Dakota Datebook

First Sergeant John Ryan

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

While serving with the 28th Massachusetts Irish Brigade during the Civil War, John Ryan met George Armstrong Custer for the first time while crossing the Rappahonnock River on his way to Fredericksburg, VA in 1862. Although unaware at the time, it began a lifelong devotion to the 7th Cavalry and its commanding officer. As John Ryan later penned, I was “…a Custer man from beginning to end…”
Following the end of the Civil War, Ryan returned to his home in Massachusetts, but found himself restless in civilian life. According to Ryan, “…army fever struck me once more.”
Re-enlisting in 1866, he was assigned to the newly reorganized 7th US Cavalry out of Fort Riley, Kansas. After participating in campaigns against Chief Black Kettle and later the Ku Klux Klan, he was honorably discharged, and returned to his home in Massachusetts.
But once again, Ryan’s thoughts turned to the army. At twenty-six, he re-enlisted with the 7th Cavalry, becoming Acting First Sergeant for Company M serving out of Fort Rice in Dakota Territory, and eventually out of Fort Abraham Lincoln.
Although a harsh disciplinarian, First Sergeant John Ryan was popular with many of the men. According to 7th Cavalry Trumpeter, Ami Frank Mulford, Sergeant Ryan “was the best non-com in the 7th…He was always ready to see that the men got all they were entitled to…”
Ryan’s careful attention extended to his horse, as well as his men. Having re-enlisted in the 7th Cavalry, Ryan returned to find Lieutenant Tom Custer in possession of his favorite horse. It took much convincing, but the horse was returned to Ryan. The following summer, on the Black Hills Expedition of 1874, Ryan’s horse went lame. With great care, he cut the sleeve off his new overcoat, sewed up the bottom, stuffing the sleeve with heavy pads, then threw it up over the horse’s hoof, securing it above the lower leg joint. Ryan’s actions kept the horse from lameness, but at the cost of an expensive overcoat.
Ryan participated in other noteworthy expeditions including the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, attached to Major Reno’s command. Following the battle, he was assigned the unenviable duty of burying 45 of his comrades from Custer’s command.
As the year 1876 was drawing to a close, First Sergeant Ryan knew his days in his beloved 7th Cavalry were coming to an end. In Ryan’s own words, he must depart from “company and old friends whom I had served with for 10 years, and especially…my horse.” “My last act was to shake hands with all the men whom I left behind…While I did not have an opportunity to have Christmas dinner with the boys of the company, I wished them all sorts of success and happiness.” First Sergeant John Ryan was discharged this week in December of 1876.
Written by Christina Sunwall
Johnson, Al, “First Sergeant Ryan, Custer’s Advocate”. The Past Times, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Winter 2006): 1, 4-5

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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