Monday, January 24, 2011
The Indian Wars Cavalry
Doing research for the third book in my spirit trilogy I had to do research on the plains cavalry. This was the mounted army used to curtail Indian uprisings and make sure there was safe passage for the people populating the west.
After the Civil War Southern cavalry officers were demoted to privates. There was feeling that if they were allowed to remain officers they could become in control of the military. So many left the service rather than be demoted. After the war many of the soldiers went back to civilian life, leaving the cavalry shorthanded.
The years following the war most recruits were either illiterate or spoke a foreign language, causing problems when it came to training. Officers, who were graduates of West Point or promoted during the Civil War and had sufficient training and experience in fighting, found themselves teaching ragtag groups how to ride horses and fire a rifle.
The plains cavalry weren't the sophisticated and well oiled machine the movies make them out to be. A good part of the enlisted men were criminals who chose enlisting to going to jail.
Not all forts were as large and accommodating as we see in movies either. Most were small complexes of buildings for housing, cooking and eating, and a supply or trade shop along with a stable and farrier. When the soldiers weren't working on their fighting they were the upkeep and builders of the forts.
During most of the Indian Wars period, the basic enlisted man's salary was $13 a month. Low pay, combined with boredom, and the fact many were there due to paying a debt to society for crimes they committed there was a high desertion rate.
Food at the frontier forts wasn't of good quality. The enlisted man's menu consisted of hash, stew, hardtack, salt, vinegar and molasses. Scurvy was a common disease among the men due to the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.
I discovered with my research the cavalry life was not glamorous and you had to have either wanted to stay away from your family really bad or had no other place to go to want to stay in the mundane life that could kill you just as easy from fraternizing with the local women as it could from a bullet or arrow.