Regular Army O!: Soldiering on the Western Frontier, 1865–1891, by Douglas C. McChristian, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2017, $45
This exceptional 762-page book presents most everything anyone would ever want to know about the post–Civil War frontier Army. In 1963 Don Rickey Jr. published the groundbreaking Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay, drawing on information he obtained from surviving Indian wars veterans. That classic history inspired Doug McChristian, who builds on Rickey’s original work, drawing from more than 350 diaries, memoirs and letters to deliver an authentic, near comprehensive account of frontier soldiering. The men portrayed here are not the generals and other officers who led Western campaigns against American Indians and whose names are forever inscribed in the history books. These are the ordinary men—mostly common laborers from every state in the Union and many foreign countries, primarily Ireland and Germany—who enlisted for five-year stints despite the risks of chasing Indian warriors across remote regions.
Yes, Regular Army recruits did wage war against indigenous people who strongly objected to their presence, but many soldiers never even saw, let alone shot at, an Indian. “No matter what the designation, Western stations shared one trait in common: monotony,” writes McChristian, a retired National Park Service research historian. The author details the daily routines at forts and garrisons. At one point he quotes an unhappy soldier at Fort Laramie: “Of all the dull and unendurable lives, the one of a soldier on the plains is the worst. It is just dragging out a miserable existence.” Yet not all soldiers minded the monotony and hard work; in fact, many enjoyed the outdoor life, adventure and regular (if simple) meals and pay (if low and sometimes delayed) so much that they reenlisted more than once.
The author covers much ground, with chapters on “Medicine, Hygiene and Sanitation” (so many practices, or nonpractices, were counterproductive to well-being), “Recreations and Pastimes” (baseball was the soldiers’ favorite sporting event), “The Seamy Side of Enlisted Life” (which often began and sometimes ended with whiskey consumption), “The Domestic Side of Enlisted Life” (post laundresses often provided the only female companionship), “The Problem of Desertion” (black units recorded far fewer desertions, and the author explains why) and “Life in the Field” (“During active Indian campaigns,” McChristian writes, “the Army was always disadvantaged by its reliance on adequate supplies, usually transported by sizable wagon trains”).
What the rank and file thought of Indians is a topic seldom addressed elsewhere, but McChristian covers it well here. While he admits there can be no universal characterization, he suggests, “It was not unusual for soldiers and Indian people traditionally friendly with whites to treat each other with mutual respect and courtesy.” While arms inevitably came into play when the Army brass unleashed an offensive or Indians raided and ambushed, the author argues most military operations “resulted in a great deal more scouting and marching on fruitless pursuits than actual combat.” While some soldiers exhibited cowardice in combat, still others a simple reluctance to fight, most acquitted themselves well. “Numerous acts of courage by enlisted men went unnoticed or were not recorded officially by officers,” McChristian explains. Pore over this tome, learn in depth about military life on the frontier, and you are far more likely to respect than assail the mostly forgotten infantrymen and cavalrymen.