It’s doubtful that the West would’ve gotten settled if not for the frontier Army. Yet it took a lot of adaptation to the harsh environment to cope long enough to do any fighting. When the west opened up, the first problem was how to outfit a frontier army. Superiors found that the challenges of the west were vastly different from what they were accustomed to east of the Mississippi.
According to “Frontier Skills” by William C. Davis, the frontier soldier was issued one overcoat that was expected to last him his entire term of service and three dress coats that were supposed to have a life of twenty months. But the soldier had to get six months out of a pair of trousers and 7 ½ months for each pair of drawers.
Yet the commanders recognized how vital footwear was to the soldier. They allowed him twenty pairs of socks and boots, each pair that would endure just three months before wearing out. The man on the march faced hard rocks, burning sand, cactus needles, and countless other obstacles. Sore feet could take out more men than bullets and arrows. When a soldier died or was killed, the first thing they stripped from him was his boots. They were too valuable to bury with the man. Soldiers quickly learned to take extra care of his footwear because a replacement could be months away or longer if he was stuck in a remote outpost.
Equipment was just as valuable as their clothing. Here’s a list of what was issued:
A rubber coated haversack in which to keep dry rations and extra clothing
One rifle with ammunition
One Colt .44 revolver
To lose any equipment or supplies was tantamount to certain disaster.
Without transportation the soldier was afoot. Without a canteen he couldn’t carry water. Without a haversack in which to carry food he’d have a hard time filling his belly. And without a weapon and ammunition he couldn’t defend himself or anyone else.
Also taking the rough terrain and weather of the frontier into account, commanders relaxed their dress code, allowing soldiers cotton shirts and uniforms for service from May through September and wool and flannel for the colder months. Heatstroke was such a widespread problem that they recognized the importance of adapting, regardless of the strict uniform rules. The military couldn’t afford to lose the men they had. And they didn’t have that many new volunteers who wished to tackle the hard life of the West.
The astute frontier soldier quickly learned to cope. He carried a needle and thread with which to make necessary repairs to his clothing. He learned that the tops of his boots could be cut off, the leather used to repair the soles. And he discovered ways in which to supplement his diet. He hunted for game when given the opportunity, foraged for wild vegetables and fruits, and fished.
The man who knew how to survive was extremely valuable. The soldier had to live to fight another day with whatever means he had available. . .and all for a measly $13 a month. Can you imagine? That sure wouldn’t take you far. And the regularity of that too depended on where the soldier was. Nothing was regular in the remote outposts. As to be expected, there was a high rate of desertion because of the harsh conditions.
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