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Old- Time Army

March 2023
2min read

That the United States Army came to the war with Spain poorly prepared for that conflict was only natural, because its background and tradition were unique. For the better part of a century it had had a special job to do, and it had done it very well. The nation had not needed an integrated force constantly ready for a fight with a regular European power, and so in 1898 it did not have one. What it did have was an army adapted to the special needs of the innocent age which ended with the nineteenth century.

An understanding of the special circumstances which had shaped the Army can be gained from a meaty little book called Army Life on the Western Frontier , put together by Francis Paul Prucha. This book is largely made up of extracts from the reports of Colonel George Croghan, an Army inspector general from 1826 to 1845, who spent those years touring the western military posts and telling the War Department how its frontier service was getting along.

Army Life on the Western Frontier, edited by Francis Paul Prucha. The University of Oklahoma Press. 187 pp. $4.00.

Colonel Croghan was a good soldier, a product of the regular service of the pre-West Point era, and some of the things he saw on his tours of duty appalled him. The chain of posts ran from New Orleans to the upper peninsula of Michigan, going westward to the Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas, and Red rivers; most of the places were much too large for the detachments which occupied them, and in many cases officers and men were kept so busy raising crops for their own subsistence that they had very little time to cultivate the military arts. The very word “fort,” he complains, was often a misnomer; the posts were often all but indefensible, there was no reserve force to send to any point that might be attacked, and the garrison was usually so occupied with ordinary housekeeping chores that it was never drilled in preparation for a fight.

Croghan was no spit-and-polish officer. Some soldiers, he protests, were ordered to spend so much time polishing their weapons to a state of high glitter that they actually wore them out, and he suggests that the real function of muskets and sabers was use in combat rather than appearance on parade. He believed that the soldier’s uniform was designed for show rather than for service; the western soldier had to do a great deal of very hard fatigue duty, and for the most part he had to do it in clothing adapted strictly for the parade ground.

The American soldier on frontier service was well fed, Croghan found, partly because army ration allowances were liberal and partly because of the custom of keeping gardens to provide fresh vegetables. Ordnance supplies tended to be sketchy; some western posts were unable to fire the regular morning and evening guns because they lacked powder for their cannon, and, since one important function of the wilderness post was to impress the Indians with the white man’s might, it struck Croghan that this was a deplorable shortcoming. He also had critical words about the issue carbine, which was likely to misfire a third of the time.

All in all, however, the picture that emerges from this set of reports is that of an army which, working against severe handicaps, maintained a good state of discipline and—the testimony of a high rate of desertions to the contrary notwithstanding—managed to keep up its morale. By and large, the enlisted men did their best, and the officers had pride in their calling and desired “nothing so much as to become ornaments to the profession they have chosen.” The remote army posts, in which one or two companies were isolated hundreds of miles from civilization, were manned and controlled by men who managed in spite of substantial handicaps to do the job their country had assigned to them. If, in the end, this job developed an army woefully unprepared to fight a war of the traditional type against a professional army, that could not be helped; and the saving point is that when that war came it was, after all, won.

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