They found various ways to augment their salaries.
On his last trip to Washington, D.C., before his June 1876 trouble at the Little Bighorn River, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer buttonholed U.S. Representative Heister Clymer with a request to raise sergeants’ pay above $40 a month. Custer had earlier secured ammunition allotments so his soldiers could actually afford target practice, as it became obvious many of his immigrant and urban recruits couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. His request for pay raises died with him at Custer’s Last Stand.
After the Civil War, the Army reduced many officers’ wartime ranks and slashed salaries across the board. In 1872, for instance, a private’s monthly pay dropped from $16 to $13. Two years later, a Chicago journalist complained that the low pay turned enlisted men into “human driftwood—men who have committed crime elsewhere and are hiding in the service under assumed names; men who cannot brook the liberties and familiarities of society and take refuge in military discipline; men who are disappointed, disheartened and ambitionless and find the lazy life of a soldier a relief.”
For an ambitionless soldier, it was enough to have three squares, a regular bunk at night and occasional drinking money. But others sought to augment their meager pay. One enterprising soldier traveling as an escort with recruits pawned his carbine during a train stop in Chicago, accused the terrified pawnbroker of receiving stolen government property and beat it back to the railcars with the recovered carbine, the pawn money, the jubilant recruits and a couple of bottles after cadging a free lunch at a saloon.
Several sergeants in the 7th Cavalry did rise to the occasion in winter-time when telegraph wires went down and frozen rivers and snow-clogged roads kept the regular stagecoach mail service from going through. “The telegraph lines were frequently down, and except for the courage of the sergeants, we should have been completely isolated from the outside world,” explained Libbie Custer, George’s wife, during her time at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory in the 1870s. “With four mules and the covered body of a government wagon on bobs, they went over a trackless waste of snow for 250 miles. Occasionally, there were huts that had once been stage stations, where they could stop, but it was deadly perilous for them to leave the telegraph line, no matter through what drifts they were compelled to plunge.”
But the winter runs were worth it, as the resourceful sergeants found room in the wagons to carry packages frontier merchants paid to have delivered. Libbie remembered, “I used to hear occasionally that the sergeant had levied such a heavy tax upon the citizens of Bismarck, when he brought small parcels through for them, that he had quite a little sum of money for himself by spring.”
The more conscientious and ambitious enlisted men put away what money they could to support their families or raise capital for a new line of work. Half the soldiers recruited between 1865 and 1874 were foreign-born. The figure for the 7th Cavalry was 42 percent foreign-born, of whom 17 percent were Irish, 12 percent German, 4 percent English, 2 percent Canadian and 1 percent Scottish. Many were skilled tradesmen. Germans such as Charles Windolph, longest-lived Reno Hill survivor, teamed up with fellow countrymen to master English and cobble together enough money to open shops of their own.
Sergeant Jeremiah Finley, who was born in Tipperary in 1841 and served the Union in the Civil War, became George Custer’s personal tailor. Never mind rumors that he had killed a man in Ireland or that he had a tendency to beat his wife after having a few drinks. On one occasion he made a particularly fine suit of fringed buckskins for the famous cavalry officer. Before turning the clothes over to Custer, Finley had himself photographed in the buckskins and sent the tintype to his wife. George didn’t know anything about it and was later photographed in the same buckskin suit.
Wood chopping was one civilian pocketliner closed to soldiers. For that chore, the Army used free labor from the guardhouse—often recaptured deserters. Of the 255,712 men who enlisted between 1867 and 1891, 88,475 deserted. Those who returned or were recaptured were put to work policing up the parade ground, toting water for post gardens and cutting wood for the mess halls and officers’ wives kitchens.
Marriage was another way an enterprising soldier might better himself financially. Women who ventured west readily found husbands—young ladies marrying young officers, and single washerwomen splicing with enlisted men. Given a soldier’s low wages and the high prices charged by government-licensed post traders, the dual-income family was a good survival technique.
A Mexican woman known as “Old Nash” was a mainstay of the garrison wives for her pie baking, her skill as a washerwoman and midwife, and her kindly disposition. “She was our laundress, and when she brought the linen home, it was fluted and frilled so daintily that I considered her a treasure,” Libbie Custer noted. “She always came at night, and when I went out to pay her, she was very shy and kept a veil pinned about the lower part of her face.”
Mrs. Nash had no luck with her first two husbands, both of whom stole all her money and fled. “Old Nash mourned her money a short time but soon found solace in going to the soldiers’ balls dressed in gauzy, low-necked gowns,” Libbie recalled. “She had no sooner accumulated another bank account than her hand was solicited for the third time….She captured the handsomest soldier in the company.”
The new husband, Corporal John Noonan, was Captain Tom Custer’s orderly. Noonan took pride in the tailored uniform his wife made for him, her home cooking and her skills as a midwife. Sadly, a respiratory illness cut short her life. On her deathbed, Old Nash begged that her lady friends lay her in her coffin without washing her or changing her clothes. When the ladies broke their pledge, they made a shocking discovery, as explained by Libbie Custer: “Becoming weary of the laborious life of a man, [Nash] had assumed the disguise of a woman and hoped to carry the secret to the grave. The surgeon’s certificate, stating the sex of ‘Old Nash’ together with the simple record of a laundress in the regiment for 10 years, was all the brief history ever known.”
Corporal Noonan insisted that his wife was a female, but he endured much scorn from his fellow soldiers and ultimately shot himself in the heart. The Army and Navy Journal reported that the supposed Mexican woman was able to buy her husband’s silence. But the consensus was there were just some things a U.S. soldier, even an underpaid corporal, should not do for money.
John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor. Minjae Kim assisted with research.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.