Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Poverty and plenty in the Frontier Army

As Americans expanded into the trans-Mississippi West, much more than just people moved; food, drink, clothing, and furniture—a whole caravan of consumer goods—also moved west. These consumer goods reconfigured the economy and society of the entire region. And this was especially true in the U.S. Army.

The U.S. Government proved unable to restrain the worst excesses of Euro-American settlement in the West, it also proved to be an inefficient manager of army consumption. Federal incompetence, malfeasance, and inertia created a situation in which soldiers of all ranks hat to make up shortfalls in the army supply system with their own money. According to Edward Coffman, the army “shifted the burden to the men, with the result that soldiers wound up paying out of their own pockets not only for food but also for clothing. Officers confronted shortages, too.

The army’s institutional context encouraged the development of worlds of consumption, but it did not produce those worlds. In the frontier army, social class remained a constant. Still, by working together, soldiers were able to create a lower-class world of consumers.

Officers at Fort Laramie 
Officers used consumption to define themselves as elites. Lobsters for dinner, furniture from New York, fine cigars, oysters . . . all symbolized the prosperous upper class to which officers felt they belonged. In his book, Class and Race in the Frontier Army, Kevin Adams points out that one army surgeon wrote: “army officers at that time as a rule literally lived up to their salaries . . . an officer was considered by many other officers as a little off-color if he was close-fisted and tried to save money out of his pay.”

We should note at this point that even the lowest-ranking officer of the frontier army was in the top 10% of household income of that period. Officers had lots of money to spend.

Officers sought to carry with them—be it on a scouting mission or a surveying expedition—the gentility they enjoyed in garrison life. On the other hand, a thread of subterranean vice and illegal activity among enlisted men can be found in every form of army consumption. As Adams writes: “if consumption served as a microcosm of American expansion, then the communalism of enlisted men imparts an alternative vision of expansion. The West was more than just a battleground for fierce individualists; it also engendered egalitarian cooperation among the largely working-class soldiers of the frontier army.” And this represents a minor, yet real, historical alternative to the better-known excesses of western settlement.

Chow time

It was as if officers and soldiers did not even live on the same planet. While officers spend extravagant amounts on food, their men existed on basic army rations—hardtack, bacon or salt pork, and coffee. Well, garrison supplies also included beef, usually procured locally, salt pork, flour (to be baked into bread, and any surplus was sold to augment company funds), coffee, and beans. The result, as you might expect, was scurvy.

Soldier pay was less than low, and paydays did not come regulary. So sutlers lent them money at usurious interest rates. Still, for enlisted men, the biggest problem was lack of proper nourishment. A veteran of the Chief Joseph pursuit said, “If this is a war of attrition, the Nez Perce the food and we were getting the appetites.”

Typical frontier sutler's store
The quality of army rations often left a great deal to be desired. A surgeon condemned the miserable rations of pork and hardtack, “often containing green worms.” Adams says an Army and Navy Journal article from November 1886 described pickled pork so bad it made man “sick to vomiting if they succeed in swallowing it.” Further, cooking left much to be desired, as the army did not expressly train men to be cooks until 1898. A lesson in how to make bad rations worse.

Remember the basics: hardtack, bacon or salt pork, coffee. In the 19th century, diversification to the soldier’s diet had to come from the men themselves. And they often turned to outside sources. They would buy from Indians, Mexicans, and Chinese. And they got eggs, butter, meat, and vegetables from local whites—ranchers, farmers, townspeople, and the like.

Enlisted men ran company gardens, raised domesticated animals on post, traded their rations, and came up with an army-wide institution that they could employ to overcome a commissary system that marginalized them. To quote Adams: “That outdated system may have been almost criminally ignorant of the soldiers’ needs, but its shortcomings encouraged unity and cooperation among them. They systematically traded in their ration savings for fruits, vegetables, and dairy products for the benefit of all, using a mechanism that they often controlled directly. This cohesiveness was the incubator for the class-centered critique of army life that emerged among enlisted men.”

Officers, however, had lots of food.

A typical upper-class dinner party,
which officers emulated
Formal meals among the officer corps were composed of unusual foods and fine ingredients, cooked and served by domestic help, and they reflected the impressive reach of upper-class culture in Gilded Age America.

Officers in the west bought oysters, oysters, and more oysters. Thanksgiving of 1871 in Fort D. A. Russell, saw a ball for the officers, who paid $200 each for the wine, oysters, and cigars. Other foods held in high esteem included ice cream, pies, cakes, puddings, and Welsh rarebit with ale and lemonade. An officer and his family, marching through Texas, dined on quail on toast and venison steaks.

Merely eating well was not enough for the officer corps. They had to stretch themselves to create a world of dining extravagance. Meals were performative events where rituals of class presentation and standing took place daily. For example, in 1869, the ten officers stationed at Fort Laramie spent more than 120 times more per capita on food than the 158 enlisted men serving at the fort.

Let’s consider the menu from a colonel’s dinner: Oysters raw—red wine—fried chicken—Parimcy—fried oysters—fish—tomato salad—broiled snail in port—Saratoga potato—potato croquets with fried chicken—ice cream & cake, coffee—fruit. The meal started at 11 p.m. and broke up at 1:30 a.m.

Officers saw prosperity as much as a matter of style as of salary. Shopping for exotic and expensive foods, purchasing great amounts of food, entertaining lavishly, all broadcast their social worthiness.

Again, quoting from Adams: “Officers’ use of food bespoke gentility, while soldiers’ consumption patterns reflected makeshift and struggling working-class world in which people lived on society’s margins, barely squeaking by from paycheck to paycheck. Uncle Sam’s Army could not escape the same lines of class that were dividing the larger society.”

Whiskey? Or champagne?

Consumption of alcohol was a problem in the frontier army. Enlisted men drank every chance they got. They got unruly. And while some officers forgave their “sprees,” others considered drunkenness a moral evil (although they drank a lot themselves).

Fort Laramie's sutler store in 1877
This may be one reason why. Fort Laramie’s post trader ordered fourty-four kegs and twenty-six cases of beer in 1883. Someone had to drink it. In the 1880s, some 4 percent of enlisted men were treated for alcoholism. And back then, only those with severe symptoms were given medical treatment. Further, misbehaving and besotted enlisted men accounted for 80 percent of courts-martial back then.

Soldiers drank. Workers in those days drank. Love of alcohol antagonized supervisors in the civilian world just as it did the army. Now, frontier officers did not abstain, of course, but they never consumed alcohol with the ranks. Still, the use of alcohol took a toll on the army’s fitness. Note that drunkenness among enlisted men affected their performance, and was thus proscribed, but drunkenness among officers hardly ever got censured.

Officers drank. But to them, it was beneath the dignity of the U.S. Army to buy liquor where the common rabble drank. Officers drank. But they did it out of sight. One last case in point.

An officer bought eight gallons of beer and retired out of sight in his tent for a “jamboree.” This ended when the beer ran out, and just as reports came in that Indians were crossing the river above camp. Even where consumer culture among officers and enlisted men seemed most similar, the lines that separated the two groups remained obvious and unassailable.

Next month, we’ll talk about Uncle Sam’s Gentlemen, Uncle Sam’s Slaves—class tensions in the army.

My contribution to Western Fictioneers' West of the Big River series. The Sheriff, a novel about the life of Commodore Perry Owens, Sheriff of Apache County AZ, Sheriff of Navajo County AZ, Deputy U.S. Marshal, saloon owner, husband, and father. Oh, and a mighty good horse rancher, too.


  1. Another educational post. Thank you for continuing to share ths study with us. Doris

  2. I remember noticing period furnishings in Ft. Laramie's officers' quarters that included Persian rugs, ornate desks and lamps. There was obvious division of social class within the Army. I didn't realize it was this far-reaching. Thanks, Chuck!

  3. The Custer home at Fort Abraham Lincoln not far from Bismarck shows the opulence of his lifestyle, too. I didn't think much of it at the time, but this chapter in Adams's book reminded me of what I had seen.

  4. WOW. This was a wonderful post, Charlie! I really really enjoyed this and learned so much. Thanks for putting this together--lots of detail and hard work.

  5. Excellent post, Charlie, and informative, as you always provide. Thanks.

  6. An interesting anecdote I ran across while researching a talk on Civil War medicine... in the 1850's there was an outbreak of scurvy at a Western outpost. The medical department reported that it was caused by the troops only getting dried vegetables. Nonsense, was the response from the quartermaster corps. Couldn't possibly be scurvy, after all the men were getting plenty of dried vegetables.