The Life of the Dragoon Enlisted Men
by J. Patrick Hughes, Ph.D.
Too often, when historians have dealt with the United States Dragoons, they have focused on the interesting and available lives of the officers. Unfortunately, this has meant that historians have relegated the experience of the enlisted men at best to the background and reduced the majority of soldiers on the frontier to the role of extras on the stage of History. Today I would like to give the enlisted Dragoons an opportunity to take center stage.
Out of the myriad of experiences of those who served as Dragoons from 1833 to 1860, I will focus on the enlisted experience, primarily of the First Dragoons, and with special attention to their experience centered on Fort Leavenworth. I will go into the recruiting of the men. Promotions were important to the soldiers of the regiment and we will examine this area, as well as the recreation the soldiers enjoyed. A major focus in the life of the soldiers was alcohol and the disciplinary problems arising from it. We will deal with drunkenness, desertion, and military justice in the Dragoons. Disease caused the death of far more Dragoons than any other cause (hostile action was unusual) so we will explore medicine for the units.
Congress, in March 1833, authorized a Dragoon Regiment which was composed of soldiers who could ride to battle and fight either on horse or on foot. As this was the only mounted force at the time, it functioned as calvary without the name. This was to be an elite unit, recruited from a better class than the rest of the Army, throughout the different states.
When the War Department created the First Regiment of Dragoons, it retained a number of the officers of the Battalion of Mounted Rangers, but did not retain any of the enlisted men. Instead, the Adjutant General, who was responsible for recruiting, sent the officers of the new regiment throughout the different states with directions to enlist an elite unit. The orders emphasized aiming for a better class of recruits than were usual and for "native-born" Americans. Congress insisted on the "native-born" requirement. Yet from first-hand accounts we know that several foreign-born soldiers were among those that mustered at Jefferson Barracks. Neither the Adjutant General issuing the order nor the officers he sent out recruiting believed in the restriction. It was easy for prospective recruits that spoke English to claim a birthplace in the United States. The recruiting officers had good reasons not to examine such assertions closely, not only to fill quotas, but also to gain the experience of former members of the British Army. Without detailed birth records, it would be hard to prove the recruit wrong. Recruits needed to be 20 to 35 years old, over 5 feet 5 inches tall, and sober at the time of enlisting.
Recruiting officers not only told prospective soldiers of "scouring the far prairies on fine horses, amid buffalo and strange Indians," but went on into unredeemable promises. Hildreth stated "Many were enlisted under the express declaration that they were to rank with the cadets at the military academy, and under the belief that they were to be considered as a volunteer corps, whose wants and comforts were to be attended to, and that they should not be subjected to the more severe restrictions of army discipline. Many were told, when they were entreated to enlist, that they would have nothing to do but to ride on horseback, over the country, to explore the western prairies and forests, and, indeed, spend their time continually in delightful and inspiring occupations; and particularly and often was the remark made, that it would disgrace a dragoon even to speak with an infantry soldier." Though Hildreth was making a case for his own "mistake" in enlisting, the recruiters probably were over zealous in their promises. The Adjutant General had to constantly contend with this problem. As one Secretary of War phrased it, "no man should be inveigled into public service under false pretenses...orders have been issued prohibiting any, when intoxicated, to be enlisted."
The reasons that men enlisted varied greatly. In addition to a sense of adventure, a number enlisted because of failures in business or in love. Periods of economic hardship were periods when the recruiters could be selective. There was also a tendency for men to enlist in the fall when faced with the bleakness of winter. (This was matched with a tendency to desert in the spring, particularly after getting cared for through the winter, transported to the frontier, and provided a horse and equipment.)
Captain E.V. Sumner and Lieutenant Burgwin recruited the men of B Company from upstate New York. These included at least one Englishman who received the rank of Orderly Sergeant and one native of Dublin. They traveled from Buffalo to the Ohio River and then by a combination of broad-horn boat and steam boat down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to Jefferson Barracks.
In time, the Army had to reduce the restrictions to fill the ranks. Foreign born filled the ranks of the Dragoons as they had the ranks of the infantry and artillery before them. Chamberlain wrote of fellow Dragoons that had served under Napoleon from Egypt to Russia and Irishmen that served in the British Army from the Cape Colony to India. Not all of the foreign veterans had secured regular discharges from their former service. A number of Irishmen of education and former status enlisted after the troubles in Ireland in 1848 forced their displacement. The Army also relaxed age, height, and weight requirements to the point that one dragoon in the early fifties was 5 ft and weighed 100 lbs. While there was a requirement that recruits be sober at the time they enlisted (to prevent any accusation that they had been taken advantage of) there was no attempt to prevent habitual drunkards from enlisting.
The regiment had ranks of corporal, sergeant, orderly sergeant, first sergeant, Quartermaster Sergeant, and Sergeant Major. There was a strong tendency to fill these ranks, as time went on, with Irishmen. There were also a number of men reduced from these ranks only to regain them later. When the highest ranking officers in the Army could go on in their careers after being court martialed, the same was true of enlisted men. A conviction did not bar further advancement.
In 1837 a group of Non-commissioned Officers petitioned Congress to admit members from their ranks into the officer corps. In response, the Army did this on a limited basis. Included in this advancement was William Bowman who had been the Sergeant Major of the First Dragoons from 1835 to 1837. He became a Second Lieutenant in the regiment in August 1837. There are indications that he was not accepted in the social circles of the officer ranks. During the Mexican War, President Polk wanted to promote from the ranks ahead of the West Point Class. A number of enlisted men were attached to regiments as Brevet Second Lieutenants only to rise to higher rank before and during the Civil War. Among those so elevated in the Dragoon Regiments were Sergeants David Hastings, Samuel Starr and Sergeant Major Thomas McKean. However, West Point provided most of the officers for the period after the initial Mounted Ranger officers were incorporated into the First Dragoons.
For recreation the troops diverted themselves with music; the original regiment had men who brought along their fiddles, clarinets, and a banjo. Added to this were the bugle and drums of the Army, and in time a Regimental Band formed that played on ceremonial and social occasions. These ranged from parades and departure on expeditions, to an annual ball put on by the enlisted men of Company B that officers and their wives were invited to as well as the men and ladies of the ranks. Often the Bandmaster also functioned as the troops' dancing master. The regiment had a library of well-used books that was periodically replenished by subscription taken up from both the officers and enlisted men. The Dragoons were noted for the dramatic groups which formed and presented plays for the fort at which they were stationed. At Fort Leavenworth, the dramatic performances in the dining hall financed the annual Company ball.
One activity that the Army very much wished to discourage was drinking. America at the time was very inclined toward heavy alcohol use. Among the class from which the enlisted troops were recruited, this usually meant an habituation to whiskey. The Dragoons were no exception in this regard. Much of the time of the troops was devoted toward figuring out how to get whiskey, despite it being illegal both on post or in the Indian territory. Everywhere the Dragoons went, Jefferson Barracks, Fort Gibson, Fort Leavenworth, and the Dragoon Camp at Des Moines, there were unscrupulous civilians willing to sell or trade with the soldiers for whiskey. The troops would sneak out to spend their pay or trade such equipment as their greatcoats just to get alcohol. Colonel Kearney nearly got into trouble for wiping out some of the "dram shops" that were undermining discipline at Des Moines. Fort Leavenworth extended the military reservation to include the point across the river just south of Weston, Missouri, known as the Rialto or Whiskey Point, because the proprietor there, John Breckenridge, had used his position as a contractor of ferrying across the river to entice a large number of dragoons to sell their equipment for drink. Breckenridge had already become rich in a very short time.
Often the sale of whiskey was winked at. There are accounts of whiskey being available in the laundress area, "Suds row". There was a volunteer who asked an old gentleman where to get something to drink during the Mexican War. He did not know it was General Zachery Taylor he was asking, and though it violated the general's own orders, Old Zack pointed out the sutlers' wagon with the top half folded back that was the "secret" sign that whiskey was available. In the 1850's at Fort Leavenworth, the NCOs set up an illegal, but supervised, enlisted club, called "Budgen-ken," in the stables area, so that the soldiers could at least be controlled while they drank.
The high command of the Army, the surgeons, the officers, and even the men themselves all agreed that drink was the major cause of discipline problems, filling the guard house and inspiring desertions. The surgeon at Fort Leavenworth even attributed to drink the majority of injuries and ailments.
Probably the worst case of drunkenness in the Dragoon Regiments occurred when the men in Company F engaged in drunken riot and mutiny in Taos, New Mexico, in 1855. A Court Martial condemned four of the soldiers to death, but the President commuted their sentences to five years hard labor. It seems that the entire unit, to include officers and Non-commissioned officers, were drunk, and the major commanding invited mutiny by challenging his men to fight him one on one. The President ordered the court martial of the major, the officers and NCOs of the Company, and the dispersal of F Company throughout the other units of the regiment.
The Army tried to stop the traffic in whiskey to the troops, but seemed defeated by their thirst and the cupidity of the civilian populations that collected around many of the frontier posts. Temperance societies among the troops did something to alleviate the problem. This was the period that Father Murphy was conducting his temperance crusade among the Irish populations of Ireland and the United States. But drink continued, and so did the discipline and desertion problems that were linked to it.
Desertion plagued the Army through the years from the War of 1812 to the Civil War. At times, the recruiters were faced with replacing a third of the Army lost to desertion. The dragoons suffered from this as well as the other branches. Though the opportunities differed depending on the station. Most desertions took place within the first year of service. When the First Dragoons assembled at Jefferson Barracks and everyone was a new recruit, the troops could easily slip away to the city of St. Louis. The desertion rate was very high for the regiment both there and at Fort Gibson in the first year. On the frontier there was a greater difficulty; potential deserters usually had to wait till they arrived back at garrison and received their pay. Missouri provided a temptation to the dragoons stationed at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott. One deserter even set himself up in Weston, Missouri, across from Fort Leavenworth, enticing others to desert only to rob the unfortunates that he had liquored up to take "leg bail." During the Gold Rush, the dragoons at Fort Leavenworth had a desertion rate greater than the infantry, because the dragoons could desert with their horse and have transportation to the gold fields. Even corporals and sergeants were deserting in numbers. There is more than one case where a sergeant deserted and took the company funds with him.
There was a particular problem with men who had already deserted from the British Army. The U.S. Army had to publish general orders that they were not to be recruited or even allowed on American military posts. But it was hard for a recruiter to verify that a former British subject was out of the Queen's service honorably, and so a number of former British deserters joined the American Army - some to desert again. There were a number of the San Patricio Brigade that deserted to fight with the Mexicans that had previously deserted the British forces. Hildreth, Chamberlain, and Lowe all wrote of British deserters in the U.S. Army.
Though it was a major problem and expense for the government, the attitude of the soldiers to an extent condoned desertion. The Adjutant General commented in a report to the Secretary of War that "The Class from whence a majority of private soldiers are drawn scarcely regard the circumstances of desertion as an act of turpitude." Hildreth's work could be considered a defence of desertion, Chamberlain himself deserted at the end of the Mexican War, and Lowe repeatedly spoke of individual deserters as good men and good friends. The soldiers looked upon enlistment as a contract arrangement. When they felt that the Army had not fulfilled the agreement made by the recruiter, they felt at liberty to leave. If they found themselves in a situation where prospects were better outside the Army, they looked upon desertion as leaving an employer without notice. The fact that the employer had both law and armed force at his disposal meant that the departing soldier had to be careful, but that was all in many cases. When a soldier could find an agreeable judge to release him on even the most spurious grounds, he would quickly appeal to the courts. One judge in Weston across from Leavenworth became so obnoxious about releasing Dragoons on the flimsiest grounds that the Secretary of War complained about him to the Attorney General.
Offenses up to and including desertion brought the soldiers into the military justice system. The system was harsh, sometimes using punishments that would be considered cruel and unusual in the present day, but were more accepted then. Flogging was used, but American society, like British society at the same time, was coming to the conclusion that it was not appropriate. Hildreth wrote of a deserter that upon apprehension feigned insanity. After he snuck out of the hospital to get drunk, he was found to be sane and given the full penalty. Chamberlain gives an example of a flogging that an officer ordered during the Mexican War. He and his squad were so opposed to it that they themselves were bucked and gagged for not participating. Chamberlain later stood court martial for having threatened the officer in this incident.
Lesser punishments were more common. The most frequent was confinement to the Guard House, often with a chain and ball attached. There are several accounts of prisoners on the march required to carry their ball and chain with them (and having the added punishment of walking rather than riding.) Prisoners were used at Fort Leavenworth under the direction of a monthly rotated "provost sergeant" to clean and "police up" the garrison.
General courts martial were usually reserved for officers; enlisted men's offenses were more often dealt with in Regimental or Garrison courts martial. When the First Dragoons were first raised and the officers were attempting to impose discipline, there were a great number of enlisted men brought before courts martial. The effect was not entirely what the officers wanted. As time went on, the men became more used to discipline and less likely to invoke courts martial. The officers also learned that courts martial were not alternatives to leadership. Another period where courts martial became frequent was during the Mexican War when again many inexperienced officers faced many inexperienced troops that had enlisted for the duration of the war.
As time went on, in periods of peace, units worked out ways to avoid courts martial. When Lowe was First Sergeant of B Company he used a extra-legal company courts martial system whereby the accused was tried by the NCO and sentenced to extra duty rather than the less productive and more punitive confinement to the guard house. The officers stayed out of this arrangement, and, as a result, had a far more disciplined and less contentious unit.
A constant in the lives of the enlisted men was disease. Far more Dragoons died of disease than of accidents or hostile action. Relations with the Indian nations were for the most part peaceful. The very presence of the Dragoons tended to prevent hostilities. Cholera and malaria were entirely more hostile and deadly than the Indians.
Medicine at that time did not diagnose the diseases the same way we do now, nor did they attribute their causes in the same way. Treatment was different also. It is often hard for someone in the late twentieth century to imagine the attitudes of the time under discussion. Modern accounts mention that the soldiers suffered from malaria and cholera, presenting this as routine. It is hard now to recapture the actual horror these diseases brought. They were anything but routine.
Malaria was prevalent. They called it the fevers, the ague, and ascribed it to the evil vapors arising from decaying animal and vegetable matter. The first year that the Dragoons were in the field, 1834, was after the Arkansas River had flooded. There was standing water everywhere and the result was that Fort Gibson suffered from one of the worst outbreaks of malaria that the Army was ever to experience. The Dragoons' first experience was therefore in what came to be termed the "charnel house of the Army," as people realized Fort Gibson was a sickly post. The fevers were taken to the field and the first expedition was marked by ever increasing numbers of sick being left behind in temporary shelters on the prairie. The sick included General Leavenworth, leader of the expedition, who died with a large number of the Dragoons that set out with him. Cooke wrote of that march: "disease and death struck them as they moved...it was the death of hope." After the return, the regiment moved to more healthy posts and the regimental headquarters to Fort Leavenworth.
Fort Leavenworth was not entirely free of malaria itself. Fall of every year brought a reoccurrence of this problem. Again in 1843 and 1844 the rains came, the prairies became soaked, and the Missouri River flooded. With standing water everywhere, there was again a major malaria epidemic that troops took to the field with them.
The appearance of cholera the year before the Dragoons' regiment formed, devastated the Army assembled for the Black Hawk War. But then the disease disappeared for several years. It reoccurred on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in 1850. When two steamboats full of 400 recruits were leaving Jefferson Barracks for Fort Leavenworth, the commander there diverted a surgeon to accompany the boats in case cholera broke out on board. The recruits were already infected, and cases rapidly broke out. They did not know what was causing it, or any effective way to treat it. Most of the recruits were veterans of the Mexican War, but they declared themselves more willing to face a charge of Mexican lancers than continue on those ships of death. Officers stood guard with loaded weapons to prevent mass desertion. Their arrival at Fort Leavenworth signaled the infection of that post, and soldiers started dying horribly. The epidemic spread across the prairies with the recruits and troop movements. The panic and near annihilation of Fort Riley in August 1855 due to cholera has its parallel only in such epidemics as the Black Death in Europe of the Middle Ages.
It is easy to look back on those times and realize that mosquitos and contaminated water respectively caused these disasters, but that is to under-value the anguish and horror that the Dragoons experienced when faced with a foe they were not equipped to fight.
There were surgeons attached to the Dragoons who often accompanied the troops to the field. Their medicine was not always helpful. One surgeon at Fort Gibson prescribed calomel for every thing. The mercury in the medicine poisoned the soldiers. While the Dragoons were the guardians of the trails and frontier, the medical profession introduced sulfate quinine, and that was at least a treatment for malaria. But it was a while before the doctors figured out what dosage was most effective. Meanwhile, men died of the fevers and ague in sickly places from evil vapors.
The fate of those Dragoons who left the service is worth noting. Chamberlain deserted only to get a commission in the Civil War and retire as a General. Lowe served as a civilian employed by the Army, and later become a political leader of the City of Leavenworth. A former Dragoon sergeant founded the city of Weston, Missouri, with which Fort Leavenworth would have such a love-hate relationship. Other enlisted men of the First Regiment of Dragoons became everything from wealthy ranchers to impoverished wrecks after joining in the attempt to take over Nicaragua.
Dragoon heroes and deserters, (sometimes both at the same time), lived in a more innocent age. They liven in a world where the Indian Nations were a strong and respected force on a frontier still expected to be permanent. There were glorious explorations yet to be made. Dragoons could and did leave the service to look for the Seven Cities of Gold or for the gold mines of California. The recruiters did not always warn of the boredom of life on a frontier post, but their appeal to the romance and adventure of the untamed West was real.