Heidi Crabtree | Special to the Fort Leavenworth Lamp
The establishment of the 10th U.S. Cavalry in 1866 has been written about countless times. A bust of the 10th’s first commander, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Grierson, is near the Buffalo Soldiers Monument at Fort Leavenworth.
But what about the original captains of those first companies? Many historians know of Medal of Honor recipient Louis H. Carpenter, who led Company H and whose name is attached to the Battle of Beecher Island, yet there were other officers who were both interesting and infamous.
One of those officers was Capt. George Augustus Armes, inaugural leader of Company F, 10th Cavalry. Self aggrandizing and a bit paranoid, Armes would actually boast of being the most court-martialed officer in Army history.
Born into a prosperous Virginia family in 1844 with roots to the Revolution, Armes sided with the Union during the Civil War and before he was out of his teen years he was an officer, gaining the attention of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton by risking his life to deliver stolen Confederate plans to Stanton himself. In Armes’ autobiography, “Ups and Downs of an Army Officer,” published in 1900, he claimed that he literally had a noose around his neck when caught by Confederates. How he survived the noose was left unexplained. After Appomattox, Armes was put in command of F Troop in the new 10th Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth.
Never letting any peer forget that he was now the youngest captain in the Army, he became a hero for his actions at the Battle of Prairie Dog Creek. The young officer was also becoming a pain in the neck to commanders and other captains by poking his moral compass into everyone’s business. His habit of physically grabbing and twisting the noses of men he had a problem with became a joke, and by the end of 1867, Armes, now at Fort Hays, had been under arrest 12 times.
Also in 1867, Armes, despite his holier-than-thou attitude, noticed that saloons and dance halls were incredibly profitable. He no doubt saw this in towns like Leavenworth, where his brother Charles had arrived from Washington, D.C. Hays City was already becoming one of the wildest of wild west towns, and Armes mentioned that on one October evening he and a few other officers of the 10th and accompanying party put away 87 bottles of wine, writing that it was “very profitable to Mr. Wilson, our genial and enterprising sutler.”
Just before this intoxicating evening, Armes was buying land around Hays, later boasting falsely that he had helped establish the first newspaper in town, and setting his mind to erecting the first church as well. Hays City had no shortage of sin holes, the captain thought, and desperately needed a house of worship. He enlisted his brother back in Leavenworth to help solicit donations from its citizens for the worthy cause. Money was raised, lumber purchased and the railroad even transported the materials to Hays for free, it being such a laudable endeavor.
Armes does not mention any of this in his autobiography, but when the lumber arrived, it was decided that a church would be of no use without a minister — perhaps the young hero forgot to ask the chaplain. Armes christened his new building the Globe Theater. Certainly not a House of God, it was a place where liquor flowed and cheap women were available for a dance or more. Later called The Alhambra, it was sold to Hill P. Wilson, who changed the façade slightly and moved the entire thing to Fort Hays, converting it to a billiard/bowling hall.
Always jealous of other captains getting attention, he proffered possibly false charges against other 10th Cavalry officers. When he did not get his way, he would publicly refer to his superiors as “idiots” and “old fools.” He was warned that keeping a laundress, perhaps a euphemism, was against the rules, and later left that out of his book as well.
Armes always claimed that he was put in jails and guardhouses without being told what he was under arrest for. After several more courts-martial, including one that resulted in his cashiering at Fort Leavenworth in 1870, he pulled strings until he was given his rank back, but Grierson, who was still in command of the 10th, never treated Armes with any respect afterward. In 1889, Armes publicly pulled another nose, that of Pennsylvania Gov. James Beaver after having words with the man.
In 1900, when his autobiography was released, many Army officials were outraged. The book was primarily Armes’ diaries, complete with insults, but incomplete with the whole story. One former colonel, J. W. Clouse, referred to as “The Dutchman” in the book, threatened the publisher with a defamation lawsuit. Indeed, this writer has a signed, first edition and there is no publisher listed.
Another claim in the book was that Grierson put him in the guardhouse and starved him down to 87 pounds. There are snide illustrations throughout — one is of the medal the “people of Pennsylvania” gave him for pulling Beaver’s nose.
None of these public outrages, including several failed marriages, seemed to financially hurt Armes. He had always invested in land around the Washington, D.C., area and even donated three lots he owned on the Appomattox battlefield. Despite it all, he was still fighting to get his rank back into the 1900s.
Armes passed away just before Christmas in 1919 at his home in Ventnor, N.J. Headlines informed a generation that wasn’t alive during the Indian Wars that he was the last survivor of Maj. Gen. Hancock’s staff. A few of his medals and a ceremonial sword are deep in the archives of the Smithsonian Institute, probably undisturbed until this writer was able to handle them in research.
His story is one of many interesting tales being rediscovered.