Don’t Call Out the Cavalry

One of my favorite movie quotes is delivered by Steve Martin, playing a small-town Colorado fire chief in “Roxanne,” as he addresses his bumbling crew of firefighters. 

"I have a dream. It's not a big dream, it's just a little dream. My dream — and I hope you don't find this too crazy — is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do. You can't have people, if their houses are burning down, saying, 'Whatever you do, don't call the fire department!' That would be bad.”

Pioneers must have had the same misgivings about soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them along the Kansas frontier.  Two of the bloodiest episodes of Indian violence along White Rock Creek, the White Rock Massacre of 1867 and the Dog Soldier attacks of 1869, happened after the Army chased bands of vengeful warriors almost to the settlers’ doorsteps.  Thomas Lovewell had nothing good to say about troops from the 10th Cavalry and 3rd Infantry whom he scouted for in 1867, laying the blame for the poor performance of “Buffalo Soldiers” on inadequate training, which is exactly what they were given by a racist commander at Fort Leavenworth, when they received any at all.  Unfortunately, their training may not have been that much worse than that of the average frontier recruit.

A few postings ago (See “Ongoing Mysteries”), I quoted from one of Orel Poole’s stories about frightened horse soldiers, reluctantly emerging from their dugouts to investigate a massacre which supposedly happened near White Rock Creek in 1870.  The story may turn out to be accurate, or it could represent a tangle of memories recited in the 1920’s by Thomas Lovewell’s former neighbor August Heldt, or possibly by Heldt's widow.  However, the settlers’ attitude toward the untested recruits, as reflected in the tale, is probably right on the money.  The Army's long supply trains creaked slowly and noisily across the prairie.  Army buglers let the enemy know when troops were bedding down for the night and when they were rolling out of their tents in the morning, when they were mounting up, and when they were about to ride into battle.  Seasoned frontiersmen could only scratch their heads and compare the Army’s efforts to “the hunting of wild ducks with brass bands."

Soldiers who found themselves facing off with Indians on the Plains were poorly paid, unmotivated, and plunged into the fray pathetically unprepared.  What schooling they did receive in the military arts seldom included target practice.  Many, including soldiers who had received the Medal of Honor for their valor, were on the lookout for any opportunity to desert.  Officers, even post commanders, often set a poor example for the men under their command, battling loneliness, boredom and despair with a bottle.  It was sometimes a futile fight.  Five weeks after the White Rock Massacre of 1867, Major Wicliffe Cooper,  riding with Custer in pursuit of the Sioux and Cheyennes fleeing from Pawnee Fork, was said to have put a bullet in his brain in the privacy of his tent while in a fit of delirium tremens, after his personal supply of liquor ran out.  

I’ve written before about the alcohol-fueled suicide of Edward McGarry of the 2nd California Volunteer Cavalry (See “The Battle of Whiskey Hills”), which also happened in 1867.  McGarry was a regular Army colonel after the Civil War, commanding a garrison in Arizona until he showed up for a dress parade “in a sad state of intoxication.”  Reassigned to San Francisco, where his drinking continued unabated, he retired to his hotel room one evening, picked up a three-bladed penknife, selected the largest blade, thrust it into his carotid artery, and gave it a ninety-degree twist.  There is a downside to knowing exactly how to deliver a death stroke.  

Gallant boys in pristine blue uniforms, galloping to the rescue with guidons flying, is an image which generations of us picked up from television and movies.  In reality, horse soldiers more often crisscrossed the Plains on fruitless searches for marauders.  Fighting off ambushers, they were occasionally forced to shoot their faithful mounts to create barricades, and eat them later when provisions ran short.  Guarding the frontier was a dirty, thankless job, performed by men who would have preferred to be anywhere else.  There is little wonder that it was often done ineptly.

© Dale Switzer 2023