Lt. William S. McCaskey Indian Wars Letters, 1866-67 -SOLD

Great content concerning early Indian Wars forts in the Dakotas, and Indians, etc.


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This lot contains four letters written by Lieutenant William S. McCaskey, 13th U.S. Infantry, a part of a larger lot that has been sold piece meal by another party over several years, some time ago.  I was fortunate to get these, as one letter is truly remarkable for its insight to conditions of the forts our west, that the U.S. Army re-garrisoned after the Civil War.

William McCaskey (at that time stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln), was also the officer who had the sad duty to inform the wives of officers of the 7th Cavalry, that their husbands had been killed in action at the Little Big Horn Battle in Montana Territory.

The letters:

1;  Dated Fort Randell, DT, August 26, 1866. Three pages; (To his brother Jack).  The beginning portion of the letter concerns politics, and mainly concerning President Johnson.  McCbaskey writes, “What a striking contrast we have in the convention (PA) of the different factions.  One, treasonable, threatening and deceitful in all participation (by customs merely), we can but have our opinions. That my sympathies , are a seem sure to remain with such as the Hon. Stearns – there can be no doubt I asure you, although the majority of the old officers in the army are Johnsonian. We have our little chats and they have decided that I am beyond conversion…I never have any disrespectful words to say against the President.” In a long PS, he continues on a different tack, “I received my commission today as 1st Lieut., 13th Inf’y yesterday, and a long way it came too. I received it in a letter from a friend Lt. Ketchum at Fort Union- North of Yellowstone.  He said it came by an emigrant train from St. Paul, Minn, and he accidentally noticed a commission in the mail- minus envelope, and merely through curiosity found it and found it was mine.  This seems rather odd – and not once again in a thousand times might I be so fortunate as to have a friend with sufficient curiosity to look into “things.”  Well, it is here, and I feel grateful to my friend near the Rocky Mountains, but would prefer my mail to take a different route next time.    Yours Will”

2;  Dated Fort Randell, DT, October 27, 1866.  8 pages (To Jack).  This letter begins with the continuation of the same subject of politics and the President. In McCaskey’s longer discourse than in the previous letter, he seems to get a bit hot with “Jack”, and begins to underline his thoughts out of frustration, (underlined) “I do not – I do not approve of his actions neither would I trust his friends.”   McCaskey also states that this is a private matter and as an army officer it must not  be so, despite of disrespect for the man, as an officer would always obey any orders given him. “If the President is a traitor…….why do you allow him to Preside over the nation……and war should come in consequence of his actions, then the Congress and people of the north will be alone responsible – for it is in there power to impeach him and unless they do, I beg to be excused from publicly denouncing him.” 

Much more on most of 4 pages concerning the heated debate over the Impeachment of President Johnson from the army view.  Talk of home news, and discussing having sent $170.00 to a tailor back home for a velvet uniform vest, and not having heard whether the money had arrived, now wishes to change the color if the vest has not been made. Now going into military matters, “I think the number of our regiment after the reorganization is completed will be 22nd (Infantry)……..”I shall be about the 3rd Lieut. in the Regiment – I stand 7th now in the Battalion.  That is doing remarkably well when you remember that it used to take about ten years service to even gain a 1st Lieutenants bar.  Whether  I shall be Adjutant of the new regiment remains to be seen.”   Continuing further along, “We are expecting two new companies to quarter here this winter – and  have now some six or eight officers- expecting some four or five more, so you see we will have plenty on hand.”  McCaskey describes liking the service more everyday and mentions a Major Dryer (Hiram Dryer of the 13th Infantry, died in 1867) as commanding officer.

3.  Dated Fort Rice, DT, July 14, 1867,  Ten pages (To Jack).   This letter is remarkable for its description of the conditions at Fort Rice, and the dealing with the Yankonnais.  Getting right into it, he describes the shear amount of supplies, tools both framing-blacksmith- bakers, etc all piled up and in nearly worthless condition due to lack of care by the volunteers that were last garrisoned there. “The quarters are still as when we came here – nigh unfit for occupation.  The buildings are propped up all around and made secure by chains.”   A fire at Rice left the post in deplorable condition and the last soldiers made no effort to clean up the mess.  McCaskey mentions that although he usually knows what will be found at a post, he obviously is quite surprised and dismayed at conditions through his writing. It seemed that just about anything could expected at the fort, ” Speaking of “rats” you just ought to see im surface each morning. We have about twenty rat dogs- but they are not enough for them… high as 700 were killed at this post in one day.”  

“I had the pleasure the other day of enlisting a few Indians- to serve as scouts and some fifty were desired, but ten as yet have presented themselves. The duty was a trying one, for after advertising, sending an interpreter among them for two weeks we concluded to hold council and go to work, after several days the all important day came and armed with a Surgeon and enlistment blanks, I started for Mr. Indian.  On reaching the appointed rendezvous at proper time I found but one, wily looking creature, setting on his haunches- and regarding one with considerable suspicion, after a while another would peep in, look around and off – like a flesh.  I wasted several hours…..”the Surgeon examined them….and with uplifted hand- swore them hard, at the end of every obligation- you could hear their “hows” which was acquiescence on their part… was necessary to have them sign their enlistment papers – but having a deadly fear of anything that looks like a treaty, they hesitated at last though much persuasion- they concluded to sign…..We enlisted very good men – and think we can rely upon them, as far as an Indian can be relied upon.”

McCaskey continues answering concerns of war, “We don’t know much of the Indian war up here as yet, but all seem to think we will after awhile.  Several hundred hostile Indians have been here from the Platte – but have as mysteriously disappeared as they came.  We are keeping a good look out for them and if they find any of “our hair” outside the garrison – unless we are on duty – they well be more successful, than I think they shall.”     (by this time,  a year of fighting on the Bozeman trail to the west had been going on. The Fetterman Massacre had occurred the past winter, and two major fights, the Wagon Box Fight and the Hayfield Fight took place just a months prior to this near Fort Phil Kearny).   Continuing, “We can protect ourselves very well here- and would have no fears of the results of our attack. The post has been threatened for sometime, but last winter all sensation stories were centered on Fort Buford.  At that post you will remember all were massacred and all kind of inhumanities indulged in….”   I am certain that McCaskey is mistaken here, inserting Fort Buford for Fort Phil Kearney.   “General Sully’s Commission is expected down in a few days, but as the Indians say, it all amounts to talk….The government has deceived them, most outrageously. Why there were over three hundred Indians even camped about this post when we came who had been starving here for two months, awaiting their annuities. Disgusted, and unbelieving – they have all gone and what may come of it I don’t know…..”

Diverting back to family and lighter events and family news, the lieutenant picks up again with a possible captaincy in Co. “I” and back to more about the President.   “Col. Miles recommended me (concerning brevet promotions) and the applications goes through some are these to the President. I can not recommend myself, nor is there any here who can, so unless it is gained at home. I’ll conclude that I’ll not wear the leaf or eagle……I remain, Will.” 

There is more information in the letter about the fort and Indians, but I have toughed on the highlights. The letter show the sad state of things the army marched into once getting out west; danger, despair, poor quarters, etc.

4.  Fort Snelling, Minn.  July 19, 1870.   Three pages  (To Mrs. McCaskey).    Lt. McCaskey has just been transferred to the 20th Infantry from the 22nd, with this letter being written just four days after that transfer. He writes his wife that he is with a  detachment of 180 men 7 1/2 miles from St. Paul.  He states he anticipates no trouble but lots of discomfort from Mosquitos.  He says he has horses to ride to Abercrombie (Fort), Capt Morris accompanies him.  (Capt. Louis M. Morris, 20th Inf.,  see our “Past Items” for more on his history).  

“I wish you would have Capt Cre (?) send my sword, (heavy one) belt, & sash…..”   General Stanley and wife arrived about that time and had just lost a child, a little girl who had died only two weeks prior.  Another officer, Captain Ward, lost a little boy to diarrhea as well.   This was unfortunately a common occurrence with soldiers and families out west.

This concludes the letters by William McCaskey. There are a few other letters from family, and some loose covers with them.  Condition of the 4 letters are fine and most legible, let alone great reading.

William Spencer McCaskey, was born in Paradise, Lancaster Co., PA, in 1843.  He entered the volunteers just days after the firing on Fort Sumter. He enlisted in Co. F, 1st Penn Infantry for 90 days, then joined the 79th Pa Vols as 1st Sgt. of the same year.  He fought all through the war; was part of Sherman’s march to the sea, and by war’s end, had attainted the rank of captain. McCaskey was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the regular army in 1866, in the 13th Infantry, and then other regiments through his career in the military until1907, retiring with the rank of Major General. He saw service in the Civil War, and on the frontier: Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Texas, Missouri, Spanish American War in Cuba and in the Philippines.

One of the toughest duties he had to perform took place in the early hours of July 5th, 1876;  “At 2:00 A.M. Capt. William S. McCaskey summoned all officers to his quarters at Fort A. Lincoln and read the dispatch from Capt. Edward W. Smith, General Terry’s Adjutant. At 7:00 A.M. Capt. McCaskey, accompanied by Charles Cunley, and Post Surgeon, Dr. J.V. D. Middleton, broke the news to Mrs. Custer and the other women members of the Custer family. Although the day was hot, Mrs. Custer required a wrap and shivered.  Mrs. Calhoun apparently failed to comprehend that her husband, brothers, and nephew were gone, ran after Capt. McCaskey asking, “Is there no message for me?”      ( ref; Little Big Horn Assoc. Research).


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