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Life in a Western Fort
by Eric Aune

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Dull Routine and Hard Work

From post #1 at the guardhouse came the sentry’s call: "9 o’clock - all’s well!". The call was repeated, post by post, until it had circled Ft. Lincoln. This U.S. Army fort, which was one of the larger ones in the west in 1875, stood on a bluff overlooking the muddy Missouri River, some 4 miles from Bismarck in the Dakota Territory. Unlike earlier forts that had been built in the east (and some in the west), Fr. Lincoln had no log palisade surrounding its buildings. Instead, its outer walls were formed by the back of the barracks, storehouses, stables, officers’ quarters, and other structures that stood on all four sides of a lard parade ground that was at least 1,000 yds wide. Here 5, companies of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment regularly passed in review for their commanding officer, Lt. Col. George A. Custer.

However on the hill overlooking the for was Ft. McKean. It had a 3 sided stockade wall and 3 blockhouses. It gives a good view of the land for many miles all around. This was mainly an infantry post. Also the Gatling Gun battery was posted at this fort.

Day in and day out, Custer’s men followed a fixed routine of drills, guard duty, patrols, and labor details. They built roads, dug ditches, carried water, chopped wood, shoveled up to 12’ drifts of snow, and put in long hours of stable duty. A typical day would be as follows:

5:15 Assembly of Trumpeters

5:30 Reveille

6:00 Stable & Watering Call

7:00 Mess Call

8:00 Assembly, Roll Call

8:10 Sick Call

8:20 Assembly of Guard Details

8:30 Fatigue Call

9:00 Drill Call (dismounted)

11:30 Recall - End of Morning Drill

11:45 1st Sergeants Call

12:00 Mess Call

1:00 Drill Call (mounted)

4:00 Recall - End of Evening Drill

4:30 Stable Call

5:00 Mess Call

6:00 Assembly for Evening Parade

5 mins prior to sunset: Assembly of Trumpeters

Sunset Retreat, Evening Gun, Roll Call, to the colors

8:55 Assembly of Trumpeters

9:00 Tattoo and Final Roll Call

9:30 Extinguish Lights

This Schedule would be followed Monday through Saturday. Sunday was sort of a day off. Special events might be held, such as, picnics, baseball games, dances, etc.

For all this work, the enlisted men were paid per month:

Sgt. Major, Quartermaster Sgt. $23

Saddler Sgt., 1st Sgt. $22

Chief Trumpeter, Principle Musician $20

Line Sgt., $17

Cpl., Blacksmith, Farrier, Saddler $15

Pvt., Trumpeter $13

Most of this pay went to pay off debts incurred since the last payday (usually 2 or more months before). Most of what was left would be spent at the Post Sutler’s, or lost gambling.

The monotony of his life was such that a soldier welcomed action in the field, even though this might involve a march in furnace lie heat or bone chilling cold. Summer and winter the men wore wool uniforms and flannel shirts that were too hot in the 120 degrees heat of Arizona and not warm enough in the 40 degrees below weather of the Northern Plains. A steady diet of salt pork, stew, beans, hardtack crackers, and coffee left many men with scurvy. This problem was not resolved until each army post was required to have a garden providing fresh vegetables.

An army wife also endured many of the same hardships that her husband suffered, in order to make a home for her family. The wife of a 2nd Lt. Had only one room and a kitchen: and if after 10 yrs., her husband was fortunate enough to be promoted to 1st Lt., she was given another room.. Often she had to spend months fixing up her tiny home, then suddenly pick and leave when her husband was transferred, or a higher ranking officer’s family bumped her from her house.

Life in a western fort wasn’t all boredom and hardship. The men played baseball, tossed horseshoes, drank, and played cards; almost everyone read whatever books they could fine (many forts had a lending library. The officer’s children - both boys and girls - became pets of the soldiers, who taught them how to ride and shoot.

Enlistment’s ran for 5 years at a time, and it could be the toughest and most brutal 5 years of a soldier’s life.