This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Summer 2017, Volume 63, Number 3)

REGULAR ARMY O! – Soldiering on the Western Frontier, 1865-1891.

By Douglas C. McChristian. Forward by Robert M. Utley. University of Oklahoma Press, 2017; Hb ;768p; 26 illustrations; bib; notes; index; glossary of army slang; army ballads; list of soldiers whose personal accounts were consulted; ISBN:978-0-8061-5695-8.

The drums they roll, upon my soul, for that’s the way to go.

Forty miles a day on beans and hay in the Regular Army O!

Douglas C. McChristian states that the use of the last phrase of that lyric, taken from a chorus in a Harrigan and Hartley song from 1874, is no coincidence as he acknowledges Don Rickey Jr.’s classic work on this subject, Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay (1963). But it’s for others to note that this new work, with a vast, richly detailed canvas, substantially adds to that earlier book - without superseding it. For Rickey’s book inspired historians to fully recognise the historic importance of soldiers’ diaries, journals, letters and personal reminiscences of army life on the Western frontier. It is such quotes, from some 350 individual soldiers (their names are listed at the end), which provide the substance of the current narrative and which define the expressive flow of the text.

When the many volunteer troops that had garrisoned forts and camps in the West at the time of the Civil War were withdrawn in 1865 they were replaced by the Regular Army. Between 1866 and 1891 875 such soldiers were killed in the West, often in minor skirmishes, but many more died of disease, accidents or effects of the environment. In fact, as McChristian says, the relationship between Indians and the regulars, while viewed as hostile in the context of a continuous warfare in the West, ignores the reality that the U.S. government maintained favourable relations with most tribes. Most soldiers, except for those in the cavalry before the mid-1880s, rarely encountered a so-called hostile. The percentage that experienced actual combat was relatively small – but those who did never forgot it.

A leading question explored in this book is, what induced these men – they included immigrants from many countries - to enlist for the minimum five years, embracing not only the prospect of combat, but a grim, unfree life, albeit not fully realised at the time of enlistment? The reasons were numerous and included the sense of adventure, the lure of the West, economic uncertainty, an unhappy home life etc. The life of the army in all its manifestations is outlined here in great detail. What were their lives like; what did they do? Some chapter headings are revealing: “We Are Kept Pretty Busy”; “Don’t Grieve after Me”; “It Is Just Dragging Out a Miserable Existence”; “It Is So Lonesome Out Here”; “I Will See Some Real Wild-West Life”; “More Than I Ever I Thought I Could Bear”; “The Government Pays You to Get Shot At”; “Thank God I Am Done Soldiering”.

The book comprehensively describes the procedures and reasons for enlistment and outlines life at the various recruiting depots, their journeys to the forts and camps of the frontier (there were about two hundred military stations in the Trans-Mississippi West of one kind or another), how they settled into their regiments and companies, their duties and relationships with the officers and their attitudes to the endless daily routine and the strict adherence to duty with often harshly imposed discipline. Medicine, hygiene, sanitation and often poor and unvarying diet were a constant consideration, as was the domestic side of enlisted life, the men ensconced inside the forts, where recreation and pastimes were mostly unvarying. The matter of desertion, which had always plagued the army, is also fully discussed. (Black soldiers rarely deserted.) The narrative duly arrives at the preparation for service and life in the field – and to actual combat. Then comes the end of enlistment and the men mustered out. What they did with their lives afterwards serves as an epilogue.

Attitudes and opinions about life in the army depended upon each individual. They varied much; some liked it; many didn’t. But if there was a longing by many for the end of their service there was also courage and endurance. About a quarter of a million were enlisted into the army in the twenty-five years following the Civil War, though only a portion saw frontier combat, which had been one reason for enlisting in the first place.

The book ambitiously embraces the panoramic and the intimate. Its all-encompassing view combines in-depth research with the words of the soldiers. This gives it life.

Other titles by Douglas C. McChristian:

Fort Bowie, Arizona: Combat Post of the Southwest, 1858-1894 (reviewed in the Tally Sheet Summer 2006, 52/3)

Fort Laramie: Military Bastion of the High Plains (reviewed in the Tally Sheet Autumn 2010, 57/1)

 Raymond Cox


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