On several excursions through Wyoming, I have stopped at Fort Phil Kearny, home of 2nd U.S. Cavalry troopers during both the Fetterman Massacre and the Wagon Box Fight. On each occasion, I noted sketches of the fort displayed in the visitor center attributed to Bugler Antonio Nicolai of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry in June 1867. Tracking down Bugler Nicolai has been on the back burner my to-do list for quite some time, but I think I have managed to find the bugler better known for his pen than his music. As with many cavalry soldiers of this period, it’s a tale of long service both during the Civil War and on the frontier.
It also turned out to be a search for someone else. There is no record of an Antonio Nicolai serving in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, or elsewhere in the Army, between 1860 and 1890. Antonio may have been a nickname or a misunderstanding, but the name of the artist in question is Gustavus Nicolai.
Gustavus Nicolai was born in Berlin, Germany in 1828. After immigrating to America, he lived in Pennsylvania. He was enlisted into Company B, 4th U.S. Artillery as a private by Lieutenant William Royall on November 17, 1856 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His enlistment documents describe him as 5’ 2” tall, with brown hair, hazel eyes and a fair complexion. He was 25 years old, and listed his occupation as musician. He was discharged at the end of his enlistment on November 17, 1861 at Camp Duncan, District of Columbia.
Gustavus was out of uniform only two days before enlisting in Company E, 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry on November 19th. He served in the regiment through the entire war without incident, transferring to Company C at some point. He mustered out with the regiment on July 20, 1865.
Nicolai rejoined the regular army on September 7, 1865. He was enlisted as a bugler into Company D, 2nd U.S. Cavalry by Lieutenant McGregor at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. He listed his age as 36, but there were no changes to his description other than his complexion now being dark. He remained in this company as a bugler for the rest of his career.
Bugler Nicolai arrived at Fort Phil Kearny with his company and Company L in January 1867, reinforcing the fort’s garrison following the Fetterman Massacre. This brought the strength of the cavalry garrison to three companies on paper. The remaining 25 men of Company C departed to Fort Laramie the following month. Company L left in March, leaving Company D as the sole cavalry company for the rest of 1867 other than a brief sojourn to Fort C.F. Smith in July.
Although Captain D.S. Gordon officially commanded the company, First Lieutenant James “Teddy” Egan was the senior officer present with the company at Fort Phil Kearny in 1867. The company’s other bugler, Edward L. Train, was mortally wounded in sight of the fort on June 11th, dying two days later. At some point during this month, Nicolai sketched this picture of the fort, looking to the northwest. (Photo courtesy of Wyoming Tales and Trails)
Bugler Nicolai was discharged at the expiration of his enlistment at Duck Creek, Dakota Territory on September 7, 1868. He re-enlisted in the company by Lieutenant Stambaugh at Fort D.A. Russell, present day Warren AFB in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on September 25th. He served continuously through his next three enlistments in Utah, Montana and Idaho Territory, including the battle of the Rosebud in 1876.
During a patrol along the Yellowstone from Fort Ellis in the summer of 1879, Dr. Weir Mitchell made the following observations about the bugler, in Lippincott’s Magazine and later excerpted in the Army and Navy Journal of May 22, 1880 on page 5:
“Nicolai, the German bugler of Major Gregg’s Company (D, 2d Cavalry), is another of Dr. Mitchell’s characters. “He had been a wood-engraver, and drew very cleverly, but owing to a failure in sight, enlisted in the Army, and has now been twenty-five years a soldier. He was a gay, bright fellow, who never neglected a chance to get just not too drunk to sound the calls with some odd variations. As soon as we were in camp his little wicky-up was built with two or three poles and a blanket-shelter: pretty soon he had a fire blazing and something cooking for dinner. Then his sketch-book would be on his knee, and he, supremely content, would amuse himself with his pencil, rarely talking with the other men, and living a simple, hermit-like life, with apparently not the least desire to better it. On the march he fell in behind the major, for whom he had an almost canine attachment, repaid by such indulgence as seemed only fair toward so old a soldier.”
Bugler Nicolai was discharged from the Army on February 11, 1885, per Special Order 14, Adjutant General’s Office, 1885 while at Boise Barracks, Idaho. He had nearly twenty-nine years in uniform at the time, counting his volunteer service during the Civil War. The order must have concerned disability and retirement, as Nicolai was admitted to the Soldiers Home near Washington, D.C. six days later, on the February 17th. He filed for his military pension on November 27, 1886.
Gustavus Nicolai died in Hampton, Virginia, just outside of Fort Monroe, on January 21, 1897. He is buried in plot 733a of Hampton National Cemetery, Hampton, Virginia.
“A Civilian at Fort Ellis,” Army and Navy Journal, Volume XVII, Number 42, May 22, 1880, page 5, column 3.
National Archives, Record Group 94, U.S. Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914.
National Archives, Record Group 94, U.S. Army Post Returns, 1806-1916: Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming.
National Archives, Record Group 94, U.S. Returns from Regular Army Non-infantry Regiments, 1821-1916: 2nd U.S. Cavalry.
Illustration: The 1867 image of Fort Phil Kearny is from Wyoming Tales and Trails. Used with thanks.