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- Army Letters from an Officer's Wife, 1871-1888 - 1/50 -
Scanned by Dianne Bean, Prescott Valley, AZ.
ARMY LETTERS FROM AN OFFICER'S WIFE
FRANCES M. A. ROE.
PERHAPS it is not necessary to say that the events mentioned in the letters are not imaginary--perhaps the letters themselves tell that! They are truthful accounts of experiences that came into my own life with the Army in the far West, whether they be about Indians, desperadoes, or hunting--not one little thing has been stolen. They are of a life that has passed--as has passed the buffalo and the antelope--yes, and the log and adobe quarters for the Army. All flowery descriptions have been omitted, as it seemed that a simple, concise narration of events as they actually occurred, was more in keeping with the life, and that which came into it. FRANCES M. A. ROE.
ARMY LETTERS FROM AN OFFICER'S WIFE
KIT CARSON, COLORADO TERRITORY, October, 1871.
IT is late, so this can be only a note--to tell you that we arrived here safely, and will take the stage for Fort Lyon to-morrow morning at six o'clock. I am thankful enough that our stay is short at this terrible place, where one feels there is danger of being murdered any minute. Not one woman have I seen here, but there are men--any number of dreadful-looking men--each one armed with big pistols, and leather belts full of cartridges. But the houses we saw as we came from the station were worse even than the men. They looked, in the moonlight, like huge cakes of clay, where spooks and creepy things might be found. The hotel is much like the houses, and appears to have been made of dirt, and a few drygoods boxes. Even the low roof is of dirt. The whole place is horrible, and dismal beyond description, and just why anyone lives here I cannot understand.
I am all upset! Faye has just been in to say that only one of my trunks can be taken on the stage with us, and of course I had to select one that has all sorts of things in it, and consequently leave my pretty dresses here, to be sent for--all but the Japanese silk which happens to be in that trunk. But imagine my mortification in having to go with Faye to his regiment, with only two dresses. And then, to make my shortcomings the more vexatious, Faye will be simply fine all the time, in his brand new uniform!
Perhaps I can send a long letter soon--if I live to reach that army post that still seems so far away.
FORT LYON, COLORADO TERRITORY, October, 1871.
AFTER months of anticipation and days of weary travel we have at last got to our army home! As you know, Fort Lyon is fifty miles from Kit Carson, and we came all that distance in a funny looking stage coach called a "jerkey," and a good name for it, too, for at times it seesawed back and forth and then sideways, in an awful breakneck way. The day was glorious, and the atmosphere so clear, we could see miles and miles in every direction. But there was not one object to be seen on the vast rolling plains--not a tree nor a house, except the wretched ranch and stockade where we got fresh horses and a perfectly uneatable dinner.
It was dark when we reached the post, so of course we could see nothing that night. General and Mrs. Phillips gave us a most cordial welcome--just as though they had known us always. Dinner was served soon after we arrived, and the cheerful dining room, and the table with its dainty china and bright silver, was such a surprise--so much nicer than anything we had expected to find here, and all so different from the terrible places we had seen since reaching the plains. It was apparent at once that this was not a place for spooks! General Phillips is not a real general--only so by brevet, for gallant service during the war. I was so disappointed when I was told this, but Faye says that he is very much afraid that I will have cause, sooner or later, to think that the grade of captain is quite high enough. He thinks this way because, having graduated at West Point this year, he is only a second lieutenant just now, and General Phillips is his captain and company commander.
It seems that in the Army, lieutenants are called "Mister" always, but all other officers must be addressed by their rank. At least that is what they tell me. But in Faye's company, the captain is called general, and the first lieutenant is called major, and as this is most confusing, I get things mixed sometimes. Most girls would. A soldier in uniform waited upon us at dinner, and that seemed so funny. I wanted to watch him all the time, which distracted me, I suppose, for once I called General Phillips "Mister!" It so happened, too, that just that instant there was not a sound in the room, so everyone heard the blunder. General Phillips straightened back in his chair, and his little son gave a smothered giggle--for which he should have been sent to bed at once. But that was not all! That soldier, who had been so dignified and stiff, put his hand over his mouth and fairly rushed from the room so he could laugh outright. And how I longed to run some place, too--but not to laugh, oh, no!
These soldiers are not nearly as nice as one would suppose them to be, when one sees them dressed up in their blue uniforms with bright brass buttons. And they can make mistakes, too, for yesterday, when I asked that same man a question, he answered, "Yes, sorr!" Then I smiled, of course, but he did not seem to have enough sense to see why. When I told Faye about it, he looked vexed and said I must never laugh at an enlisted man--that it was not dignified in the wife of an officer to do so. And then I told him that an officer should teach an enlisted man not to snicker at his wife, and not to call her "Sorr," which was disrespectful. I wanted to say more, but Faye suddenly left the room.
The post is not at all as you and I had imagined it to be. There is no high wall around it as there is at Fort Trumbull. It reminds one of a prim little village built around a square, in the center of which is a high flagstaff and a big cannon. The buildings are very low and broad and are made of adobe--a kind of clay and mud mixed together--and the walls are very thick. At every window are heavy wooden shutters, that can be closed during severe sand and wind storms. A little ditch--they call it acequia--runs all around the post, and brings water to the trees and lawns, but water for use in the houses is brought up in wagons from the Arkansas River, and is kept in barrels.
Yesterday morning--our first here--we were awakened by the sounds of fife and drum that became louder and louder, until finally I thought the whole Army must be marching to the house. I stumbled over everything in the room in my haste to get to one of the little dormer windows, but there was nothing to be seen, as it was still quite dark. The drumming became less loud, and then ceased altogether, when a big gun was fired that must have wasted any amount of powder, for it shook the house and made all the windows rattle. Then three or four bugles played a little air, which it was impossible to hear because of the horrible howling and crying of dogs--such howls of misery you never heard--they made me shiver. This all suddenly ceased, and immediately there were lights flashing some distance away, and dozens of men seemed to be talking all at the same time, some of them shouting, "Here!" "Here!" I began to think that perhaps Indians had come upon us, and called to Faye, who informed me in a sleepy voice that it was only reveille roll-call, and that each man was answering to his name. There was the same performance this morning, and at breakfast I asked General Phillips why soldiers required such a beating of drums, and deafening racket generally, to awaken them in the morning. But he did not tell me--said it was an old army custom to have the drums beaten along the officers' walk at reveille.
Yesterday morning, directly after guard-mounting, Faye put on his full-dress uniform--epaulets, beautiful scarlet sash, and sword--and went over to the office of the commanding officer to report officially. The officer in command of the post is lieutenant colonel of the regiment, but he, also, is a general by brevet, and one can see by his very walk that he expects this to be remembered always. So it is apparent to me that the safest thing to do is to call everyone general--there seem to be so many here. If I make a mistake, it will be on the right side, at least.
Much of the furniture in this house was made by soldier carpenters here at the post, and is not only very nice, but cost General Phillips almost nothing, and, as we have to buy everything, I said at dinner last evening that we must have some precisely like it, supposing, of course, that General Phillips would feel highly gratified because his taste was admired. But instead of the smile and gracious acquiescence I had expected, there was another straightening back in the chair, and a silence that was ominous and chilling. Finally, he recovered sufficient breath to tell me that at present, there were no good carpenters in the company. Later on, however, I learned that only captains and officers of higher rank can have such things. The captains seem to have the best of everything, and the lieutenants are expected to get along with smaller houses, much less pay, and much less everything else, and at the same time perform all of the disagreeable duties.
Faye is wonderfully amiable about it, and assures me that when he gets to be a captain I will see that it is just and fair. But I happen to remember that he told me not long ago that he might not get his captaincy for twenty years. Just think of it--a whole long lifetime--and always a Mister, too--and perhaps by that time it will be "just and fair" for the lieutenants to have everything!
We saw our house yesterday--quarters I must learn to say--and it is ever so much nicer than we had expected it to be. All of the officers' quarters are new, and this set has never been occupied. It has a hall with a pretty stairway, three rooms and a large shed downstairs, and two rooms and a very large hall closet on the second floor. A soldier is cleaning the windows and floors, and making things tidy generally. Many of the men like to cook, and do things for officers of their company, thereby adding to their pay, and these men are called strikers.
There are four companies here--three of infantry and one troop of cavalry. You must always remember that Faye is in the infantry. With the cavalry he has a classmate, and a friend, also, which will make it pleasant for both of us. In my letters to you I will disregard army etiquette, and call the lieutenants by their rank, otherwise you would not know of whom I was writing--an officer or civilian. Lieutenant Baldwin has been on the frontier many years, and is an experienced
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