A Frontier Army Christmas, compiled and annotated by Lori A. Cox-Paul and Dr. James W. Wengert, Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, 1998, $12.95 paperback.
Christmas on Army posts between 1865 and 1900 often brought the only real relief from the monotony of soldiers’ lives. The firsthand accounts, collected from diaries, letters and other sources, offer a rare glimpse into officers and enlisted men and their families’ efforts to celebrate the holiday in a manner similar to the way folks did back in the States. Often, especially where raw materials were unavailable, the results involved lots of imagination and creativity–fashioning a tree out of walkingsticks, or a soap box and greentissue paper; making ice cream from condensed milk; and concocting a wide variety of homemade drinks. “Sometimes I think our Christmas on the frontier was a greater event to us than to any one in the states,” wrote Elizabeth Custer, wife of George Armstrong Custer. “We all had to do so much to make it a success.”
Christmas in the field held a different meaning for frontier soldiers. Frozen hardtack, bean soup “that a hog would not eat if he were starving,” and raging blizzards were part of the picture. Details of the winter campaigns in the Powder River region, Custer’s 7th Cavalry near Fort Cobb, Troop L’s trek into the Montana mountains and Nelson Miles’ Red River War present poignant reminders of the West’s bloody past. Occasionally, touching tales, such as the arrival of the “Christmas wagon” and Santa Claus impersonated, replaced tragic or less enjoyable events of the season. Readers will enjoy seeing the holiday through the spirit of the people stationed in the wilds of the Old West. It’s fascinating.