Monday, September 1, 2014

Class and Race in the Frontier Army, Chapter II

Chapter 2

I’m going to keep on with the book, Class and Race in the Frontier Army. This session, let’s have a look at Chapter 2: The Mental Worlds of Officers.

The officers impressed me as very self-important, exceedingly courteous and cordial and charming in their broad-gauge views of current events and their unreserved candor in discussing all subjects.
—Robert McKay, civilian contract surgeon, U.S. Army

John Wayne, officer
Kevin Adams, author of the book, says, “Officers in the frontier army were part of a national movement with wide-ranging implications: the implicit recasting of the United States as a permanently class-based society. . . . Far from being ‘isolated’ from American society and culture, frontier officers were firmly in the mainstream.”

We must remember that most of the army officers of the day were graduates of West Point or perhaps one of the military academies such as VMI. College graduation in and of itself tended to propel the graduate into a higher class. And, says Adams, that meant that an officer had to be well read, even when serving on remote areas of the frontier.

Even while stationed at a one-company camp in a remote stretch of northern California in the late 1860s, Lieutenant Thaddues Capron and his wife, Jennie, were able to maintain their subscriptions to “Godley’s . . . the Atlantic . . . Harpers & Leslie’s Weekly’s, N.Y. Herald, London Illustrated News, besides many others.” According to Thaddeus, “By the papers we keep quite well posted in what is going on in the outside world.”

Later, Capron wrote his wife, “You can hardly imagine with what eagerness a newspaper is sought and perused—groups of officers sitting or standing around while one of the number reads aloud the news of the day.”

In some cases, writes Adams, it seemed that officers viewed their time in the field as more of a gentleman’s hunting trip than a professional military expedition.

Leisure time, he writes, an emblem of officers’ status as gentlemen, enabled them to fully engage with Gilded Age intellectual culture.

Capron’s diary from the late 1860s reads: “Inspection assumed this a.m. The most of the day spent in reading.”

Officers from the movie, Fort Apache
Army officers were also writers. Adams says that one-fourth of the men who graduated from West Point in the 1870s went on to publish books and articles on military topics. Others gave speeches or contributed to newspapers. And, “perhaps the most prolific author was Captain Charles  King of the 5th Cavalry, who was one of the most popular novelists of the late nineteenth century. Between the early 1880s and WWI, he wrote some 250 short stories, 38 books about the army in the West (with plots and atmosphere taken directly from his campaign diaries), and 34 books on other subjects; 27 of his novels were printed in multiple editions. . . . According to one historian, King’s work remains significant as ‘the first series of western novels that were regarded as serious literature in their day.’”

In addition to reading, music and theater were favorites among the officier corps. At Fort Hays, Kansas, for example, the 7th Cavalry Band played three hours of “sweet music” every day during the spring of 1868. Furthermore, officers of the 13th Infantry regiment might have attended eleven band concerts between June and November of 1886; concerts formal enough to merit printed programs.

Post-Civil War officers loved the theater, both to attend and to participate in. Says Adams: Captain Samuel J. Ovenshine’s personal papers provide an especially focused snapshot of army theater.

His papers included handbills from 44 plays performed at frontier posts and his letters highlight his commitment to theater. He helped form the “Fort Keogh Dramatic Club” and recruited club officers from the officer corps. The performed such plays as Macbeth, Robinson Crusoe, the Count of Monte Cristo, As You Like It, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Rip Van Winkle. Adams goes on to say, “Ovenshine’s was not an isolated experience. Active engagement in theater was common among officers."

I wonder how many army officers today are involved in theater.

Officers as scientists.

So-called scientists in the late nineteenth century tended to be generalists. In fact, not many “scientific” subjects were taught at universities of the day. Officers, however, often made scientific observations in their diaries and some in articles.

Concerning the Indians, Major Robert Dunlap Clarke wrote, “the principal tribes have a language of signs by which they communicate with one another with wonderful accuracy.”

Clarke’s diary had discourses on geology and speaks of disputes he had with fellow officers on the subject, he wrote of gypsum bluffs one day and cap rock on the top of bluffs another. He even has an entry doubting the intelligence of Colonel Merrill, who “thinks he has found a piece of gold-bearing quartz. Though it is probably nothing but a limestone or dark-hued marble.”

Troop C of the 3rd Cavalry
The strange thing is, all the while Clarke is writing discourses on geology and Indians, he was in the midst of an all-out Indian offensive against the three Bozeman Trail forts.

With civilians, the officers of the late nineteenth century had a belief that moral values colored all facets of life, and held a reverence for high culture, particularly the elements of America’s Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage. Adams writes that “American elites after the Civil War recognized one another as members of the same tribe.”

For the American masses, he wrote, whether native-born or immigrant, genteel culture offered nothing at all. For the middle and upper classes, however, it offered one clear set of standards to govern public behavior.

The cultural standards and values of post-Civil War elites were not in their minds abstract truths, but instead, as one scholar notes, reflected a social hierarchy of stations and classes. . . . Gilded Age intellectual culture was not a world open to all, and the degree of allegiance to its exacting standards allowed members of the middle and upper classes to discern fellow tribesmen, while largely excluding nonwhites and those considered poor or ignorant.

This system of exclusions, which was built into the worldview of officers and others of the genteel, was deployed most powerfully against the American Indians. The officers’ interest in science, and their standpoint that Indians were “vanishing,” may have been the reasons for their seeking out Indian remains to send back to the East for “Scientific study.”

One example:

Officers of the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee
Lieutenants Robert G. Carter and Wentz Miller, along with the unit’s contract surgeon and Carter’s cook Bob, seized Comanche dead after a frontier skirmish, cut off their heads, and, “placing them in some gunny sacks, brought them back to be boiled out for future scientific knowledge.”

Adams concludes the chapter with: Conservative, sophisticated, and certain of their (deserved) place in the world, officers and their families thrived in a milieu of prosperous gentry.

Next month: Soldiers, Servants, or Slaves

Here's the chance of a lifetime. Well, chance of . . . well, maybe the chance you've been waiting for. Chuck Tyrell's Global eBook Award-winning novel, The Snake Den, can be downloaded free for five days only, September 1~5. This post is a little fast, but not much. Hit the link as soon as September first comes around.


  1. A fascinating series of posts. While reading it, I wondered how other officers reacted to West Pointers like Flipper, before his downfall. Looking forward to the next in this series.
    Additionally, thank you also for the gift of your book. Doris

  2. Chuck,

    Absolutely an outstanding article about the culture of officers of the time period and their behaviors toward Indians while serving out assigned duties in the west.


  3. As I said last month, I am a big fan of this book- and of Charlie's review/explanation of it and the topics it addresses.

  4. Doris, I almost put a picture of Flipper in, but there was no comment on Black officers, so I refrained. We'll see what the rest of the book brings us.