« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Curtis Eriksmoen, Published October 13 2012

Eriksmoen: Custer’s first Dakota commander cut teeth in Civil War

Earlier this year, Linda Swink released her book, “In Their Honor.” One of the “heroes” she profiled was Lt. Col. George Custer’s first commanding officer in Dakota Territory.

Col. David S. Stanley had the unenviable task of supervising two prima donna officers who often disregarded his orders on the 1873 Yellowstone Expedition. They were Custer and Lt. Col. Fred Grant, son of the U.S. president. As a result, Stanley had Custer arrested, and Grant nearly lost his life when he temporarily abandoned the expedition without Stanley’s permission.

David Sloan Stanley was born June 1, 1828, in Cedar Valley, Ohio, to John Bratton Stanley and Sarah Peterson Stanley. John was listed in the census as a “farm hand” and, with apparently little means to adequately provide for his family, allowed his son David to be raised from 1839 to 1848 by Dr. Leander Firestone, a prominent physician in nearby Congress, Ohio.

After grade school, Stanley excelled at the nearby Canaan Academy, where he came to the attention of Congressman Samuel Lahm, who had served as a brigadier general during the Mexican War. Through the influence of Lahm, Stanley received an appointment to West Point on July 1, 1848.

In the summer of 1848, when Stanley boarded the train in Congress, he joined another young man from Ohio headed to West Point – Philip Sheridan. The two became friends and remained close even when Sheridan was Stanley’s superior during his time in Dakota Territory.

At West Point, Stanley studied artillery and graduated ninth in his class of 43. He was so highly thought of by the administration that he was brought back to give the address to the graduating class of 1855.

Upon graduation, Stanley was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Dragoons, also known as the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment.

In 1853, he was assigned as quartermaster of the party surveying the Pacific Railroad’s route to the Pacific Ocean under the command of Lt. Amiel W. Whipple. The route started at Fort Smith, Ark., and would end in San Diego, Calif., basically following the 35th parallel.

In 1854, Stanley was sent to Fort Chadbourne on the Texas frontier. The next year, he was transferred to the 1st U.S. Cavalry under Capt. George McClellan, and on March 27, 1855, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant.

Early in 1856, Stanley was sent along with his regiment to Kansas to suppress the disturbances between pro-slavery advocates and the “free soilers,” who opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

With steamboat travel beginning to ascend up the Missouri River, the military decided to build a frontier post along the river on the southern border of what is now South Dakota.

On June 26, Stanley was sent to oversee the construction of Fort Randall, the first fort in what became a chain of forts on the upper Missouri River. When that was completed, he was stationed at the Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania and married Anna M. Wright on April 2, 1857.

Later that year, Stanley returned to the Plains in a military campaign against the Cheyenne Indians. On July 29, at the Solomon River in Kansas, Stanley was surrounded by several hostile Cheyenne. Just as they were ready to move in for the kill, another lieutenant rushed at the Indians with a raised saber and they scattered.

The officer who saved Stanley’s life was “Jeb” Stuart, and the two men became good friends. Little did they realize that they would soon become high-ranking officers on opposite sides of the Civil War.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Stanley “was offered the command of a Confederate Arkansas regiment with the rank of colonel.” He rejected this offer and went to the Union post at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Stanley was promoted to captain on March 16 and transferred to the 4th U.S. Cavalry, where he was engaged in battles in Missouri at Wilson Creek, Forsyth, Dug Springs and Rolla.

On Sept. 28, he was promoted to brigadier general and named commander of the division in Missouri, engaging in the battles at Madrid, Island Number Ten and Corinth.

Stanley was ordered back east and, on Nov. 29, 1862, was made chief of the cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland under the command of his West Point instructor, Gen. George Thomas. He was cited for “gallantry and meritorious service” at the bloody Battle of Stone’s River and commanded the 1st Division during the Atlanta campaign. After the Battle of Jonesboro, Stanley took charge of the Army of the Cumberland on Oct. 6, 1863, in the temporary absence of Thomas.

On Nov. 30, 1864, the Union Army scored one of its greatest victories in the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee, resulting in the loss of 14 Confederate generals. Stanley commanded the IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. He placed himself at the head of a reserve brigade and led his troops in regaining a part of the line that the enemy had broken. He was severely wounded from a shot through the nape of his neck, but Stanley refused to leave the field until victory was assured.

For his action, Stanley was promoted to major general and awarded the Medal of Honor. However, his injury kept him out of action until after the close of the Civil War.

With the war over, Stanley rejoined his command of the IV Corps, which he took to Texas to counter the growing French involvement in Mexico’s internal affairs. After that was resolved, Stanley was mustered out of the Union service on Feb. 1, 1866.

He remained in the regular army and was given the rank of colonel to command the 22nd U.S. Infantry. Stanley was assigned to the Indian frontier, which would soon take him to Dakota Territory.

(Next week, we will conclude our article about David Stanley as we focus on his time in Dakota Territory when he locked horns with subordinate George Custer.)


Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send a letter to the editor.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at jeriksmoen@cableone.net.