Mutiny of the Third Michigan Cavalry in Texas, 1865
by Gordon Thorsby
Horse Shoeing of cavalry
There were two mutinies that occurred with Union Cavalry regiments and the first occurred in the 3rd Michigan Cavalry.
The regiment was mustered in September 1861. Almost all of them re-enlisted on January 27, 1864. They fought pitched battles, they chased guerillas through swamps and across dusty prairies and where 384 men died of diseases. They ate rancid food, fought with outdated weapons and in all of this, pay was infrequent and much as six months late. They were Canby’s escort regiment at Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor’s army surrender near Mobile. Now, they just wanted to go home.
Col. John Mizner had done his best for the regiment when he got a promotion to brigade command and now the boys mattered less than his career. One morning at roll call in Baton Rouge, Mizner announced that the Third Michigan Cavalry was to proceed to Texas and guard the Mexican border. It came as total shock to the troopers. Draftees of1864 were being mustered out of other regiments while the 1861 veterans of the 3rd got extra duty and it was here that seeds were sown for future calamity. One trooper, Private Eli (Elihu) Chadwick recorded his feelings in his diary of the incidents that was about to happen in Texas.
On July 9th the Third Michigan departed Baton Rouge and troubles immediately began. One company was ordered to force two companies of the 2nd Illinois Cavalry “out of camp" because they refused to move. Four days later, on July 13, Pvt. Joseph Avery of Kalamazoo, 19, decided he wasn’t going and deserted taking his chances with the provost marshal. The march was the most miserable of the four years that they served. Men and horses lacked water. and wood was scarce for fuel or shelter from the oppressive Summer sun. The mosquitoes of East Texas ate them alive and any possible grass for horses to graze on the animals would not touch.
About this time, Col. Mizner made the situation worse. Private Samuel Fletcher recorded that Mizner hosted a Fourth of July party while the enlisted men ate rancid “salt-horse, hard-tack, and drank coffee.” Mizner’s party of brigade officers dined on fine food and drink. Enlisted men's tempers boiled over. They found oyster cans, filled them with gunpowder and buried them in the ground. While the joyous party dined, the homemade grenades exploded that made “the officers rushed out of the room in the wildest confusion.” The officers sat down to resume their feast when a second and louder series of explosions were heard and the banquet was cancelled. Fletcher wrote, “there were no more officer’s banquets in the presence of the ill-fed and dissatisfied men.” The regiment reached their first post north of San Antonio on Aug. 2 and Pvt. Bob McKinley, now 24 of Lyon deserted shortly after on August 7.
Insubordination increased as did more desertions. Commander of all forces in Texas, Gen. Philip Sheridan was made aware of poor morale and attempted solutions to end it but to no effect. In mid-August, Mizner assembled the regiment and threatened punishment if the insubordination continued. After ‘Taps” that night sounded, shouting and hooting was heard when all should have been silent. Mizner’s talk had the opposite effect.
Pvt. Scott McBain, 19 from Ypsilanti of Co. D deserted on Sept. 15, and on Sept. 24th, Pvt. Charles Bothum of Co. B of Essex died of fever at 21 of unknown causes near Centerville. Commanders tried extra work details and guard duty. It didn’t work and men no longer cared. In the Second division, Custer resorted to lashes, shaving heads of officers and enlisted men, and even threatened execution. The hate for Custer was ignited. Meanwhile, back in the 3rd Michigan, Chadwick blamed the regiment’s problems on Mizner, Merritt, and Sheridan. The camp hooted and howled whenever Mizner passed by. Pvt. Andrew Bassford, of Co L from St. Joseph, and a blacksmith deserted on September 17, and was gone for good.
While atmosphere in camp was awful, the town San Antonio was delightful. Leaves into town often turned into drunkenness and desertion so all leaves were canceled.
On December 30,1865 is when it happened. Chadwick recorded that “some Wolverines reported for guard duty, looking rather slouchy.” Immediately, an order came down that “every man must have his clothes and boots brushed tomorrow morning at General Inspection and Muster.” That night the boys met to discuss the new developments. The next morning at inspection, Major James Butler ordered four men arrested for poor appearance. The arrest detail refused and joined the dissenters. The regiment was quickly dismissed but Butler went to the 3rd and 4th Michigan Infantry for assistance. Those commanders refused because they were confident their soldiers would join in with those protesting. Butler went to Custer and the 4th U.S Cavalry for assistance and did get 50 men. Troopers in the 3rd suspecting the 4th U.S. might use force, armed themselves and it was now that the 3rd Michigan was officially mutinied. The 18th New York was called in but they simply gave their cartridges to the men of the Third Michigan. With control lost and violence imminent, reason prevailed, and the situation ended with the 4th U.S. and 18th New York Cavalry returning to their camps and all arms removed from the 3rd Michigan Cavalry.
Three days went by, and Chadwick thought they might be dishonorably discharged and sent home to their pleasure. That was when on Jan. 4, the 4th U.S. and the 18th New York returned and this time arrested 95 men, including 28 non-commissioned officers. The NCO’s were unceremoniously demoted in rank and some jailed. On Jan 9, a court-martial was convened. The men of the regiment pooled money and hired a lawyer for $3,000 to defend them but charges were finally dropped when on Jan. 31, it was announced that the regiment was to be mustered out. Officially, they mustered out in San Antonio on February 12, and the Army probably wished them a “good riddance.”
Chadwick wrote that on February 11, the trial was ended and the prisoners were released. The “mutineers” received cheers upon entering camp and “the boys are having a stag dance and feeling gay over the prospects before them.”
Sgt. Eugene Blye, 23 of Co. I from Fentonville (today Fenton) was one of the NCO’s imprisoned in San Antonio. Bly was charged with desertion and imprisoned but he managed to escape. He was recaptured and his charges were dropped on the 11th.
Antoine Caise, 26 and sergeant in Co. H from the Houghton in the Upper Peninsula was charged but his involvement in the mutiny was questionable. Five NCO’s Co. H were charged yet not involved.
In March, after the Third Michigan's departure by about three weeks, Co. F of the 12th Illinois Cavalry mutinied.
Sometimes, it is these stories that brings the past to life.
Note: The 4th U.S. and the 18th New York Cavalry were regiments under Custer. Custer was more than willing to help subdue the mutiny.
Glory Hunter: A Life of General Custer, Van De Water, Frederick F., 1988.
The Tri Weekly Herald (San Antonio), September 12, 1865.
Soldier in Co. D, Third Michigan Cavalry, Elinu Chadwick Diary, 1864-1866, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, MI.
“The Time Custer Stole a Horse,” Smithsonian Magazine, author T.J. Stiles, November 2015.
“The History of Co. A, Second Illinois Cavalry,” Samuel H. Fletcher, 1912, 164-65.
Won’t We Never Get Out of This State? Western Soldiers in Post-Civil War Texas, 1865-1866,
by Jonathan A. Beall, Texas A&M University, December 2004.
Historical Data Systems, Inc., P.O. Box 35, Duxbury, MA 03331.