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Twilight of the Cavalry

Colonel E. L. Nye Remembered


Elizabeth A. Lawrence, VMD, PhD

No one can point to the exact moment that marked the end of the United States Horse Cavalry. The finale came “not with a bang but a whimper,” to borrow the words T. S. Eliot used in describing the end of the world (1946:295). Cavalry regiments were important in the Civil War and continued after that time to be a major military force during the Indian Wars. With the final defeat of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890 and the formal closing of the American frontier a few years later, the old order in which the mounted cavalry was vital began to disappear.  The rise of technology ended the Horse Age in America and left little use for the animal that had played such a vital role in its development as a nation.

The period following the Indian Wars might well be termed the “twilight” of the United States Cavalry. Though there was mounted action in the Spanish-American War, in a few later military expeditions, and to a limited extent during the First World War, it was increasingly evident that the changing nature of warfare made cavalry units impractical. Even in the face of rapid mechanization, however, many people regretted the end of the horse cavalry and continued to believe it retained certain important functions in battle. The authors of a 1935 treatise on American veterinary military history, both Lieutenant-Colonels in the army Veterinary Reserves, stated unequivocally  “It is our contention that the cavalry arm should be retained in the army of the United States” (Merillat and Campbell' 1935.I:790). There was great reluctance on the part of a number of high-ranking officers to accept the idea that horses were virtually obsolete in American military forces. The cavalry spirit, always strong, extended well into the twentieth century. Cavalrymen, it is frequently said are “a different breed.”  In my field research with cowboys, rodeo contestants, and mounted policemen, the same term is used.  My data show that this image is inextricably bound to the horse and the relationship riders have with that animal (Lawrence 1982;1985).

One person who developed his military career during the era I have termed the twilight of the cavalry is Colonel Elwood L. Nye of the Veterinary Corps, the subject of this paper. I became interested in this cavalry officer, who was born in 1892 and entered the Army Veterinary Corps in 1917, through my research in the field of the Indian Wars. My primary focus for this project is on human-horse relationships, and while involved with my studies, I discovered some of Nye's work in this area. Consequently, I have carried on extensive correspondence with Nye’s daughter, Kathleen Nye Smith, who has graciously provided a wealth of material about her father. I have also interviewed Colonel George Zacherle, an army officer who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1933, and who worked closely with Nye at certain periods of his career.

During his 29 years in the Army Veterinary Corps, Nye was stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, the Presidio of San Francisco, Fort Lewis, Washington, Fort Brown, Texas, Fort Meade, South Dakota, the US Military Academy at West Point, and Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.  After his retirement from the army in 1946, he taught bacteriology and pathology as an associate professor on the faculty at Colorado State University Veterinary College, from which he had received his veterinary degree in 1914. At Schofield Barracks and again later at Fort Meade, he was with the Fourth Cavalry.

Though his career spanned the time of transition to modern methods of warfare, Colonel Nye was strictly “Old Army,” as the saying goes. He was first and foremost a cavalry officer, and lived up the responsibilities of that branch of the service. This meant that he cared deeply about the cavalrymans essential partner – the horse. It has often been stated, especially in recent times, that to a cavalryman the horse was just a “tool,” an instrument of war that was of use, akin to a machine – and no more.  Although this attitude undoubtedly must have characterized some soldiers, it certainly was not the case for the best cavalrymen. As one authority has advised, “in actual campaign both men and horses must suffer, but do not let us cavalry people make our only friends – our horses – suffer unnecessarily.”  (Brackett 1965: 162).

Nye, indeed, according to his daughter, had “a tenderhearted fondness for horses. Though he was a tough disciplinarian,” she says, “when he talked about horses, his eyes would mist over.  Underneath a stern exterior he was sentimental about horses and fond of his mounts. As a cavalryman, he was always concerned about horses, and couldn't stand to see them abused.”  In later years, when polo became a popular sport among army officers on the post, Nye felt it was too hard on the horses, especially the sharp turns the game required.  For the same reasons he disapproved of steeplechase racing.

When moving with his family from San Francisco to South Dakota, their furniture was packed up in a boxcar, at the other end of which rode Nye's horses, who made the transfer with him. His loyal striker, Clyde Hendrickson, a lifelong friend, rode with the horses. He slept with them, and at every stop put up a ramp, walked them out for exercise, and fed and watered them.  “Shipping horses in those days was very hard on them and could be cruel, but our horses received plenty of T. L. C.,” Mrs. Smith recalls.  “My father insisted on taking them with him to his new assignment, but this is the only way he would ship his horses.”

His fellow officers knew of Nye’s special regard for horses. While Nye was serving as a Major at Fort Meade, Colonel “Jingles” Wilson, upon being transferred, presented Nye with a favorite mount, Yorktown. A 1936 letter from Wilson to Nye details the events of the horse's previous life and indicates how much the animal meant to his former owner:  “Glad Yorkie is doing well.”  “Pat him on the neck for me, tell him I hope to ride him again in the Happy Hunting Ground.” “I gave him to you,” he explains simply, “because I knew you would take good care of him.”

Nye's daughter, who grew up on the various military posts to which her father was assigned, describes the traditions of old cavalry officers and stable sergeants whose “whole lives were built around horses.”  When they reached camp each evening or ended a day of cavalry duty, “it was too bad if a man was hungry and tired. He had to wait. He'd take care of his horse first and feed his horse before himself.  The men loved the horses.  Of course, when working with them on the picket line, they'd call them every name in the book.  Yet there was a great love there.  When the cavalry became mechanized, it broke their hearts.”

When Nye was transferred to Fort Meade in 1935, rejoining the Fourth Cavalry, it was a choice assignment. At that time, mounted drills, parades, and marches were part of the daily routine. But military duties involving interaction with horses were soon to end, for the last mounted regimental cavalry parade at Fort Meade took place in 1938, just before the horses left the old post due to orders for mechanization. The final parade marked the passing of the oldest branch of the service, with all its color and tradition – truly the end of an era. During this poignant spectacle, Nye's daughter recalls, “My father had tears in his eyes. But he was not alone; officers and troopers alike cried.  To them, there was only one cavalry, and that was the horse cavalry!”

Before the cavalry at Fort Meade made the final change to mechanization, Nye conceived the idea of making one last full cavalry march. He explained that he wanted to make this field training expedition to demonstrate what the cavalry did, and what it could do, before it was too late.  Thus in July of 1938 the Fourth Cavalry made the journey from Fort Meade, South Dakota, to the Pole Mountain area between Cheyenne and Laramie in Wyoming, returning in August.  Six-hundred horses took part in the march, and covered twenty-five miles per day – the proper distance, Nye states in his report of the expedition, for the transport of men carrying full field packs.  The mounts traveled at the rate of nine miles per hour at a trot and four miles an hour at a walk. Marching at those rates requires expert training of horses, whose normal gaits may not reflect those times, as well as superior discipline in regulating speed along the route, Nye explains.

The sadness inherent in the finality of the march was relieved by humorous events. Nye describes with tongue-in-cheek tone the various hazards of the journey. Encounters with rattlesnakes, drinking water of 100 degrees Fahrenheit that had to be cooled for the horses, alkaline water refused by the thirsty mounts, a “Wyoming zephyr that blew down the mess tent as the men were eating, dust, dirt, and lack of bathing facilities were natural occurrences that reflected the old cavalry life.  But the encroachment of modern times that was making horse soldiers an anachronism also took its toll. Each cavalry horse on the march drinks about ten gallons a day, according to Nye, and it was difficult to procure the 6,000 gallons of water required for the thirsty animals, let alone enough for the men, who often resorted to consuming beverages from their saddle bags as a substitute. Complaints by the police in one city that the men marched through centered on horse manure deposited on main street in amounts the cleaning department could not cope with, and dirty, ragged cavalrymen who swam in what proved to be one town’s drinking water supply had to be rescued from jail by the commanding officer.

Overall, the march was taken very seriously. When camped at “historic old Fort Laramie,” Nye noted that “we became the last regiment of Regular Army troops to occupy this hallowed ground.”  He was pleased to see so many of the original buildings at the old post “in a fair state of preservation,” and reminisced about the Fort’s highly significant role in American frontier history, especially during the Indian Wars.  When the troops reached their destination in Wyoming, combat exercises were carried out by the cavalry squadrons.  The success of these battle maneuvers convinced Nye that “even at that late date (1938) the old Horse Cavalry proved its value in combat.”  The “last great Cavalry march” covered eight-hundred and fifty miles, a “considerable horseback ride in any time or country.” The Colonel concluded “We shall not see its like again, and a romantic period in military life has passed into history, this to the profound and lasting regret of all Cavalrymen.” (Nye n.d. :8).

It is noteworthy that before undertaking the cavalry expedition to Wyoming, Nye requested and obtained permission to inject all the cavalry horses with the newly developed equine encephalomyelitis vaccine.

Colonel Zacherle points out that the Fourth Cavalry's route of march went right through a “hotbed” of that disease, yet the regiment traversed the infected area with no horses contracting the illness. After this successful experience, Zacherle says, all horses in the army were vaccinated against encephalomyelitis, and Nye is credited with influencing the army's prompt action (personal communication 1988).

Nye, like many others who love the United States Cavalry and study its history, turned his attention mainly to the Indian Wars period. Not only did that era exemplify the greatness and glory of the mounted force,

but also it was recent enough in the nation's memory to research with authority, especially by direct conversation with participants. In his studies of the cavalry Nye focused on the dramatic, controversial, and ever-fascinating Battle of the Little Big Horn that occurred on June 25 and 26, 1876, in Montana Territory, and about which so many mysteries have never been solved. During the 1920s and 30s he was able to interview surviving members of the Seventh Cavalry, including Custer's former Chief of Scouts, Colonel Charles Varnum, and Sergeant Charles Windolph.  First-hand testimony from people who been part of the most famous military engagement between Indians and whites on the American frontier enriched Nye’s knowledge and further stimulated his consuming interest in the intriguing event which his daughter calls “the love of his life.”

First by letters and later through personal contact, Nye’s enthusiasm led him to establish dialogue with the leading scholars of the Little Big Horn. Whenever information about the use of horses in the Seventh Cavalry expedition was needed, Nye was consulted and his expertise and first-hand knowledge were utilized in their interpretations and writings.

When a “cemetery” of buried horse bones was discovered at Custer Battlefield in 1946, Superintendent Luce immediately sent for Nye, and notified the National Park Service that the cavalry veterinarian must be designated as the only person authorized to study the bones and interpret their possible historical significance. Cavalry artifacts such as horseshoes found on the battlefield were immediately shipped to Nye for his expert opinion, in the hopes of unraveling a thread in the Custer enigma, no matter how small.  Luce, always involved with shedding light on the famous battle, consulted with Nye on subjects such as details about horses’ gaits on cavalry marches and the stride, speed, and endurance characteristic of army mounts.  Nye was pleased to respond with knowledge acquired from his training as a veterinarian and cavalryman, and often stated that his association with Luce and the battlefield was one of the high points of his life.  Nye realized no profits from his research, but shared his data freely with many prominent scholars of the day. As his correspondence reveals, these writers gratefully acknowledged their debt to him.

Colonel Nye traversed the Little Big Horn Battlefield several times, often in the company of fellow-enthusiasts Luce, Kuhlman, and R. G. Cartwright.  It was on one such excursion in 1949 that Nye and Cartwright found more than a hundred empty cartridge cases on a ridge they were exploring approximately a mile from the scene of the Last Stand.  According to Zacherle, the Frankfort Arsenal in Philadelphia confirmed that the cases were those issued to cavalry during the period of the battle.  This discovery marked the spot where a line of soldiers must have fired in a preliminary skirmish.  Its location proved valuable to students of the Little Big Horn and serves as an indicator of Custer's possible route of march after dividing his command – a subject frequently and vehemently debated by battle historians, since there were no survivors to reveal it.  The area was named Nye-Cartwright Ridge, and is still so designated.

Colonel Nye's knowledge and interests made him a frequent lecturer on the West and the Indian Wars, and culminated in his article, “Marching With Custer,” published in the Army Medical Bulletin in 1941.  His topic was the use and abuse of horses during Custer's march from Fort Abraham Lincoln, North Dakota, to the Little Big Horn, Montana Territory, in 1876.  His conclusion was that the famous officer's disregard of the well-being of his animals contributed in part to his disastrous defeat at Little Big Horn.  Though the paper stimulated criticism that continues through the present day – especially on the part of Custerophiles who tolerate no tarnishing of their hero, then or now – Nye, as a veterinarian and cavalryman, was eminently qualified to undertake such an analysis.  After carefully consulting written sources, he used his own experience, particularly that gained on the “last great cavalry march” from Fort Meade, to recreate and evaluate the conditions under which the portion of the Seventh under Custer's immediate command marched to its doom. As Nye revealed to the editor of the Cavalry Journal in a 1940 letter, in writing his treatise he had painstakingly tried to avoid the controversy surrounding the battle and its officers, concentrating only on the march involving animals and its effect upon the final results. “I have covered it as it might have been done by a veterinarian, had one been with Custer,” he explained.  The article received favorable responses from many leading Custer Battle scholars, who stated that Nye's conclusions agreed with evidence from their own research.

“Cavalry Horse” is an account of an incident from Colonel Varnum's personal experience fighting in Major Reno's battalion during the Battle of the Little Big Horn. It is narrated as the former Chief of Scouts in the Seventh had related it to Nye, and was published in 1957.  Varnum, after joining the Seventh as a young lieutenant just out of West Point, had searched for and acquired a beautiful and intelligent young mare who seemed to be the perfect cavalry horse for him.  He soon discovered, however, that no matter how she was urged and trained, she was one of those horses that just will not jump.  Though the situation was a disgrace – for an officer’s mount must jump over natural obstacles – Varnum, out of “stubborn pride” as well as the high cost and scarcity of substitute mounts, kept the mare, and thus was riding her when he went into battle at the Little Big Horn.  During the retreat of Reno's outnumbered forces under severe pressure from Indian attack, a headlong dash was made by all the troopers, including Varnum, in a desperate attempt to escape to the safety of higher ground. At a point when a moment's hesitation meant certain death, “to his horror a deep dry wash loomed up suddenly.”  Varnum recalled that it was wide enough “to test the ability of a seasoned jumper,” and since he did not expect his mare to jump, Varnum knew he was doomed. But the mare surprised him. She  “hunched and gathered herself. She trembled and shook.”  Then he felt her “rise and soar.”  Incredibly, the mare jumped, and the pair escaped their pursuers. Varnum and his prized mare lived many years and rode through other Indian campaigns together; but she never jumped again. Varnum always said he figured the mare was as scared as he was, and that was what caused the miracle that saved his life. The story, as he recorded it, reflects the presence of an implicit unity between cavalryman and horse.

Nye gained a reputation as an unofficial historian of the cavalry.  His enthusiasm about the role mounted regiments had played in westward expansion was contagious.  A companion on some of his travels to the sites of historic Indian battles wrote that with the Colonel at these places if you had the “necessary imagination” you could “hear the trumpets again and see the fluttering guidons,” and on the battle ridge at Custer field you could even “listen into the wind at twilight” for the strains of Garryowen, the “immortal battle song of the Seventh Cavalry” (Sibrava and Ober 1957:13).

Colonel Nye, who died in 1975, often reflected upon his cherished memories as a cavalryman – a way of life he knew full well was in its twilight. “My present nostalgia,” he wrote in a 1952 letter, “is based on the passing of the old cavalry with which I served for many years.  I always felt that there was something about a cavalryman which distinguished him above officers and men of other branches. I regret its passing, and think the General Staff may have made a very serious error in eliminating the mounted service and almost eliminating the pack unit.  In a very few years there will be no men left who could train a cavalry or pack unit when we may need them desperately.”  His great regret, he indicated, was that he “did not have the privilege of taking part in a mounted cavalry combat action,” as “it would have been a glorious experience to have been present in a cavalry charge.” Yet he was grateful for having served “with some of the old cavalry regiments at old cavalry posts such as Fort Brown, Texas and Fort Meade, South Dakota.”  As his friends wrote, “During his army career which embraced two World Wars, Colonel Nye experienced many final acts in the dramatic full flow and final ebb of that most colorful of all military branches, the horse cavalry arm of the United States Army.” (Sibrava and Ober 1957:4).

Colonel Nye was the recipient of an important Army decoration, the Legion of Merit, in 1946.  The Elwood L. Nye Veterinary Clinic at Fort Carson Army Base, Colorado is named to honor him.  In 1983, a flagpole at the new teaching hospital at Colorado State University Veterinary School was dedicated to his memory with a ceremony citing his many achievements as a veterinarian, teacher, army officer, and patriot. But among his most significant memorials is the legacy Colonel Nye left in his spirit of caring and regard for horses, his empathy for the animals, and his respect for the importance of the bond between people and horses. For the cavalryman's essential equine partner has too often been taken for granted, and many have neglected to give consideration to the noble, faithful, and willing companion without which this country could not have become a great nation.

The late Dr. Elizabeth Lawrence obtained her veterinary training at the University of Pennsylvania, then went on to receive a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Brown University. She later wrote, “His Very Silence Speaks: Comanche – the Horse who Survived Custer’s Last Stand.”


Bracket, Albert G.

    1965 History of the United States Cavalry. New York: Argonaut Press


Eliot, T. X.

    1946 The Hollow Men. in A Little Treasury of Modern Poems.


    Oscar Williams, ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Pp. 292-95.


Johnson, Swafford

    1985 History of the U.S. Cavalry. Greenwich, CT: Crescent Books.


Merillat, Louis A., and Delwin M. Campbell

1935 Veterinary Military History of the United States, 2 Volumes. Kansas City, Missouri: The Haver-Glover Laboratories.


Nye, E. L.

1957 Cavalry Horse. Montana, The Magazine of Western History. Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring): 40-45.


Nye, Elwood L.

    n.d. Cavalry March. Unpublished manuscript.


Piekalkiewicz, Janusz

    1980 The Cavalry of World War 11. New York: Stein and Day.


Sibrava, Frank E., and Nelson Ober

    1957 Echoes of Garry Owen. Unpublished manuscript.

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