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Indian War Veterans: Memories of Army Life and Campaigns in the West, 1864-1898
Edited by Jerome Greene
Book Review by Bob Reece, December 2007
Christmas at Fort Robinson, 1882 as experienced by Martin J. Weber, 1st sergeant, Troop H, Fifth U.S. Cavalry:
Little children of the army were just as anxious for the advent
of Santa Claus as the somewhat more highly favored little ones in the midst of
the civilized East[…] We got safely down the Breakneck[…] arriving at the fort about 2
o’clock the afternoon of the 24th. When I passed the officers
quarters the kiddies were all out running up and down the walks[…] When they saw me
they began to shout, “The Christmas Wagon has come.” The officers and men
hearing them came out and asked if it was true. They could hardly believe it
until the teamster drove his six weary mules up and we began to unload the
Christmas goods. Even the officers were willing to help.
Jerome Greene has researched far and wide to bring us fascinating stories from the many Indian War veterans, like Martin Weber’s, and the respective Indian War Veterans organizations with his most recent book, Indian War Veterans: Memories of Army Life and Campaigns in the West, 1864-1898 (IWV). It’s amazing to learn that the last veteran of the Indian Wars died in 1971. Reginald A. Bradley enlisted in Troop C, Fourth Cavalry, at Fort Bowie in 1889. The majority of IWV presents a plethora of first-hand accounts from the campaigns and battles as told by the veterans themselves. In addition, we learn what life was like in the frontier army; it was all long days conducting mundane tasks or spending long hours marching or riding the horse going nowhere, it seemed.
Mr. Greene provides a lengthy introduction which details the many IWV organizations including their beginnings, purpose, and demise. Although the main purpose of these organizations was to lobby (mostly unsuccessfully) for legislation to ensure proper pensions for the veterans, they evolved into preserving the historical record of the countless officers and soldiers who served their country on the front lines of the various Indian Wars. These accounts were published in the group’s annual publication “Winners of the West”, which Mr. Greene searched for and edited. Mr. Greene has corrected any errors which are minimal in most cases; however, these veterans remembered their experiences and grasped the issues surrounding them very well. The “politically incorrect” language is retained in these accounts, which were written in the early 20th century, so the reader’s experience is so personal that one has the sense of hearing them directly from the veteran as he sits in his favorite chair.
Mr. Greene’s focus is from campaigns across the American West divided into two parts: 1) Army life in the West, and 2) battles and campaigns from the northern plains, central and southern plains, mountain west, west coast, and southwest.
Humor and warmth grace these accounts but there is also brutality. Descriptions from Wounded Knee are filled with terror and heartache, as remembered by army medic Andrew M. Flynn, Troop A, Seventh U.S. Cavalry:
As we did not have much room, we had to load up the dead and put the wounded on top of them. Just as I was looking over the field, I came across a dead squaw and a little papoose who was sucking on a piece of hardtack. I picked up the little papoose and carried it in my arms. A little way farther on, I found another dead squaw and another papoose. I picked it up, too, and brought them over near the hospital tent, where there were a number of Indian women.
As I came over to where they were, I met a big, husky sergeant who said, “Why didn’t you smash them up against a tree and kill them? Some day they’ll be fighting us?”
I told him I would rather smash him than those little innocent children. The Indian women were so glad that I saved the papooses that they almost kissed me. But I told them I didn’t have time for that.
Veterans experienced hardships on the trail. During the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873, William Foster Norris wrote about the suffering for lack of water as they approached a body of water so alkalized it was undrinkable: “It was pathetic to hear the animals eagerly give voice in their different ways as they saw the pool of water ahead where we were to camp, but it was still more pathetic to hear them express their disappointment when upon plunging their heads into it, they were unable to drink.”
There are moments of wonder and panic as William D. Nugent witnessed a buffalo stampede during the Northern Pacific survey expedition of 1873:
Every second increased the volume of sound. Some thought it was an earthquake, others that it was the end of the world, and still others that it was Sitting Bull and his twenty thousand warriors[…] We now had the solution and all understood what this awful menace was: buffalos by the millions were coming[...] as far as the eye could see.
It looked like sure death[…] Our worn horses could not outdistance this onrushing death for even one mile[…] I never told any of my comrades how scared I was[…]
I saw Colonel Custer with some twenty men advance to possibly one hundred yards in the direction of the oncoming menace[…] When the buffalos had approached within one hundred yards of this small bunch of men, the soldiers shot one volley after another into the herd[…] The buffalos split, part passing to the right and the rest to the left[…]
The fascinating stories Mr. Greene covers are countless: the Cheyenne and Arapaho War of 1867-69 (Beecher’s Island and Washita), Red River War 1874-75 (Battle of Palo Duro Canyon), Sioux War 1876, Nez Perce War 1877, Modoc War, the Geronimo Campaign 1885-86, the search for the Apache Kid, and much more.
Most readers have never read issues of “Winners of the West” so I’m confident you’ll experience these accounts for the first time. Anyone interested in the Plains Indian Wars, the old frontier army, or Indian War veteran’s organizations will value Mr. Greene’s work.
Webmaster’s Note: Jerome Greene's next publication is the definitive account of the administrative history of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument entitled, Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn Since 1876. Friends and the University of Oklahoma Press have made available a signed and numbered limited edition. Jump here for all the details on how to order the book limited to only 100 copies.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022