Indian Wars

Life of a Western Soldier
by Eric Aune

American Indians
Frontier Army
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The western soldier was, above all, a practical man, and for several good reasons. For one thing, his low pay force him to be thrifty; and for another, he had a strong desire to live as long as he possibly could. Therefore he smoked a pipe instead of a cigar because it was less expensive, it was easier to smoke on the windswept plans, and it showed less light at night. This last point was most important, for even at great distances the glow from a lighted cigar could draw an arrow or bullet from a sharp-eyed Sioux, Cheyenne, or Apache warrior.

In battle against the Indians, the western soldier wore a felt campaign hat, shirt, blue wool tunic and trousers. Inaction under the blazing Arizona sun, he stripped to his shirt, while in the frigid Dakota Territory, he wore a have coat and a fur hat with earflaps. The infantryman hit the trail with a rifle and blanket roll slung over his shoulder. His canteen and haversack, which was jammed with essential items: eating utensils, a sewing kit (called "The Housewife"), soap and razor, tobacco, a dozen hardtack crackers, a bag of coffee beans, and a reserve box of cartridges for his Springfield rifle. The Springfield could not match the rapid firing ability of repeating rifles, such as the Winchester, but it had a greater range and accuracy. A party of mounted Indians might snipe at and then outrun a company of footslogging infantrymen, but it would hesitate to charge them when they fired back steady volleys with their Springfield rifles.

The booted and spurred cavalry wore a bandana around his neck (and it was not yellow), canvas-lined trousers, and he carried a 6 shot Colt revolver along with a Springfield carbine. Tied to his saddle were a blanket, overcoat or poncho, saddlebags, and a lariat and picket pin with which to stake out his horse.

The men who made up this western army were a mixture of Civil War veterans, farm boys, ex-clerks, salesmen, and criminals trying to stay one jump ahead of the law. Boredom and grinding discipline were their usual lot, and so, when the paymaster showed up, many were likely to blow their pay ($13 per month for privates) on whiskey, gambling, and women. The western soldiers were indeed a tough, rough-looking collection of men, but when Lord Wolseley, a British Army commander, visited the American west in the 1880’s, he declared that, man for man, this small army was the best in the world.