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Bill Thayer

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Talk 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Soldiers Unmasked
William Addleman Ganoe

published by
The Military Service Publishing Company
Harrisburg, Pa. 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Talk 10

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p82  IX


Do you remember the pillow shams of the gay nineties? For those of you who don't, I'll tell you that they were clean, ruffled upright coverings for pillows in the daytime. When they were laid aside at night, they revealed too often a certain amount of real estate underneath. What a cleanly view for the daily visitor and what an unpleasantly surprise for the nightly sleeper. I remember such a set of shams. On the left one were embroidered in pink the words: "I slept and dreamed that life was beauty." On the right one in blue: "I woke and found that life was duty."

Now that we've laid aside the shams of our school histories and looked upon the tragically soiled linen of the Civil War, we find even cleaner shams laid over the period right after that war. You know as we scratch our head and try to look wise when our young son attacks us with a question about his history lessons, we see, among the cobwebs those days of '65, '66 and '67 as a time of sleeping beauty. The tired, worn soldiers of the war, in our misty memory, are beating their swords into pruning hooks and all that sort of thing. Are we wrong? Yes, we are. Life  p83 was anything but beauty for our country then. They were days of frightful, alarming duty. For we were even in a worse fix than when Sumter's guns tumbled us helter-skelter into catastrophe. On all sides were threatenings of big wars and slaughter. On the north the Fenians were trying to carry on strife against Great Britain from within our borders, and the Alabama claims were adding to the fuel. The South, smarting under revengeful reconstruction laws, was angered to a pitch of frenzy. In Mexico, Napoleon the third had set up an empire, placing the Archduke Maximilian of Austria on the throne in defiance of the Monroe Doctrine. The thousands of irreconcilables of the former Confederacy could there find a foothold to work against us. And in the West, a half million Indians, unrestrained during the Civil War, were overrunning half our territory, and sprinkling the soil with death and massacre. In the midst of all this trouble, Abraham Lincoln was shot down in cold blood. We had gone from a sizzling frying pan into a surrounding fire.

The situation in Mexico was so perilous that Sheridan was torn away before the Grand Review in Washington, and sent immediately south. When he arrived near the Rio Grande, the republican force in Mexico was weak, worn and scattered. But it wasn't hopeless long. For Sheridan had something — we had  p84 something we'd never before had — a decent sized, trained force. Even if it had been expensively trained under the bullet, it was trained and well-trained. Sheridan just sat down in Texas with almost three corps, and peered threateningly into Mexico. Maximilian knew there wasn't anything he had which could overcome such a force. Little by little under the American display of strength, the republicans gained power. In a year and a half the Empire fell, without a single American gun being fired and with no bloodshed for us. We had gained our ends by merely a show of force. Here is something for our histories to brag about. Why do they cover it over with a sham? You remember experts said that if we had had twenty-five thousand trained men in 1860, the Civil War could not have lasted more than three months. Well that statement, however careful, is at best theory, but taken with the example of Sheridan's force, it becomes a fact. And there are other examples in our history where a sufficiently trained force prevented bloodshed. The only reason we haven't had more examples is because we haven't had more force.

But we had a force this once, and one part of it had as difficult a task as ever fell to the lot of soldiers. Nineteen thousand of them were scattered in one hundred thirty-four places in the South to enforce  p85 stringent, cruel laws for a conquered people. The ire of the North had vented itself in insulting control. No one who had given aid to the Confederacy was allowed to hold office. The northern carpetbagger swaggered in to lord over poverty-stricken communities. This exhibition of revenge leads one to believe the statement of the clergymen that peace treaties, peace reactions and peace societies are our most fruitful causes of war.

But there was one saving grace — and that lay in the treatment of the southern people by the soldier. You know it's a funny thing about fighters. After the fight is over, they seldom hold grudges. We can all call up many instances where they were outstandingly friendly with the former opponents. The Union soldier in the South was no exception. He saw too clearly the injustice to these stricken people and sympathized with them. He leagued up with the former Confederate soldiers in efforts to help. He often got around the laws and sometimes overrode them. His reports to Washington had much to do with rescinding cruel legislation. So helpful was his attitude that a southern city afterwards erected a monument to a Union general. The soldier's understanding sympathy was the big factor in overcoming riots, disorders and slaughter.

Similarly trained troops took their places along  p86 the northern border, and beyond a little wire cutting, overcame the disturbances from the Fenians. And as these fearful threats to the north, east and south of us were slowly calmed, we began to be over-confident and stupid again. We failed to see that our unusual strength had been the reason for coming through these calamities unscathed. In our customary way we descended into weakness. And how we were going to pay in human life for this let‑down!

At first we pared the Army down to thirty-eight thousand. The day before General Grant took the oath of office as President, we again reduced it, against his urgent recommendation, by twenty regiments. By 1876 it was a scant twenty-five thousand soldiers, at which figure it remained up until the time of the Spanish-American War — during almost a quarter of a century. Thus we stagnated while our population was increasing, savages were roaming over half our territory and we had acquired Alaska. There was a war party who wanted to keep peace and a peace party who let us fall into war. Naturally you'd know which party would win in the United States. A paltry seventeen thousand soldiers were strewn around the west in little groups. Their task was to control hundreds of thousands of Indians in protection of the advancing settlers. It was the dark  p87 age for the soldier. Impossible was his struggle to be everywhere at once and to do the government's bidding against odds of twenty-four to one. In return the government often armed the Indian with fine repeating rifles and always gave the soldier a single-loader.

Then came the tragedies that follow in the wake of helplessness. In our history books, we have placed an embroidered, starched sham over them, but underneath none the less lie very dirty pillows. Massacres of our settlers and soldiers were too frequent. The Indian was one of the shrewdest warriors of all time to sense the size and strength of his opponents. Weakness to him meant a call for scalps. At Fort Phil Kearnyº in Nebraska the officers and men were engaged in building their own barracks and quarters (if they were going to have a roof to cover them) and the work was going along quite smoothly, when one morning two thousand Indians swooped down on the small garrison of two hundred and fifty and killed and mutilated one hundred seventy-four of them. In Kansas when eighty-four settlers were slain or captured by a band of Cheyennes, Major Forsyth with fifty scouts tried to trail the Indian desperadoes. When he came upon them he was trapped, had to fight for his life, lost half his command, (among whom was the nephew of Henry Ward Beecher),  p88 and barely escaped with the remnants of his force.

Later came the Custer affair. Probably no action in our history has been more discussed and less understood. The story goes back a long way and doesn't show us up in any fine colors. The government had made a treaty with the Great Sioux Nation in which it gave to these tribes the Black Hills and all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. Gave them what was theirs in the first place. Kind of us. Another law confirmed by our Senate, made it a crime for a white settler to go into this region. Well, the whites as usual went in, because the land appealed to them. And they went out of their way to trespass because the Indians were six hundred miles from the nearest railroad and far from white settlements. When the Indians complained and got no redress, they went upon the warpath. Did so for the same reason that we took up arms in the Revolution — from behind each "farmyard and fence and wall." The Secretary of the Interior ordered the troops to put the Indians on their reservations. He made a consistent sweep of things for he not only violated the treaty, but did not uphold the law. So, little companies of Infantry and Cavalry under General Terry, were ordered to drive the victimized Indians to where neither the Indian nor the soldier wanted to go. Fifteen hundred troops, half of whom were  p89 afoot, were sent against six thousand hardy Sioux who were well-mounted. Why such a small body of soldiers? Because other little groups were busy with Assineboines, Piegans, Arapahoes, Kiowas, Pawnees, Commanches and Flatheads. And there weren't any more troops. The entire regular force on the plains would scarcely have been a match then for the Great Sioux Nation, but we were content to send this paltry number out against this overwhelming force. Terry's command accordingly advanced toward the Indians. Custer, who was in command of the Cavalry, was sent ahead with instructions to move toward the Tongue River, keep on the flank of the Sioux, and not let them escape. It was an impossible task in the face of so many Indians. But the soldier couldn't know that such a big force was there, for there were too few troops to scout the Sioux country and find out. And if they could have found out, what was there to do about it? They had to go against the Indians. No matter how perfectly Terry's force might act, it was in for a licking. So Custer split his command into three parts in order to keep the Indians from escaping. The irony! — from escaping. Well, it happened just as you would expect. Custer's little band was overwhelmed and annihilated. The other two parts were backed against the wall and had to fight in desperation for their  p90 lives. It was not a real massacre. It was a fight in which the Indian used his normal methods of no quarter. We knew his methods. And we unjustly and murderously sent a puny force against him to be butchered to the extent of two hundred and sixty-five killed and fifty‑two wounded.

The Indians could have overwhelmed the rest of the force, but feeling they had taught the white man a lesson in fair play, they drew off. But the ones who bore the brunt of the punishment by paying the extreme penalty, were innocent soldiers, who had had nothing to do with the cause of the fight. The instigators were walking the eastern streets crying for an investigation. And how the affair was investigated! After reams of testimony had been taken down, and much money expended, it was found that we had sent a pigmy out barehanded to fight a giant. The result? True to form.

Would we have been a little more decent, had we spent more on soldiers beforehand and less on testimony afterward? If we had, it's quite possible we wouldn't have needed the testimony. For it's an accepted fact that had we had ten thousand men for the Sioux alone, placed in some conspicuous spot, the Custer fight would never have been. The Indian would have been too wary. He always was. And many another fight would not have taken  p91 place, as we'll see. Going back over the true events of these times, are we made to wonder whether we really do care about human life? We talk a lot about it. Is it another starched sham?

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