Following the Civil War, only one military fort in North Dakota was named in honor of a soldier who served in northern Dakota Territory. In 1878, the name of the Standing Rock Cantonment was changed to Fort Yates, in honor of Capt. George Yates, who was killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
Yates came from a distinguished family: A great grandfather was an officer killed in action during the Revolutionary War, and several relatives had served in other military conflicts. Yates enlisted at the age of 18 to fight in the Civil War and became a close friend to George Custer. He was engaged in many of the war's fiercest battles and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he was assigned to the 7th Cavalry and was killed on the battlefield near Custer's side.
George Wilhelmus Mancius Yates was born Feb. 26, 1843, on a farm near Albany, N.Y., to Richard and Margaret (Mancius) Yates. When the 4th Michigan Volunteer Infantry was formed on June 20, 1861, Yates enlisted and was assigned as a private to Company A. He was later assigned to the cavalry and commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant.
Yates saw action at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run and was promoted to 1st lieutenant on Sept. 26, 1862. He later fought at Antietam. At Fredericksburg, in mid-December, he "was dangerously wounded by a shell which exploded in the stomach of the horse he was riding." After hospitalization, Yates was sent to Monroe, Mich., to recuperate.
Monroe happened to have been a childhood home of George Armstrong Custer and his future wife, Elizabeth Bacon. Shortly after Yates arrived, he met Custer, who was also a junior officer for Union Army. Custer was at Monroe on leave and they quickly became friends.
On June 9, 1863, Custer became an aid to Major Gen. Alfred Pleasanton, the commander of Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. When Yates recovered enough to resume active duty, Custer used his influence to get his friend attached to Pleasanton's staff as an aid-de-camp. However, Yates was still a member of the 4th Michigan Volunteers.
On June 29, Pleasanton promoted Custer to Brigadier General of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade and assigned Yates to join Custer's unit. Two days later, the Battle of Gettysburg began and Custer's cavalry established the reputation as the most daring and fearless horse-soldiers of the Union Army. Yates was cited for valor because of his action at Gettysburg, and he belatedly received the promotion to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel two years later.
Custer and Yates had tremendous admiration for Pleasanton. Custer later commented: "No father could love his son more than General Pleasanton loves me."
Yates was shocked when he learned that the 4th Michigan Volunteer unit was to be disbanded and he was to be mustered out of the service on June 28, 1864. He immediately wrote a letter to the Adjutant General's Office and begged for special consideration. In his letter, Yates wrote, "I am very attached to General Pleasanton, and he desires that I remain with him."
Initially, the request by Yates was denied, but on Aug. 24, "after the intervention of Pleasanton," the young soldier was allowed to re-enlist with the 45th Missouri Infantry." Yates would once again be joining Pleasanton, who had been transferred to the Trans-Mississippi Theater on July 4.
Pleasanton was commander of the District of Central Missouri, with his headquarters in St. Louis. The Union army had pushed the Confederate forces out of Missouri in 1862. The Rebels reconstituted their forces and, under the leadership of Brigadier Gen. Sterling Price, hoped to drive the Northern Army out of Missouri. After a series of defeats in the fall of 1864, Price and his soldiers fled to Mexico.
In St. Louis, Yates became enamored with Lucretia Beaumont Irwin, a young socialite from one of the most prestigious families in the city. Her grandfather, William Beaumont, a doctor who pioneered the study of human digestion, created the nation's first medical professional society and established the first medical school west of the Mississippi River. On Jan. 5, 1865, Yates and Lucretia were married.
On March 13, Yates was promoted to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel in recognition of the bravery he displayed two years earlier at the Battle of Gettysburg. Pleasanton had instituted a policy of amnesty to Confederate prisoners in 1864, whereby he would grant them parole on the condition that they traveled up the Missouri River and settle in Dakota or Montana territories. Yates assisted his commander in implementing and enforcing this policy. With the Civil War over, Yates was mustered out of the Army on Jan. 11, 1866.
On March 26, Yates enlisted with the regular Army as a 2nd Lieutenant and was assigned to the 2nd Cavalry at Fort McPherson, Neb., an outpost designed to protect travelers along Oregon and California trails. Life at a desolate outpost became difficult for Lucretia, who was accustomed to an active social life. She began spending prolonged periods back in St. Louis, and on Jan. 31, 1867, the couple divorced. On June 12, Yates was transferred to the 7th Cavalry, where he was united with his old friend, George Custer.
We will conclude the story of George Yates next week.