The Army Wife

The Army Wife . . .

I’ve long been fascinated with the army wife on lonely posts throughout the west.
I’ve avoided writing about one because a romance writer doesn’t want a married heroine. I’ve been pondering, though, creating an army widow. The appeal is strong.
In the old western films, the army wife is usually portrayed in rather nice living quarters, planning and participating in balls and usually well dressed. The opposite was true. Many lived in abysmal quarters, often where diseases such as yellow fever and cholera ran rampant. On occasion, Army wives were more in peril from their over protected husbands than from the Indians.
According to the Time Life Books, Army wives were considered by soldiers as prime objects of Indian marauders, though there is not a single recorded instance of a woman killed by Indians at an Army post. It seems they were more in peril from their overprotective husbands than from the Indians. At Fort Phil Kearney, where Indian attacks were frequent and deadly, the commanding officer issued a standing order that if the post were overrun, the women and children were to be herded into the powder magazine and blown up.
One army wife, though, went from fearful bride to admirer of the Indians. Ada Vogdes’s journals between 1868 and 1871 diary are the record of a rather conventional woman’s change of outlook when confronted with the vivid new life around her.
“Having arrived at a time of relative peace, she could not help altering her opinion of the Sioux, and acknowledging that they had gentlemanly qualities and even physical attractions that she had never dreamed of in her sheltered life back East.”
“One warrior who really shattered her preconceptions was one called Big Bear. He was sociable and tried his gallant best to communicate with her. Furthermore, as she confided to the privacy of her journal, he was a superb physical specimen who wore only leggings and moccasins, with a buffalo robe thrown over his shoulders, which exposed the most splendid chest and shoulders I ever laid my eyes on. . .”
One of my favorite research books is “I Married A Soldier” by Lydia Spencer Lane. She married a young lieutenant in 1854 and immediately left Pennsylvania for his post in Missouri. She obviously enjoyed her years as an army wife, even while detailing an often hard life.
The first posting was a sad one. “Cholera was epidemic and scarcely a day passed that we did not hear the solemn notes of the “dead march.” One lieutenant, according to the account, had gone on as officer of the day, in the morning; at midnight he was dead.
The next posting was in Texas. She and her husband arrived by a “lighter,” a small schooner. “The accommodations were of the most contracted description, there being scarcely room to stand upright in the hold, where Mrs. Burbank, children, nurse, and myself were stowed away. We improved our time fighting roaches and other things, down below, while the officers spent the night on deck.” When they reached land, they found themselves in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic. “It was dreadful news to us, as there was no escape, no running away from it, nothing to do but land, take the risk and trust in Providence. However, I had ‘gone for a soldier, and a soldier I determined to be.”
Their home in Christi was a large hospital tent with an opening at each end. “The first night we spent ashore a violent norther struck the coast, and the weather became very cold. One night the norther, the wind blew a hurricane and our tent was torn open at both ends. Between the pounding of the waves on the beach, the shrieking of the wind, and the flapping of the canvas, the noise was fearful, and I expected to be blown bodily out to sea. “
The women rode in an “ambulance” from this post to the next. “Many a weary hour I passed in it, with only space enough to sit bolt upright.
She relates tales about housing which ranged from barely adequate to horrendous, and the people she met along the way. She and her husband often slept at the houses of strangers, and they were expected to house travelers, never knowing exactly who they were. After staying with one family on their travels, they learned “the true character of these people. They were outlaws of the worst description; but while we were under their roof they treated us well.”
All and all, it’s a fascinating glimpse of army life as seen by a wife.
In two weeks, I’ll be blogging about the army laundress, another great heroine possibility.
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Pearl and Ruth are the winners of my contest in my last blog. Please email me (papotter@aol.com) your addresses and I’ll send a book to you.

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16 thoughts on “The Army Wife”

  1. I think that you should write a book like that!!! I would think that you could really make it into a wonderful story! I too am very interested about this particular subject…these women really did live in harsh environments under harsh circumstances. I will definately be keeping my eyes open for the possibility that you decide to write about this!!!!

  2. Fascinating post, Pat. What a fearful prospect it must have been to take young children to these outposts. It sounds as if the danger from disease was even greater than the danger from attack.
    General Custer’s wife, Libby, comes to mind. Did she follow her husband, or was she more of a stay at home and write letters kind of wife? Just wondering.

  3. Hi Pat – Wow, you’ve really changed my opinion of the fancy army wife in charge of socials and balls. The more I learn and research the old west, though I love writing it, the more I know I’m definitely glad to be living in this century!!
    Do you agree? Life was hard back then.

  4. Pat, what interesting descriptions of Army wives. They certainly didn’t have the best life, although they probably didn’t complain much about their lot. They just took what came and tried to make the best of the situation. That’s very brave and touching and shows qualities we want in a strong heroine.

    Do you happen to know what the Army wife did in the event her husband was killed or died? Could she still live on the post or was she put off? I’m just curious.

    Thanks for posting such an intriguing subject!

  5. When General Custer was killed,a captain went to her back door to inform her of his death. She threw a wrap around her dressing gown and went with him to inform the over 25 widows at Fort Abraham Lincoln. She postponed her own grief until after consoling the other new widows.

  6. It’s almost hard to read about reality when fiction as so romanticized the past. But many of these woman probably left hard lives behind, too. A lot of sickness and poverty to be had in the east.
    So, if you’d write this book would you try and be truthful? Or go for the romance?

  7. From what I read, many of the officers’ wives came from fairly well-to=do circumstances, and the new life was a decided shock. Some left for home. But others felt a deep satisfaction in what they did. Said one: “We will see that the tents are made comfortable and cheerful at every camp; that the little dinner after the weary march, the early breakfast and the cold luncheon are each and all as dainty as camp cooking will permit. Yes, we are sometimes called camp followers, but we do not mind . . .We know all about the comfort and cheer that goes with us, and then — we have not been left behind!”

  8. Wow Pat! That is fascinating and it does sound like Army wives were a strong lot, who trudged on regardless of the circumstances…a strength very much valued in a heroine. I do hope you decide to write a book with a widowed Army wife! I imagine it would be very intriguing.

  9. Hi, Pat! I’m chiming in late and just want to say those Army wives were to be admired and commended. They truly gave their military surroundings and hardships a feminine touch of compassion–something very much emphasized at Christmastime.

  10. So nice and great post.I totally agree ” I will definately be keeping my eyes open for the possibility that you decide to write about this!” .I ever got this similar idea from my friends on horsematch.com. I would love to forward this story to him. Thank you!

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