1876 at Little Bighorn, where it lost a large proportion of its assigned soldiers but was not “wiped out” as commonly stated. Its controversial commander, George A. Custer, made the regiment the grist of numerous Hollywood producers and book writers. It was not, as some have asserted, an “elite” unit, and Health of the Seventh Cavalry goes far to show how the regiment was a microcosm of the Army on the western frontier. The value of the book is predicated on this fact.

Why was the 7th Cavalry selected? Likely because they participated in thirty-one skirmishes and battles of consequence. The regiment lost more soldiers in the Indian Wars than any other Regular Army regiment. In fact, the editors point out that one-third of combat deaths in the Army during the 1866-1884 period were in the 7th Cavalry.

The editors assembled seven other experts to contribute to this superlative study of the 7th Cavalry during eighteen years of Indian Wars and Reconstruction-era service. Using extant unit records, the team of nine contributors pored through thousands of documents to not only painstakingly construct the medical condition of the soldiers who served, but, more importantly, also to analyze what the raw data actually means. This book is not just about the medical health of the unit, but it is a study of the human condition of the soldiers and how it affected their operations. The co-contributors bring expertise on a number of related fields to include human osteology, human biology, medical, epidemiological, and period history that tie the complexities of the physical health of the soldiers together in a meaningful manner.

The book is richly illustrated with thirty-four charts and graphs as well as sixty-four tables of compiled statistical data. The information is analyzed by month, season, and then years to draw relevant conclusions. What I like best is the honesty the contributors invoke, exercising critical thinking to develop logical conclusions from the data but not making any inferences when insufficient data exists. For example, we know that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has existed for centuries. The writers do an exemplary job of using the “indicators” of PTSD symptoms from current studies to go back and analyze possible effects of PTSD stressors on the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry. Desertions, alcohol abuse, and “internecine violence” (largely barracks fights) are analyzed by location (upper plains, central plains, the South) and time proximity to major battles to determine the effects on the soldiers. A humorous aside is provided by examples of injuries sustained by some soldiers in these altercations such as the soldier hit in the head with an “earthen pitcher.” Unlike the movie props of today, the pitcher did not break and the soldier who was hit was medically discharged.

The analysis of desertions as part of the study is interesting since 30 percent of the soldiers in this period “went over the hill.” This was a significant concern to the Army and units. The survey of deserters conducted by the Army is very informative of the conditions under which the soldiers had to live. Reasons for desertions include “tyrannical superiors,” “imperious officers,” poor/insufficient rations, poor living conditions, and general dissatisfaction. These are no surprises to students of the period.

The editors also do a fascinating job of analyzing the medical health of the regiment by social groups, ages, ranks, and birth locations. For example, a number of premises commonly held over the years have been debunked by this book to include propensity for cold-weather injuries due to age and skin pigmentation. Of particular interest are the reasons for soldiers’ illnesses and how this period was the beginning of the modern Army medical system. Many injuries were peculiar to a horse-mounted army, and 13.3 percent of injuries were transportation related while 43 percent were injuries by animal kicks. A soldier is recorded as having a “lacerated hand”—done by an “officer’s horse” (as opposed to a troop horse). Another soldier suffered a broken hand from punching a horse although the editors carefully note that the horse had no apparent record of injury sustained (shades of Blazing Saddles). The largest killers for a number of years were pneumonia and influenza.

The only down-side to this superlative book are the lack of endnote citations. I dislike the American Psychological Association methodology and, for historians, this is an aggravation. However, this book adds tremendously to the study of the nineteenth-century Army, since many of the units experienced the same conditions as the 7th Cavalry. The research methodology employed by the contributors is an exemplary example for other historians to consider and demonstrates the highest standards of analysis and critical thinking we demand of our leaders today.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edwin Kennedy Jr., U.S. Army, Retired, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama