I have stood at the rivers edge and heard the horses’ screams and the rifles’ echo. I have gazed across the rolling grass and strained to see the distant figures firing into the dark shapes on the ground. But sometimes it seems that those figures are too distant. Sometimes I fear I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live and die along the icy Little Big Horn River, on June 25th. 1876.America, in her centennial year, was a nation of about 45 million people. And they seem such different people than our 300 million today. The frontier then began where the railroad tracks and the telegraph lines ceased to reach. Robert Marlin tries to explain the lives of the soldiers on the frontier; “…the cavalry became a place to simply disappear. Most cavalry units operated outside the borders of the states and provided a new start in life with few questions asked. Early on, many of those enlisting in the cavalry had arrest warrants outstanding…Some joined the service as an alternative to serving jail time… Immigrants, especially those from Ireland and German, filled the ranks. Others came from England, France and Italy. While most of the American recruits did not read or write, the immigrants who did not speak English compounded this problem….A trooper started off at the pay of $13 per month. By the time he finished his first hitch and re-enlisted this was raised to $15. By now the trooper was a “50-cent-a-day professional”.“The day usually started at 5:30am,” writes Marlin, “with the dreaded call of Reveille, and ended at 10:00pm with the bugle sounding Taps.” A regiment, like the seventh Cavalry, consisted of 12 troops, labeled A through M (and skipping “J” because in quickly written note, a “J” might be confused with an “I”). Four troops made up each battalion, and each troop consisted of one captain, two Lieutenants, six sergeants, four corporals, two trumpeters, four farriers (to care for the horses) and 78 privates. At any given moment about 20% of the regiment was on detached service, recruiting or on extended leave.The average cavalry recruit was in his mid-twenties, and stood about five feet eight inches tall. He suffered from bad teeth, a bad back, and 10% had suffered from some form of healed trauma, usually to the head. Twenty-two percent of the privates (311 men) serving in the seventh cavalry on June 25th , 1876, had been in the service for less than a year; 23 in A troop, 43 in B troop, 39 in C troop, 26 in D troop, etc. There was little that would have convinced a man to remain in the service after one hitch, including the food. Each soldier received each day 12 ounces of pork or bacon, 22 ounces of flour or bread (or 16 ounces of hard bread when in the field) and less than an once of ground coffee. Every ten men were to receive per month; 15 lbs of beans or peas, 10 lbs of rice or hominy, 30 lbs of potatoes, 1 quart of molasses, 15 lbs of sugar, 3 lbs 12 ounces of salt, 4 ounces of pepper and 1 gallon of Vinegar. It was not a diet well supplied with vitamins, and it has been observed that, “…while the men did not suffer true malnourishment, they were not well fed.”As the army needed soldiers, it also needed laundresses. (above, tools of the trade.) They were as much in service of the country as the soldiers they served. And it would seem logical that the reasons a young man might join the cavalry were similar to the reasons a young woman might become a laundress for those soldiers; a roof over your head, food in your belly and a new start in life. Linda Grant De Pauw lays out the vulnerbility for such women in “Battle Cries and Lullibies; “…a laundress wrote to Major L.H. Marshall at Fort Boise, Idaho describing how she had been arrested, charged as a murderess, and confined in a guardhouse for hitting her husband with a tin cup that he claimed was an axe…(she was) sentenced to be drummed off that post at fixed bayonets …she and her three children had to live in a cold house, without the food ration they depended upon."
Another example of these official camp followers was the laundress known to history only as Mrs. Nash. She always wore a veil or a shawl, and it was assumed this was because of scaring from smallpox or other skin disease common at the time. Shortly after the Seventh Cavalry regiment was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, she took up residence along “Suds Row” (below) as the laundresses’ quarters were commonly called.
She was also a talented seamstress and tailored officer's uniforms for extra money. She was a noted baker and her pies were much sought after. The rumor was that she had amassed a tidy little nest egg. In 1868 she married a Quartermasters Clerk named Clifton. But a few days later he deserted with her money and was never seen again.Mrs. Nash also built a reputation as a dependable mid-wife and “few births occurred without her expert help”. So it was natural that she would be encouraged to follow the regiment when it moved to Fort Abraham Lincoln, in Dakota Territory. She was a valuable member of the garrison. There is no record that she ever served as a prostitute (above), another option for the laundresses even if one not encouraged should she became notorious.
In 1872 she married Sergeant James Nash, the “striker” or personal servant, to Captain Tom Custer. Although James and Mrs. Nash were seen to argue a great deal, still they seemed happy enough for a year or so. During that year Libbie Custer, wife of General Custer, noted “…a company ball at Fort Abraham Lincoln organized by the company first sergeant. Officers and ladies attended....Mrs. Nash wore a pink Tarleton (which she sewed herself) and false curls, and she had “constant partners”. Then, unexpectedly, Sergeant Nash stole his wife’s savings and deserted her and the service. Tom Custer was very “put out”. But Mrs Nash was not to remain alone for long. In 1873, the lady, now called “Old Mrs. Nash”, married Corporal John Noonan.She kept a bright and tidy home, planting and maintaining flowers in front of their modest quarters. And she restored her nest egg. And for five years they were a contended and happy couple, the center of the social circle of Suds Row east of the Fort Lincoln parade grounds (above), and were a significant part of the larger post’s social life.
Then, in the fall of 1878, while Corporal Noonan was out on patrol, Mrs. Nash fell ill. As her conditioned worsened she called for a priest, and after seeing him she told the ladies caring for her that she wanted to be buried as she was, without the usual washing and dressing. They agreed, but after “Mrs. Nash" died on November 4th the women decided they could not show her such disrespect. Two of her closest friends prepared to wash and dress her body, which is when they made a most unexpected discovery. Mrs. Nash was a man.The Bismarck Tribune went so far as to headline a story, “Mrs. Nash has (testicles) as big as a bull!” The eastern papers picked the story up, and commented upon it. So that when poor Corporal Noonan returned from patrol all his protestations of innocence and unawareness fell upon deaf ears. Quickly the ridicule and the questions, asked and unasked, became too much to bear and two days after returning from patrol to find his “wife” dead, John Noonan deserted his post and on November 30, 1878, shot himself to death with a rifle. He lies buried now in the National Cemetery adjacent to the Little Big Horn Battlefield, his tombstone no different than any of the others who died in the service of their country .But there is no headstone for Mrs. Nash; no recognition of her years of service to the unit, of the babies she delivered, of the hardships she endured. And there is no recognition today that without a "liberal" endorsment and without a liberal media encouragment, at least one human being found it preferable to live in constant fear of having their secret revealed, in exchanged for the privilage of living as God made them, internally and externally.
And these two lives, Mrs. Nash and Crpl. Noonhan, are poof to me that we can comprehend the lives of long dead souls, seemingly from a different worlds than ours. Because they were clearly just a screwed up and confused as we are, and just as lonely . And clearly with all our technology and insights, we are just as screwed up as they were.
Then and now, we are all human. How could stories about people so much like us not be fascinating?
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