The United States army had an impossible job in the West -- policing some 2.5 million square miles between the Missouri and the eastern slope of the Sierras.
There were never more than 15,000 men, scattered among 100 forts and outposts, yet they were somehow expected to defend settlers, ranchers, miners, and railroad crews; keep thousands of Indians confined to their reservations -- and keep tens of thousands of whites out of Indian lands.
Even though army pay was low -- just 13 dollars a month -- steady jobs were scarce during the economic slump that followed the Civil War. Army ranks filled with immigrants, some of whom could speak almost no English. And there were drifters, men with assumed names and men escaping bad marriages or the law.
Some of the recruits had no doubt served in some penitentiary before enlisting, and I shouldn't wonder that some went back to their old prisons as a haven of rest and decent treatment.
Boredom was all the men could depend upon, three to five years of it. They quarreled, drank, pitted red ants against black ants just to stir things up. And waited for news from home.
Army food was almost always unpalatable, sometimes inedible. Hardtack -- flour and water biscuits -- delivered to the Seventh Cavalry was six years old, and had to be shattered with a hammer.
Whisky was the soldier's curse: forty men out of every thousand were hospitalized for alcoholism. Twice as many killed themselves. But disease was the worst killer. In just two years, the Seventh Cavalry lost 51 men to cholera.
Most soldiers never met an Indian in battle. Some never saw an Indian at all.
Territory March 5, 1876
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