Thursday, September 7, 2017

Author Q & A: Douglas C. McChristian on "Regular Army O!"

I am joined by retired NPS historian Doug McChristian to discuss his most recent book Regular Army O!: Soldiering on the Western Frontier, 1865-1891, which was published earlier this year by University of Oklahoma Press. An exhaustive study based heavily on the diaries, letters, and memoirs of enlisted men, the book offers readers the most complete portrait to date of what life was like in the post-Civil War frontier army.

From his author bio, McChristian "is a retired research historian for the National Park Service and a former National Park Service field historian at Fort Davis and Fort Laramie National Historic Sites and at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument." His earlier books include: An Army of Marksmen: The Development of United States Army Marksmanship in the 19th Century (1981), The U.S. Army in the West, 1870–1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment (1995), Uniforms, Arms, and Equipment: The U.S. Army on the Western Frontier 1880-1892 (2 Vols, 2007), Fort Bowie, Arizona: Combat Post of the Southwest, 1858–1894 (2005) and Fort Laramie: Military Bastion of the High Plains (2009).

DW: Your new book Regular Army O! has been lauded by other experts as the new standard in portrayal of post-Civil War western frontier army life. What are some of the earlier works that influenced you most?

Doug McChristian
DCM: Two early works on the subject were Fairfax Downey’s Indian Fighting Army and S. E. Whitman’s The Troopers, both popular histories. Undoubtedly the book that had the greatest impact on me was Don Rickey Jr.’s Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay. I first read it during college days and was hooked on the subject. Not only was Rickey’s study a scholarly work, it relied on personal interviews, letters, and diaries of Indian Wars veterans. During my career with the National Park Service it became the bible for those of us stationed at frontier military sites. In the glory days of living history I coordinated “camps of instruction” for field interpreters using Forty Miles as our primary guide. Don served as a guest speaker and through those associations we developed a close friendship that lasted until his passing in 2000. The title of my new book, incidentally, is not coincidental. The title of his groundbreaking work was borrowed from an 1874 Harrington & Hart ballad. I elected to use the following line of the song as my subtle tribute to Don, “Forty miles a day on beans and hay, in the regular army O’”.

Other influential works to which I referred repeatedly over the years were Robert M. Utley’s Frontier Regulars, the standard overview of the army and the western Indian campaigns. Actually there were a number of other titles, such as Fowler, The United States Soldier Between Two Wars, Bill Leckie’s landmark study The Buffalo Soldiers, and Knight, Life and Manners in the Frontier Army. Of course, I eagerly devoured the many first-hand accounts that saw print after Rickey brought attention to their value and other historians began ferreting them out of archives and family possession.

DW: What gaps in the existing literature did you attempt to fill through your own work?

DCM: My aim was to build upon Rickey’s model by utilizing the greatly increased number of first-hand soldier accounts that have surfaced in public and private collections since Forty Miles was first published in 1963. Whereas Rickey relied heavily on the experiences of living veterans who had served in the late 1880s and early 1890s, I wanted to flesh out the subject by using more accounts from the rank and file during the late 1860s and 1870s. Many of those simply were not available when Rickey did his research.

Another of my purposes was to investigate how the regulars felt about various things—their motivation for enlisting, how their friends and family reacted to their enlistment, their training and military service in general, how they viewed Indians, and other factors. And I intentionally focused more attention on the black soldiers of the four segregated regiments. I also sought to provide greater detail about the army of that time, how it was organized and how it functioned with relation to the enlisted soldier.

DW: In your mind, what remains the greatest popular misconception about the frontier Regular Army? (I believe I read somewhere that the widely-held view that the ranks were disproportionately filled with recent immigrants is largely inaccurate.)

DCM: That’s an easy one to answer. Actually, the ranks were filled to a great degree by immigrants, especially during the late ‘60s and ‘70s. That condition existed on a descending scale through the end of the Indian Wars era. In my view, however, the most prevalent misconception among the general populace today is that the regulars were a bunch of ill-disciplined racist brutes out for nothing more than killing Indian women and children. This impression is just as off the mark as the hero—cavalry to the rescue—image portrayed in movies prior to the 1960s. The nation’s experience in Viet Nam changed that. The war was unpopular stateside, to say the least, and the negativity generated among the nation’s youth became manifested in outright hatred of the military, the police, and anything else that represented authority and the so-called establishment. That attitude was widely reflected in motion pictures and television wherein good became bad, and bad became good. Suddenly, Hollywood recast the Indian Wars army in a negative light for an entire generation of Americans. I have tried to provide a more realistic, balanced view of the frontier regulars.

DW: Your book discusses at great length the many challenges (ex. depression, disease, suicide, alcoholism, and more) of isolated army service in the West. Over the two and a half decade period examined in your book, did the army make any kind of concerted effort to counter these banes of the service?

DCM: I wouldn’t characterize it as a concerted effort, certainly not a comprehensive one. Neither do I subscribe to the claim some have made that the era was the army’s a dark age. I have attempted to convey that as an underlying theme throughout the book. Rather than organizing the text in chronological sequence cover-to-cover, I crafted most of the chapters to address the respective topics chronologically to demonstrate how conditions improved for the enlisted man. For instance, educational opportunities and potential advancement to commissioned rank were unknown in the early post-Civil War years. By about 1880 post schools had gained official sanction and curricula included subjects such as U.S. history (especially valuable to those recent immigrants) in addition to the usual basics. The army also made provision in its regulations whereby ambitious enlisted men could undergo written examination to become second lieutenants and further pursue a military career, rather than face a dead end in the ranks.

In addition to such topics as food, sanitation and medical care, I examine how off-duty activities and recreation changed over the years. The old time sutler’s bars and “hog” ranches eventually gave way to post canteens operated by the soldiers. There the men could buy beer or wine, but nothing stronger, as well as sandwiches and snacks. The canteen also provided a wholesome atmosphere where the soldier could relax, visit with his comrades, and indulge in checkers and non-gambling card games. By the late 1880s some forts even boasted gymnasiums so that the men could exercise, especially during northern winters when outdoor recreation was limited.

DW: I’d like to redirect the rest of the questions to Civil War connections. Regular Army O!’s book description boasts the use of over 350 diaries, letters, and memoirs. Did frontier regulars and their families save their correspondence on a comparable scale to the Civil War volunteers?

DCM: We first have to take into consideration that the regular army was a much smaller organization. Whereas over a million men served in the Union Army during the Civil War, I estimate that only about 240,000 enlisted in the regulars over a period of some twenty-five years. Then too, several thousand of those deserted. Consequently, the pool of those who could have potentially left letters, diaries, and the like was considerably smaller.

My impression is that a far greater ratio of Civil War soldiers wrote letters to their families and friends than did the post-war regulars, who served in the army for very different reasons. Some men simply did not wish to have their families know they had joined the army. Not a few men enlisted under aliases because civilians in the East often did not consider soldiering in the regular army to be an honorable occupation. The attitude of the general populace was entirely different from that during the Civil War when volunteers were doing their patriotic duty to preserve the Union. Relatives were proud of that and tended to preserve the letters.

Likewise, many if not most Civil War soldiers had achieved a higher level of education and were able to write home, or later publish reminiscences of their wartime experiences. Moreover, that was considered a “good” war and the greatest conflict ever witnessed on US soil. The veterans were aware that they had played a role in history and took pride in relating their experiences. Conversely, the regulars on the frontier were not involved in a declared war and by far the majority never saw combat with Indians. The country largely looked upon the Indian campaigns as a sideshow somewhere out west that didn’t concern them. Consequently, not so many veterans considered their military service worth recording.

Several other reasons also may account for the disparity. As we have noted, a large proportion of the rank and file were foreign immigrants many of whom could neither read nor write English. It’s conceivable that letters in foreign languages may yet exist in other parts of the world. I found only a few accounts left by soldiers who had a basic command of English while they were in the service, but later prepared superb reminiscences. Sergeants John Spring and Charles Windolph come to mind. As the book demonstrates, the regulars tended to be a rather hard lot of men and most of them simply were not inclined to letter writing, even if they knew anyone with whom they might communicate.

DW: In the West, how smooth was the transition from the temporary volunteer frontier garrisons back to the Regular Army?

DCM: I’m not aware that there was any great problem with the transition. The volunteers, of course, were anxious to be sent home as soon as their terms expired, or the war ended. I know of one Kansas unit that mutinied in the face of a campaign because their enlistments would be up while they were in the field. Some units were under the mistaken impression that they would be sent home immediately after the Confederate surrender, but that wasn’t the case. The government bound them to remain in service for up to six months after the president declared the war officially ended. President Johnson didn’t do that for several months. Accordingly, some volunteer units remained on the western frontier until late 1865 and even into 1866. The reason was to give the army time to recruit up to full strength the regular regiments that served in the eastern and southern theaters. It also took time to transport them, or in many instances to march afoot, to their new stations to relieve the volunteers.

At the command level, the army reorganized the geographical military divisions and departments during the 1865-1867 period to reflect a shift in focus to the West and rapid national expansion. A major element in the army’s mission was to contend with Indian resistance to white encroachment.

DW: There were many violent clashes, large and small, between native groups and Civil War volunteers throughout the West between 1861 and 1865. Did the army conduct any kind of official study of these actions to see if any valuable lessons could be passed on to the regulars who replaced the volunteers in 1865-66?

DCM: No official study resulted to my knowledge. The only documented instance of which I’m aware was an investigation into the famous Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado perpetrated by the Third Colorado Cavalry. Unfortunately, much valuable experience was lost as the volunteers were discharged. On the positive side, many former volunteer officers applied for regular commissions following the war. Some of those men had frontier service to their credit and made particularly effective leaders in the West. The Eighth Cavalry, for example, was one of the new regiments authorized in 1866. It was recruited in northern California with the result that a high percentage of its officers and men had served previously with the California volunteers in several western territories.

DW: In your view, were there any distinct differences in the way state and territorial volunteers interacted with western tribal groups versus Regular Army officers and men? Some authors have suggested that the volunteers fought with a higher degree of ideological motivation and brutality.

DCM: Generally speaking, I believe that’s true. Some of the worst events involving Indians occurred during the war and were committed by the volunteers. Some noteworthy instances that come to mind are Colonel Patrick Connor’s lopsided victory at Bear River, Utah, the hanging of the Cheyenne chiefs at Fort Laramie, and, of course, Sand Creek. Some of this animosity can be attributed to the fact that the majority of volunteer units serving on the frontier came from western states and territories where Indians were viewed as a threat to settlement, commerce, mining, and communication. Most had been in closer proximity to Indian depredations. Consequently, they had a more personal stake in defeating Indians than did, say, the Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry that served along the Oregon-California Road.

Additionally, the volunteers seem to have operated under a looser command structure than the regulars. Volunteer officers on the frontier, by and large, were citizen soldiers who possessed little or no military training or prior experience. There were so many inefficient former volunteer officers glutting the post-war corps that the army authorized review boards in 1870 to evaluate who should remain and who should be cashiered. A great many elected to resign. That great exodus resulted in a distinct improvement of the officer corps.

DW: In your opinion, do NPS sites located across the West do an adequate job of recognizing the Civil War volunteer contributions at those posts and forts (either inside the visitor centers or at trailside exhibits)?

DCM: I don’t know that I’m qualified to speak to that point. I’ve been retired for more than a decade now and I no longer have close relationships with those sites. That in mind, I would offer my opinion that most of the forts and battlefields in the West devote less attention to the volunteers than to the regular army. One reason may be that the buildings and ruins at fort sites represent the later era, therefore interpretation tends to reflect the visible resource. An exception is Fort Laramie’s most venerable standing structure, Old Bedlam, which served as headquarters for the volunteer garrisons during the Civil War. One portion is refurnished to reflect that. Fort Bowie National Historic Site here in Arizona has an interpretive trail leading to and around the site of the First Fort established and occupied by the California Volunteers. Another might be Pecos National Monument which embraces the 1862 Glorieta Battlefield in which the First Colorado Infantry and the Third U.S. Cavalry won a victory over Confederate General Sibley’s invasion of New Mexico Territory. Perhaps the park with the closest association with territorial volunteers is Sand Creek National Monument in eastern Colorado. That was solely a volunteer event. I must admit that I have not visited the place since it became an NPS unit, so I can’t speak to interpretation there.

DW: Thank you very much for your time, Doug. I appreciate your insights into many of the questions that have bounced around in my mind over the years regarding this fascinating topic.

DCM: Thank you for the opportunity and your thoughtful questions.


  1. Thanks for the interview. I am curious is there a significance to the 1891 cut-off date?

    1. Wounded Knee (December 29, 1890) is generally viewed as the end event of the Indian Wars and the symbolic closing of the frontier West.

  2. Very glad to know about this book! Love the snappy title. I look forward to reading it. (I am working on a paper about John Bigelow, Jr.)

  3. Excellent book, the research is incredible. Highly recommended !


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