Glittering Misery

Shortly after the Civil War, Major General William T. Sherman was appointed commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, a command that encompassed all territory west of the Mississippi River. In 1866 Sherman spoke to a group of Army wives in St. Louis encouraging them to move west to join their husbands at Army installations scattered throughout the Great Plains. He promised that life at the frontier outposts would be “healthful and pleasant.” For the most part, it was neither.

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In Glittering Misery, Patricia Stallard describes the life of military families in the American west of the 1860s.

Shortly after the Civil War, Major General William T. Sherman was appointed commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, a command that encompassed all territory west of the Mississippi River. In 1866 Sherman spoke to a group of Army wives in St. Louis encouraging them to move west to join their husbands at Army installations scattered throughout the Great Plains. He promised that life at the frontier outposts would be “healthful and pleasant.” For the most part, it was neither.

Traveling from the civilized east to any of the small forts in the west was arduous and dangerous. Life on the frontier was difficult for everyone, and no less so for military families. Living accommodations on many posts was abysmal. Stallard tells the story of one senior officer’s wife who arrived at her husband’s posting only to live in a tent for two years. Some families lived in shelters dug into the earth, like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. Others lived in huts cobbled together from rough hewn and ill fitting boards, with the winter wind blowing through wide cracks in the walls. The floors were often earthen and moist enough to grow mushrooms. Insects and vermin ruled the roost. Educational opportunities for children were scant and health-care poor. Not all posts had living conditions this bleak, but many did.

Even though Sherman and others encouraged military families to move west, officers’ wives had no official standing with the Army. There was no provision in regulation for a family’s transportation or housing. While officers’ wives might be treated with respect on post, they were treated in regulations as “camp followers,” the same category of women as the prostitutes that could be found on and near military installations. In some ways, non-commissioned officers’ wives were in a more favorable position. Enlisted wives were employed as laundresses and thus had official standing with the Army. They received payment and a living allowance for their work and thus were able to supplement the meager pay received by enlisted Soldiers. A Soldier’s pay alone would have been hardly sufficient to take care of a family.

While some of the living situations Stallard describes sound foreign to my ears, some parts of frontier Army family life sound eerily familiar. Stallard recounts the story of George Custer’s wife gathering the wives of the unit together at Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territories and as a group receiving the news of the Little Big Horn.

With all of the difficulties faced by Army families on the frontier, why did so many officers and soldiers take their families with them? And why would the Army encourage this? The answer to the first question is easy. Families have been and always will be important to Soldiers, and Army families are willing to put up with quite a bit to be together. The answer to the second question is found in the effect that families have on Soldiers. Even with all the problems of frontier living, the net effect of having the Soldiers’ families present with them was positive. Strong families make strong soldiers. Always have. Always will.