The one thing I really admire about John Ford films is his eye for detail and authenticity. But like all film-makers, he tends to leave out some of the more mundane historical facts. I’ve done a lot of research on army life and army wives. Much of what I’ve read coincided with the films. Everything but the boredom and a few other little less than romantic facts. I thought I would mention a few today.
One of the most interesting aspects is that most western forts did not have the high outer walls we are so accustomed to seeing in films. Most frontier commanders agreed with the general in Dakota Territory who said “It is better for troop morale to depend on vigilance and breechloaders for protection than to hide behind palisades.”
The forts also seemed to run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. According to “The Soldiers” (of the Time Life “Old West” series), some were the epitome of ramshackle misery and others approached opulence.” I had a hard time, though, finding the latter. Most, particularly the early forts, were definitely of the ramshackle persuasion.
Baths were especially big problem. The War Department had ordered that each man should take a bath once a week. The officers wanted it, the men wanted it, the company doctor wanted it. Yet one officer in 1878 remembered that in 30 years in the Army he had never seen a bathhouse at any post. And few southwestern posts had water to spare for weekly baths. “It wasn’t so bad after a while, one soldier said, “since everybody smelled they all got used to one another.”
The southwestern forts had other problems. They were afflicted with centipedes, scorpions, tarantulas and snakes. One veteran described Fort Grant in Arizona as “the place where everything that grows pricks and everything that breathes bites.”
One army wife was outraged. “This country itself is bad enough and the location of the post is most unfortunate, but to compel officers and men to live in these old huts of decaying, moldy wood, which are reeking with malaria and alive with bugs and perhaps snakes is wicked.”
The early forts on the northern Plains were worse, also according to “The Soldiers.”
“Many of them were infested with rats, mice and insects. Fine dust blew through the cracks in the log or adobe walls and log roofs of the buildings in the summer, and snow shifted through in winter.” At one ramshackle post in the Dakotas, an inspecting colonel found every structure hopeless with the possible exception of the flagstaff, and that was only “tolerable.”
The frontier soldier might spend up to half of any given year on campaign against the Indians, which meant he spent the rest of the time on post. Though it was home, it was rarely a pleasant place to live. Army posts by their very nature were located deep in the land of “hostiles,” as the Army called unfriendly Indians.
Boredom was the biggest problems through their time at the forts. Some soldiers actually expressed a wish for an Indian attack to break the monotony. Officers occupied private quarters, but enlisted men were crammed into barracks where rows of bunks or cots stood head-in the walls. They were too small, poorly ventilated, generally cold in winter, hot in summer and always overcrowded.
Conditions improved in the 1870’s, particularly when wives joined their husbands. But the routine of Army life never changed. At one post in the Dakotas, reveille blew at 5:30. First drill was held at 6:15. Fallout for fatigue duty (a variety of tedious work including building roads and bridges, repairing telegraph lines and woodcutting) was signaled at 7:30, guard mount took place at 8:30, afternoon fatigue commenced at 1 p.m., drill at 4:30 and taps sounded at 8:15 that evening. One lieutenant’s wife wrote, “We lived, ate, slept by the bugle calls.” She particularly liked the “beautiful stable call for the cavalry,” when the horses are groomed and watered, the “thrilling fire-call,” and the call to arms “when every soldier jumps for his rifle and every officer buckled on his sword, and a woman’s heart stands still.” Yet, she later called Army life “glittering misery.”
The pay for the often poorly trained recruits was $13 a month which was rarely received because they were constantly in debt to various sergeants and storekeepers who functioned informally as bankers and loan sharks.
Such was the life of the soldiers and their wives. The dances looked great in the films but the rest . . . well, I think I like being where I am, thank you.