Whitman, S. E. The Troopers: An Informal History of the Plains Cavalry, 1865-1890.

NY: Hastings House, 1962.

Sidney Whitman was an army brat and though he was born about the turn of the 20th century, he grew up in the remaining cavalry posts of the West. He also served as an infantry private in World War I and as a middle-aged platoon sergeant in World War II, and then, in the ’50s, produced a number of adventure novels about the Plains cavalry. With this background, it’s not surprising he’s so knowledgeable about the mobile U.S. Army during the twenty-five years of the Indian Wars.

The Army had already begun the mission of subduing the native population in the western territories in the 1840s and ’50s, but with the end of the Civil War things moved into high gear. In 1865, there were large numbers of volunteer officers and men who wanted to stay in uniform, and a great many of them dropped way down in rank to do it. In the 1870s, it was not uncommon for a captain commanding a troop to have been a colonel commanding a regiment during the War, and for his subordinate officers and many of his senior noncoms to also possess vast experience and previously higher rank. Congress was determined to cut the Army down to peacetime size, though, and in 1874 the total finally settled at 25,000 for all branches. The cavalry comprised ten regiments, the first two being descended from the old dragoons and the last two being black — the Buffalo Soldiers.

In fifteen chapters, Whitman leads the reader through a thoroughly fascinating cram course on the life of the mounted Army, with discussions of the officer corps (mostly well educated gentlemen), the men they led (mostly riff-raff and scum — at least at the beginning, when recruiters accepted any man with two legs), the nature of leadership and management in such circumstances (some things don’t change, really), pay and pensions (appallingly low), promotion and advancement (appalling slow), crime and punishment (common and brutal), recreation and amusement (nearly always inadequate), the experiences of officers’ families on post (which included being “ranked out of quarters”), medicine (the health of the men was only slightly more important than the condition of the indispensible mule), the use of the Army as a force in civil affairs on the frontier (especially as a posse comitatus — always a very touchy matter), weapons and uniforms, and the horses without which the cavalryman would be just another pedestrian. He obviously has done a great deal of reading, as well as specific research (he even details the dimensions of the Studebaker escort wagon), and the result is — usually — both very informative and very entertaining. A book like this would have benefited from a great many more illustrations, though.

The author likes to point out (with a certain amount of gleeful superiority) how Hollywood so often gets it wrong, with a sergeant-major driving a wagon (he wouldn’t be caught dead doing such work except in an emergency, especially since the wagon-driver of the 1870s usually rode postillion on the near-wheeler, not on a seat on the wagon itself), carbines stuck down in saddle boots (actually, the carbine was carried over the shoulder on a sling, so if you lost your horse you still had your weapon), isolated posts always surrounded by stockades of pointed logs (only very early and temporarily, to be quickly replaced by an open-plan design), officers’ wives wandering around the post in male dress and riding astride a McClellan saddle (no, these were ladies, always in proper dresses and bonnets, and when they rode they did it sidesaddle), and a troop all wearing matching yellow scarves (no, the men bought their own ordinary red and blue neckerchiefs from the post store — though the jacket illustration of this book shows a troop all with “yellow ribbons”!).

On the other hand, Whitman is himself guilty of gross cliché-mongering, especially when it comes to describing the “natural traits” of the Irish (superstitious but all good horsemen), Germans (all strict disciplinarians), Italians (good musicians), and civilian horse-dealers (all thieves), not to mention the Indians themselves — uniformly fierce warriors but always savage, naïve about white civilization, sneaky and untrustworthy, and obviously (though he doesn’t quite say the words) better off dead in the cause of Manifest Destiny. The author does, however, point out that the black soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry were generally better disciplined, more apt to abide by regulations, and healthier — including less likely to be troubled by VD than white troopers. He ascribes this operational superiority, however, to the careful preliminary screening of both black recruits and their white officers.

This cavalier attitude mostly shows only that Whitman is a product of his own time; he’s roughly the same generation as my own grandparents, and shared the same sort of social and cultural experiences. I suspect that if he had been born fifty years later and was writing this book today, his views would be a good deal more sophisticated — but then he wouldn’t be as close to his subject. In any case, *bleep* over the ethnic slurs if they bother you , but if you have any interest whatever in the American West or in U.S. military history, this volume is a must-read.

Published in: on 19 March 2012 at 4:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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