Just because you’re nice doesn’t mean you’re going to be popular. This is what General Ben Grierson must have said to console himself. A hero of the Civil War, Grierson commanded the Buffalo Soldiers out West against Victorioand his Apache warriors after the war, but do you think that would have gotten him some respect and a few honors? No.
His wife Alice was pretty pissed about it and said so in letters. She said a lot in letters that might make a Victorian pretend to blush. At one point she left poor Ben to spend time in Chicago admitting after he begged her to come back to him that she knew they would have sex again (which she greatly enjoyed), and didn’t want to have any more children (I think they had 7 at that point). She felt contraception was a sin against God, loved her husband, but was afraid with her depressive tendencies that she’d end like her mother did–a used up mental case.
General Ben was such a decent guy and openly affectionate, devoted and supportive when Alice spoke about women’s rights and the stuff she’d read in The Revolution (I must admit, though I’d hate to be judged by my private letters and emails, that I found Alice’s constant complaining a bit annoying–I don’t think Ben deserved that. He just wanted her by his side. Sigh).
Ben was no slouch in the warrior department, but . . . and this is my opinion–one shared by General Sherman at the time–he was a bit too lenient with the Indians who used his kindness to screw him over (we don’t like to admit that being a doormat you get walked on but it’s true). He had kind words for his black soldiers though most people thought black recruits were less capable of the mental tasks of military life at the time, but again he may have in his easy-going way not pushed them quite hard enough–so says one of my characters in The House on Tenafly Road.
Anyway there’s much to think about–sex, war, mental health, relationships, Indians, military politics in these two companion volumes. You get the historian’s version and then the wife’s version and that’s fun.
Okay, don’t be disturbed by the man’s weird stare and ugly hat. While On the Border with Crook is about the Indian fighter General Crook it’s more about the erudite and humorous John Gregory Bourke— the dashing military man and entertaining writer. Invariably the military men of the late 19th century had such enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity and good humor under sometimes very harsh conditions you’d have to admire them–but Bourke and Crook were unique in their sincere respect for the Indian.
This is one of my all time favorites. Good old John Billings. Don’t you just love a soldier who gives you the inside dirt with some wit and great illustrations? I do. John enlisted in The Army of the Potomac, but don’t let that remind you of the boring history teacher with coffee breath and endless baseball analogies. While reading this book I was thinking, “Wow, I really have a crush on this guy! He’s giving me everything I need to know about the daily ups and downs of soldiering back in the day–the slang, the food, the music and the complete jerks who could spoil a perfectly good campfire. I’m pretty sure I would have married him if I knew him.” But that’s how I get when people give me stuff and put illustrations (done by another soldier who lived through the Civil War) in their books.
I got lucky though–I found a veteran of my own who will occasionally throw a salty sailor story my way–but for the rest of you there’s Hardtack and Coffee
“A green wrinkled sheet of thick card in his empty money pouch caught John Weldon’s eye. He pulled it out between his two long fingers. Hand-drawn timorous trees in black ink dressed the card’s message from the only care package he had ever received that first Christmas of the war . . . Christmas . . . the most dismal time of year for a soldier without family. Weldon found ways to avoid mail call, but one day someone shouted his name. He thought he heard it, but wasn’t sure so hung back. The call came again with more impatience and Weldon slunk up, with his sunken, dark eyes lowered and his crow-black hair shorn short since the summer of lice. The heavy, battered box had his name on it. His face burned. He cut the top with his knife and reached in to find soft mittens and socks—hand-knit and familiar in a way—they were like Simon McCullough’s and for a horrible moment he thought there had been an embarrassing mistake. He fumbled to close the box but noticed a tiny, hand-drawn card with funny little trees around the edge. “A friend of Simon’s is a friend of ours! Merry Christmas! Warm Regards—Scott, Sarah and Katherine McCullough.”
Hazelton sidled up and read the card. On the back in the same small script was scribbled an address in Englewood, New Jersey Simon McCullough had talked about endlessly—almost like a fairytale, being too perfect to be real—as if they had expected Weldon to write. He’d never done so, but had run his fingers over the little tree drawings many times.
“Sir, you need help and if it ain’t the hospital you’re going to then I’m going to put you on the train.”
“I don’t know them…I can’t face Simon…I…”
“Any place is better than here and Simon is your friend.”
Weldon had done everything he could think of to repulse this invasion, this toppling of his defenses but Simon McCullough wore him down. The whole world seemed to love him—no Simon pretended to love the whole world—he even played with the darkies’ children.
He remembered squeezing into his first army boots at Carlisle Barracks and then going off to the war with a commander who convinced him to volunteer for a Jersey regiment on a lark. There he met Simon and for a sparkling few years pretended at being someone else. But now fevers came on strong. He held the pus-filled flap of skin at his side a little tighter. How had he been so damned stupid? How had he ever let Simon McCullough in?—that piece of shit. What a terrible, stupid blunder. He would bring it all to him. Just shove it in the lieutenant’s face—all the suffering he caused. Weldon always expected a life of aching and scratching and he could die doing it, but not before presenting it to the one person who duped him just long enough to give him hope.”
My favorite catty man moment when a cavalryman, Benteen is a no-show for a visit:
“I guess he did not care to trouble himself- He is a true Cavalryman & would rather superintend the work of his stallion than attend to the courtesies of life– Nothing lost to anybody–but one feels degraded to think that he is socially on par, with those who voluntarily make of themselves third class livery stable keepers–However if the Nobles & high gentry of England find their highest pleasure in doing the work of a stable boy, I suppose I ought not to growl at our Cavalry. There seems to be something demoralizing in the love of horseflesh. I don’t believe a thoroughly horsey man can be a gentleman or a thorough gentleman a horsey man.”
While Colonel Richard Irving Dodge wasn’t the looker Grenville Dodge (the transcontinental railroad guy) was his journals are a fun read. I enjoyed even the slow parts about needing a nap or having bowel troubles because of the bad water sometimes found in the Black Hills on the scientific expedition of 1875. The best parts are when the gentlemanly colonel is trying to keep his temper around all sorts of catty intrigue. Here is a man who quotes Shakespeare and Homer, feels sorry for a captured beaver and has the men set it free and worries about his nerdy son (along on the trip) who’s spent far too much time around women.
He wants to like the grasping and at times incompetent young head of the scientific survey Professor Walter P. Jenney but has a tough time of it. He tells of cowardly journalists along for news of gold (Custer’s earlier findings were being questioned in the East) being duped into believing a hooting owl meant an Indian attack in the morning and useless, lazy miners who weren’t supposed to be on Indian land. His writing style is so modern proving people weren’t all too different back then.
I haven’t actually read this one yet, but my husband surprised me with the book and I know I’ll love it since it’s by one of my favorite historians, Oliver Knight, of Life and Manners of the Frontier Army fame (famous to me anyway). A book about the journalists who traveled along with the army throughout the Indian wars has got to be exciting. The military men of my novels show a certain disdain for journalists informed by my reading of military journals and memoirs and I have carried a similar distrust since attending NYU journalism classes years ago. But I hope to have my mind opened. I’m charmed by the old library tag as well.
And the mashed potatoes with gravy, please. Dear Parents, Don’t let the picture fool you. Outdoor feasts are not quite what they’re cracked up to be, but it’s better than fighting. Happy Thanksgiving. Your loving son, Charles Foster illustration courtesy Time Life Books
If there were a McDreamy writer of the Western Army it would have to have been Charles King. This man lived and breathed all things military. His grandfather happened to live next door to Commanding General Winfield Scott and when, at the age of five, Charles spotted him in civilian clothes he gave the general a good talking to about it. His father brought him to Washington at the start of the Civil War where he became a 16-year-old mounted orderly. Soon enough he won appointment to West Point where he became an outstanding tactician.
Eventually he went West with the army, but not before winning a horse race on Ladies’ Day at the Metaire Jockey Club in New Orleans under the watchful eyes of his commander Colonel William H. Emory who’d requested the popular King to be his aide. Sitting with the colonel and his wife was a southern belle wearing Yankee colors and after winning the race and the prize of a gold mounted horse whip King immediately walked straight into the crowd and placed the prize in the lap of Adelaide Lavander York. They were married a few months later. She kept the whip and brandished it when admonishing him.
King while fighting the Apaches suffered a severe bullet wound to the arm that should have led to amputation but King “managed to save it by heroic measures–which included drinking a gallon of whiskey a day.”
What does all of this have to do with writing? When he retired he became one of the most popular writers in America in the 1880’s-1900. Soldiers adored him, would be soldiers dreamed of the adventures he wrote about and women sighed over the gallantry of the officer class of men he’d been a part of and described so authentically.
Some say his books have no literary merit, but I love them. The officer class in the Western military had an admirably high set of standards for themselves. It would be natural to say he idealized these men if it weren’t for the fact that historians and the soldiers of his day attest to the accuracy of his depiction of a brief period of time in the West.
Info courtesy of Life and Manners In The Frontier Army by Oliver Knight