Regular Army O!: Soldiering on the Western Frontier, 1865-1891

Regular Army O!: Soldiering on the Western Frontier, 1865-1891

by Douglas C. McChristian, Robert M. Utley

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“The drums they roll, upon my soul, for that’s the way we go,” runs the chorus in a Harrigan and Hart song from 1874. “Forty miles a day on beans and hay in the Regular Army O!” The last three words of that lyric aptly title Douglas C. McChristian’s remarkable work capturing the lot of soldiers posted to the West after the Civil War. At once panoramic and intimate, Regular Army O! uses the testimony of enlisted soldiers—drawn from more than 350 diaries, letters, and memoirs—to create a vivid picture of life in an evolving army on the western frontier.

After the volunteer troops that had garrisoned western forts and camps during the Civil War were withdrawn in 1865, the regular army replaced them. In actions involving American Indians between 1866 and 1891, 875 of these soldiers were killed, mainly in minor skirmishes, while many more died of disease, accident, or effects of the natural environment. What induced these men to enlist for five years and to embrace the grim prospect of combat is one of the enduring questions this book explores.

Going well beyond Don Rickey Jr.’s classic work Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay (1963), McChristian plumbs the regulars’ accounts for frank descriptions of their training to be soldiers; their daily routines, including what they ate, how they kept clean, and what they did for amusement; the reasons a disproportionate number occasionally deserted, while black soldiers did so only rarely; how the men prepared for field service; and how the majority who survived mustered out.

In this richly drawn, uniquely authentic view, men black and white, veteran and tenderfoot, fill in the details of the frontier soldier’s experience, giving voice to history in the making.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806159027
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 05/04/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 784
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Douglas C. McChristian (1947–2018) was a research historian for the National Park Service and a former National Park Service field historian at Fort Davis and Fort Laramie National Historic Sites and at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. He is the author of numerous books, including Fort Bowie, Arizona: Combat Post of the Southwest, 1858–1894 and Fort Laramie: Military Bastion of the High Plains.
Robert M. Utley served in the National Park Service for 25 years in various capacities, including Chief Historian from 1964 to 1972. Since his retirement from the federal government in 1980, he has devoted himself full-time to historical research and writing with a specialty in the American West. He is author, among many articles and books he has published, of Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier, Revised Edition; Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life; Lone Star Lawmen: The Second Century of the Texas Rangers; and The Commanders: Civil War Generals Who Shaped the American West. A founder of the Western History Association, Utley has served on its governing council and as its president.

Read an Excerpt

Regular Army O!

Soldiering on the Western Frontier, 1865-1891

By Douglas C. McChristian


Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5902-7


"Taking to Soldiering"


Summer 1865: four years of bloody war had finally ended. The Union was intact, though tattered, and now faced new challenges. Of nearly 3 million soldiers who had served in the Union army during the course of the conflict, approximately half still were in the process of being mustered out: thousands every day. The once vibrant industrial complex so vital to the North's victory was receding as government demand for arms and military supplies of every sort evaporated overnight. The huge influx of returning veterans imposed on a declining labor market suppressed wages for already scarce jobs. An unforeseen effect of the economic situation was an abundant supply of army recruits, many of them experienced, at a time when logic would have predicted the number of enlistments to be low in the comparatively small regular army. "There was many a returned soldier out of employment, and the slogan was give the ex-soldier employment first, but times were dull," reflected a veteran who lived through it. "Many a young man, dissatisfied with his environment in the East, made every effort to go West ... and the cheapest way to go West in 1865 was to enlist in the Army."

There was only one way to get in the regulars: by voluntary enlistment. Unlike the state forces during the war, the regulars had no three-month or one-year terms, no draftees, no paid substitutes or promises that a soldier's service would terminate with the end of the conflict. Enlistments had been reduced temporarily to three years as a wartime concession to attract recruits, but the lack of a sufficient pool of men to fill the ranks was no longer a problem. Congress soon restored the standard term to five years. Even so, men of all backgrounds and nationalities turned to the army not only to make a living but for an endless array of other reasons: a few well-considered, many on a whim, some in desperation. In one way or another, the West beckoned.

"One day I was sitting there feeling pretty blue," recounted a veteran in later years. "All of a sudden it seemed to me that somebody said to me, 'Why don't you enlist. ...' The recruiting office was about two squares from the hotel ... I went in and said, 'If I enlist now when can I go away?' The officer said, 'If you enlist now, you go tonight.' ... I said, 'Take my measure!'" His story was typical of many men who enlisted in the regulars during the Indian Wars. If they shared a common trait, it might be impetuosity. An officer of many years' experience observed: "He may be a mechanic tired of routine life, a farmer with a taste for life on the frontier, a student tired of his books, a young business man who has not made a success of his first venture, an emigrant who cannot find work, or possibly owing to the simple reason that he wishes to become a soldier, or for any one of a hundred and one reasons." Whatever their individual motives, they were restless young men in a young America on the move.

In early spring 1866 eighteen-year-old James D. Lockwood was dejectedly walking the streets of his hometown Troy, New York, when he happened upon a recruiting office. Having little money in his pockets and no prospects for a job, Lockwood, who had previously served three years as a drummer with a volunteer infantry regiment, "resolved once more to offer himself for the service of his country, knowing quite well that he could fight if he had the chance; and as the Indians were on the warpath throughout the great west, he did not doubt having the chance." Now of legal age to be a full-fledged soldier, he enlisted and was later assigned to the Eighteenth Infantry, a regiment soon to garrison new posts along the dangerous Bozeman Trail traversing far-off Dakota and Montana Territories.

Some individuals discovered that readjusting to civilian life was not as easy as they had expected. Commenting on some of those veteran volunteers who frequented recruiting offices in the immediate wake of the war, First Sergeant Henry H. McConnell observed: "At the close of the war some uneasy spirits who had learned to like the lazy, irresponsible, reckless life of the camp, and found the restraints of civil life insupportable, sought the regular army." But men of that ilk were quickly disabused of the notion that life in the regulars would be like the volunteers. Robert Greenhalgh, who had served in the First Dragoons before and early in the war, reenlisted in 1865 when he was unable to find work. Looking askance at the demeanor of his new comrades, Greenhalgh perceptively observed: "We have received over five hundred recruits. ... They have most all been in the volunteers before, spent all their money, then enlisted again. Of course there are some hard cases among them. ... They think they can carry on about the same as they did in the volunteers ... but they will find out that is played out now." Indeed the regulars were professional soldiers, owing allegiance only to the United States and their oath to follow lawful orders. "From the moment ... an enlisted man enters his regiment he is taught two things by both precept and example," an officer wrote. "They are the honour of the service and the necessity of always and under all circumstances doing his duty." Thus the tone was established for all that would follow.

The excitement of wartime service stood in sharp contrast to what many now saw as a drab existence back on the family farm, clerking in a store, or performing manual labor for meager wages. Soldiers became accustomed to the routine of military life and the camaraderie of other men. Then too, combat, for all its horrors, was an adrenalin-charged experience that had no comparison in civil life. Veterans not infrequently felt adrift in that vacuum, trying one job and then another in searching to satisfy a psychological need. As an infantryman in a Massachusetts regiment, John Ryan had fought in nine battles, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, suffering three wounds. "After remaining home a short time while getting rested, not having a trade, I went to work at the Aetna Mills in Watertown. After a while, I left there and secured a position with ... the Newton Oil Company ... [and after a stint as a coachman] I went to work ... carpentering ... and finally the army fever struck me. I met two friends of mine, and we made it up to enlist in the United States Army."

Another segment of ex-soldiers had not worn Union blue at all but had served in the Confederate States Army or Navy. Southern veterans commonly returned home to find only ruined or long-neglected farms and a devastated economy. The war had destroyed much of the South's previously limited manufacturing capability. With nothing more to lose, many Confederate veterans joined the westward migration, especially to Texas, in search of better opportunities. Yet a few had developed a genuine attraction to military life. Some of the former combatants acknowledged almost immediately a mutual, if grudging, brotherhood as soldiers — American soldiers all. One U.S. regular present at Lee's surrender spoke with a North Carolinian: "When we were giving them [Confederates] our rations after the surrender at Appomattox, a tall lanky tarheel said to me, 'You all and we'uns can lick all hell.'" In that vein, some Confederate veterans overcame their aversion to Union blue and later joined the regulars, though their exact numbers will never be known, because there was no requirement for them to divulge that information to recruiters. The general amnesty granted to all former Confederates stipulated that they take a new oath of loyalty to the United States, so nothing barred them from serving in the ranks of the army. Seventh Cavalryman John Ryan attested that Confederate veterans were often found in the ranks during the late 1860s. "We had one hundred and one men assigned to our company," he commented. "A great many of those men had seen service in the Union army during the Civil War and quite a number of them, about seventeen, had served in the confederate service ... some had been commissioned in the confederate service." A few, like Virginia farmer John W. Jenkins, even became career soldiers. Formerly a cavalryman in General Jubal Early's corps, Jenkins joined the army in 1869, eventually serving three enlistments.

Compounding the labor situation, especially in the Northeast, was a continuing influx of immigrants from abroad. Alone in a foreign land and willing to work at almost anything to survive, the recent arrivals posed a threat to other workers by competing for already scarce jobs. While native-born Americans representing every state in the Union consistently accounted for more than 50 percent of enlistees during the era of the Indian Wars, the Irish and Germans represented the next largest segments, 20 and 12 percent, respectively, between the years 1866 and 1874. The predominance of those two nationalities rightly contributed to enduring stereotypes of frontier soldiers. "The Irishman," McConnell observed, "is by far the best soldier in our army. Oppressed and robbed at home, virtually without a country of his own to fight for, he had been at the front, and in the fiercest of the fight, on every battlefield from Fontenoy to Appomattox, and he has always held his own with honor to the flag under which he fought." In contrast, probably because of his own ethnicity, McConnell denigrated the Germans as "good army laborers and first-class dog robbers." As time passed, however, the percentage of Germans joining the American army increased, with many of them becoming career soldiers.

The composition of the army reflected the international complexity of America's population as a whole. From the late 1860s to the mid-1870s army recruits represented an average of some forty foreign nations. Ranking in order after Ireland and Germany, England, Canada, Scotland, France, and Switzerland accounted for the largest numbers of enlistees, while Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, and Belgium also contributed significantly to the rank and file. Not to be overlooked, however, were such diverse origins as Arabia, China, Egypt, Turkey, the West Indies, Mexico, and several South American countries. The idea of America as a "melting pot" of nationalities is not just a cliché, and nowhere was that more evident than in the army of the post–Civil War era. By 1880, however, foreign nativities of new enlistees represented just seventeen countries, accounting for only 31 percent of the men joining the army. Captain George F. Price, a Fifth Cavalry officer detailed on recruiting duty in 1884, told the New York Tribune: "Contrary to the general impression a large percentage of the enlistments in the Army is of men of American birth. The percentage of foreigners is small, and of these the German come first, the Irish and English next. There are few Frenchmen and Scotchmen. We accept about one man in ten of those examined." Even though the variety of national origins represented declined during the latter part of the era, the proportion of foreign-born soldiers remained constant at over 30 percent.

Those immigrants hailing from non-English-speaking countries were immediately disadvantaged by an inability to communicate meaningfully in American society. Thus it was not unusual for those men to seek out the nearest recruiting station as a means of acculturating themselves. "I was twenty-one years of age at that time and unable to speak the English language at all," recounted Max Littman, a former cigar-maker from Germany who landed at New York City in 1866. "I was desirous of seeing something of the country to the west before making any attempt to establish myself in business." He and a countryman, Frederick Claus, who emigrated and enlisted a few months later because "times were hard," were to experience more than they ever imagined as participants in the desperate Wagon Box Fight against Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors. Danish-born Christian Madsen said: "As soon as I entered the army my main goal was to get to know the language and the country during the 5 years of my life as a soldier." The constancy of foreigners turning to army life as a means of establishing themselves in the United States is found in the experience of Norwegian immigrant Robert C. O. Norman, who expressed similar reasons for his decision to enlist near the end of the era.

Other foreign-born men cited a combination of reasons for entering the army. In many European countries military service was compulsory, causing some young men to leave their homelands and migrate to the United States. Bergen shoemaker Charles Windolph, for example, related his experience:

I was eighteen in the spring of 1870, and by June it looked pretty certain that Prussia was going to fight Napoleon the Third of France. I was booked to be drafted in the Dragoons but a few days before I was to report for duty I skipped out for Sweden ... then I got a boat for America. I was about the greenest thing that ever hit New York. I couldn't talk more than a dozen words of English and I had exactly $2.50 in money ... I got a job as a boot maker in Hoboken. But the methods were all different from the way I had been taught. Finally an old man who was working next to me, and who talked German, told me to join the army and learn English so that I could amount to something.

The irony of his situation was not lost on Windolph. "Funny, here we'd run away from Germany to escape military service, and now, because most of us couldn't get a job anywhere else, we were forced to go into the army here."

Poking fun at the Germans, First Cavalryman James O. Purvis claimed that they enlisted for another reason: "In the German army a soldier is obliged to write home to his wife once a month. This explains why so many Germans come to this country to escape military duty."

Quartermaster Sergeant Maurice H. Wolfe, an Irish immigrant himself, cited a more sinister motive for the large influx of Irishmen into the rank and file during the late 1860s. "There is scarcely a soldier in this camp that is not a Fenian. It's just the same all over the U.S. Army. There are a great many men in the Army who enlisted expressly for the sake of learning the art of war." Founded in Ireland early in the nineteenth century to resist British domination, the Fenian Brotherhood extended its movement to America for the purpose of invading and wresting Canada from the British in order to hold it in exchange for Irish independence. Wolfe would have been privy to barracks conversations among secret members of the society who had joined the army to become trained soldiers and, potentially, leaders in that effort.

"There came to the United States during the latter part of the war, when bounties were high," a veteran recalled, "men who had served in about all the armies of Europe. Some were men of superior education. ... When the war ended many of this class joined the Regular Army." Among these were immigrants like Hans Spring and several friends, who set out from Switzerland in 1864 on a grand mission to serve the Union cause in America. Upon his arrival in the States, Spring made good on his pledge by enlisting in a New York regiment and was subsequently wounded in action just prior to the war's end. By July 1865 he had recovered sufficiently to be discharged from the volunteers. But rather than pursuing a civilian livelihood he immediately attempted to enter the regular service. His recent wound had not healed sufficiently, however, and the recruiting officer rejected him. Undeterred, Spring worked at odd jobs for a few weeks before again trying to enlist, this time successfully.

The Civil War made a deep impression on many young men thirsting to experience what they considered to be a great adventure. In some instances underage boys with a desire to taste military life had accompanied their soldier-fathers in the field during the war, a practice that appears to have been overlooked by some commanding officers. First Cavalryman John H. Cady, for example, had been among the camp followers with the Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry prior to his joining the navy. Another underage boy, who later became a member of the Eighth Cavalry, had assisted his father, a quartermaster serving with a Maryland regiment. Moreover, thousands of boys who had remained at home were influenced by the war tales of their fathers, uncles, and older brothers. John O. Stotts recalled:

Nearly all my relatives had been soldiers, and like many other boys who had been raised in war times, my mind was on the life of a soldier instead of being on my books. I finally went home [from college] and told my Father that I would never be satisfied until I had tried soldier life. He finally consented. ... but he told me plainly that I would find out in time that a soldier's life was a hard one and that I would many times wish that I could sit down at Mother's table. ... He finally said that he had one request to ask of me, and that was that I would faithfully serve my time and come home with an honorable discharge in my pocket.


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