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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published October 21 2012

Eriksmoen: North Dakota colonel had Custer arrested for ignoring order

Following the Civil War and his involvement in Mexico to stop the French from meddling in Mexico’s internal affairs, Col. David Stanley chose to stay in the regular Army and was assigned command of the reorganized 22nd Infantry on Sept. 21, 1866.

The 22nd was sent to the Indian frontier, and Stanley led one company to Fort Sully in what is now South Dakota, where he established his headquarters, and sent other companies to Fort Rice, Fort Buford and Fort Berthold in what is now North Dakota.

By 1871, the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Fargo, and Thomas Rosser, George Custer’s roommate at West Point, supervised a survey party west of Fargo for the NP. In the summer of 1872, Rosser continued his survey toward the Yellowstone River, and he was to be escorted by soldiers under the commands of Col. Eugene M. Baker and Stanley.

Stanley’s command reached a point just east of Pompey’s Pillar in Montana Territory, where they were attacked by hostile Sioux and forced to turn back. It was reported that on Aug. 14, “as Baker lay dead drunk, hundreds of Sioux attacked his camp near current Billings, Montana,” and he never reached his destination.

With an uncompleted survey, Rosser would return the following summer to finish his work. In the meantime, family conditions at Stanley’s home in northern Ohio began to weigh heavily on the colonel. His only son was very ill, and Stanley asked Gen. Philip Sheridan, his commander and former West Point classmate, to be allowed to return home.

Sheridan would not grant that but did promise him assistance. He ordered the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George Custer to accompany Stanley.

The 1873 Yellowstone Expedition awarded to Stanley was large in scope. It was made up of 1,451 enlisted men and 80 officers. It also included 373 civilian employees, 2,321 mules and 600 cattle.

Stanley had begun to drink in excess, and Custer, who joined the expedition June 10 at Fort Rice, “was a tee-totaler and was in no mood to serve under an alcoholic.”

The expedition left Fort Rice on June 24, and the two officers quickly clashed. On July 1, Stanley told Custer “that he never had dealt with a more troublesome subordinate.” Stanley wrote to his wife, “I have seen enough of him to convince me that he is a cold-blooded, untruthful and unprincipled man.”

To compound Stanley’s frustration in trying to assert control over his men, Sheridan sent one more officer on the expedition who disliked obeying orders – Fred Grant, the oldest son of President Ulysses Grant.

The previous year, Stanley lost two officers who were killed by a war party. One of them was Lt. Lewis Dent Adair, a first cousin of Julia Dent Grant, the wife of the president. The responsibility of trying to provide safety on a dangerous assignment for another member of the president’s family weighed heavily on Stanley.

While on their way to the Yellowstone, both Custer and Fred Grant tested Stanley’s patience. Stanley ordered Grant to destroy a stock of whiskey that had been seized. Instead, Grant had the whiskey distributed to officers of the 7th Cavalry. He later left the expedition for a couple of days without Stanley’s permission.

However, Stanley’s greatest frustration involved Custer. He “had to officially reprimand Custer while under his command for a series of offenses including marching 15 miles away from the rest of the column without orders.”

Then, there was the matter of a cast-iron cooking stove that Custer used for preparing his food. This heavy item took up valuable space, and Stanley ordered him to get rid of it.

When Stanley found out that Custer had ignored the order, he issued the order again, more forcibly, and again it was ignored. After Custer ignored the same order for the sixth time, Stanley had him arrested on the evening of July 7 and forced him to ride at the rear of the column.

Two days later, Stanley rescinded the arrest order and, instead of attempting to rein in his undisciplined officers, allowed them to do as they pleased and spent much of the rest of the time on the expedition in a drunken stupor.

The 1873 Yellowstone Expedition successfully completed its mission and returned after 66 days. Custer was assigned to the newly built Fort Abraham Lincoln, and Stanley returned to Fort Sully. Sheridan then had Stanley and his regiment assigned to Fort Wayne, Mich., where he could be closer to his family. A great weight had been lifted off of the colonel, and he was able to resume a positive career in the military.

In 1879, Stanley was sent to Texas and put in charge of suppressing Indian raids in the western part of the state. In 1882, he was placed in command of the district of New Mexico, headquartered in Santa Fe.

Stanley was promoted to brigadier general in 1884 and appointed commander of the Department of Texas, with headquarters at Fort Sam Houston. Under his command, it became the second-largest Army post in the U.S.

Stanley retired from the Army on June 1, 1892, and was awarded the Medal of Honor on March 29, 1893, for his actions at Franklin, Tenn., during the Civil War. From Sept. 13, 1893, to April 15, 1898, Stanley served as governor of the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D.C.

David Sloan Stanley died on March 13, 1902. His personal memoirs were published in 1917, and on Oct. 2 of that year, the ammunition storage depot at the San Antonio Arsenal was renamed Camp Stanley in his honor.


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“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 cjeriksmoen@cableone.net