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Story Archives: Soldiers, forts & military life on the Miss-Lou frontier
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|Soldiers, forts & military life on the Miss-Lou frontier|
A soldier's life on the American frontier in the early 1800s was rugged. The Army outposts were lonely, isolated places.
Soldiers were an independent lot who by in large despised authority and could be hard to handle. They were underpaid, occasionally overworked and not always appreciated.
In 1804, 12 frontier privates and one officer worked long hours on the Ouachita River on frigid days, powered a heavy keelboat with oars and pushed it with polls, lugged baggage, slept in wet tents and never seemed to please their two commanders, neither a military man.
William Dunbar of Natchez and Dr. George Hunter of Pennsylvania were, by appointment of the President of the United States, civilians leading an Army escort on the Ouachita River Expedition. This exploration of the Ouachita to the hot springs in Arkansas followed the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Led by a Sgt. Bundy (first name unknown), the soldiers included four men with the first name of William and the last names of Tutle, Skinner, Little and Court. Other soldiers included Peter Bowers, Manus McDonald, Jeremiah Smith, Edward Rylet, John White, Robert Wilson, Matthew Boon and Jeremiah Loper.
For four months they cursed the elements and their commanders, while performing nasty, grueling work. It was a thankless job for which they were often called lazy by their civilian commanders. Dunbar even felt the men were purposely slow in their duties to expand the length of the journey just so they wouldn't have to return to regular military duty at New Orleans.
Life for a military man in the early 1800s was a primitive, at times dangerous and other times yawning existence on the American frontier. The chance to escape the routine for an exciting expedition into the wilderness promised to be a great adventure. In the end, it was as much if not more work and grind than adventure.
To control the adventurous men of the U.S. Army of 1804, discipline was absolute and severe. Flogging and branding were common. When two soldiers in Ohio laid down their muskets and relaxed on the ground while on guard duty, they were each given 100 lashes. Striking an officer resulted in the same punishment.
Desertion called for even stricter punishment. Wrote historian Stephen Ambrose: "When a private ran off from Fort Defiance (Ohio) in the fall of 1795, the officers offered two Shawnee Indians a reward of ten dollars to bring him back alive and twenty dollars for his scalp." That meant a dead private was worth twice the price of a living one.
"One of the warriors returned the next day with the soldier's scalp and collected the reward," said Ambrose. The Indian earned praise from the officers.
The men drank heavily and womanized. Dissension was a constant. Dueling was a way of life, but dueling and those involved as "seconds" or those who urged others to duel, were subject to dismissal. But officers were known to look the other way.
Wrote Ambrose, "There was logic at work; duels avoided the expense and inconvenience of frequent courts-martial, and, in contrast to duels, courts-martial tended to perpetuate rather than resolve disputes."
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